FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Spending some time with Patriots starting left tackle Nate Solder last week, he relayed that the team’s medical and athletic training staff is pleased with his progress from the torn biceps that ended his 2015 season in Week 5. “Everything is going as well as they hoped it would go; just great,” he said. That, naturally, put a smile on his face, which grew even wider when Dante Scarnecchia’s return as offensive line coach following a two-year retirement was mentioned. “I don’t want to overstate it, but he’s been an excellent coach for me the whole time I’ve been here. I’m personally very excited,” Solder said. “As a team, it will be a really good thing to have him because he just brings so many things to the table.”
2a. From a personal standpoint, Solder discussed how missing the final 12 games of the season gave him a different viewpoint that he hopes benefits him as he returns in 2016: “When you go through the grind of a season, you lose perspective and just get overwhelmed with the day-to-day workings of football. You forget you’re playing a game; it’s fun, and there are a lot of great things that come from it. So I think having a year to step back and kind of see that; I don’t know if that perspective is going to last me through the season, but I’m excited for the season and there are a lot of great things to come.”
2b. In retrospect, Solder’s absence hurt the Patriots more than anticipated in 2015. Part of the reason is that the club didn’t have a pure backup at his position, with Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon and LaAdrian Waddle all appearing more comfortable on the right side. Thus, coming out of the 2016 draft with a developmental tackle that could fill in on the left side but also be a factor on the right side in the future (Vollmer and Cannon enter the last year of their contracts) should rate as a high priority.
3. The next two days will be critical for the Patriots as it relates to their chances to retain defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, who is their most notable unrestricted free agent. With teams having a chance to officially negotiate (but not officially sign deals) early this week, the market for players will start to come into sharper focus. One team I’m keeping an eye on in regards to Hicks is Chicago, where general manager Ryan Pace has a background with him from their time together with the New Orleans Saints (2012-14). Defensive tackle also rates highly on the Bears’ needs list. As for the Patriots, when Hicks was cleaning out his locker after the AFC Championship Game, coach Bill Belichick walked by and said something along the lines of, “Hey, Akiem, at least leave something here.” That was his way of showing Hicks that he hoped he’d be back in 2016 and beyond.
4. Rob Gronkowski’s party cruise generated quite a bit of media attention two weeks ago, as did the announcement that he has been tapped to host a kids television show on Nickelodeon. But here’s something that slipped under the radar: Eight days ago, Gronkowski showed up unannounced to the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Clinic at Gillette Stadium, shaking hands and taking pictures with those in attendance.
5. The Patriots’ release of veteran tight end Scott Chandler last Wednesday, which was expected after his quiet season, serves as a reminder that some free-agent signings that look good on paper don’t always unfold that way. Last offseason, the Patriots signed Chandler to a two-year contract worth a maximum of $5.3 million, and their plans were easy to see in spring and training camp practices when Chandler, Gronkowski and Tom Brady would often break away to a different practice field and work together in the red zone. Pairing the 6-foot-7, 260-pound Chandler and the 6-6, 265-pound Gronkowski sounded good in theory, but it never consistently came to life during games. That’s a good reminder from a media standpoint as well, because I remember writing a lot about how that could help transform the offense.
6. I wasn't in the courtroom last Thursday for the NFL/Tom Brady appeal hearing in New York, but after reading partial transcripts of what unfolded, it seemed that lead Brady attorney Jeffrey Kessler was caught off guard a bit with the judges focusing so much on Brady's cell phone. It's challenging to predict how that could impact the decision-making of the three judges, and how much legal scholar Robert Blecker's 33-page brief (as detailed by Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post) might be part of the consideration, but the majority opinion of those in the courtroom was that it was a good day for the NFL, and not so much for Brady.
7. With the Patriots informing defensive tackle Sealver Siliga that they won’t tender him a contract as a restricted free agent in an amicable split, it leaves fullback James Develin and offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle as the team’s remaining restricted free agents. The team has to decide this week whether to tender each of them a one-year offer at $1.67 million, or work with their agents to sign a different type of contract. For example, one NFL team is negotiating with a restricted free agent about returning on a one-year, $1.2 million deal. However it unfolds, I think we’ll see Develin and Waddle back with the team in 2016.
8. Catching up with University of Massachusetts head coach Mark Whipple last week, it’s no surprise that he’s high on Tajae Sharpe, his No. 1 receiver the past two seasons who could be selected as early as the middle rounds of the NFL draft. Whipple compared Sharpe to Leonard Hankerson, whom he had coached at the University of Miami. The 6-2, 211-pound Hankerson, like Sharpe (6-2, 194), is a versatile pass-catcher and is now entering his sixth NFL season in 2016. He was briefly with the Patriots in 2015. Whipple cited Sharpe’s intelligence to line up at all receiver spots and his catch radius as assets, calling him a “really good competitor and teammate.” He also noted that he played defensive back in high school, and how that ties in to his willingness to tackle on special teams, which he didn’t play at UMass because of his value to the offense.
9. Did You Know: According to ESPN’s Stats & Information, free agents accounted for 50 percent of the Broncos’ 2015 salary cap, which was the highest total of any Super Bowl team in the past 10 seasons.
10. Safety Tavon Wilson, whom the Patriots selected in the second round of the 2012 draft, will not re-sign with the team before the start of free agency on Wednesday, but the sides aren’t closing the door on a possible return depending on what unfolds on the market. The Patriots selected Stanford safety Jordan Richards in the second round in 2015, and also have starters Devin McCourty (2019) and Patrick Chung (2017), as well as No. 3 safety Duron Harmon (2016), under contract at the position. So Wilson will look around to see if there’s a better opportunity elsewhere.