Ex-Patriots assistant Brad Seely: New touchback rule could increase returns

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. With NFL owners approving a rule change to spot the football at the 25-yard line (instead of the 20) after a touchback in 2016, it could have a significant impact on the way teams approach the kickoff. I reached out to longtime respected special-teams coach Brad Seely, who Patriots fans remember from his time with the club (1999-2008), to see how he thinks his Raiders team and others might be affected by the change.

“It’s going to be fun for special-teams coaches, because you’re going to involve more strategy,” the 59-year-old Seely said. "It’s a little bit of a give-up -- 'OK, we’ll give them the ball on the 25, but you’ve increased their chances of scoring versus trying to hang it up there on the goal line and seeing if you can tackle him inside the 20.

“The average drive start in the NFL right now is around the 23.5. Statistically, you have a four percent greater chance to score a touchdown at the 25 versus the 20. So you’re giving them a better chance to score a touchdown with a touchback.”

Seely sees a few other potential trickle-down effects of the rule change, which is being adopted on a one-year basis:

Punting game. “You’ll see more plays at midfield. If your offense gets one first down [from the 25], you’re punting the ball and already trying to pin them deep. So there will be more strategy in the punting game, too, just because the ball is going to be at midfield more often with the extra five yards on the touchback.”

Prolonging careers of kickers? “Our guys are conditioned now to see how far they can hit it deep in the end zone, and not really worry as much about hang time. Now, you’re talking about having guys get underneath the ball and get it in the air higher. It will be really interesting. I also think some of the older guys who might not have as much leg but are good field goal kickers, it could possibly make their careers longer.”

Kickoff returns might increase. “Obviously they’re trying to take the kickoff return out of football. They don’t want returns, but I don’t know if this rule will help that or hurt it.”

2. If there was one offseason acquisition that caught the eye of Packers coach Mike McCarthy more than any other, it was tight end Martellus Bennett to the Patriots. “I think what New England did with the two tight ends, that’s probably as good as a personnel transaction I’ve seen as far as pure matchup,” he offered last week at the NFL’s annual meeting. “Defensive coordinators, right now are [asking], ‘How do you cover both of those guys? Who’s going to be displaced? Who’s not?’ That’s why the tight end position and the safety position in today’s NFL is a prominent position in my view. … That’s where the matchups are.”

3. When I asked one NFL general manager whose team was in the mix to sign veteran defensive end Chris Long what they saw in his play, the opinion was shared that he can still get up the field in the pass rush, but his ability to hold his ground in the run game could be an issue. Part of that could be attributed to injuries the past two seasons. That will be something to watch in New England, where Long signed a one-year, $2.35 million deal and one of the primary responsibilities for end-of-the-line players is to be able to set the edge in the running game.

4. With the passing of defensive lineman Julius Adams (1971-85/1987) and fullback Kevin Turner (1992-94) last week, I reached out to former longtime Patriots radio play-by-play man Gil Santos to share his memories of each player and their impact on the Patriots franchise:

Adams: “A very kind guy to talk to and be around -- he was never a big ego guy. And, of course, he was a very good player, a member of the 50th Anniversary Team, a very good pass-rusher, strong against the run, and just a very good all-around defensive end. Fans were very much aware of how good he was. He was taken in the second round of the same draft the Patriots selected quarterback Jim Plunkett No. 1, and as is turned out, he played much longer for the team than Plunkett.”

Turner: “Tough. A very, very tough guy. An excellent pass-catcher, good runner, not an All-Pro, but the kind of player any winning team needs to have. One game stands out in my mind; they were getting crushed in Foxboro by Minnesota [in 1994]. It was 20-0 at the half, just horrible, and the Patriots came back in the second half and took the game to overtime. Kevin Turner caught the game-winning pass in overtime from Drew Bledsoe.”

