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Quick-hit thoughts around Patriots, NFL

Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the NFL and with the New England Patriots:

1. When former Patriots running back Shane Vereen showed up Thursday at Gillette Stadium to take a trip to the White House, he no longer had his key card to gain access into the team facility. So I was curious how it worked for him and others in his situation, such as New York Jets teammates Darrelle Revis and Stevan Ridley? I reached out to Vereen to get a better feel for that, and also what it was like to be a Patriot again for a day. “For a second, it felt like I never left,” the now-New York Giant said of re-entering the building, which he gained access to by arriving with others who are still on the team. “It was a chance to reminisce a bit. Mr. Kraft’s generosity to let me join the team on the charter, to travel one more time, it says a lot about him.” Vereen, one of the class acts to come through the locker room in recent years, added: “I can’t say enough words about how special last year was for me and the team. Magical. A storybook ending. Because of what we went through, rising to the top to achieve that ultimate goal, I definitely think it brought that group of guys closer than ever before. That bond will be there; I don’t ever see that going away.”

2. As for Vereen’s fresh start with the Giants, he has some connections with new teammates Prince Amukamara (cornerback) and Jameel McClain (linebacker) from training together with them in California in past years. He said they have helped in his transition and letting him know what to expect, as the Giants’ offseason program just began this past Monday. We also talked about a prior remark he made to the Giants’ team website about his situation being a “step up”, and how he then clarified those remarks on Twitter. “What you say isn’t always interpreted the way you intend it to be,” Vereen said. “The good thing playing with the Patriots, being so close to the guys, they knew my intent. I would never say anything negative about anyone in the organization. The way I look at it, I’m grateful to have been part of the organization, which gave me the opportunity to move on to another fantastic opportunity and helped set up my future career. There’s nothing negative to say.”

3. One of the interesting Patriots NFL draft storylines for me is how early the team would consider selecting a wide receiver, in part because this is considered another deep, talented class. If Southern Cal receiver Nelson Agholor is available at No. 32, for example, I think that could be enticing to the club, depending on who else might be available. That’s one scenario I’ve played out in mock drafts that wouldn’t shock me, even though I don't view receiver as a great need when stacked up against guard, defensive tackle, off-the-line linebacker and cornerback. The thinking with a pick like Agholor is that because this is such a solid receiver class, a player with his skills and upside might normally be off the board earlier than 32, but he could get pushed down because of the glut of top-flight pass-catchers.

4. Listening to Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and players talk about their experience at the White House on Thursday, I think it would be overstating it to say president Barack Obama’s poorly received Deflategate joke put a damper on the day. After all, it came right after Obama called them “as good of an organization as there is in professional sports.” But Obama’s joke highlighted to me how the NFL’s handling of underinflated footballs – specifically creating it into something bigger than it is and then dragging it out over what is now its 93rd day -- has formed a perception that is going to be hard for the Patriots to shake, regardless of if they are cleared of wrongdoing. When the president is joking about it, it’s hard to dispute that.

5. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady didn’t attend Thursday’s ceremony at the White House because of a prior family commitment. But one theory floated in the Boston Herald’s “Inside Track” gossip column was that his absence might also be tied to comments made by White House press secretary Josh Earnest in the aftermath of Brady’s Deflategate news conference in January when Earnest criticized Brady’s public-relations skills. If so, that would reflect how deeply Brady was hurt by the widespread questioning of his integrity, including from those at the White House. For what it’s worth, I’m told Brady was present at the stadium for a stretch of time Thursday while many in the organization were at the White House.

6. Each NFL team is required to hold a pre-draft news conference and I like to watch as many as possible. While there is usually little of value to be gleaned from many of them, it’s always interesting to me to see which staffers teams put front and center, reacquaint myself with some of the league’s top scouting directors/decision-makers, and compare teams which favor a single voice vs. those with multiple voices. Here is this year’s rundown:

AFC East

Bills: GM Doug Whaley, director of player personnel Jim Monos, director of college scouting Kelvin Fisher

Dolphins: VP Mike Tannenbaum, GM Dennis Hickey, Assistant GM Eric Stokes

Jets: GM Mike Maccagnan

Patriots: Director of player personnel Nick Caserio

AFC North

Bengals: Head coach Marvin Lewis (this week)

