Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the New England Patriots:
1. One of the more interesting things I learned over the last week is that Patriots second-year offensive tackle Cameron Fleming (6-foot-6, 325 pounds) has devoted more time in his offseason training to the guard position. The fourth-round draft pick out of Stanford worked with Sparta Performance Science in California, altering the focus of his training regimen in hopes of improving his movement skills (less rotational, more linear) with a focus on the more prevalent side-to-side movements at guard. Fleming started one game at right guard last season (Sept. 29 at Kansas City), but didn't get a long look there after injuring his hand in that game and missing the next five contests (and later another four with an ankle injury). By the time he returned, veteran Ryan Wendell had locked down the position. Other than Fleming's one start at right guard, his primary role was as an eligible receiver/extra blocking tight end at the end of the line of scrimmage, but it sounds like the Patriots want to take an extended look at him at guard in 2015.
2. Projecting a tackle to guard is no sure thing, as we saw in 2014 with New England's Marcus Cannon. When thrust into a starting role at right tackle for the second half of the 2013 season, the 6-foot-5, 335-pound Cannon was very good. But when tapped as the top choice to fill the Logan Mankins void at left guard early last season, Cannon struggled, was benched after three games, and couldn't truly get back on track when the opportunity later presented itself at his more natural tackle position. It was almost as if Cannon's confidence was shot after the failed experiment at guard and the rest of the year was spent trying to rebuild it. One of the interesting story lines to follow early in 2015 will be if Fleming can avoid that type of situation.
3. Why would a tackle struggle moving inside to guard? Talking to scouts, one of the first things they look for is whether a tackle has the power, leverage, short-area quickness and toughness to hold up in tight quarters, as things happen faster at guard than tackle. Mankins, a college left tackle at Fresno State, made the transition look seamless with the Patriots from 2005-2013. This is something to think about when considering the Patriots' obvious need at the position, and if they lean toward drafting a college tackle and potentially project him to guard (e.g. Miami's Ereck Flowers, Oregon's Jake Fisher, Missouri's Mitch Morse), or if they prefer selecting a pure guard like Florida State's Tre Jackson, South Carolina's A.J. Cann or Duke's Laken Tomlinson, among others.
4a. The NFL plans to release the 2015 regular-season schedule this week -- Tuesday or Wednesday looks like the target -- and I'm sticking with the Steelers as the Patriots' most likely season-opening opponent Thursday, Sept. 10. Another thing I'll be watching for is the possibility of having road games against the Cowboys and Texans in back-to-back weeks, which could set up a scenario in which the Patriots might consider staying in Texas for the week. That type of set-up has seemed to work for the team, such as spending a week in San Diego last year.
4b. Random schedule note, Part I: The Patriots, who are assured a home opener as the defending NFL champs, haven't opened a season at home since 2010 (against the Bengals).
4c. Random note, Part II: Last year's NFL opener in Seattle was Sept. 4; as the Seahawks had played in the Super Bowl Feb. 2. This year's NFL opener in New England will be Sept. 10; as the Patriots played in the Super Bowl Feb. 1. So the Patriots' offseason is officially one week longer than last year's Super Bowl champ, and with several key players recovering from surgery, they'll surely take every extra day possible to manage those recoveries.
5. The Patriots visit the White House on Thursday and the expected presence of cornerback Darrelle Revis is notable but far from surprising. He played an integral role in the title and left on good terms, which included a “great” one-on-one conversation with Bill Belichick. In the words of Belichick himself, “that's free agency” and it's Revis' right to approach things from a business-based mindset. I concur with Tom E. Curran of Comcast SportsNet that a little Revis slip-up on Instagram (whether hacked or not) doesn't change a thing in the eyes of the Patriots and they'll welcome him with open arms Thursday.
6. If Revis is the ultimate businessman from a players' perspective, I'd say cornerback Ike Taylor holds a place closer to the opposite end of the spectrum. When Taylor retired this past week from the Steelers, it served as a reminder that he took a $4.25 million paycut last year so he could say he went wire-to-wire with the franchise (2003-2014). Taylor had watched as one of his former teammates, James Harrison, had regrets about not doing the same thing (Harrison played the 2013 season in Cincinnati) and didn't want to make the same mistake. While it doesn't work that way for everyone, I think it's neat to see that type of mindset -- which is the same way Tedy Bruschi and Troy Brown approached the end of their careers in New England -- still exists in the NFL.
7. Picked-up nugget from the pre-draft process: South Florida receiver-turned-cornerback Chris Dunkley, who is expected to visit the Patriots this week, is best friends with New England second-year defensive tackle Dominique Easley. The two first met at the University of Florida as highly-touted recruits, and while Dunkley later transferred due to academics, he stayed tight with Easley and spent time in Foxboro this past year with Easley. That's one reason Dunkley, a later-round projection, would be excited if he lands with the Patriots.
8. Based on their contract offers to veteran free agents Rolando McClain and Andrew Gachkar, who both signed with Dallas, it seems fair to say the Patriots are in the market for quality depth at their off-the-line linebacker spot. They have several special teamers behind Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, but it's a question mark how much those players could help if thrust into a role on D. So the Patriots might have to look to the draft, where one scout told me it's a lean year at the position. On a related note, the same scout called the safety crop maybe the worst he's ever seen over two-plus decades, which could have teams looking more at cornerbacks and projecting them to safety.
9a. Did You Know, Part I: The Patriots allowed 2.7 yards before contact per rush inside the tackle last season, which ranked 25th in the NFL, according to ESPN's Stats & Information. That could be a tip-off that they'll be looking closely at some of the powerful run-stuffing defensive tackles in the draft, a group that includes Florida State's Eddie Goldman, who has become a mock draft favorite in recent weeks.
9b. Did You Know, Part II: The Patriots stopped 77 rushes for no gain or negative yards, the third fewest of any team in the league last year, according to ESPN's Stats & Information. Only San Francisco (75) and Pittsburgh (72) ranked lower.
10. The Patriots' voluntary offseason program begins tomorrow and I'm told quarterback Tom Brady plans to be present. No surprise there. My take: Time like that with teammates is increasingly more important for a top leader like Brady, who turns 38 in August and must work harder to connect with younger teammates, many of whom were in elementary school when he first broke into the NFL.