Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the New England Patriots:
1. The Patriots are behind their normal pace when it comes to the NFL draft as a result of winning Super Bowl XLIX, and that’s just fine with head coach Bill Belichick. In fact, it’s my understanding that Belichick has given members of the coaching staff the option of whether to attend this year’s NFL combine, which begins this week. Patriots coaches usually attend, but many figure to skip it this year as they've earned some well-deserved time to recharge their batteries.
2. The quarterback class in this year’s NFL draft is viewed by media analysts as somewhat underwhelming, which one could say makes the Patriots’ selection of Jimmy Garoppolo in the 2014 second round that much more shrewd. If the Patriots didn’t select Garoppolo, they’d probably be in the free-agent market at the position this year and forced to use valuable salary cap space on the No. 2 spot (where the average annual salary for a top backup can be anywhere from $2 million to $4 million) when they need all the space possible to re-sign Darrelle Revis, Devin McCourty and Stephen Gostkowski, among others. My early sense is that if Garoppolo (base salary of $578,359 in 2015) was in this year’s draft, he might rank as the third-best player at the position.
3. Monday marks the first day that teams can assign the franchise tag to players, and McCourty and Gostkowski are viewed from this perspective as the most likely candidates for New England. In either case, the tag would almost certainly be used with the intention to buy more time to strike an extension, similar to what unfolded with Vince Wilfork in 2010. I’d be surprised if McCourty and Gostkowski are playing anywhere other than New England next season.
4. For those who view Tom Brady as the best quarterback bargain in the NFL (hand raised), Sunday is a notable date on the Patriots’ financial calendar; as part of the original five-year pact Brady signed in 2013, the final $5 million of a $30 million signing bonus is to be paid today. No doubt, that’s a check that Robert Kraft is happy to write. Kraft knows a good deal and this one might be the best in the NFL.
5. When Packers coach Mike McCarthy said he planned to get more involved in special teams in 2015, and talked about “a vision each and every year that you give to your defense, your special teams and your offense,” it echoed what Bill Belichick said in his enjoyable-to-listen-to interview with Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski on Sirius XM College Sports Nation. Given that McCarthy and Belichick are two of the most experienced and respected head coaches in the NFL, I thought their remarks were must-read stuff for some of the league’s newer coaches.
6. For those looking at a potential financial market for running back Shane Vereen in free agency, one respected NFL source pointed me to the three-year, $10.5 million deal ($4 million guaranteed) signed by Donald Brown with the Chargers last year as the starting point. I could see Vereen exceeding that, and I have doubts the Patriots – given their recent free-agent history with running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead – would match it. From the pure-speculation department: I could see the Jacksonville Jaguars as a strong suitor for Vereen, in part because of the championship pedigree he could bring and their significant salary cap space.
7a. Did you know, Part I: The Steelers defense had 33 sacks in 2014, their fewest since 1989. They also allowed 4.36 yards per rush, the most they've allowed since 1964 (4.39). Pittsburgh is a prime candidate to be the Patriots’ season-opening opponent.
7b. Did you know, Part II: The Patriots allowed first downs on 78 percent of rushes with 2 yards to go or shorter last year, second-worst in the league behind Carolina (79 percent).
7c. Did you know, Part III: Since leading the NFL in takeaways with 34 in 2008, the Ravens have declined in each ensuing season:
2008 – 34
2009 – 32
2010 – 27
2011 – 26
2012 – 25
2013 – 24
2014 - 22
8. If trading for running back Trent Richardson was Colts general manager Ryan Grigson’s most regrettable move, signing safety LaRon Landry to a four-year, $24 million contract with a $7 million signing bonus in 2013 might be second on the list. The Colts released Landry last week and the most telling thing to me in this recap by ESPN.com’s Mike Wells was that Landry “preferred to do his own thing instead of fitting in with his teammates in the locker room.” I view that as another warning sign to teams that pay big to outsiders in free agency, similar to the Dolphins’ current situation with receiver Mike Wallace.
9. One Patriots leftover: In a year that was defined by physical and mental toughness, it’s telling that it extended all the way to long snapper Danny Aiken. I recently learned that Aiken played through a broken finger in mid-December, and we all remember the cheap shot from Lions defensive lineman C.J. Mosley on a field-goal rush that concussed him Nov. 23. Aiken, who is scheduled for free agency, rebounded from a shaky start to the season and gave the Patriots everything he had.
10. Two in-season trades that the Patriots made look even better now that the team won the Super Bowl, and the clubs they dealt with bottomed out. New England dealt a fifth-round pick to Tampa Bay in exchange for linebacker Jonathan Casillas and a sixth-round pick. Casillas gave the Patriots strong special-teams play and quality linebacker depth, and consider that with the Patriots picking 32nd in each round and the Buccaneers first, they hardly gave up anything (there will be a minor gap after compensatory picks are awarded next month). Then there was the deal with Tennessee in which the Patriots gave up a sixth-round pick in exchange for linebacker Akeem Ayers and a seventh-rounder. Ayers was impressive in a sub-rushing role and added linebacker depth, and consider that with the Patriots picking 32nd in each round and the Titans second, they again hardly gave up anything. A team can’t really draw up two trades better than that.