Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
As the Patriots' defense takes shape after an eventful offseason of player movement, the group that keeps coming to mind for me is the 2014 Detroit Lions defense. That unit -- led by first-year coordinator Teryl Austin -- overwhelmed opponents with a front seven that generated pressure from all angles and resembled something of a brick wall against the run. That dominant front seven offset a secondary that had personnel questions coming into the season (especially at cornerback). While the Patriots' front seven may not be quite at the level of the Lions' last season (my early take would be that the Patriots' linebacker group is superior, but the Lions' defensive line was better), it could well be counted on to mitigate some of the pressure on a new-look secondary. And for as dominant as the Lions' front seven was last year, a lynchpin to the defense's success was safety Glover Quin, a versatile and dependable player who took pressure off of both the cornerbacks and fellow safety James Ihedigbo, who best operates as a box safety. In Devin McCourty, the Patriots have one of the NFL's most reliable security blankets. While the Patriots' defense undoubtedly will have a different look to it this season, there are ways it can achieve success.
While the ball hasn't been pushed past the goal-line yet, all signs point toward an NFL team -- or two -- playing in Los Angeles by the 2016 regular season. At the center of the conversation are three franchises: the Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers and St. Louis Rams, and all of whom are dealing with stadium issues in their incumbent cities. When stepping into any of the stadiums those teams currently play in, it's understandable why there is an appetite for a new venue (be it in Los Angeles or in their current cities), especially in a climate where new stadiums are seemingly popping up each season. But specific to the two California-based teams, if the Raiders and Chargers both wind up in Los Angeles, the league's third- and fourth-oldest active stadiums will be vacated. While both have endured cosmetic upgrades and renovations in recent years, the longevity of Soldier Field in Chicago (build in 1924) and Lambeau Field in Green Bay (built in 1957) -- the two oldest active stadiums -- is noteworthy. A trip to Lambeau to cover a game is on this reporter's bucket list.
As we enter the 2015 season, there is a pair of NFC teams that particularly pique my interest: the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints. San Francisco endured a chaotic offseason that included a coaching change and retirements from multiple players (including three unexpected retirements in linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland plus offensive tackle Anthony Davis). Just a couple of years ago, the team's roster was lauded for its front-line talent and depth. We'll see how some of those depth-level players have developed. New Orleans traded away one of its three best players in tight end Jimmy Graham, but the offense seems to have the makings of a more balanced group in 2015. Head coach Sean Payton is a bright and creative offensive strategist. The addition of running back C.J. Spiller should pay significant dividends, as Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael have always leaned heavily on the running backs in the passing game. Few excel catching the football and moving in space like Spiller does.
In a recent (and very good) interview with ESPN's Marty Smith, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was asked "What makes a great quarterback?", to which he responded, "I think the guys you have around you, for sure." And while a GM or coach approaches a quarterback evaluation with traits such as decision-making and accuracy in mind, Wilson's comment underscores something important: While the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, sustained success is about organizational infrastructure from top-to-bottom, including a balanced roster. It is often asked: Who is more responsible for the Patriots' success over the past 14 seasons, head coach Bill Belichick or quarterback Tom Brady? Answering that question, in my opinion, is probably missing the boat on the team's triumphs. Yes, Belichick and Brady are as good as it gets in their respective positions, but the team has also built a pipeline of talent on its roster, its coaching staff, its personnel staff and other elements of the organization.
Belichick has long referenced the importance of player development between a rookie and second season in the NFL. Be it defensive end Chandler Jones or running back Stevan Ridley, now with the New York Jets, we've seen Patriots ascend from Year 1-to-2 and make significant strides. The Patriots have also found success in low-risk investments on the free-agent market who have yielded superior return, dating to the team's first Super Bowl winning season with signings like outside linebacker Mike Vrabel and interior offensive lineman Mike Compton. Those two concepts are in my mind when pondering how the team can fill the void created by running back Shane Vereen's departure to the New York Giants in free agency. James White, a 2014 fourth-round pick, was a virtual non-factor last season, while Travaris Cadet, formerly of the Saints, arrives in New England on a two-year deal that included just $65,000 guaranteed. Both fall under the category of pass-catching backs, and one -- or both -- may be the player called upon to be the next passing game outlet out of the backfield.
