Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. During an interview with Bruce Murray of Sirius XM NFL Radio last week, Patriots receiver Brandon LaFell indirectly brought up a point I hadn’t really considered: Losing cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner doesn’t just affect the defense, but also the Patriots’ own offense. “You have to go out there against those guys and play to another level every day in practice,” LaFell said. “When it came to game time, you [practiced] against Revis, who I feel like is the best corner in the NFL, or a guy like Browner, who I feel like is the most physical in the NFL, [so] you pretty much can get open on anybody.”
LaFell had the best season in his five-year career (74 receptions, 953 yards, 5 TDs), and part of that was going up against Revis and Browner each day.
“Revis and Browner were two of the best guys I’ve faced in my whole career,” he said on the satellite radio show. “Going against Revis every day, you knew you had to bring your ‘A’ game every time you lined up in front of that guy. He’s one of those guys where every day was competitive. You go out there with your ‘B’ game and he will embarrass you, and he’ll have no problem shaking your hand after the play is over and saying, ‘You need to do this; you need to do that.’ He made you step your game up and be on your ‘A’ game every time you stepped up to the line, because he had such attention to detail, smart, read routes, knew concepts like no other.
“And when you have a guy like Browner, he had so much size – a 6-4 guy, 220, long arms, very physical. He was a guy that if you came out there half-stepping, he’ll put his hands on you and have you over there with the Gatorade coolers, or he’ll have you over there by the D-linemen because he was jamming you off the line so bad.”
2. One behind-the-scenes story on Browner that I hadn’t heard was how some of his former Patriots teammates had initial concerns on his potential contributions based on what they saw in 2014 spring practices. Browner wasn’t very good. Part of that was him knocking off some rust, but most of it was because he’s the type of player who is always going to look better once the pads come on as it brings his best asset – physicality – into play. In that sense, Browner was like the opposite of 2011 second-round pick Ras-I Dowling, who seemed to look best in shorts and T-shirts, but slipped once the pads came on. Those examples are good reminders of being cautious with spring evaluations.
3. Based on the aforementioned point with Browner, I don’t think anyone within the Patriots organization is jumping too far ahead when it comes to rookie defensive backs Darryl Roberts (Marshall, seventh round) and Jimmy Jean (UAB, undrafted). But it would be accurate to say they both made a solid impression in terms of the way they competed in spring camps and how they went about their work. They didn’t make as many plays as Malcolm Butler did at this time last year – which really caught the attention of those on the club at this time in 2014 – but the arrow is pointing it up for both Roberts and Jean as late-round/post-draft players who might be able to help in some way. Let’s see if they can capitalize in training camp on the momentum they have created for themselves.
4. When the discussion is the Buffalo Bills and how they stack up against the Patriots, it seems much of it centers around the talented defense and the potential influence of first-year head coach Rex Ryan. That makes sense, but I think something that has maybe been overlooked is how the offensive system being implemented by coordinator Greg Roman – from his time in San Francisco – has created some issues for New England in the past (e.g. a 41-34 loss to the 49ers on Dec. 16, 2012). Roman’s offensive system is known for its variations (they generally do a ton of things), and when he has a quarterback who can run (maybe the Tyrod Taylor chatter is legit), it can create some challenges for a defense like New England that prides itself on being fundamentally sound across the board.
5. Piggybacking off the Bills’ changes on offense, it’s notable that the Jets’ defensive system, under first-year head coach Todd Bowles, is also new to the division and presents its own challenge. This is traditionally a heavy blitz scheme with multiple pressure looks that changes on a week to week basis, as was seen in Arizona the last few years (e.g. a 20-18 win over New England in Week 2 of 2012 season). Add in two high-end corners in Revis and Antonio Cromartie and there is intriguing potential for the unit. This offseason, we’ve focused quite a bit on all the personnel changes within the AFC East and they are significant (Ndamukong Suh in Miami is another), but not as much focus has been placed on the system changes in New York (defense) and Buffalo (offense). Based on recent history, and some of the issues those systems have given the Patriots, they are significant changes. I think the division is going to be tougher on New England than in some recent years.
6. With Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy having his suspension reduced from 10 games to four on Friday, I view that as a good sign for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in terms of his four-game suspension being reduced on appeal (2 games is the educated guess). The main reason is perception, which I sometimes think is more important to the NFL than simply doing the right thing. If the perception is that Hardy is getting only four games for domestic violence (the original intention was 10 games in 2015), how can Brady get the same number of 2015 games for underinflated footballs/lack of cooperation? That would be a very bad look for the NFL.
7. I enjoyed listening to and reading various stories about Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler, the star from the 1970s who died Thursday from complications of cancer. Prior to that, from purely a New England view, I had mostly associated him with the “phantom” roughing-the-passer call against Patriots defensive lineman Ray Hamilton in the 1976 playoffs. But there was so much more about Stabler, whose Pro Football Hall of Fame candidacy (he has been a finalist three times, most recently in 2003) might now get another hard look.
8. The Patriots have two open roster spots and veteran cornerback Tarell Brown, who visited them twice this offseason, is still available. I think he’d be a solid signing, assuming he’s fully healthy after injuring his foot late last season. I had been told that Brown has multiple offers to consider and not to be surprised if he makes a final decision before the start of training camp, so that’s one I’ll be watching closely in the coming weeks.
9. Did You Know: The New York Giants are shaking things up this year by holding joint practices with the Cincinnati Bengals before their preseason opener, which marks the first time the Giants have agreed to a joint practice since 2005 (when they did it against the Jets in Tom Coughlin’s second year as head coach). Why such a long gap between joint practices? It might have something to do with the Jets sending a defender after tight end Jeremy Shockey, which rightfully enraged the Giants.
10. Receiver Julian Edelman once shared the Patriots-based mindset that “dependability is more important than ability” and fellow receiver LaFell reinforced that point in his Sirius XM NFL interview, explaining that “around here, it’s all about being accountable, reliable and dependable. That’s what Bill preaches every day.” LaFell explained how that environment extends to spring minicamps, “so when you come back for training camp, it’s like you took a break from training camp already because you’re already back into the routine. Around here, if you’re not reliable and dependable, it’s a slight chance you might not play at all.” When I heard LaFell’s remarks, two things came to mind: This essentially highlights Belichick’s thought process with Butler as it relates to keeping him off the field for five spring practices, and when a player like veteran defensive lineman Alan Branch isn’t around until mandatory minicamp, it makes me wonder how he’s viewed internally.
Programming note: I’ll be filling in for Christopher Price on the Sunday morning football show on sports radio WEEI 93.7 FM. The show is from 9-11 a.m. ET and hope you have a chance to tune in. Also, the plan is to be off next week (barring any Tom Brady news), as Field Yates will once again be filling this space Sunday morning. Then it’s time to gear up for training camp.