Quick-hit thoughts around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Second-year Patriots defensive lineman Dominique Easley was present at Gillette Stadium this past week, joining a group of others who have been showing on a regular basis as they use the facility to work out and/or continue rehabilitation for injuries. Easley’s presence sparked the thought that his development will be one of the club’s top storylines in 2015 – he only played 24.6 percent of the defensive snaps before landing on injured reserve in December (knee) -- and a key if the revamped defense is to maintain or exceed the level of play we saw in 2014. The secondary has taken some hits, but if Easley is healthy and realizes the potential that had the Patriots selecting him 29th overall last year, I think the front seven could be one of the best in the NFL.
2. Using Easley as a springboard, I was curious how the Patriots stacked up with the NFL’s other 31 teams in terms of contributions from rookies last season. Thanks to Mike Sando of ESPN.com Insider, who is a wizard with Microsoft Excel, the answer came quickly: The Patriots were 25th of 32 teams in rookie snaps played. Part of that is to be expected when a late second-round pick is used on a development quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, whom the team was hoping wouldn’t play. But the playing-time numbers for the Patriots’ 2014 draft class should rise this year, and if they don’t, that would be a concern and signal that the often-discussed first-to-second-year jump isn’t being achieved. It’s not just Easley, but also players such as fourth-rounder James White (a candidate to replace Shane Vereen as the primary receiving running back) and undrafted cornerback Malcolm Butler (a potential starter), among others.
3. The Patriots’ most productive draft pick from last year was center Bryan Stork (fourth round, Florida State), as he was an 11-game starter whose 762 snaps ranked as the 12th-most in the NFL among rookie interior offensive linemen. I would have thought Stork played more than most rookie interior linemen, but a lot of teams turned to young centers and guards last year. Interior linemen Joel Bitonio (Browns), Gabe Jackson (Raiders), Michael Ola (Bears), Corey Linsley (Packers), Weston Richburg (Giants), Jack Mewhort (Colts), Russell Bodine (Bengals), Zack Martin (Cowboys), Luke Bowanko (Jaguars), Brandon Linder (Jaguars) and Zach Fulton (Chiefs) all played more snaps than Stork, whom the Patriots can feel good about having locked in to the pivot for the foreseeable future.
4. When I look at that volume of young interior linemen making immediate contributions, it’s not an unreasonable expectation to think the Patriots can come out of this year’s draft -– they have five picks in the first 102 selections -- with a potential starter at guard, which is arguably their top need. Last year, Bill Belichick made the point that it was unusual to see almost the entire University of Tennessee offensive line at the NFL combine, and he could pretty much say the same thing about Florida State this year. An added bonus for Belichick: He again has retired offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia helping in the evaluations.
5. This is also a good year to be looking for a receiver, which is solid news for the Patriots. One might say the club had some bad timing when it invested heavily at the position in 2013 (second round with Aaron Dobson, fourth round with Josh Boyce) based on need, then watched from the sidelines as 2014 turned out a historic receiver class. How historic? According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the 2014 wide receiver class set a record for most rookies with at least 50 catches, 500 receiving yards and five receiving touchdowns. Some analysts think this year’s class could be just as good, if not better, and with Dobson and Boyce yet to break through, it makes sense to think the Patriots could select another receiver this year.
6. I thought Chargers general manager Tom Telesco hit on a good point that is easy for many to forget: As easy as it is to get caught up in the present snapshot and what is happening in free agency, a coaching staff’s ability to develop players already on the roster is pretty much more important than anything. That doesn’t make for scintillating sports-talk radio discussion, or headline-grabbing blog entries, and thus it probably represents the greatest divide with how teams view themselves compared to the media covering them.
7. While the Seahawks (Marshawn Lynch), Eagles (DeMarco Murray) and Bills (LeSean McCoy) showed that spending big on a running back is still prevalent in parts of the NFL, the Patriots have mostly been at the opposite end of the spectrum at the position for most of the last decade. One has to go back to Corey Dillon in 2004 for the last time the Patriots truly opened the financial vault at the position. Some 2015 numbers to support this: The Patriots are currently 21 percent below the NFL average at running back in terms of cap value, spending $5.6 million at the position. The league average is $7.2 million.
8. ESPN.com NFL Nation Jets reporter Rich Cimini touched on the early-first-round NFL draft topic that most intrigues me from a Patriots perspective. Could the Jets, at No. 6 or possibly trading up higher, land Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota? My opinion is admittedly swayed by knowing how disappointed one quarterback-needy team was last year when Mariota didn’t declare after his junior season. I don’t see the Jets going too far, in the short- or long-term, with either Ryan Fitzpatrick or Geno Smith at quarterback. But with Mariota’s upside, the long-term picture could be much more promising and in turn have a trickle-down effect on the Patriots in the AFC East.
9. Part of what might have appealed to the Patriots in signing free-agent cornerback Robert McClain (Falcons) is his versatility. He lined up outside right (184 snaps), outside left (14), slot left (105), slot right (99) and at safety (67) last season. I asked one personnel man a bit more about McClain and was told to keep an eye on his body language, because the feeling was that when he ran into a tough stretch, he sometimes showed it on the field and struggled to snap out of it.
10. The 22-member Patriots Hall of Fame committee met this past Thursday to vote for the three finalists for 2015 induction, and the results of that vote will be announced April 16. As a member of the committee, I came away from the process feeling it was one of the best years we’ve had (some follow-up discussion from Jim Donaldson of the Providence Journal, and Paul Perillo and Fred Kirsch of Patriots.com). There are many deserving candidates and some of those discussed were offensive tackle Leon Gray and coach Chuck Fairbanks from the 1970s, cornerback Raymond Clayborn and safety Fred Marion from the 1980s, coach Bill Parcells from the 1990s, and outside linebacker Willie McGinest, linebacker Mike Vrabel and safety Rodney Harrison from the 2000s. This is McGinest’s third year of eligibility and he’s yet to be a finalist, which doesn’t seem right. Thus, I gave him my first-place vote.