DENVER -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Bill Belichick made a notable comparison last week by saying rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell's football intelligence was worthy of being in the discussion with former Patriot Deion Branch, who, Belichick referred to as “one of the smartest receivers we’ve had in here.” Those remarks sparked a thought: What does Branch himself think of Mitchell?
“I’ve watched his game and one of the things that stands out to me is the confidence that Tom Brady has in him. As a young guy, that’s not the norm,” Branch relayed. “I’m watching [offensive coordinator] Josh [McDaniels] create plays for him, Tom make him his first read, and when that happens with a rookie receiver, it’s only great things [ahead].”
Branch cited Mitchell’s 6-yard touchdown catch in Monday night’s victory over the Baltimore Ravens as an example.
“That’s a 3-by-1 set on the slant and you could tell that was something they created just for him on the front side [as the lone receiver]. As soon as Tom touched the ball, he went straight to him,” Branch said. “You see that, and start to think, ‘This could be special.’”
Branch said in terms of playing style, one thing he has noticed about Mitchell, the fourth-round pick out of Georgia, is that “he’s a hands catcher, not a body catcher.”
The two haven’t met, but Branch, the 2002 second-round pick, relayed that he looks forward to doing so, possibly if he returns to town for a playoff game this year.
For his part, Mitchell hadn’t heard about Belichick’s compliment, but he flashed a smile when asked about Branch, saying he always enjoyed watching him play because of his “route execution and great hands.”
2. Branch, 37, is getting that football itch again. Having last played in the NFL in 2012 (his final season with the Patriots), he’s currently living in Indianapolis and working in real estate, but has been looking into possibly getting back into the game. Belichick has opened the door for some former players to make that transition (e.g. Sammy Morris has been assisting the coaching staff this year), which is something Branch has considered. He also keeps strong ties to his alma mater, Louisville, which could be another option he’d pursue.
3. The Patriots were the only team to put in a waiver claim on receiver Michael Floyd, which some might say was a result of him being released by the Cardinals after an arrest on suspicion for DUI. But it was mostly more a case of economics, as picking up the remaining $1.2 million on Floyd’s contract for three regular-season games was too rich for teams considering the time it would take to get Floyd up to speed. I found that part of the transaction somewhat ironic because one of the more frequent media-based criticisms of the Patriots is frugality. Had Floyd cleared waivers, and been free to sign with any team at a significantly discounted rate, I strongly believe the list of suitors would be much deeper than just one team.
4. Imagine if Belichick had used a walkie-talkie to communicate with Brady during a game, as Giants coach Ben McAdoo did with Eli Manning in Sunday’s 10-7 win over the Cowboys? Ted Wells might be up for some more billable hours and Roger Goodell would be on the front lines talking about “integrity of the game.” Walkie-talkies are prohibited because there is no way to regulate them shutting off with 15 seconds left on the play clock, per league rules, and the NFL is investigating the situation with the most likely outcome that McAdoo and/or the Giants will be fined.
5a. Sunday marks the Patriots’ fourth trip to Denver (two regular-season games, two AFC title games) since Jan. 19, 2014, and here’s something to file away for 2017: The Patriots will be heading back for a fifth visit next year as part of the NFL’s rotating scheduling format (AFC East vs. AFC West).
Patriots 2017 opponents
Home: Chiefs, Chargers, Falcons, Panthers, AFC South team in same spot in standings
Away: Broncos, Raiders, Saints, Buccaneers, AFC North team in same spot in standings
5b. When the Patriots gathered for their initial full-team meeting of the week on Wednesday, one of the things Belichick relayed to players was the special football environment they’d be playing in Sunday in Denver. Considering how often the Patriots have played in Denver in recent years, the message was mostly to newcomers to the team as Belichick told players how Denver has a 47-year sellout streak, which spans 385 games and represents the longest streak in one city in NFL history.
6. The Patriots have until Wednesday to activate quarterback Jacoby Brissett to their active roster, or he will revert to injured reserve and be lost for the season. The Patriots made Brissett their designated player to return from IR, so he has been able to practice since Nov. 30 without counting on the roster. When I asked Belichick on Friday about the decision, my sense is that the likely plan is to activate Brissett (depth at most important position and critical player development), but they’re waiting until the last possible moment because they will have to make a corresponding roster move. “If there was an obvious decision to be made, we probably would’ve already made it,” Belichick said. “There may be a certain event or set of circumstances that would influence that decision.”
7. A lot can change with three weeks left in the season, but it was notable nonetheless that four teams led by general managers who cut their teeth in New England’s personnel department were atop their division standings (alone or tied) entering Week 15 action: Bob Quinn’s Lions, Jon Robinson’s Titans, Thomas Dimitroff’s Falcons, and Jason Licht’s Buccaneers. One could make the case that all four teams have overachieved this year, and if an owner seeking a similar type of hire from the Patriots’ pipeline, the name to remember is director of college scouting Monti Ossenfort. This, of course, assumes director of player personnel Nick Caserio (who is essentially like a GM in New England) isn’t part of the mix.
8. Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler's 15 pass breakups this season reflect his solid ball skills, as only San Diego’s Casey Hayward (18), New York Giants’ Janoris Jenkins (17), Kansas City’s Marcus Peters (17) and Tampa Bay’s Brent Grimes (17) have more. That’s good company to be in, but Butler (who had 15 last season) told me this week that he isn’t satisfied. “I want to catch some of those,” he said. “I’m still working. I still have time to get a couple.” Butler has two interceptions this season and knows that's the number to increase to be considered among the game's elite.
9. Would Jon Gruden consider a return to coaching with the Rams? Tom Pelissero of USA TODAY Sports laid out why that scenario might be attractive to Gruden, and along those lines, here is what Gruden said last week when I asked him if he missed coaching: “I miss it, but I’m around the game all the time. All I do is study film. I have coaches and players come to my office year-round. I get to be part of a great team at ESPN Monday Night Football. I miss the scoreboard. I miss the players, but being with [high school] kids [promoting the game], being with my kids and their friends, it’s satisfying. But I do miss the scoreboard and miss the competition, certainly.”
10a. Did You Know: The Broncos have scored just 23 points in the first quarter this season, which is the lowest total in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Patriots have scored an NFL-high 103 points in the first quarter this season.
10b. Did You Know, Part II: Despite the Broncos’ inability to light up the scoreboard in the first quarter, they lead the NFL with 143 points scored in the fourth quarter. While Belichick sometimes says stats can be twisted to serve various agendas, this one is straight forward in terms of the “start fast, finish strong” mantra to his team.