FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. After spending four days at the NFL annual meeting in Phoenix last week, I came away with the belief that it would be a major surprise if the 2017 kickoff opener is a Super Bowl LI rematch between the Patriots and Atlanta Falcons. It seems top league decision-makers have listened to Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who felt it was unfair last year when Carolina had to travel to Denver for the opener in a Super Bowl 50 rematch with the Broncos after they had spent all offseason trying to put that game behind them. With that intel, here’s one viewpoint of the most likely opponents (in order) for the Patriots in the season opener at home:
Dolphins -- Under promising second-year head coach Adam Gase, they made the playoffs in 2016 as the Patriots’ closest competitor in the AFC East.
Bills -- First-year head coach Sean McDermott is the anti-Rex Ryan -- understated and a no-frills grinder -- and he is in the early stages of building a sustaining program; Week 1 is a bit early, though, to put the Bills on the national stage.
Jets -- Unlikely they have enough national appeal to be a strong consideration.
Panthers -- Hard to believe the league would put them in the same spot -- opening the year on the road against the defending Super Bowl champion -- two years in a row.
Falcons -- Their road game against the Patriots can still be in prime time, but just later in the season.
2. When Texans coach Bill O’Brien was asked for one thing that resonated with him from the NFL’s annual meeting, he mentioned a speech that owners, coaches and executives heard from General Raymond T. Odierno, a veteran of the military for 40 years who served as the 38th Chief of Staff of the United States Army.
Like O’Brien, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff was impressed with Odierno. “We were all intrigued listening to a four-star general talk about leadership, talking about navigating the pitfalls of leading men, the challenges of it, not only from a players standpoint for coaches, but also a GM's perspective of how you lead an organization and marry that with your head coach. I think there was some really good discussion about that,” Dimitroff said of the message from Odierno, who was named chairman of USA Football in January.
“There was also discussion about what is referred to as ‘runaway experts’ within an organization. In the day of some very interesting and very beneficial technology and analytics, it was [stressed] that you keep it in perspective and you keep a really nice control [with it] and navigate it properly.”
3. Preseason opponents and schedules should be announced in the next week or so, although most teams already know their slate, with some coaches discussing the possibility of joint practices. From a Patriots standpoint, I’m told the often-most-important third preseason game will be on the road at Detroit. That sparks memories of 2011 and 2013, when in that third preseason game at Ford Field, then-Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh talked about how much fun he had beating up on the “Brady bunch.”
4. Owner Robert Kraft relayed last week that Brady told him he’s willing to play another six or seven years. While that might be ambitious, plenty of statistics reflect that Brady isn’t slowing down as he approaches his 40th birthday in August. One such stat is this one from ESPN’s Stats & Information: Brady’s completion percentage and touchdown passes per game have increased in each of the last three seasons:
2013: 60.5 completion percentage/1.56 passing TDs per game
2014: 64.1 completion percentage/2.06 passing TDs per game
2015: 64.4 completion percentage/2.25 passing TDs per game
2016: 67.4 completion percentage/2.33 passing TDs per game
5a. In 2011, the Patriots entered the offseason knowing the next season would be the last for starting left tackle Matt Light. That led them to draft Colorado offensive tackle Nate Solder in the first round. The theory was that Solder could benefit from a year of grooming behind the scenes before stepping in for Light. This year, with Solder set to enter the final year of his contract, the club would be following its modus operandi by strongly considering a fallback option in the draft should Solder depart in free agency after the 2017 season. Usually, the Patriots are thinking two years ahead, especially at premium positions such as left tackle. Their current situation traces to 2015, when they signed Solder to a two-year, $20 million extension, an unusual pact because it was for only two years. When the club inks a core player in his prime years to an extension, it’s generally for at least double that length.
5b. Unfortunately for teams looking for offensive tackles, this year isn’t considered a strong draft at that position. That probably contributed to some significant free-agent contracts for players who weren’t expected to command those type of dollars (e.g. Matt Kalil, Mike Remmers). That’s what happens when the supply doesn’t meet the demand.
6. Titans coach Mike Mularkey on why his club made an aggressive free-agent pitch to sign former Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan (three years, $30 million): “Tough, dependable and he has rings to show his success. We like what he is off the field as much of what he is on the field. He’s had four years of production, and that’s what you want to see -- consistency.” The Ryan signing is a good example of what Mularkey means when he talks about the synergy between him and second-year general manager Jon Robinson, in terms of their “consistent message” of what they want their team to be. “We have the same beliefs in how we want to build the roster, and players see that. We’re bringing in those types of players, and we’re not keeping the ones that aren’t,” Mularkey said.
7. From the “just in case you missed it” department: Thumbs-up to the Patriots All-Access 2001 reunion show from March 25, which brought viewers behind the scenes at the group's get-together in December at Gillette Stadium, the night before the current team beat the Rams. Bill Belichick was present, which says something about how he felt about the ’01 squad. And it was also interesting to watch Brady stand in the background during his appearance. After all, that really wasn’t his team, per se.
8. The struggles of Super Bowl-losing teams the following season are well-documented, which is why some are predicting a tough 2017 season for the Falcons. That’s a challenging emotional hurdle to overcome, especially given the way Atlanta lost to the Patriots. But there are a few things that make me think this team can overcome history:
Head coach Dan Quinn seems to have the right touch on how to handle it.
The roster is among the NFL’s most talented, definitely in the top 10 and maybe even top five in the NFL.
Youth, as Quinn pointed out that 32 of the 64 players on the roster are between Years 2 and 4 of their NFL careers.
9. If someone had said that only one owner voted against the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas, and asked for a guess on who it might be, Miami’s Stephen Ross wouldn’t have been the choice. But it was indeed Ross, the only owner who was openly critical of Raiders owner Mark Davis and earned a measure of respect in the process because his stance was from the School of Common Sense.
10. With the Raiders’ stadium in Las Vegas scheduled to open in 2020, when might the Patriots make their first appearance there? If the current rotating scheduling format remains the same, they would be locked in to visit the Raiders for certain in 2023. Of course, there's a possibility they could play in Vegas in 2020, 2021 or 2022 if the teams finish in the same spot in their respective division standings in a year when the AFC East finisher in that spot is slated to visit the AFC West finisher in the same spot.