Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the NFL and with the New England Patriots:
1. Through nine practices at Patriots training camp, I’ve been struck by one thing specific to the team’s cornerback position. While there has been a regular rotation at right cornerback on a daily basis with Logan Ryan, Tarell Brown, Bradley Fletcher and rookie Darryl Roberts, there has been almost none of that on the left side. That’s where Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler has taken most of the top reps, and it’s a tell-tale sign to me that he’s currently viewed as the top choice to assume the position held by Darrelle Revis in 2014. Butler only played 16.6 percent of the defensive snaps in the 2014 regular season, but the coaching staff obviously feels he’s ready for more. At this point in practice, he’s looked up to the task.
2. Watching Patriots practice on Friday and Saturday (and seeing converted defensive end Jake Bequette as the No. 3 tight end because of a run of injuries and personnel-related decisions) had me thinking back to what I’d consider the team’s most curious transaction this year: waiving tight end Tim Wright. With 90 players on the roster, letting go of Wright in June didn’t make much sense to me because the club was voluntary trimming its depth before it really had to (Wright was claimed by Tampa, one of 10 teams to put in a claim). If I had to make an educated guess as to what the Patriots were thinking, it was that they didn’t truly view Wright as a tight end, more as a big receiver (who isn’t particularly fast), and perhaps that was the catalyst for moving on. It still seems a bit hasty to me, at a position that once had very good depth is currently looking much leaner.
3. With the Seahawks signing linebacker Bobby Wagner to a four-year, $43 million contract extension last week, it provides a framework of sorts for what the Patriots might be looking at with Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, both of whom have contracts that expire after the 2016 season. The Patriots also have defensive end Chandler Jones to consider from a contractual standpoint, as his deal also ends after 2016. That’s three potential big-ticket items, and it’s hard to imagine the Patriots being able to keep them all if we’re talking about Wagner-level contracts.
4a. Quarterback Tom Brady hasn’t spoken with reporters since training camp opened on July 30, which has sparked some to point out how that’s a violation of NFL policy. At the same time, if ever there was a time for an exception to that policy, this is it, and the league doesn’t seem to be pressing him on it at this time. I was told that, no surprise, Brady plans to fulfill his media obligations once there is a resolution to his court case. The next step comes Wednesday when Brady, commissioner Roger Goodell and others meet in court, per the order of Judge Richard Berman, to see if there is any possibility of a settlement.
4b. One reader asked the question if Brady would consider a full-year media blackout, a la Marshawn Lynch, as a way to show his displeasure with the NFL. That wouldn’t go over well with the networks that pay the league big bucks, and while Brady would have to pay a hefty fine for such a decision, he can afford it if he wants to go that route. In the end, however, I just don’t think it’s in his character to do so.
5a. One of the main things that struck me at Willie McGinest’s induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame on Wednesday was how meaningful it was to him to finally close an old wound. Those close to McGinest relayed how hurt he was in 2006 when he didn’t receive a contract offer from the Patriots as a free agent, which led him to sign with Cleveland (where he played his final three seasons). It was explained to him that the club didn’t want to insult him (which probably means the offer wouldn’t have been much more than the minimum), but that’s essentially what the no-offer did from his view anyway. That’s the back story of why the events of last week meant so much to McGinest. It wasn't hard to miss, nine years later, how the Hall induction and one-day contract helped heal that old wound.
5b. Along those same lines, I couldn’t help but notice how happy Bill Belichick was the night of McGinest’s induction, having many of his former players back at Gillette Stadium and good vibes in the air. Specifically, seeing him side by side with Richard Seymour in a post-practice conversation was an indelible image to me. Of course, Belichick had traded Seymour to Oakland in 2009 in a shocking move at the time. Perhaps this is another situation, like McGinest’s, where time helps some of those old wounds heal.
5c. One additional Hall of Fame note: Congratulations to Patriots owner Robert Kraft for being honored at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Friday.
6. Checking in on two former Patriots running backs: Stevan Ridley, who is still recovering from a torn ACL and MCL sustained last October, has opened training camp with the Jets on the physically-unable-to-perform list. I’m told Ridley feels great and is close to a return, but the Jets are taking a cautious approach with him at this point. Meanwhile, the Giants keep raving about Shane Vereen, who has integrated quickly into their system. I’m still curious to see how the Patriots fill Vereen’s role (52.9 percent playing time in 2014), as I don’t see a clear-cut answer having emerged at this point.
7. At this time last year, it wasn’t out of line to ask the question if the Patriots might balk at paying a $10 million bonus to tight end Rob Gronkowski at the end of the 2015 season to activate the final four years of his contract. Gronkowski was coming off two injury-filled years at the time, and even early last season, some media analysts wondered if his body was breaking down after so many surgeries. Those thoughts came to mind early last week when the Patriots committed to paying the bonus by giving Gronkowski $4 million of it at the start of training camp, with the remaining $6 million to come later. No one blinked with the team’s decision on that one, a reminder that perceptions can shift fast.
8a. Patriots followers will get an early look at the team’s season-opening opponent tonight when the Steelers take on the Vikings in the Pro Football Hall of Fame game. But don’t expect to see Ben Roethlisberger and some other key players, as the decision has already been made to sit them. That’s because the Steelers have five preseason games, and head coach Mike Tomlin wants to pace his top players.
8b. Did You Know, Part I: Roethlisberger set a career high in completion percentage (67.1) last season and matched his career high for touchdown passes (32).
8c. Did You Know, Part II: The Steelers return every starter on offense from 2014.
9. Many with ties to the scouting community in New England are mourning the loss of Jake Hallum, who as part of a distinguished coaching/scouting career scouted for the Patriots in the early 2000s when the franchise won three Super Bowls in four seasons. Hallum died Thursday at the age of 76. After the Patriots’ third Super Bowl title in 2004, he left to join the Browns, under then general manager Phil Savage. Now working at ESPN, Savage said: “Jake devoted his life to football and family. He was an excellent evaluator and spent dozens of hours watching tape with young scouts in trying to pass his knowledge on to another generation. Football has truly lost a great man.” My condolences to Mr. Hallum and his family.
10. Since HBO’s “Hard Knocks” first aired in 2001, I haven’t looked forward to the series as much as I am this year with the Houston Texans, mainly because of all the Patriots ties in the organization. It obviously starts with head coach Bill O’Brien, includes defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett, as well as assistant coaches Romeo Crennel and Mike Vrabel, among others. The first episode airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET, and if Saturday’s Houston-Washington joint practice is any indication, Wilfork figures to be a big part of the action. Looks like Big Vince is still wreaking havoc in the middle, which helped spark a melee between the teams.