Quick-hit thoughts around NFL & Pats

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

1. The Patriots start their voluntary offseason program on Monday at Gillette Stadium, and excellent attendance is expected. It starts with quarterback Tom Brady, who is in town and planning to be there. When the star player is leading the way, most others usually follow.

2. Time to get the calendar out and start planning for summer. NFL veterans other than quarterbacks or injured players can report to training camp no earlier than 15 days prior to first preseason game. With the Patriots’ preseason opener scheduled for Aug. 7 at the Redskins, it puts Wednesday July 23 as the earliest possible day for Patriots to open training camp. So projecting ahead to the start of training camp, with the 23rd as the likely veterans reporting date/conditioning test, and considering that the first two days of practice must be held without pads, the weekend of July 26-27 should be the first time we hear pads cracking again on the practice field in New England.

3a. While on the topic of schedule-based items, it seems fair to say we’re in striking distance for the NFL’s release of the regular-season schedule, possibly as early as Tuesday (according to Pro Football Talk). Always an exciting day, and just as a refresher, here are the Patriots’ home and away opponents.

3b. The first thing I look for with the schedule is where the bye week is placed, as a middle-of-the-schedule bye is generally preferred because it splits things up evenly over the 17-week season. The Patriots have been pretty fortunate in recent years, so they might be due for an earlier bye this time around.

2007: Week 10

2008: Week 4

2009: Week 8

2010: Week 5

2011: Week 7

2012: Week 9

2013: Week 10

4. Other than maybe paying a bit more than I expected, I don’t see much downside for the Jets in signing running back Chris Johnson to a two-year deal with a maximum value of $9 million. When a team has a question mark at quarterback with a young player like the Jets do with Geno Smith, the best way to help him is to surround him with more talent (and to also protect the team by signing a capable backup like Michael Vick). More weapons are still likely to come in the draft as well.

5. In studying up for the draft, one scenario that I could envision the Patriots having already discussed is the split between their first two picks (No. 29 and No. 62) and how that might play into the team’s strategy with this year’s center prospects. That’s one spot I could see the Patriots targeting. A late first-round pick for Southern Cal’s Marcus Martin or Colorado State’s Weston Richburg might be viewed as a bit too rich, but it’s questionable to think either of them might be there at 62 because the run on top interior linemen is expected in the second round. It wouldn’t be a sexy pick, but similar to Logan Mankins (No. 32) in the 2005 draft, it’s one that could address a meat-and-potatoes need in both the short- and long-term.

6. One more center thought: It’s sort of similar to last year with the Dallas Cowboys, who surprised many by picking Wisconsin's Travis Frederick No. 31 overall. The pick was viewed by some as a reach but Frederick went on to start all 16 games and is now seen by many as a solid piece to build around with 2011 first-round pick Tyron Smith (left tackle) along the offensive line. Browns center Alex Mack (21st overall, 2009), who just received a big pay day, is another reminder of how making the right pick at the center position can pay off. The tricky part, at least from this view, is that there are only a few plug-and-play centers in the draft each year and 2014 seems to continue that theme. That’s why I’m keeping Martin and Richburg on my radar, with the possibility of elevating them into the late first round based on that unique dynamic surrounding the position.

7. Over the last few days, we’ve heard more about teams informing 2011 first-round draft choices they will have their fifth-year options in 2015 picked up. This is the first time it’s come up because those fifth-year options for first-round picks were part of the new collective bargaining agreement in 2011, and teams have to make the decision by May 3 of this year. In New England, left tackle Nate Solder should expect his option to be picked up as well; it’s a no-brainer for the team because the option is guaranteed for injury only and would only become fully guaranteed at the start of the 2015 league year. So basically it just buys the team an additional year with the player without a real financial commitment at this time.

8. Running backs might not be as prevalent in the first round in recent years, but is it really possible that the back might not be picked until the end of the second round this year, as ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper forecasted in his most recent mock draftInsider? If we look at last year’s second-round running backs -- Giovani Bernard (No. 37, Bengals), Le'Veon Bell (No. 48, Steelers), Montee Ball (No. 58, Broncos), Eddie Lacy (No. 61, Packers) – they are all now viewed as critical pieces to their team’s success. So while a first-round pick might not be advised on a running back, a move in the second round for someone like Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde this year seems more than reasonable. As Kiper forecast, it would be something to seriously think about if the opportunity presented itself to the Patriots at that No. 62 spot because they don't have a running back under contract past this season with an NFL carry on his résumé.

9. One random nugget that stood out to me when looking closer at the NFC North, the division the Patriots face in 2014: Mike McCarthy enters his ninth season as Packers head coach, making him, by far, the dean of head coaches in the division. At 50 years old, he is also the youngest head coach in the division by quite a bit when compared to the Lions’ Jim Caldwell (1st year, 59 years old), Vikings’ Mike Zimmer (1st year, 57 years old) and the Bears’ Marc Trestman (2nd year, 58 years old). This is what happens when one team hits on a smart young coach (McCarthy in 2006) and the rest of the division turns over and trends older in its choices.

10. In past years when the NFL draft was held in mid-to-late April, the Patriots would have a rookie minicamp on one of the following weekends to begin the process of introducing the newcomers to the team’s system. The traditional photo shoot with the top pick and owner Robert Kraft and president Jonathan Kraft served as the first public welcome for the rookie class and the rookies would then return home a week or so later before making the permanent move up to the area to begin their first year with the franchise. But things are likely to be changing and it’s a result of the draft now being pushed back to May 8-10. With the condensed schedule, which culminates with the Patriots’ mandatory full-team minicamp June 17-19, rookies will probably now arrive and stay through the full-team minicamp. With two less weeks to work with, there’s no time to waste. From this view, it just adds to the already significant challenge that rookies have in getting up to speed with their new teams.