Quick-hit thoughts around the New England Patriots and the NFL:
1. The Patriots have a track record of success with low-risk veteran free-agent signings that pan out to yield a favorable return. Wide receiver Brandon Gibson -- inked to a one-year deal this offseason following two seasons in Miami -- feels like the type of player who could fit that mold. Gibson’s deal included just $40,000 guaranteed, with a base salary of $825,000. It also included a reporting bonus (to training camp) for $40,000, making Gibson the lone Patriot with such a bonus in his contract for 2015. Reporting bonuses are not entirely uncommon around the league (both the Lions and Chiefs have four players apiece with them in their contracts for 2015), but we haven’t seen a ton of them traditionally within the Patriots’ contract structures. The bonus doesn’t guarantee Gibson a roster spot come the start of the regular season, but it’s a nice additional paycheck to collect at the outset of camp.
2. With kicker Stephen Gostkowski signing a four-year contract valued at $17.2 million, it ensures stability at the Patriots’ kicker spot that has been a hallmark of the franchise for close to two decades. Should Gostkowski play out this contract with the franchise -- and he’s shown no signs of slowing down as he enters his age-31 season -- the Patriots will have had just two opening-day kickers since 1996, the year they signed an undrafted kicker out of South Dakota State, Adam Vinatieri, who had spent the fall of 1995 playing in what was then known as the World League of American Football with the Amsterdam Admirals. Perhaps even more amazing than the lack of turnover at the Patriots’ kicker spot is that Vinatieri remains in the league and performing at a high level, having missed just one field goal for the Colts during the 2014 regular season.
3. Not that this audience needs a reminder of it, but a tip of the cap to colleague Mike Reiss (who is graciously allowing me to fill in for him as he enjoys a well-deserved battery recharge before the season), who worked hard this offseason in a series that projected a contract for several of the Patriots’ key free agents. The ever-dependable Mike forecasted a four-year, $16 million deal for Gostkowski, who eventually inked the aforementioned four-year deal worth $17.2 million. He also pegged safety Devin McCourty at five years and $45 million; the former first-rounder re-signed for five years and $47.5 million. Kudos to Mike for being -- pardon the pun -- nearly right on the money.
4. On Wednesday morning, the Kansas City Chiefs signed star outside linebacker Justin Houston to a six-year deal just hours before the window to negotiate with franchise-tagged players was due to close. It’s a job well done by the team to lock up one of the game’s dynamic young players, and had me thinking about the pre-draft process. Houston’s stock dropped in 2011 in part because he failed a drug test at the NFL combine, something that is widely frowned upon not just because of the act of drug use, but also because players know a test is coming down the pipe in advance of the combine. Then-general manager Scott Pioli felt confident in Houston’s character to use a third-round pick on him, a savvy and wise move that has paid off many times over. Former Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory dropped to the second round after similarly failing a combine drug test in 2015, as many wonder how reliable he will be at the NFL level. Time will tell on Gregory, but Houston serves as a reminder that these draft picks not just evolve physically during their pro careers, but also from a maturation perspective. Houston has not only developed into arguably Kansas City’s best player, but also has proven to have the kind of character a team wants to build around. There’s a natural temptation to want to assess a team’s draft pick-by-pick immediately after it takes place, but players are dynamic and can change over time. Houston is an example of that.
5. While training camp does not kick off until July 30 for the Patriots, members of the coaching staff will be back in the office following about a month-long break. Joe Judge -- formerly the assistant special-teams coach -- was pegged to replace special-teams coach Scott O’Brien, who retired this offseason following a long and successful career in coaching. The team also added former Patriot safety Ray Ventrone as the assistant special-teams coach and Nick Caley as a coaching assistant, meaning the coaching staff will have a largely identical feel to last year’s group. Just as continuity among players on the field matters, so too can keeping a coaching staff -- especially one with as much talent on it as New England’s -- together. In fact, continuity has been a theme for the Patriots’ staff of late, as New England is the only team in the NFL that has had the same head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator in place since 2012 (note: while the Packers have had Mike McCarthy, Tom Clements and Dom Capers as their head coach, offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively, since 2012, Clements was promoted to associate head coach/offense this offseason, with Edgar Bennett being moved to offensive coordinator from his receivers coach role). While both Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia will likely be coveted head coaching candidates at some point in the not too distant future (McDaniels has been each of the past two offseasons), the Patriots have enjoyed consistency at the most critical coaching spots of late.
