Quick-hit thoughts around NFL & Pats

Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:

1. Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio held his pre-draft news conference Tuesday, and while we’ve always been impressed with his command of the subject matter, what stood out this year was his comfort level behind the dais. I left Gillette Stadium with the thought that Caserio’s confidence must have risen from going through the process of interviewing in Miami for their general manager’s job this offseason, and how his eyes have perhaps been opened to the importance of public presentation because that’s what owners ultimately see when they’re considering their next GM candidate pool. Coach Bill Belichick used to be front and center for the pre-draft news conferences up until passing the microphone to Caserio in 2011.

2. The contract extension signed by All-Pro Seahawks safety Earl Thomas this past week sets the ceiling for players at the position, and representatives for Patriots safety Devin McCourty -- who is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2014 season -- surely have dissected all the details. It looks like a pretty straightforward deal, with the new money averaging $10 million per season. While Thomas received a $9.5 million signing bonus, the rest of the extension doesn’t kick in until next year as he’ll play 2014 under his rookie contract base salary of $4.725 million. As for what this means for McCourty, the Patriots and his representatives should soon be exploring a deal with a similar structure. Here’s one viewpoint on what would be a fair compromise:

Signing bonus: $7.5 million

2014 base: $3.92 million

2015 base: $4 million (plus $500k workout)

2016 base: $6 million (plus $500k workout)

2017 base: $6 million (plus $500k workout)

2018 base: $6.5 million (plus $500k workout)

That adds up to a four-year, $32 million extension ($8 million average per season). When tacking that on to the end of McCourty’s 2014 rookie base salary, it could also be viewed as a five-year, $35.92 million deal (averaging $7.1 million per season).

3. With news that the Saints won’t exercise the fifth-year option on running back Mark Ingram’s contract, it reinforces the thought that trading a future first-round pick along with a present-year second-rounder – like the Saints did in 2011 to select Ingram 28th overall – isn’t always a smart course of business. If you’re going to do it, the prospect truly should fall into the “can’t miss” category and there just aren’t that many of those annually. The Patriots were the beneficiary that year, as they received the Saints’ 2011 second-round pick (using it on running back Shane Vereen) and the next year’s first-rounder, which they used as a chip to trade up for defensive end Chandler Jones.

4. Sitting at pick No. 29, the Patriots don’t know exactly how the draft board will unfold, but they can project a general idea. Five or six offensive tackles should be gone, in addition to five cornerbacks and five or six receivers, which accounts for about half the picks before their turn. Those are the positions where the draft is strongest at the top and it just so happens they are areas in which the Patriots likely wouldn’t address that early anyway. Sprinkle in a few pass-rushing defensive ends, one tight end, one/two safeties, two/three quarterbacks, and one/two linebackers, and it narrows the field down further. When I look at the draft through that prism, a big-bodied, long-levered defensive lineman could wind up being viewed as the greatest value (Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt?) if the team sticks at No. 29. A trade down, of course, is always in Bill Belichick’s wheelhouse.

5. One thing to consider when projecting the Patriots’ 53-man roster is that veteran cornerback Brandon Browner, who is suspended for the first four games by the NFL, won’t count against the initial roster limit. So the Patriots will actually be able to keep 54 players at the outset (including Browner), which would make it easier for them to be heavier than the norm at one position (e.g. receiver?). This is similar to 2008 when running back Kevin Faulk didn’t count against the roster limit because of a one-game suspension. Interesting how that works, as the team actually benefits a bit from the suspension by being able to keep an extra player it normally wouldn't while knowing Browner will be returning in Week 5.

6a. Looking forward to hearing from Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo on Tuesday, as he’s scheduled to speak with reporters as part of media access at the voluntary offseason program. The defensive captain and signal-caller has recovered nicely from a torn pectoral muscle Oct. 13 that ended his 2013 season, which is reflected in his media availability this week. All indications are that he should be ready to go for the start of training camp in late July, but we’ll wait to hear from Mayo to officially confirm that.

