Quick-hit thoughts around NFL & Patriots

Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:

1. With perennial Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork out for the season with a torn Achilles, veteran free-agent signee Tommy Kelly out for today’s game against the Saints (right knee injury), and projected No. 3 man on the depth chart Armond Armstead still on the reserve/non-football illness list, the Patriots are extremely thin at defensive tackle. They enter today’s game against the Saints with rookies Joe Vellano (undrafted) and Chris Jones (claimed on waivers from Texans) along with first-year player Marcus Forston (promoted from practice squad on Saturday) at the position. A situation like this also brings to light that the club hasn’t selected a defensive tackle in each of the past three drafts. Over that same span, the team has used its picks at the following positions:

Defensive end: 4

Safety: 4

Cornerback: 3

Linebacker: 3

Wide receiver: 3

Offensive tackle: 2

Running back: 2

Quarterback: 1

Tight end: 1

The draft isn’t the only vehicle to stock positions, and undrafted players can still be big parts of a team’s success (e.g. DT Kyle Love), but this looks like an area the team will almost certainly target in the 2014 draft, similar to how they did in selecting two running backs in 2011 and two receivers in 2013. The last time the Patriots used a high draft pick on a defensive tackle was with 2009 second-rounder Ron Brace, who didn’t pan out.

2. When linebacker Brandon Spikes plays like he did last Sunday by charging downhill against the run and bringing a physical edge, he’s one of the most enjoyable defenders to watch in recent Patriots memory. The issues with Spikes, which have cropped up at times over the past three years, are more in coverage. This reflects how the coaching staff has mostly utilized Spikes in 2013, playing him primarily in the base defense and taking him off the field in the majority of sub packages. So with Spikes entering the final year of his contract, the possibility of him staying in New England past this season probably hinges on whether another team views him as more than a two-down type player, and is willing to pay him accordingly.

3. Saints tight end Benjamin Watson, who played for the Patriots from 2004-09, returns to Gillette Stadium for the first time today to face his former team. He’s the Saints’ No. 2 option at the position (5 catches, 49 yards, TD), has played 31.2 percent of the offensive snaps, and recovered a Bears onside kick last week to seal New Orleans’ victory. A first-round draft choice in ’04, the last selection of the round, Watson got an early taste of the business side of the game when the Patriots held a hard line in negotiations by insisting on a maximum six-year pact. That led to a holdout and was later cited by the NFL Players Association as the prime example of why the maximum length of rookie contracts -- not including the top half of the first round -- should be reduced because a rookie shouldn’t have to wait until his seventh year to hit unrestricted free agency (they later were reduced). Watson ultimately relented in signing a six-year deal, but he ultimately came out of things OK on the financial side after signing a three-year pact with the Browns in 2010 worth around $12 million. This offseason, he signed a more modest three-year, $4.75 million deal with the Saints, and is earning a base salary of $950,000 this season. Quarterback Drew Brees and others have raved about his professionalism and influence among teammates.

4. If the Patriots didn’t select left tackle Nate Solder in the first round of the 2011 draft (17th overall), I believe the player they would have taken is defensive lineman Cameron Jordan, who will be on the opposite sideline today. Bill Belichick described the 6-foot-4, 287-pound Jordan this week as a disruptive matchup problem and, reflecting on him as a prospect in the 2011 draft, “a little bit of an in-between type of guy” with versatility who teams would “have to fit into the different roles depending on the situation or the scheme that you were in.” Because it wasn’t a clear-cut fit, as compared to a left tackle with off-the-charts intangibles, I think that was a significant part of the consideration in leaning toward Solder, whom the Patriots are obviously happy with at this point. The Saints are happy with Jordan, too.