5. Leftover nugget from the NFL’s annual meeting: Former Patriots guard Logan Mankins, whose retirement was strategically announced the same day as Peyton Manning’s so he could fly as far under the radar as possible, has bought around 100 acres of land in the New England region and getting acquainted with his John Deere is part of what he’s looking forward to as he transitions to his post-playing career. Mankins, of course, grew up on a 10,000-acre cattle ranch in Catheys Valley, California. He plans to make New England his home, as his wife Kara and their children never left the region while he played in Tampa Bay the past two years, and that made it a strain on Mankins.

6. NFL coaches and personnel men sometimes use the terms “arrow up” and “arrow down” to describe a player who is either still on the rise, or whose career is on the descent. When I asked some folks at the NFL’s league meeting about veteran receiver Nate Washington, who the Patriots signed on Thursday, one put the 32-year-old Washington in the “arrow down” category at this stage of his career, but noted that he’s the type of target Tom Brady should appreciate because he’ll be where he is supposed to be from a route-running standpoint. He'll enter training camp as one of several receivers on the roster bubble.

7. Something that surprised me: The Patriots made a late pitch to retain defensive tackle Sealver Siliga before he inked a one-year, $1.2 million contract with the Seahawks. When Siliga slipped from No. 1 to No. 4 on the depth chart during the season, and then when the Patriots didn’t tender him an offer as a restricted free agent in the offseason, I figured his departure was a given. But the Patriots were in it at the end, which tells me they have concerns with their depth at the position and explains why they met with free-agent Nick Fairley last Monday at the NFL annual meeting.

8. The Seahawks’ interest in Shea McClellin, who signed a three-year, $8.95 million contract with the Patriots that has a maximum value of $12 million if he reaches all incentives, was as a strongside linebacker in their 4-3 scheme alongside K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner. That’s the spot where 2012 first-round pick Bruce Irvin (now with Oakland) played, and to give Patriots followers a feel for how McClellin’s skill set is viewed by another team, the Seahawks often have their strongside linebacker aligning near the line of scrimmage (almost like a fifth defensive lineman). That position is called upon to set the edge in the running game, drop into coverage at times, and then potentially serve as a pass-rushing defensive end in nickel situations. The Patriots run more of a multiple scheme than the Seahawks, but look for the versatile McClellin to be utilized somewhat similarly in New England, with the 2014 version of Akeem Ayers a good comparison.

9. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians’ recent work with quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers), Andrew Luck (Colts) and Carson Palmer has earned him a well-deserved reputation when it comes to coaching acumen at the position, and so I took note at the NFL’s annual meeting when he said, “I think this is a very good quarterback draft, one of the best I’ve seen in years; not for just the top but there’s another tier of five quarterbacks that could become tops, not just backups.” So while many naturally focus on projected first-round picks Jared Goff (California), Carson Wentz (North Dakota State) and Paxton Lynch (Memphis), this could be the type of year that produces another Kirk Cousins-type story -- a fourth-rounder turned franchise-tagged quarterback four years later. The Patriots have five picks in the sixth round and two in the seventh round, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they selected a quarterback to add to the developmental pipeline. Their success at the position in the sixth round, after all, is unmatched.

10. When I heard how many resources the Patriots have invested in the scouting process with Navy quarterback/running back/receiver Keenan Reynolds, it reminded me a little bit of how the team approached the 2009 scouting of Kent State quarterback/receiver Julian Edelman, a good prospect who didn’t fit in the traditional box position-wise. Coach Bill Belichick met with Reynolds in February while in town to present an award in his father’s name at the Touchdown Club of Annapolis, then tight ends coach Brian Daboll came to town to install part of the offense with him to gauge his understanding, and assistant special-teams coach Ray Ventrone followed up after that. It was a similar approach with Edelman. That’s one reason I have Reynolds and Navy running back/fullback Chris Swain, who has been paired with Reynolds in the pre-draft process, circled on my later-round prospect list for New England. Reynolds recently tweaked his hamstring and has been limited in workouts, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots add another visit with him at some point.