FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Although nothing is official until owners officially vote for it later this month, it seemed like a good week for the short-term future of the kickoff. And, in turn, it was a great week for Cordarrelle Patterson, whose impact as the Patriots’ new kickoff returner could now be even greater than anticipated.
As part of the proposed changes to the kickoff -- designed to make the play safer by eliminating the 5-yard head start for the coverage team, as well as all wedge and two-man double-team blocks -- the expectation among some special-teams coaches is that it will open up the field more.
Because of that, returns would have more time to develop.
Also, some expect there to be more levels in the coverage as a result of eight of the 11 return-team members being required to initially line up within 15 yards of the restraining line, with blocking prohibited within those 15 yards.
Simply put, there should be more space on the field. And more space for a player such as Patterson, who has 153 career kickoff returns for 4,613 yards (30.2 average) and five touchdowns and holds the NFL record for the longest kickoff return for a touchdown (109 yards). It is a positive development for him and the team he plays for. It means more potential for explosive plays anytime the kicking team doesn’t boot the football through the end zone for a touchback.
2. A follow-up on the Patriots’ pre-draft interest in quarterback Baker Mayfield: When agent Jack Mills relayed on Andrew Brandt’s podcast what the Patriots told him -- “You may get a big surprise on draft day, at No. 2, if he’s available” -- it highlighted how the team was selling Mills that New England was a legitimate landing spot for Mayfield. The key context, to me, is that the team had to sell it hard. Otherwise, there was no motivation for Mayfield to meet with them before the draft, and the Patriots coveted that meeting as part of their thorough scouting process. I don’t doubt the Patriots liked Mayfield as a prospect. But I seriously doubt they ever strongly considered a move up to No. 2.
3. It is three weeks into the Patriots' voluntary offseason program and quarterback Tom Brady still hasn’t shown up. That is within his contractual rights, as it is with every player. But if I am holding myself accountable, it is only fair to mention that in recent years, I often highlighted how Brady was usually the first one through the door and used that as a reflection of his tone-setting leadership to teammates and relentless drive. As for this year, it's obviously hard to be a tone-setting leader inside the building when not being present. On ESPN’s NFL Live on Tuesday, analyst Ryan Clark respectfully shared his view that my praise of Brady was misguided in the first place, as he doesn’t see Brady’s current absence for a voluntary program as a big deal. The discussion was sparked when the question was asked, “What is different around the Patriots this offseason?"
4. Part of what appealed to the Patriots about drafting Georgia running back Sony Michel in the first round (No. 31 overall) was his versatility and how putting him on the field gives the offense flexibility to do anything from between-the-tackles, traditional running plays to splitting him out wide in spread formations and throwing the ball. That naturally can create stress for an opposing defense, and it’s similar to the approach the team took with running back Dion Lewis (now in Tennessee) in 2017. Count Bengals receiver A.J. Green among the believers in Michel making a big impact because of this. On Adam Schefter’s ESPN podcast, Green -- who also starred at Georgia -- predicted Michel would win NFL Rookie of the Year honors.
5. The Patriots annually have at least one undrafted rookie make their initial 53-man roster out of training camp, and Vanderbilt running back Ralph Webb is one candidate as a “priority” signing (he received $70,000 in guaranteed money). It is often said that football is a business, but seeing players like Webb celebrate an opportunity with the Patriots is still refreshing, grass-roots type of stuff.
The Patriots have yet to formally announce their undrafted free-agent class, but here’s a quick snapshot of some of them based on reports, the players themselves and confirmation from colleges:
DT John Atkins (Georgia)
DE Trent Harris (Miami)
DT Frank Herron (LSU)
CB J.C. Jackson (Maryland)
WR Chris Lacy (Oklahoma State)
CB A.J. Moore (Mississippi)
RB Ralph Webb (Vanderbilt)
TE Shane Wimann (Northern Illinois)
The Patriots are also bringing punters Ryan Anderson (Rutgers) and Corey Bojorquez (New Mexico) to rookie minicamp, where several players will be on hand on a tryout basis.
6. Unlike some other teams around the NFL, who have held their rookie minicamps this weekend, the Patriots are waiting until the end of this week (May 11-13) to bring all of their rookies to town. The team flew in top picks Isaiah Wynn, Michel and Duke Dawson the weekend of the draft, but this will be the first time the entire draft class, including undrafted players, is together. In addition to taking their first steps of learning the team’s football system, players get a wide-ranging orientation -- including media training -- that is aimed at helping them make a significant transition in their lives from college student to professional football player.
7. Two entries for the “I was wrong” file:
In recent weeks, I wrote multiple times that it was a “no-brainer” the Patriots would pick up the fifth-year options of defensive tackles Danny Shelton and Malcom Brown for 2019. The thought process was that they would want to protect their leverage to retain Shelton and Brown, and picking up the option was low-risk because they could always back away from it at a later date (the option would be paid only in the event of injury). Well, the Patriots didn’t pick up either option, probably because they view $7.1 million as too rich for interior defensive tackles who project to come off the field in obvious passing situations. I was way off the mark there.
Leading up to the draft, I wrote that Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans would be a good fit for the Patriots, but I’ve since learned that he wasn’t a serious consideration for them in the first round. Once Leighton Vander Esch was off the board in the first round (No. 19, Cowboys), the Patriots knew they weren't going with a linebacker with their No. 23 pick.
8. The retirement of Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten didn’t register much in New England, in part because the Patriots hardly saw Witten over his remarkably durable 15-year career. Of his 239 career regular-season games, Witten played just four against the Patriots, totaling a modest 13 catches for 134 yards with one touchdown. The Patriots were 4-0 in those games. Nonetheless, if you love football, Witten’s classy retirement news conference Friday was not to be missed. The five words from him that resonated most with me: “The journey is the reward.”
9. Three nuggets from wide receiver Chris Hogan’s appearance on the “What Got You There with Sean Delaney” podcast:
A Brady story: “When I first met him and he knew my name, I was pretty blown away by that.”
Playing with Brady: “His routine and work ethic is just amazing. I thought I was a hard worker, but watching how he really takes everything so seriously; you want to talk about a competitor? No matter what it is, he gets fired up. Pingpong, I’ve seen this guy almost break a pingpong paddle because he was losing. It’s fun playing with a guy like that [who] works so hard and cares so much about his profession. And just seeing how he balances life and family. It’s been a rewarding experience.”
A player who had great influence him: “Fred Jackson, when I was in Buffalo. I still talk to Fred today. He was a guy that had to make it in the league like me [as an undrafted player]. He found his way. I learned a lot from him.”
10. It doesn’t always work out for them, but the Patriots have capitalized in some years by identifying players from other teams who are no longer a scheme fit because of a coaching change. I count offensive tackle Trent Brown, who was acquired in a trade from the 49ers on April 27, in that category. Brown would be a top pass protector in any system, but he wasn’t a great fit in 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan’s run-blocking scheme, which features plenty of outside-zone plays. That seemed to lessen Brown’s value to the 49ers, and the Patriots are projecting he’s a better fit as a run-blocker with them.