FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts on the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. When the Patriots were on the clock with their top draft choice in April at No. 60 overall, they looked at the horizontal stack of their board and had a small group of players who were graded equally. The reason they picked Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones out of that stack, according to director of player personnel Nick Caserio, was his dynamic punt-return ability. That showed up in a big way in Friday night’s 19-17 preseason win over the Panthers, with Bill Belichick calling Jones’ 60-yard return in the third quarter one of the key plays in the game. Jones taking over the role could help preserve 30-year old returners Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola from taking additional pounding, and while Belichick isn’t ready to publicly say Jones is the team’s top returner, I viewed Friday night as a passing of the torch.
2. It was a neat scene outside the Patriots' locker room late Friday night at Bank of America Stadium as Belichick chatted with Pro Football Hall of Famer Howie Long and his wife, Diane, for an extended period of time before boarding the team buses to the airport. The Longs were at the Patriots’ game to watch their son, Chris, who after eight years with the Rams seems to be energized by a fresh start in New England (a return to full health is also a big part of Chris' resurgence). One residual of that fresh start is how Belichick has had a chance to see a bit more of Howie Long, for whom he obviously has great respect.
3a. There was some passionate sports-talk debate last week about if it was smart for Tom Brady to play in Friday night’s preseason game. Some asked how it’s best for the team if he does because it’s taking away time from Jimmy Garoppolo. I buy the idea of Brady sitting all preseason and going 259 days between games was too long, as this isn’t the type of sport in which a quarterback can simply pick up where he left off without playing in a game because of the unique dynamics of the position. I thought that was evident on Brady’s first snap Friday night. He appeared to turn the wrong way on play-action (or running back LeGarrette Blount headed in the wrong direction), and then later on his worst throw, a near-interception to tight end Martellus Bennett in which Brady's fundamentals/footwork appeared to break down as a result of the pass rush forcing him to move off the spot. He can’t duplicate that experience in practice because the pass rush is never fully live. Likewise, Brady's pre-snap communication with receiver Chris Hogan before they connected on the highlight of the night, a beautiful 33-yard touchdown up the right side and into the end zone, was something they couldn’t experience in practice because the defense isn’t changing up its coverage. It’s “feel-of-the-game” type stuff, which will serve the Patriots and Brady well when he returns for the final three-quarters of the season.
3b. In an up-and-down preseason for Garoppolo, here’s one common thread that stands out: His best drives have come when the Patriots picked up the pace a bit and he has been able to establish a rhythm. Examples: the two-minute touchdown drive at the end of the second quarter against the Bears, and the opening drive of the third quarter against the Panthers that stalled with two disappointing short-yardage runs at midfield. The Patriots aren’t going to play that fast consistently in the preseason, but come Sept. 11, that’s the type of approach I’d expect to see more from them because it seems to put Garoppolo in more of a comfort zone.
4. Belichick previously downplayed the idea that having former Patriots staffers elevating to general manager roles in Detroit (Bob Quinn) and Tennessee (Jon Robinson) would increase competition for signing/acquiring players. But we’ve seen two notable examples with free-agent receiver Marvin Jones and trade acquisition Barkevious Mingo; the Patriots and Lions were two of the final teams doing the bidding with both players. Those are good examples of how Quinn’s background in New England had a trickle-down effect on the Patriots’ pursuit of players. Jones signed with Detroit, while the Patriots traded a fifth-round pick for Mingo to trump the Lions and others.
5. With the Cardinals visiting the Texans on Sunday in the third preseason game for both teams, it's a nice opportunity for the Patriots to scout two of their first three opponents in the regular season. That's why the club has planned to have two scouts on hand, Steve Cargile and Frank Ross, likely so each can focus on one specific team.
6. One nugget that caught my attention from Patriots president Jonathan Kraft’s pregame interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub: When his family bought the team in 1994, the NFL had about four or five committees (e.g. finance, broadcast, etc.) comprised of select owners. Today, there are more than 20. The topic came up after Robert Kraft was officially named to a newly formed Chairman’s Committee last week. This reflects, in part, how the business of the NFL has grown over that time.
7. While second-year safety Brock Vereen was a long shot to make the Patriots’ roster, the way his time with the club ended Aug. 15 was a notable storyline. On the surface, it appeared that Vereen decided to retire, only to be waived the next day and then claimed by the Chiefs the day after that. But as I understand it, that’s not exactly the way it unfolded. Vereen never intended to retire and did not sign any official retirement paperwork, but he was initially placed on the reserve/retired list after having a conversation with a club official about his role and/or future with the team. The next day, the club removed the reserve/retired designation and waived Vereen outright, with the sides basically agreeing to mutually part ways.
8. The Patriots have had some notable success on draft day by trading down and accumulating multiple picks, with maybe the best example coming in 2013, when they flipped the 29th overall pick to Minnesota in exchange for No. 52 (LB Jamie Collins), No. 83 (CB Logan Ryan), No. 102 (WR Josh Boyce) and No. 229 (traded for RB LeGarrette Blount). But trading center Bryan Stork to Washington on Thursday is a reminder that sometimes those deals don’t always work out. In 2014, the club flipped pick No. 93 to Jacksonville for No. 105 (Stork) and No. 179 (OL Jon Halapio) and now will have nothing to show for it two years later. The Jaguars, meanwhile, picked Brandon Linder, who might be their best offensive lineman.
9. With the Patriots acquiring Mingo from the Browns on Thursday, I don’t think it’s a major stretch to draw a link to Collins in this sense; when the Patriots drafted Collins in 2013, they believed unique athletes like him don’t come around often, and it was worth the relatively modest gamble to see how he’d grow in their system. It’s easy to forget now, but Collins played only 25 percent of the defensive snaps his first season. As for Mingo, he might have been a disappointment in Cleveland, but no one is questioning that he has rare athletic traits. How that athleticism fits in New England from a football perspective will be intriguing to watch, just as it initially was with Collins.
10. When the Texans visit the Patriots on “Thursday Night Football” on Sept. 22, they’ll do so without starting center Nick Martin, who was placed on injured reserve last week with an ankle injury. A second-round draft choice out of Notre Dame, Martin had made an early impression on coach Bill O’Brien and his staff. Now, much like the Patriots have at the center position with 2015 undrafted player David Andrews, the Texans will turn to 2015 undrafted free agent Greg Mancz (Toledo) at the position. That’s not the type of injury that might generate big headlines across the NFL, but in the offensive system O’Brien and the Patriots run, a heady center who handles checks at the line is vital.