In a recent interview with ESPN NFL Insider Ashley Fox, NFL executive Troy Vincent, who handed down the four-game punishment to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, offered thoughts on the deflated footballs situation and other matters around the league. One comment that stuck out was a response from Vincent in a follow-up question about his opinion on the NFL players union, of which Vincent previously aimed to be the executive director. The second part of his answer read: "Look at the amount of money being spent on legal fees for a handful of people. It's millions and millions of dollars. We've got players that are hurting. We've got young men who don't know how to identify a good financial adviser. Men are in transition who aren't doing well, and yet eight to $10 million dollars a year is spent in court fees about who should make a decision on someone, who in some cases has committed a crime. Think about that logically. Wouldn't it be better to spend our time and resources on the issues that are vital to our players -- past, present and future -- such as the players' total wellness and growing the game together?" While I agree with the sentiment that money invested in the well being of players -- both active and retired -- is dollars well spent, the first portion of the answer fell flat for me. Two of the most recent high-profile (and expensive) court cases resulted in overturned rulings in favor of the players (Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice). Moreover, it's hard to fathom that this deflated football situation could have been cut off at the pass well before it turned into a national news story. The league was notified by the Indianapolis Colts in advance of the AFC Championship about potentially underinflated footballs and has since conceded that it didn't view the issue as a that big of a deal at the time. If it had simply treated the matter with more diligence at the time, couldn't this entire situation have been avoided in the first place?
One of the dynamics along the Patriots offense I'm curious to follow in 2015 is how exactly the team manages the snap count for wide receiver Danny Amendola. While Amendola has had no shortage of injuries during his career, he's also proven he's a useful slot presence when healthy and on the field. He was a difference-maker for the team down the stretch in 2014, catching three postseason touchdowns (including one from fellow wideout Julian Edelman against Baltimore). Amendola was not an every-down wideout for the Patriots during that stretch, and it seems the team found a comfort zone with him that maximized his output even in a reduced role than the one they envisioned for him when he signed a five-year deal in the 2013 offseason.
While there's little to worry about relative to other contract negotiations, Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota remains unsigned at this point, just one of three drafted rookies without a contract to his name. Training camps don't begin until the end of this month and the expectation is that the second overall pick will have a deal in place in advance of that, but 2015 marks the third straight year that the Titans' first-round pick is the last player in the first round to have his deal signed (guard Chance Warmack in 2013 and offensive tackle Taylor Lewan in 2014). While the sample size is small enough to the point that it could be nothing more than coincidence, I also wonder if there's a reason why the Titans' top pick has been so late to sign over the past three years. Rookie contracts under the NFL's CBA signed in 2011 are fairly cookie-cutter relative to rookie deals under the older CBA, with few details to wrangle over in negotiations. In the case of Mariota, offset language could be one hurdle to clear, but perhaps the team has a reason for its more patient approach to inking these contracts for their top pick.
If there's an unsigned free agent that I'm most surprised by, it's defensive tackle Red Bryant, most recently of the Jacksonville Jaguars. He's 31 years old, but he's been durable of late, missing just one game over the past four seasons. He's a big-bodied gap-plugger who logged 23 tackles and a sack last season for Jacksonville, who released him just a season into a four-year contract. My surprise isn't because I believe Bryant is an every-down player who would be a consistent difference-maker, but more because I think he'd be an affordable depth-level player for a defense looking to fortify its run stuffing. Beyond age, Bryant's current unemployment could also be a reflection of the way defenses are playing more these days, as teams covet three-down defensive linemen who can play against the run and pass. Bryant played just shy of 47 percent of Jacksoville's snaps last season.
Just as a reminder, July 15 marks the final day that players who received the franchise tag can sign a multi-year extension with their team. The Patriots used their franchise tag on kicker Stephen Gostskowski, who became the first player to sign his tender (doing so shortly after receiving the tag). Signing the tender gave Gostkowski insurance in the event of an offseason injury incurred, and it is set to pay him close to $4.6 million for 2015. Signing the tender did not, however, close the door on him signing a long-term pact. Other franchise tag recipients such as Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston and Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul remain hopeful for long-term deals but have not yet signed the tenders. We'll see if any buzzer-beating deals are consummated over the next 10 days.