Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. When media members are present for the Patriots’ organized team activity on Tuesday, one of the first areas of interest will be starting middle linebacker Brandon Spikes’ presence. Spikes, who joined the team as a 2010 second-round draft choice, enters the final season of his contract so this is a big year for him to improve his stock and land what he hopes is a big payday. Given that background, it’s notable from this perspective that Spikes hasn’t been seen much at Gillette Stadium since the offseason program began in mid-April. Staying away is within Spikes’ rights, and there have been productive players in past years (e.g. Mike Vrabel) who have taken the same approach at times. So one of the first things I’ll be looking at Tuesday is if Spikes is present, and if he is, if there is any noticeable difference in his physical condition and how he is being employed.
2a. When I saw the reported contract terms of Dwight Freeney’s two-year contract with the San Diego Chargers -- base value of $8.75 million, $5.75 million in 2013, with a $3.25 million signing bonus -- the first thought was that there was little chance the Patriots would have been willing to do that. That’s an excellent deal for Freeney, and if that’s close to what John Abraham is seeking, I’d imagine the Patriots are out of that mix too.
2b. I also draw a parallel between the Freeney deal and that of Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who is scheduled to earn a base salary of $1.4 million in 2013, which represents one of the better veteran values in the NFL. Part of that is due to Ninkovich working himself into a core player in the team’s system after signing as a “street” free agent in August 2009 -- he puts in the work and has become one of the club’s most well-rounded defenders. I also give credit to the Patriots’ coaching, scouting and development because anyone could have signed Ninkovich after he was cut by the Saints as a long snapper in 2009.
3. It was interesting to learn how Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano handled their “coaching summit” earlier this month. Part of the Patriots’ staff traveled to Tampa Bay to meet with part of the Buccaneers’ staff, while part of the Buccaneers’ staff traveled to New England to meet with part of the Patriots’ staff. Such an arrangement speaks to the growing trust between Belichick and Schiano. The general feeling was that it was a productive use of time and a unique setting for coaches to exchange ideas.
4. There is something to be said for helping a player in a time of need, but it’s hard to imagine first-year Jets general manager John Idzik keeping running back Mike Goodson on the roster after Goodson was charged Friday with possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia, unlawful possession of a handgun and possession of a hollow-point bullet. The Jets signed Goodson to a three-year, $6.9 million contract this offseason, and in retrospect, they would have been better following through on their interest in Danny Woodhead instead. Idzik wants to create a culture of competition with the Jets, but if he keeps Goodson on the roster, he runs the risk of creating a culture that lacks accountability.
5a. Browns general manager Mike Lombardi gave a speech to the Pro Football Hall of Fame luncheon club on Monday, and part of his remarks in the speech and afterward to reporters reflected his vision for the team. Lombardi highlighted the importance of first-half point differential, noting that the clubs that consistently lead at halftime are typically playoff-caliber teams (the Patriots outscored opponents 290-148 in the first half in 2012). Then the idea is to load up on pass-rushers who can turn it loose once the team has the lead. The Browns’ top draft pick this year was LSU defensive end/outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo and they also spent big money on free-agent defensive end/outside linebacker Paul Kruger. With third-year pro Jabaal Sheard also in the mix, the vision is starting to come into focus.
5b. The Browns visit the Patriots on Dec. 8 this season, and would anyone be surprised if it’s Brian Hoyer (signed to a two-year deal by the Browns last week) vs. Tom Brady in that game? I wouldn't, in part because Lombardi-the-media-analyst wasn't high on Brandon Weeden. When Lombardi was with NFL Network, he once wrote a piece on NFL.com that suggested Hoyer would be his quarterback trade target if he was running a team. One of the things that likely appealed to Lombardi with Hoyer was being in a Patriots system in which he was required to make quick decisions and get the ball out fast.
6. I don’t view the Patriots’ mildly surprising releases of defensive tackles Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love as a tell-tale sign that the team is significantly changing its scheme or looking for different things from their d-tackles. Deaderick has scheme versatility (3-4 end and 4-3 tackle), and Love fit in both schemes as well. We often hear the words “quality depth management” from the Patriots’ brain trust and it makes no sense to cut two part-time starters in mid-May and voluntarily thin all-important depth unless Bill Belichick had ultimately come to the conclusion he didn’t want the players around for other reasons. My read between the lines: The Patriots no longer viewed Deaderick as a “program” fit and they were disappointed in Love’s performance/conditioning after he signed a two-year contract extension in 2012, and perhaps had a lower level of tolerance to wait for his potential return to health.
7. Turns out the Jaguars were the only team to put in waiver claims on Deaderick and Love, which highlights, in part, how the first-year regime of David Caldwell (general manager) and Gus Bradley (head coach) plan to churn the roster with a bevy of moves to see what sticks. It makes sense when considering all the holes they had to fill. It reminds me a little bit of the Patriots, circa 2001 -- not all the moves will result in long-term fits, but if you can hit on one Mike Vrabel, and maybe add a steadying presence such as Anthony Pleasant or an undervalued asset such as David Patten, you’re taking steps forward.
8a. Random thought, Part I: Is there another division in the NFL that added more speed at the receiver position than the AFC East this offseason? The Dolphins landed the fastest free agent in Mike Wallace. Meanwhile, the Bills drafted one of the fastest receivers in Marquise Goodwin, and the Patriots have younger legs on the outside with draft picks Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce.
8b. Random thought, Part II: Wondering how much, if at all, recently appointed Bills general manager Doug Whaley had Ben Roethlisberger in mind when he endorsed Buffalo selecting quarterback E.J. Manuel in the first round of the draft, a pick that surprised many. Whaley spent 10 years in Pittsburgh before arriving in Buffalo and was there when the Steelers drafted the strong-armed Roethlisberger in the first round. Every personnel man is a product, in some form, of where he came from. Another example from this perspective was Scott Pioli, the former Patriots vice president of player personnel, selecting defensive lineman Tyson Jackson with his first pick (No. 3 overall) as Chiefs general manager (a pick that also surprised many at the time). When that pick was made, I wondered if Pioli had visions of a 2001-type Richard Seymour selection.
9. Will it be Tedy Bruschi, Chuck Fairbanks or Leon Gray as this year’s Patriots Hall of Fame inductee alongside longtime play-by-play announcer Gil Santos? Fan voting ended Wednesday and the results are expected to be announced early this week. All three finalists are more than worthy. I voted for Bruschi.
10. I knew Bill Belichick has felt strongly about defensive back Devin McCourty since selecting him in the first round of the 2010 draft (27th round), but I might have underrated those thoughts. After listening to Belichick’s “Building a Champion” keynote address at the symposium “Sports Medicine and the NFL: The Playbook for 2013” earlier this month, it struck me that Belichick included McCourty in an elite class when discussing what was important to him in players. Belichick talked about having passionate hard-working players who don’t just want to know their assignment, but want to know every part of the overall scheme, and the first three players mentioned were Tom Brady, Jerod Mayo and McCourty. McCourty had a stellar rookie season at cornerback resulting a Pro Bowl appearance, dipped in 2011, and then was somewhere back in the middle in 2012 when a midseason shift to safety altered his role. While public perception of McCourty might have wavered over the last few years, I don’t think Belichick has wavered one bit when it comes to him.