Browns: GM Ray Farmer

Ravens: GM Ozzie Newsome, assistant GM Eric DeCosta, head coach John Harbaugh, director of college scouting Joe Hortiz

Steelers: GM Kevin Colbert, head coach Mike Tomlin (this week)

AFC South

Colts: GM Ryan Grigson

Jaguars: GM Dave Caldwell, head coach Gus Bradley

Texans: GM Rick Smith (this week)

Titans: VP/GM Ruston Webster, head coach Ken Whisenhunt (this week)

AFC West

Broncos: VP/GM John Elway

Chargers: GM Tom Telesco

Chiefs: GM John Dorsey

Raiders: GM Reggie McKenzie, head coach Jack Del Rio

NFC East

Cowboys: Owner/GM Jerry Jones, VP Stephen Jones, head coach Jason Garrett (this week)

Eagles: VP of Player Personnel Ed Marynowitz

Giants: GM Jerry Reese

Washington: To be announced (likely GM Scot McCloughan)

NFC North

Bears: GM Ryan Pace (this week)

Lions: GM Martin Mayhew

Packers: GM Ted Thompson

Vikings: GM Rick Spielman (this week)

NFC South

Buccaneers: GM Jason Licht, head coach Lovie Smith

Falcons: GM Thomas Dimitroff, head coach Dan Quinn

Panthers: GM Dave Gettleman, head coach Ron Rivera (this week)

Saints: traditionally GM Mickey Loomis (this week)

NFC West

Cardinals: GM Steve Keim, head coach Bruce Arians

49ers: GM Trent Baalke

Rams: GM Les Snead, head coach Jeff Fisher (this week)

Seahawks: GM John Schneider

One thing that stood out was how it was still Dimitroff – the former Patriots director of college scouting – as the lead voice on the personnel side in Atlanta. The Falcons’ initial announcement in January about a restructuring had almost made it sound as if Scott Pioli was taking charge.

7. Picked-up nugget from NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock’s conference call on Thursday that caught our attention: “I think [guard] Tre Jackson from Florida State has been sliding a little bit, and I don't even think he's going to go in the second round.” Jackson took a pre-draft visit to the Patriots and has been widely viewed as a possible target based on the team’s need and its success tapping the Florida State pipeline last year with center Bryan Stork (fourth round, 102nd overall).

8. When Vince Wilfork met with reporters in Houston at the start of the team’s offseason program last week, he naturally described it as a different experience. Nonetheless, he said the transition has been “great” to this point. He was asked a big-picture question about who helped him learn to become a pro and it was like a Patriots history lesson as the first person he mentioned was Mike Vrabel, who is in now in his second season as Texans linebackers coach. Wilfork then rattled off Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour and Ty Warren. “You’re talking about guys that have won championships, that have been on teams that know how to win,” he said. “It was easy for me to go to an organization like that and pick up where I left on in college, and being around good guys. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about – being around some good guys and guys that love the game. Right now, what I’ve seen, this [Texans] team definitely loves to play. That’s a good thing.”

9a. With the official word last week that the Patriots will open the season against the Steelers, we’ll be looking closer at them in the coming months, just as New England coaches will be doing the same. A few of the hot topics surrounding the Steelers: Top receiver Antonio Brown isn’t showing up at voluntary workouts in an apparent statement of displeasure with his contract; the club hosted nine cornerbacks on pre-draft visits as that position is viewed as a top need; edge rusher also looks like another need of note; offensive line coach Mike Munchak enters his second year and his solid work in 2014 helped rectify one of the trouble spots for the Steelers in recent years.

9b. Did You Know: The Steelers are 0-4 in games without running back Le'Veon Bell in the last two seasons. Bell is suspended for the season opener against the Patriots.

9c. Did You Know, Part II: The Steelers defense had 33 sacks last year, their fewest in a season since 1989. The Steelers also allowed 4.36 yards per rush, the highest by a Pittsburgh defense in a season since 1964 (4.39).

10. It seems safe to say that Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio would have preferred to have been at the White House on Thursday, but he wasn’t present, and the educated guess is that he was on the road working out prospects to ascertain what he hoped was important information at a critical point in the process. Bill Belichick often talks about putting the team first, and I view Thursday as an example of Caserio doing just that. As others have noted, it's almost uncanny how much Caserio sounds like Belichick in his news conferences.