5. One of the hot-button sports radio topics around these parts a few months ago was that the Patriots took the less-impact, low-budget route in signing veteran safety Adrian Wilson (3 years, $5 million) over Ed Reed (3 years, $15 million with the Texans). The Wilson signing obviously didn’t work out as the team planned. Health was part of that, as Wilson landed on injured reserve after hurting his hamstring in the preseason finale, but his roster spot wasn't a lock before he got hurt. Yet the Reed signing, which included $5 million in bonuses/guarantees, also doesn’t look so hot. Reed, who missed the first two games of the season and doesn’t have a pass breakup in the three games he has played, hasn’t had a big impact in Houston.

6. With Jets tight end Kellen Winslow suspended for the next four games for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, it means former Patriot Zach Sudfeld bumps up the depth chart. It also adds another story line for next Sunday when the Patriots visit the Jets in a game that now looks a bit tougher than it might have at the start of the season. In a credit to Rex Ryan, he has his Jets playing hard and winning games.

7. Former Patriots cornerback Darius Butler, the 2009 second-round pick who didn’t reach expectations in New England, has found his niche as a key cog in the Colts defense. He is serving as their third cornerback, behind starters Vontae Davis and Greg Toler, and has played 147 of a possible 306 snaps this season (48 percent). The Patriots’ recent struggles in drafting and developing cornerbacks and safeties with first- and second-round picks has been well-documented (e.g. Brandon Meriweather, Terrence Wheatley, Patrick Chung, Ras-I Dowling), and one point often made here is that most of the defensive backs don’t emerge with new teams, which reflects more of a breakdown with the player acquisition process than development. Butler is an exception to that thought and we’ll get a closer look at him this week as the Colts visit the Chargers on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”

8. One line of thinking is that a team playing its second straight road game, such as the Saints today against the Patriots after last Sunday’s win in Chicago, could be more vulnerable than the norm. But the early-season stats don’t necessarily confirm that. Through five weeks, teams are 8-9 in the second game of back-to-back road contests. The Patriots contributed one game to the loss column after falling 13-6 last Sunday in Cincinnati.

9a. From the media files, Part 1: Former Patriots center Dan Koppen made it official last week, announcing on Sirius XM NFL Radio that he is officially retiring. He had come back in 2013 with the Broncos, only to sustain a season-ending knee injury early in training camp. Koppen is now making the transition that many players do when retiring, as he'll dabble in some media work as part of the Sirius XM NFL Radio team. “Eleven years is good. I had a good run. I won a lot of football games and that was important to me, winning,” Koppen said on Sirius last week. “[I] met a lot of good guys and made a lot of great friends that I'll have for a lifetime so I've got enough to go by for the rest of my life and now it is time to move into the next phase with the family and hopefully just stay in touch with the game."

9b. From the media files, Part 2: After the top CBS broadcasting tandem of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms called eight Patriots games in 2012, it will take until the eighth Patriots game of the 2013 season until they call their first New England game. The Nantz-Simms duo has been assigned the Oct. 27 Dolphins-Patriots game, one week after Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf call their third Patriots game of the season, against the Jets.

10a. Two of the NFL’s top franchises meet today when the Saints visit the Patriots, and as Peter King of TheMMQB.com points out, one link between their rosters is a high volume of undrafted free agents. King noted that the Saints had 19 of the players on last Sunday’s 46-man game-day roster enter the NFL as undrafted college free agents (7 of 22 starters). That same week, the Patriots had 16 of the players on their 46-man game-day roster that entered the league as undrafted college free agents. Writes King: “It tells me those teams scout well, know the kind of players their coaching staff wants, and then go and get them. And the coaches coach them well.”

10b. Along the lines of what goes in to building a team, it’s probably the one area that interests me most when it comes to covering professional football. So it was neat to spend some time recently with Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell (the schedule worked out before the Patriots-Falcons game) and get a feel for how he’s attempting to rebuild that team. Part of the story (link here) is how Caldwell had a similar experience in 2008 with the Atlanta Falcons and how he’s using some of that blueprint in Jacksonville. Caldwell considers Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff one of his mentors and, in addition to those team-building concepts, he’s also taken something else from him: Every Friday morning he drops his son David off at school, just as Dimitroff does with his son Mason in Atlanta.