6. Two weeks ago, I mentioned that the Titans have been the last team to sign their first-round pick in each of the past three seasons, including the currently unsigned Marcus Mariota, their quarterback of the future and the second overall pick. The team has made it clear what the snag is: offset money. There’s still time left to get a deal done before camp, and I think there’s a level of importance in doing so for a pair of reasons: First, of course, is that Mariota needs every rep he can get as he vies to earn the starting job under center. The other is that few teams have looked more rudderless of late, and it feels like bad optics to have the centerpiece of your franchise without a deal over offset language. While there’s no such thing as a sure thing in the NFL, teams don’t draft quarterbacks with the second overall pick with the intention of them not working out. The only way offset language comes into the equation is if Mariota struggles massively and consistently over the first two to three years of his career. If that turns out to be the case, the team’s issues will be bigger than a few million dollars of offset money.
7. Dan Connolly’s decision to retire after 10 NFL seasons -- as told to Reiss on Thursday -- doesn’t come as a complete surprise, as the veteran remained unsigned and sifting through options around the league. And while my sense during the process was that Connolly was a long shot to return to New England, his retirement put leadership on my mind. Shortly after the team’s decision to trade guard Logan Mankins to Tampa Bay before last season, Connolly was named one of the team’s captains. Connolly served as a co-captain on offense along with Tom Brady, sparking the question of whether or not the Patriots add another captain along the offense -- with Brady a lock to be named a captain again, of course. If Brady’s four-game suspension is not overturned and he is forced to sit out any number of games, this role will carry added significance. If the team names an offensive lineman a captain, tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder could be candidates. Tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman could also be names to keep an eye on.
8. Negotiating contracts is far from scientific in sports, as there are innumerable variables that contribute to each situation. Patience can pay off, as can getting ahead of the game. With new deals in place for Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas, the three best pass-catchers from the 2010 draft are now under contract through the 2019 season with their original teams. The third player is Gronkowski, who the Patriots signed to an extension after two seasons. Gronk’s compensation over the next five years maxes out at $42 million, $28 million less than the maximum value of Bryant and Thomas’ deals, which mirrored each other in terms of overall structure (five years, $70 million). There is risk involved in extending a player early, but in the case of Gronkowski, the forward-thinking deal has already paid off and looks primed to cover the life of the contract.
9. I’m impressed with the trajectory of the Houston Texans and Minnesota Vikings, who enter the second season of their current head coaching regimes under Bill O’Brien and Mike Zimmer, respectively. And while I wouldn’t deem either a shoo-in for the playoffs in 2015, a postseason appearance for either also wouldn’t surprise me. For Houston, the first hurdle to clear as the season gets going is deciding upon a starting quarterback, with a pair of former Patriot backups -- Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett -- competing for the job. In Minnesota, second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater looks primed to further develop in 2015 after a solid rookie season. It feels as though teams often are lumped into two buckets in the NFL: a true contender or a team that is rebuilding. I’m not sure Houston or Minnesota fits either bill right now, but that’s OK. With player development and a few added pieces, these two teams could soon find themselves consistently competing in the postseason. Their largest obstacle could be playing in divisions that feature Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck.
10. Free-agent wide receiver Reggie Wayne recently said that he has received interest from several NFL teams, and I imagine many will wonder if the Patriots will explore adding the likely future Hall of Famer. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has long admired Wayne’s game, but this reporter doesn’t foresee Wayne landing on the Patriots’ radar. At least for now. Here’s the two-part kicker: Unless a wide receiver is one of the team’s top targets on offense, the Patriots crave receivers that can play on special teams. Wayne -- who best fits in a complementary receiver role -- does not offer kick game value. Moreover, as a vested veteran, his base salary would be fully guaranteed if he were on the roster for Week 1 of the season. Wayne likely is looking for a deal worth a reasonable amount of money (as in, not to play for the veteran’s minimum), and I think the cost might exceed the projected value at this point of his career and based on the team’s depth chart. If he remains unsigned later into the season, perhaps he’s a name that stays on the team’s list to consider in the event of injury or other reasons that would lead them to look for pass catching help.
Extra point: If you enjoy deeper dives into some football X’s & 0’s, Chris B. Brown, a terrific writer for Grantland (among other platforms) has a new book out entitled "The Art of Smart Football." His first book, "The Essential Smart Football," is also highly recommended.