FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
Cornerback Malcolm Butler was one of 17 players who didn't participate in Thursday's voluntary organized team activity. While the reason for his absence is not known, I wouldn't be surprised if it was related to his contract status. Butler has told teammates and friends he plans to push for an adjustment to his contract before the 2016 season, and staying off the field in voluntary workouts would be a decision that limits injury risk and also could be viewed as a statement to the organization that he's unhappy with the status quo and/or the movement/specifics of contract talks. Butler was present for the team's "Fantasy Camp" with high-paying sponsors Wednesday and was playing basketball at a local high school with teammates two weeks ago, so it's not as if he hasn't been around. But I think it's fair to say it's a situation to monitor in the weeks and months ahead. Butler's agent, Derek Simpson, didn't return multiple calls or emails seeking comment late last week.
Butler's contract, coupled with deals for linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower that also expire after the season, highlights how Patriots management has a potential sensitive situation on its hands with three of its top players. Each is deserving of a high-end-of-the-market extension, and seeing defensive end Chandler Jones (who also was entering the final year of his contract) traded in March naturally caught their attention about bottom-line business. Who gets paid first? Do deals with any of them get done before the season? If not, how would it be received -- labor vs. management -- in the locker room? Between now and the start of the regular season, I see this as one of the top storylines with the Patriots, with added pressure on management because of the unique dynamics in play. Looking back, owner Robert Kraft foreshadowed this situation last year when discussing cornerback Darrelle Revis' free-agent departure. Hightower, who is usually one of the more engaging players in interviews, was particularly clipped on the topic (and everything else) after Thursday's practice.
Every year at this time, there seems to be a reminder of how Bill Belichick sets the tone for players, and also that he shows no signs of slowing down. We saw it on the practice field Thursday when Belichick, 64, ripped players for forgetting part of the practice script, and then it was reinforced in words by eighth-year defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, who is in his first year with the Patriots. "Being on the outside looking in, you kind of get an idea how it is, especially with how your head coach handles the media and how things work around here. The level of accountability is just different once you step in the building," Knighton said.
When 2016 Patriots Hall of Fame inductee Kevin Faulk relayed that he almost signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a free agent after the 2004 Super Bowl season, it led me to reach out to ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden to ask what he saw in Faulk that would have been a good fit for his team that year. The Buccaneers were coming off a 5-11 season, and after Faulk declined their offer, they drafted running back Cadillac Williams No. 5 overall and bumped Michael Pittman down the depth chart to No. 2 before finishing 11-5. "I loved Faulk at LSU. He picked up blitzes, caught the ball and ran routes at a high level every week," Gruden said. "He was hard-nosed, versatile and perfect for what we wanted to do on offense."
Random thought: On this 15th anniversary season of the Patriot's first championship -- a 20-17 victory over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI -- I'd want to keep hold of my ticket for this season's Rams-Patriots game Dec. 4. Knowing how the team celebrates its history in style, that could be a nostalgic night.
One thing that stood out to me roster-wise at Thursday's practice was at running back, where veteran Brandon Bolden was usually the first player through drills. This was a result of Dion Lewis (recovering from a torn ACL) and LeGarrette Blount not practicing, so it was Bolden, James White, Joey Iosefa, Donald Brown, Tyler Gaffney and undrafted D.J. Foster at the position. One thing I wrote down in my notebook: Are there any explosive rushers at the position outside of Lewis? After forgoing the position in the draft, the club seems to be putting a lot of faith in Lewis remaining healthy all year, which might mean they have to more carefully manage his workload in 2016.
The same could be said for starting offensive tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, who also didn't practice. That meant LaAdrian Waddle (left tackle) and Marcus Cannon (right tackle) were the top two players at the position. Solder and Vollmer should be ready to go when it counts, but is the depth sufficient if injuries hit for a second year in a row? One offseason theory, that converted tight end Michael Williams could be part of the mix, didn't manifest itself in practice. Williams, still donning No. 85, remains with the tight ends.
Longtime New York Daily News football columnist Gary Myers wrote last week that commissioner Roger Goodell's decision to suspend Tom Brady "is vindictive." He also implored Goodell to end Deflategate and focus on the more important issue of head trauma in football. I think Goodell would do it if that's what 31 other ownership groups wanted, but it was clear as a possible settlement was recently explored behind the scenes that the majority of owners want the full penalty for Brady and the Patriots. Goodell is following their lead.
The holdup with the signing of third-round draft picks across the NFL was noted last week, and it remains topical in New England with quarterback Jacoby Brissett still without a contract. Of the 35 selections in the round this year, only 18 have signed, well off the pace of other rounds. They will all get done in time, but the third round has created the biggest challenge in the new CBA, and one general manager also said linebacker Mason Foster's rookie deal from 2011 is often a sticking point in negotiations. Foster, who is represented by agent Steve Caric, received $1.4 million in guaranteed money in 2011, which easily remains a record for any third-round pick. That was the first deal negotiated under the new CBA, when there was no precedent established, and it remains the outlier today.
Running back Sammy Morris, who played for the Patriots from 2007-10, was recently approached by first-year strength and conditioning coach Moses Cabrera about assisting him as a volunteer coach similar to what Joe Andruzzi has done in recent years. Morris jumped at the chance, which is why he was on the field for Thursday's organized team activity, lending a hand wherever needed (including at his old position). "It's definitely a career path I want to take," said Morris, who has served as a high school/Pop Warner coach, dabbled in improv, and devoted time to his family since his retirement. "My first year coaching, I had to put a resume together and there was nothing to put on it other than playing experience. This has been a good experience. The more I do it, I can see myself long-term in the profession."