Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1a. When Patriots owner Robert Kraft was asked about the club hosting top quarterbacks Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Jimmy Garoppolo before the draft, he said, “There’s a purpose for everything that can seem very superficial to people, but you really have to go three to four levels deeper than that.” I’ve been thinking about that answer since the Patriots drafted Garoppolo late in the second round (62nd overall), and it now seems safe to say that the club’s focus on a succession plan for Tom Brady has reached a new level. When Kraft says “three or four levels deeper,” I take it to mean this: “We hope Brady is still playing at a top level in three or four years when he’s 39 and 40, but we need to protect ourselves if he isn’t.” This is all part of perpetuating the franchise.
1b. All that said, I still think Garoppolo’s presence is closer to 80 percent about filling the No. 2 role set to be vacated by Ryan Mallett (likely in 2015) at more manageable rookie financial rates, with the other 20 percent or so tied to possible succession plans. Top backups with starting experience are earning around $4 million per season and that's not an area the team would like to dabble if not necessary.
2. In 2013 at the Sloan Analytics Conference, former Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli relayed how the club placed a significant value on hand size for quarterbacks, mainly because a bigger hand allows a quarterback to control the ball better in inclement weather often experienced in New England. Brady, obviously, is the shining example of this with his mammoth mitts. Pioli’s thoughts were revisited this week because Garoppolo, at 9 1/4 inches, had among the smallest hand measurements of this year’s quarterback class. Mallett, as a comparison, has a hand size of 10 3/4. A big deal? Or an overrated measurement? Something we’ll file away for future consideration.
3. The Patriots open their 2014 preseason on the road against the Redskins on Aug. 7, and coach Bill Belichick and first-year Washington coach Jay Gruden have discussed the possibility of holding joint practices leading up to the game. Last year, the Redskins moved their training camp to a new 40,000 square-foot facility in Richmond, Virginia, marking the first time they held camp away from their Loudoun County, Virginia, headquarters since 2002, and the possibility of Patriots-Redskins joint practices in Richmond would rate as one of the highlights on the team’s preseason slate. Belichick has been a proponent of the joint practices in recent years, in part because of tightened practice regulations as part of the new collective bargaining agreement. If plans can be finalized this year, the Patriots would have the joint practices at the Redskins’ facility the first week of August, then return home for a set of joint practices with the Eagles the following week.
4. Brady’s contract calls for him to earn below-market base salaries of $7 million in 2015, $8 million in 2016, and $9 million in 2017 for a top-level starting quarterback. And with the Patriots picking Garoppolo in the second round and Belichick later referencing Brady’s contract situation, I think some have jumped to conclusions that perhaps Brady plans to eventually seek some type of increase and maybe the Patriots are protecting themselves. Maybe I am naïve on the topic, but I don’t think those are the factors in play. For Brady, I think he simply craves another Super Bowl ring. I don’t think the contract, which still treats him fairly based on bonus and guaranteed money in 2014 and 2015, is a driving force for him at this point of his career. And I think Belichick’s remarks, at their core, were more about how Brady’s contract ends after the 2017 season.
5. By staying away from voluntary organized team activities and stating that he doesn’t plan to attend mandatory minicamp while questioning his fit with the Texans, veteran receiver Andre Johnson has given first-year coach Bill O’Brien one of his first personnel-related fires to handle. I was interested to see O’Brien’s response, and not surprisingly, he mostly took a page out of the Belichick “I’m only going to talk about the players that are here” public relations playbook. O’Brien’s brief remarks on Johnson struck a positive tone. Johnson deserves that respect as one of the franchise’s all-time greats, but at the same time, O’Brien knows he privately has to maintain a harder line as he is in the early stages of setting an expected standard for the entire team. He can’t have one of his leaders operating off a different script. My best guess: Johnson will play for the Texans this season, or he won't be playing anywhere.
6. When directly asked last week, Belichick didn’t acknowledge if the Patriots-based less-than-flattering Johnny Manziel scouting report that surfaced online was legitimate, deflecting by saying he hadn’t been online for days. “That’s not really an important thing to me. I don’t even know what’s online and what isn’t online,” Belichick said, before directing his questioner to follow up with those who posted the scouting report. After exploring the topic further, I think the section of the scouting report that was posted is legitimate, right down to the correct initials of the team’s scout who would be doing the bulk of the work on Manziel based on the region he covers. Belichick, who prefers most everything stay in-house, can’t be pleased about that. And contrary to what he said, I do think it’s important to him.
7. With the NFL holding its annual spring meeting in Atlanta from May 19-21, the main item of business will be awarding Super Bowl LII, the game to determine the champion of the 2017 season. Indianapolis, Minnesota and New Orleans are the finalists, and as Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times-Picuyane noted, New Orleans is the favorite based in part on its track record (10 for 10 when bidding to host the Super Bowl). For those keeping track, here is the lineup for upcoming Super Bowls:
Super Bowl XLIX: Arizona
Super Bowl L: San Francisco
Super Bowl LI: Houston
Super Bowl LII: Indianapolis, Minnesota or New Orleans
While the awarding of Super Bowl LII will register as likely the biggest news to come out of the NFL spring meeting, also expect plenty of talk about expanding the playoffs. Some good chatter on that topic here. I’m not an advocate of the idea, but it seems like the owners want it, which usually means it will happen.
8. The question is sometimes asked if anything can be read into prospects taking a pre-draft visit to the Patriots. For what it’s worth, the team’s top three draft picks, defensive lineman Dominique Easley, Garoppolo and center Bryan Stork, all were among the allotted 30 Patriots visits this year.
9. The Bengals selected LSU running back Jeremy Hill in the second round of the draft, one year after picking running back Giovani Bernard in the second round. So what does that mean for BenJarvus Green-Ellis? The former Patriot enters the final year of a three-year, $9 million contract he signed with the Bengals in 2012, and is due to earn a base salary of $2.3 million this year. While on the surface it looks like Green-Ellis might be in jeopardy of making the roster, or at the least could be in line for a pay cut, I could make a strong case for the Bengals staying the course with him. Green-Ellis, one of the true pros to come through New England, is the type of mentor Hill needs. Hill ran into some trouble off the field at LSU.
10. After making four lower-level signings on Friday, the Patriots now have 86 players under contract, which is four below the 90-man limit. Those spots should be filled by the start of training camp at the latest, and the one possibility that jumps to the top of the list is free-agent tight end Dustin Keller. The Patriots didn’t draft a tight end in what they generally viewed as a weak class (one of their possible targets wound up in the division and says he has a chip on his shoulder) and they had Keller in for a visit before the draft. If Keller checks out medically, and is willing to sign a contract that limits the team’s risk as he comes back from a serious knee injury, it seems like a classic win-win situation: Keller gets a chance to get his career back on track with Brady throwing him passes, and the Patriots add another layer to the one position on their team that has the most question marks. Keller was often a tough matchup for the Patriots, and he played under current Patriots assistant Brian Daboll in his rookie season with the Jets (2008), so there is some familiarity there.