FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. If the Patriots decide to seriously pursue contract extensions with the top three players entering the final year of their contracts in 2016 -- cornerback Malcolm Butler and linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower -- the four-year, $40 million extension signed by Jaguars receiver Allen Hurns last Thursday is a concept that can be an effective middle ground for both sides. Hurns was entering the final year of his contract in 2016 that would have paid him $600,000, and the extension got tacked on to the original deal. So while the extension part of the deal is four years for $40 million, when considering 2016 into the pact it’s really a five-year, $40.6 million deal. Any extension for Butler, Collins and Hightower would likely be similar in concept and it can be a win-win because the player gets coveted financial security while the team stays ahead of a rising market/cap by being willing to strike a deal a year early.
2. The Patriots had an opportunity to do something similar with safety Devin McCourty two years ago as he entered the final season of his contract, but their offer wasn’t enticing enough to move McCourty to sign at the time. The team ended up paying a significantly higher price to re-sign him the next year after McCourty assumed the risk to make it through the season healthy, with coach Bill Belichick stepping in at the last moment to close the deal as competition for McCourty from other teams as an unrestricted free agent drove the price up to levels that I think surprised the club. I’m interested to see if that experience sparks a more proactive approach from the Patriots with Butler, Collins and/or Hightower. Now is the time to strike, as it’s my understanding Belichick told the parties those types of contract-based discussions wouldn’t happen in earnest until after the draft.
3. Random thought on contracts, which is often topical at this time on the NFL calendar: My sense is that spending the 2014 season with Darrelle Revis, and having their eyes opened to how he has approached his business and maximized earnings, might have reverberated with some Patriots players as they prepare for their time hitting the market.
4. The Patriots will hold their three-day mandatory minicamp Tuesday-Thursday, which is an extension of organized team activities. There are two significant differences between OTAs and minicamp, however. OTAs are voluntary while minicamp is mandatory, and OTAs are limited to a maximum of six hours per day (two hours max on the field), while minicamp is a maximum of 10 hours per day (3.5 hours max on the field, split between two practices). From a Patriots personnel perspective, probably the biggest thing is that it means we’ll see veteran defensive tackle Alan Branch, who has not been attending OTAs (he usually hasn’t attended throughout his career with various teams). The expectation is that every player will be present for the Patriots, unless there is an excused absence.
5. Given the uncertainty surrounding Tom Brady’s availability for the first four games of the season, coupled with him turning 39 on Aug. 3, the importance of the backup/developmental quarterback spot has been heightened for the Patriots. Their actions reflect that as well. Consider that in the past three drafts, there have been 36 quarterbacks selected and only three teams have picked multiple signal-callers within the first three rounds -- the Rams (Jared Goff and Sean Mannion), Browns (Johnny Manziel and Cody Kessler) and Patriots (Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett). The difference with the Rams and Browns, of course, is that they didn’t already have a franchise quarterback and future Hall of Famer on their roster at the position.
6. UMass receiver Tajae Sharpe, a fifth-round draft pick of the Titans, is opening some eyes in spring camps to the point that he was taking some first-team repetitions last week. Coach Mike Mularkey said Sharpe has been “playing like he’s been in the league for a while.” The true test will come when the pads are on, but as Sharpe has made a positive first impression one could make an initial connection between him and Brandon LaFell. Both had some scouts concerned entering the draft because of their below-average hand size (LaFell at 8 3/4 inches, Sharpe at 8 3/8), which affected how high they were selected. LaFell was a third-rounder and then-Panthers GM Marty Hurney once said that was something the club spent a lot of time discussing.
7. Did You Know: Since 2010, the Patriots have run the most offensive snaps with two tight ends in the NFL, a total of 4,015. According to ESPN’s Stats & Info, that easily outdistances the No. 2 team on the list, the 49ers, with 3,173 over that span. Expect more of the same from the Patriots in 2016 with Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett. Who loves the tight end position more than Bill Belichick? No one.
8. When players like the Jaguars’ Hurns or the Patriots’ Malcolm Butler go quickly from undrafted to top-end starter, it makes me wonder what led them to fall out of the draft completely. In Butler’s case, Belichick has said some inaccurate information on the scouting trail was a factor, which coupled with Butler playing at West Alabama led to him not even being signed immediately after the draft (it took a tryout and then the Patriots had to create a spot for him). Hurns was a bit of a different story, as 2014 was an extremely deep receiver class. While some teams had late draftable grades on him, it wasn’t as if he was extremely productive at the University of Miami and thus it wasn’t a huge surprise he went undrafted. Still, the Jaguars made him the highest-paid undrafted free agent in 2014, which reflected how he was a priority free agent.
9. With the addition of D.J. Debick to their staff this offseason, the Patriots now have seven alums from John Carroll University between coaches and scouts. What else can be said? It’s a Blue Streak takeover.
10. Dave Gettleman, general manager of the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers, told Sirius XM NFL Radio last month that he saw some similarities between defensive tackle Vernon Butler and 2015 Patriots first-rounder Malcom Brown in terms of how both unexpectedly fell in the draft -- Butler to the Panthers at No. 30 this year and Brown to the Patriots last year at No. 32. At that point, Gettleman said talented players at that position are simply too good of a value to pass up. Brown had an excellent rookie year for the Patriots, which was a hit the team needed after misfiring with 2014 first-rounder Dominque Easley and not having a first-round pick in 2016 because of Deflategate penalties. One trickle-down effect of releasing Easley is eliminating potential negative influences on Brown, and giving him a clearer path to be a leader among defensive tackles, which seems to be manifesting itself already.