MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Quick-hit thoughts around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. It’s all about health for the Patriots as they enter Sunday’s season finale against the Dolphins in South Florida, with Bill Belichick managing the roster with both the short-term and long-term in mind. The Patriots have already ruled out six players due to injuries -- a group including receiver Julian Edelman, defensive end Chandler Jones (team-high 12.5 sacks), offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer and linebacker Dont’a Hightower -- but I’m told internally there is optimism that most, if not all, of the injured players are expected back for the playoffs. Specific to Sunday's game, I still see Belichick aggressively playing for the No. 1 seed, which includes defensive end Rob Ninkovich (shin) and safeties Devin McCourty (ankle) and Patrick Chung (hip/foot) pushing their injury status and attempting to play.
2a. In an uncharacteristic mistake, the Patriots curiously gave away first-year tight end Asante Cleveland for nothing last week after spending four months developing him and promoting him to the active roster in late November. Cleveland was officially waived Dec. 25 (and claimed by the Chargers), a move that was made to make room for rookie cornerback Troy Hill from the Bengals. Belichick said the team was looking forward to working with Hill in part because of the club’s lack of depth at cornerback and also because he had shown some good things in regular-season action, but then a few days later, after Hill hadn't even practiced with the team, the Patriots waived him (the Rams claimed him) and had nothing to show for the exchange. That’s puzzling from a personnel department that is usually on the ball.
2b. The Patriots have the top of their tight end depth chart locked up for multiple years with Rob Gronkowski (2019) and Michael Williams (2016), but I viewed Cleveland as having a chance to overtake Scott Chandler (due $2 million base salary next season) as the No. 3 option in 2016 if he continued to develop. So grooming a cost-efficient No. 3 tight end -- not a major role, but a depth-based piece of the puzzle for a team that generally likes to run multiple-tight end sets -- moves up the needs list this offseason. I don’t want to overrate Cleveland, which was a mistake made at this address with Zach Sudfeld in 2013, but the Cleveland-for-Hill swap needlessly surrendered a potential future asset with nothing gained in return.
3. The Chargers weren’t the only team to put in a claim on Cleveland, as the Eagles did as well (the Chargers had priority in the waiver order). The Eagles have Zach Ertz, Brent Celek and Trey Burton at tight end -- each is signed through 2016 -- but apparently saw enough promise in Cleveland to be willing to add a fourth layer to the depth chart. Part of the thinking could have been that the soon-to-be 31-year-old Celek is due to earn $4.925 million next season and might not be a roster lock at that number with a new coach (Celek had fully bought into Chip Kelly’s program) and with an extension for Ertz likely to soon be on the radar. In discussions with some teams across the NFL, tight end has been a challenging position for them to address this year, because the supply (e.g. weak draft class) hasn’t met the demand, which might explain why Cleveland had multiple claims placed on him.
4. The Patriots usually have a strong fan contingent when they come to South Florida, and when they practiced at Florida Atlantic University (students are on winter break) on Friday in advance of Sunday's game, they were greeted by a loud contingent of fans estimated in the 25-35 range by those in attendance. Then, as players conducted interviews with reporters, the cheering from those fans could be heard, with good pal Jim McBride of the Boston Globe having taken note of a “Honk for Gronk!” sign. The environment led some on the team to comment on the support the team receives on the road, which, of course, is very much appreciated. But when some of those fans stuck around and attempted to watch the team practice in an open corner where palm trees create a barrier, it was something the Patriots -- who under Belichick prefer closed practices -- had to monitor.
5. One area where Patriots players deserve to be commended is their discipline and technique to play within the rules and avoid unsportsmanlike conduct, personal foul, and illegal block penalties that result in NFL fines. Entering the final week of the regular season, by my count, the team has had only one player fined this season. Offensive lineman Josh Kline got $8,681 for clipping against the Dolphins on Oct. 29. The Patriots are also coming off a game in which they were called for just one accepted penalty, a season low.
6. One storyline with a Patriots-type twist that I’ll be watching in the coming weeks is if veteran guard Logan Mankins -- who played the first nine years of his career in New England from 2005-2013 -- decides to retire. Mankins has one year left on his contract ($6.75 million base salary), and he’s still playing at a high level, as evidenced by his selection as a 2015 Pro Bowl alternate. From a personal standpoint, Mankins’ wife Kara and their children have remained in Massachusetts, which naturally isn’t ideal. If Mankins wants to return in 2016, the Buccaneers would be thrilled to have him based on the combination of leadership he’s shown and the play he’s provided, but as they say, the football is in his hands.
7. At a time when several NFL teams will be making head-coaching changes, Belichick shared his appreciation Thursday for what he has with the Patriots, where he’s been head coach the past 16 seasons and has rock-solid security into the future. “It’s the best situation in the league,” he said, which had me revisiting a chapter on the Belichick/Robert Kraft relationship from Gary Myers’ “Coaching Confidential” book.
8. Reports indicate that the Dolphins are prepared to promote director of college scouting Chris Grier to their general manager’s position, ousting Dennis Hickey. Grier, of course, is from Holliston, Massachusetts, the son of former Patriots coach/executive Bobby Grier, and he attended the University of Massachusetts as an undergraduate student in the early 1990s, arriving just as current Dolphins executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum was graduating. In a business where self-promoting is the norm, the understated Grier never struck me as that type of person. It’s nice to see well-deserved promotions happen for those types of people.
9. Did You Know?: The Chiefs, Vikings and Redskins all have reached the playoffs after missing it the previous year, with the Jets and Texans potentially joining them in that category. Under the 12-team playoff format since 1990, there have been at least four teams each year in the playoffs who did not make it the previous season.
10. By the end of today, we’ll learn the final two pieces of the Patriots’ 2016 schedule, as the club will travel to the AFC West first-place team (Broncos if they beat the Chargers at home) and host the AFC South first-place team (Texans if they beat the Jaguars). With road games against the Cardinals, 49ers and possibly the Broncos next year, if any of those games are back to back, it could set up a situation similar to 2008 and 2014 where the Patriots stay out west for a full week.
HAPPY NEW YEAR: A quick personal note to wish all readers of this space a happy, healthy new year. Thank you for visiting this space, and I look forward to more coverage ahead in 2016.