6b. It remains to be seen what the Patriots have in 2013 seventh-round pick Steve Beauharnais, the linebacker out of Rutgers. Beauharnais, who turned 24 on Friday, played in just two games last season (1 defensive snap; late against the Ravens on Dec. 22) but fellow linebacker Dont’a Hightower thinks he could help this year in some form. “He’s hard working, a lot like Mayo,” Hightower said this past week. “He likes to brainstorm, watch extra film. He always does a little extra to keep up or stay on top of things. He’s always asking questions. If he gets the opportunity to come out and play, he’s going to take advantage of it.”

7. A theme heard from multiple teams over the past week is the importance of undrafted free agency because this year’s draft is so deep. Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht, for example, pointed out that his club has about 50 of the record underclassmen with draftable grades, which is almost like adding another two rounds to the draft. That’s part of the reason the Buccaneers are already making a recruiting pitch to players who might not be drafted. Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta echoed that point by saying Baltimore has 180 draftable prospects this year when it’s usually in the range of 140-150. Bringing that point closer to home, the Patriots currently have 65 players on their roster, with 25 spots to fill (8 draft picks, plus as many as 17 undrafted free agents). Not a bad year to be stocking from the undrafted class, it seems.

8a. One of the more interesting things to me about how different teams approach the draft is if they are more coach-driven or scout-driven. It sounds like it shouldn’t matter, but the way it usually works is that the scouts do the critical legwork during the year and then the coaches get involved after the season and add their input. Teams then marry the information and see what results from it. NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock made a point along these lines Thursday, passing along his intelligence that scouts were probably higher on cornerbacks Justin Gilbert (Oklahoma State) and Bradley Roby (Ohio State) because of their movement skills, while coaches are more apt to have Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State) and Kyle Fuller (Virginia Tech) atop their cornerback charts because they appeal more to those drawing up game plans. In the end, I think the Patriots’ final decision-making process is more coach-driven and that can sometimes be a source of frustration for the team’s scouts.

8b. I think that dynamic captures what Bill Belichick (who takes an annual scouting trip to the South) might have been thinking in hiring former Browns general manager Michael Lombardi as an “assistant to the coaching staff” this offseason. Lombardi sits in the middle of the coach-driven and scout-driven snapshot.

8c. One last thing on Belichick: The agents for multiple mid-to-late-round prospects pointed out how Belichick was the only head coach to put their players through a private workout. It’s the same thing every year, but it seems worth repeating: Belichick turns from coach to scout in March and April each year. It’s rare for those in his position, although it seems like Eagles coach Chip Kelly, now in his second NFL season, might be doing the same thing.

9. The Patriots work hard to avoid group-think when it comes to the draft and unless Nick Caserio was intentionally throwing a curveball just to see if we were paying attention, they are the only team I’ve heard mention the defensive line class as one of the depth spots in this year’s draft. Consider this contrast, with Caserio pinpointing the area as one of the draft’s best:

Caserio: “I’d say there’s a deep group of defensive linemen that are different types of players.”

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock: “The edge draft isn’t great this year. If you’re looking for a defensive tackle, defensive end, it’s not real good.”

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.: “I don’t think the defensive line is something you can wait on. There is not a lot of depth at end or tackle.”

That was one of my biggest takeaways from the pre-draft news conference with Caserio, how the Patriots seemingly see depth where others don't.

10. Teams are allowed up to 30 visits with out of town prospects and these are the players we’ve confirmed to have visited the Patriots at Gillette Stadium (others have been reported, but we’ve later learned that they were on-campus workouts):

Teddy Bridgewater (QB) – Louisville

Deone Bucannon (S) – Washington State

Bruce Ellington (WR) – South Carolina

C.J. Fiedorowicz (TE) –Iowa

Jimmy Garoppolo (QB) – Eastern Illinois

Johnny Manziel (QB) – Texas A&M

Cassius Marsh (DE/OLB) – UCLA

Jordan Najvar (TE) – Baylor

Troy Niklas (TE) – Notre Dame

Shayne Skov (MLB) – Stanford

Tyler Starr (OLB) – South Dakota

Stephon Tuitt (DE) – Notre Dame

Often times, the visits are tied to medical questions, but for those who like to see if a visit ultimately leads to the team drafting a player, this can be a cheat sheet of sorts for you on May 8-10. One thing that caught my eye was that the Jaguars only used 27 of their 30 visits this year. It made me wonder if 30 might be more than teams truly need.