FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and the NFL:
1. One closely watched storyline early in Patriots training camp will be how the four-game suspension for quarterback Tom Brady affects Bill Belichick’s practice plans at quarterback, and there’s a strong chance it will mostly be the status quo. Belichick annually says training camp is about preparing every player on the roster for the entire regular season, in addition to an eye toward the opening game, which is always a balance. Because of that, it wouldn’t be surprising if Brady continues to receive plenty of No. 1 repetitions early in camp. Then later in the preseason when the focus shifts to a higher gear for the Sept. 11 opener against the Cardinals, that’s when the torch could be passed to Jimmy Garoppolo for more exclusive No. 1 reps and a message to players about rallying behind Garoppolo. The bottom line: Brady still needs to get his work as a foundation for the regular season, and that’s why early practices in training camp might not look much different from the norm.
2a. A few important notes on frequently asked questions regarding Brady's season-opening four-game suspension: (1) He can practice with the team in training camp and play throughout the preseason; (2) When teams have to trim rosters to 53 players on Sept. 3, Brady won’t count against the limit, giving the team the ability to keep an extra player who otherwise would have been cut/waived; (3) The suspension begins Sept. 3, and Brady is not allowed at the facility or in contact with the team for the next four weeks.
2b. The Patriots have an open spot on their 90-man roster that should be filled by the start of training camp, and one thought for Belichick to consider is a quarterback for early-season insurance in the event of preseason injuries to Garoppolo or rookie Jacoby Brissett. But my hunch is that Belichick wouldn’t see the value in another quarterback at this time because that player -- maybe someone like Ricky Stanzi -- would hardly receive any repetitions in training camp (Stanzi worked out for the team earlier this year). Quarterback reps are critical, and Brady, Garoppolo and Brissett need all of them for different reasons.
3. The NFL confirmed last week that it will continue with its schedule rotation in 2017, which means all but two of the Patriots’ opponents have already been determined, in addition to where those games will be played. In 2017, AFC East teams will play the AFC West and cross over to face the NFC South. Here’s a look at the Patriots’ 2017 opponents, per the NFL:
Home: Chiefs, Chargers, Falcons, Panthers, Bills, Dolphins, Jets, AFC South team that finishes in same spot in ’16 standings
Away: Broncos, Raiders, Saints, Buccaneers, Bills, Dolphins, Jets, AFC North team that finishes in same spot in ’16 standings
The first two things that jumped out to me were a third straight year with a regular-season trip to Denver and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton making his first regular-season appearance at Gillette Stadium (he played here in the 2014 preseason).
4. With road games against the Broncos in the 2015, 2016 and 2017 regular seasons, coupled with the AFC title game loss there in 2013, it almost feels as if the Patriots’ trips to Denver are like an annual division game at this point. Not to mention, a visit to the Mile High City seems to challenge the team more than any other. Having regular-season games in Denver three years in a row is a quirk of the NFL’s rotating schedule format that was first introduced in 2002, but for those who might view the Patriots as an aggrieved party, consider this: It wasn’t long ago that the tables were reversed, with the Broncos traveling to face the Patriots in the 2012, 2013, and 2014 regular seasons (in addition to the 2011 divisional round of the playoffs).
5. Patriots owner Robert Kraft was honored with a Stuart Scott Enspire Award at ESPN’s Sports Humanitarian Awards on Tuesday, with New England’s own Sean McDonough and Patriots Hall of Famer Troy Brown introducing him at the Los Angeles-based event. Kraft’s financial generosity to nonprofit organizations across the region was highlighted (e.g. Rhode Island Food Bank), and here is a brief summary of Kraft’s remarks: “Since we’re here honoring Stuart Scott and the humanitarian award, the greatest humanitarian in my life was my dad of blessed memory. He left me an ethical will, and in it, he left me a great guide that I hope all of us try to follow. He said, ‘When you go to bed at night, try to make sure the people you touched are richer and better for having known you.’ So in that spirit, thank you for this award, and I hope we all live by that dictum.”
6. Things can always change quickly when it comes to contracts, but as of now, my sense is that the Patriots aren’t close to striking extensions with any of their big three defenders -- linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower and cornerback Malcolm Butler. All three enter the final year of their contracts, with Collins and Hightower scheduled to become unrestricted free agents after the season and Butler a restricted free agent. Because Butler's furthest away from unrestricted free agency and scheduled to earn only $600,000 this year, one might think he could be more motivated to strike an early extension than Collins ($917,865 base salary in 2016) and Hightower ($7.7 million base salary in 2016), which usually means settling for a little less than going rates on the open market but gaining significantly more immediate financial security in the process.
7. The franchise tag for linebackers in 2016 was $14.1 million, which ranked fourth highest behind quarterback ($19.9 million), defensive end ($15.7 million) and wide receiver ($14.5 million). It’s an important figure to keep in mind as it relates to the Patriots’ negotiations with Collins and Hightower, which I don’t believe have progressed very far. If neither player strikes an extension before next offseason, the Patriots would have use of the tag on one of them if they desired, but that would be a challenging salary-cap charge to absorb, even with an overall rising cap. For perspective, a $14.1 million cap charge would be the highest on the Patriots in 2016 and 2017, surpassing Brady ($14 million).
8. Eight-year veteran defensive tackle Terrance Knighton on his first impressions of the Patriots’ culture, as told to NFL Media: “Everyone is on the same page. As soon as you come in the building, everything stops, besides football. Any problems you have, whether it's girlfriends or money or family, when you step in the building, you leave it at the door. Just focus on doing your job and winning a championship. You don't see guys on their phones. You don't see guys messing around. It's all business, and I think unlike anywhere I've been -- the focus of the players, the coaches and the locker room is just on another level.”
9. Buccaneers ownership missed an opportunity last week to make a strong public statement on anti-Semitic language from the outspoken wife of Tampa Bay cornerback Brent Grimes that became a big story in the mainstream media. Because of the popularity of the game and the continuous media coverage of it, owners sometimes have a chance to make a social impact beyond the field; I thought the Glazer family dropped the football on this one.
10. Patriots rookies are scheduled to report on Sunday, July 24, and that means summer break is about to officially be over for the team’s coaching staff, which is due back to work at Gillette Stadium in the middle of the week. Another reminder that football is right around the corner.