Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. The Patriots will begin 2013 training camp with three straight days of practice, with each session starting at 9 a.m. ET. The early start time caught the eye because it was a change from last year, when the Patriots opened camp with four straight days of practices, all of which were held at 1:30 p.m. ET. I’m often interested in how Bill Belichick structures things to produce the environment most conducive to success. This year, one could draw the conclusion that he likes the idea of holding a morning meeting and going over the practice plan, getting right to work on the field when players’ concentration might be highest, then spending the rest of the day reviewing the practice, making corrections, and walking through those corrections, before setting up the next day. The 2013 camp schedule, which includes the annual season-ticket-holders night practice on the fourth day, could always change if things aren’t as productive as desired in the early going.
2. While the Patriots will kick off their training camp with early-morning practices, they will adapt to the Eagles’ schedule when they travel to Philadelphia for joint practices on Tuesday, Aug. 6 and Wednesday, Aug. 7. Those joint practices at the NovaCare Complex, which are closed to the public, are scheduled to begin at 12:30 p.m. ET. One of the benefits of the joint practices is an increased competition level. At that point, the Patriots will be 12 days in camp and players figure to embrace the idea of hitting someone else.
3. For years, the Patriots took a pretty significant beating in the media for dragging out negotiations with young stars and creating acrimonious situations that potentially could have been avoided had they been more proactive in negotiations in previous years. Some of it was fair from this viewpoint (e.g. Logan Mankins) while some of it was the standard over-the-top “have-to-come-out-with-a-WWE-type-take” talk-radio fodder. So it was predictable in 2012 when the club signed Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to extensions after their second seasons that the club was almost universally praised at the time of those deals. They don’t look so smart now, and because of that, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the changes the Patriots make in reviewing their procedures is that there will be few contract extensions until closer to the final year of a player's contract. There is usually too much risk to assume that early in the process (similar to the Bruins and Tyler Seguin), even if the intentions with Gronkowski and Hernandez were good to strategize around a time in which the salary cap was projected to remain relatively flat.
4. Monday marks the deadline for teams that have assigned the franchise tag on players to strike a long-term deal in the 2013 league year, which affects eight players. Of the group, one of the most notable from a Patriots perspective is Bills safety Jairus Byrd, in part because New England opens the season on the road against Buffalo. It would be a surprise if Byrd and the Bills beat Monday’s deadline, and then the question becomes if the ball-hawking Byrd reports for the start of training camp. The longer that drags out, the better for New England.
5. Three of the biggest stories surrounding the Patriots this offseason: Aaron Hernandez’s murder charge, Alfonzo Dennard’s arrest on the suspicion of driving under the influence, and Wes Welker’s departure to Denver. One common thread: All represented by the agency Athletes First. As we know from the Welker aftermath, specifically with Robert Kraft’s public comments, there were icy feelings from at least the Patriots’ side as to how that negotiation went down. For what it’s worth, other Patriots represented by Athletes First are defensive end Jake Bequette (signed through 2015), quarterback Ryan Mallett (2014), punter Zoltan Mesko (2013), offensive tackle Nate Solder (2015) and running back Shane Vereen (2015).
6. Some believed that the Jets were hoping to select receiver Tavon Austin with their top draft pick before the Rams traded up to the No. 8 spot before them for Austin. So the Jets ended up with cornerback Dee Milliner, and while they remain in need of more explosive offensive weapons, I think it could be a situation that actually works out better for them in the long run. For what it’s worth, I believe the Patriots had Milliner as one of their highest rated players in the draft, certainly higher than the No. 9 spot in which he was selected. If the Jets are going to compete this year, it will likely be because of their defense, and a potential Antonio Cromartie/Milliner pairing at cornerback isn’t a bad place to start. If they hold up in coverage, Rex Ryan might feel more freedom to dial up some of the pressure schemes he hopes to employ.
7. Was interested to see the reported terms from Victor Cruz’s contract extension with the Giants (six years, $46 million), mainly because he is an interior receiver who could be compared, in some form, to Wes Welker. While it seems like a fair deal for Cruz, who gets his big payday after entering the NFL as a free agent, it once again serves as a reminder that inside receivers aren’t paid the same way as the outside guys. We saw that with Welker too.
8. Patriots rookie free-agent running back George Winn drew a comparison to BenJarvus Green-Ellis from one scout, which surprised me. When the Patriots signed Winn to add depth at running back entering training camp, I figured he’d mostly be a “camp body” who could absorb some of the pounding later in preseason games. That probably isn’t far off, but a closer look also reveals that Winn was running hard late last season for Cincinnati, to the point that one evaluator opined that nobody in the Big East wanted to tackle him. Winn is a bigger back (5-10, 218) who initially signed with the Texans this year after going undrafted, but Houston had brought in four rookie free-agent running backs and Winn – who is the type of player who figures to look better in pads than shorts and t-shirts based on his style of play – ended up getting released. Winn faces long odds to earn a roster spot, but like Green-Ellis did in 2008, there’s always the possibility he sticks on the practice squad and emerges in time.
9. Shoppers at Patriot Place who looked toward Gillette Stadium might have noticed the same thing I did twice in recent weeks – one player on the playing field, honing his craft, proving that even though this is a time when many players look to take that one final break before training camp, that doesn’t mean they stop working. The player: Punter Zoltan Mesko.
10. The Patriots have big questions in the passing game when it comes to whom quarterback Tom Brady will be throwing the ball, and now there is uncertainty on whether starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard -- who at the minimum is "guilty" of bad judgment in returning to the city and staying out late in the place where he was convicted for assaulting a police officer -- will be in the mix. There are off-field distractions and the team’s image has taken a hit in the wake of Aaron Hernandez’s murder charge. All told, it’s been a tough offseason for the Patriots, but even with all of that, is anyone really counting them out from AFC contender status? I’m not. I still don’t see any team in the AFC that is a cut above the rest.