Quick-hit thoughts around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Draft intrigue starts at QB: The Patriots hired Eliot Wolf as a personnel consultant in February, bringing an outside perspective to their scouting process. Wolf's arrival, and his experience in the 2005 NFL draft with the Green Bay Packers, coincidentally intersects with the most compelling question in this year's draft: When will the Patriots select a quarterback?
Wolf was in his second season as a pro personnel assistant in Green Bay, where his father Ron had served as the team's longtime respected general manager, when the unthinkable unfolded.
The Packers were picking at No. 24, and while they weren't locked in on selecting Brett Favre's future replacement, Aaron Rodgers unexpectedly slid into their laps. The 49ers selected quarterback Alex Smith No. 1 overall and all the Packers had to do was wait for a history-altering pick.
If ever there is a story that highlights how strange things can happen in the draft with quarterbacks -- because usually only a limited number of teams are in the market in the early rounds -- that's the signature one.
Andrew Brandt, who was a vice president with the Packers that year, remembers vividly how the unusual situation unfolded.
"The 17, 18, 19 players we had rated as first-round grades, all but one were off the board well before our pick. We wanted DeMarcus Ware. We wanted Derrick Johnson. They're all gone. And the other thing that's happening is no one is taking Rodgers.
"I think a few picks before ours, we had this real sense that we are going to be looking at a board that has one name in the first [round] and he plays the position where we have the most durable player in the history of the sport -- in his prime. So what are we going to do?" said Brandt, who now serves as the executive director of sports law at the Moorad Center at Villanova and writes columns for Sports Illustrated.
"My role as player finance, and cap and contracts, kind of puts me in the middle. The coaches are on my right side, saying, 'Oh no, there's no way, we can't do this.' You know, coaches are judged by the short-term and they're looking at us taking a player that wasn't going to play for us that year, maybe not the next year, maybe never. Then on the management side, where Eliot, and John Dorsey and John Schneider and [GM] Ted Thompson were, the feeling was 'What do we always say? Trust the board.'"
They're sure glad they did. And while a repeat of that scenario seems unlikely this year, the Patriots only need to consult with their new consultant to remind themselves that anything is possible. New England is picking at No. 23, and with just Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer on the roster, the question is less "if" the Patriots select a quarterback, but "when."
LSU's Joe Burrow isn't sliding into striking distance, but could Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa or Oregon's Justin Herbert do so in a Rodgers-like surprise? And if that happens, is a first-round investment worthwhile with notable needs elsewhere?
These are scenarios coach Bill Belichick and his staff go through as the draft approaches, focusing on team needs across the NFL. The Cincinnati Bengals (No. 1 overall pick), Miami Dolphins (Nos. 5, 18 and 26) and Los Angeles Chargers (No. 6) are clubs that very likely could be in the early-round quarterback market. The Carolina Panthers (No. 7), Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 9), Las Vegas Raiders (Nos. 12 and 19), Indianapolis Colts (Nos. 34 and 44) and Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 49) are others that come to mind.
2. Best QB fit: Credibility matters. So when ESPN's Matt Bowen wrote before last year's draft that Stidham was the best QB fit for the Patriots, and then the Patriots selected Stidham in the fourth round (No. 133), it made me seek out Bowen's opinion of this year's crop of signal-callers. Bowen's choice for the Patriots: Washington's Jacob Eason. The obvious follow-up -- there is no relation to former Patriots quarterback Tony Eason (although his dad, Tony, played wide receiver for Notre Dame). Eason projects as a Day 2 pick.
3. Introducing the offseason 'MVITP': When the Patriots were preparing to face the Dolphins in the 2019 regular-season finale at Gillette Stadium, Miami coach Brian Flores spent time leading up to the game reflecting on some of the daily interactions and relationships he missed now that he's no longer in New England. One name he specifically mentioned: Dan Famosi.
Fast-forward to this past week when Belichick was answering questions from reporters about how he has adjusted to an unprecedented football offseason, and he said, "Dan Famosi has done a tremendous job for us."
So, who is Dan Famosi?
He is an information technology specialist in Patriots football operations. Famosi was hired by the organization in 2000 as a senior developer and moved to his current position in 2013, after having served as a senior analyst for Hills Department Stores from 1994 to 2000.
With Belichick set to conduct this year's draft from home, like everyone else in the NFL, Famosi has ensured he's well set-up to do so. Belichick also noted Famosi's role in supporting all coaches and scouts, in addition to the team's playbook and preparing for the virtual offseason program.
"So there really are a lot of moving parts, and Dan's tried to pull a lot of things together and remotely help out people like me that need a lot of help," the technology-challenged Belichick said.
Call Famosi the Patriots' MVITP -- a most valuable IT professional.
4. Harry works out with former teammate Perkins: The Patriots are, naturally, hoping that 2019 first-round draft pick N'Keal Harry makes a big leap in his second season, and Harry has reconnected with an old teammate this offseason in hopes of putting himself in the best position to do so. Harry caught some passes from 2020 draft prospect Bryce Perkins this week. The two were teammates at Chandler High, leading the team to its first state championship. Perkins, who began his career at Arizona State before ultimately landing at Virginia, is viewed by some as a Taysom Hill-type prospect with quarterback/athlete/receiver type skills (likely a Day 3 pick or undrafted free-agent).
5a. Better distribution of assets on the radar: The Patriots have a big hole between their initial two selections in the draft (Nos. 23 and 87) as a result of shipping their second-rounder (55) to the Atlanta Falcons last year to fill a need with veteran receiver Mohamed Sanu. It's hard to imagine Belichick won't be motivated to close that gap in some form, working through any technological or communication hurdles on the trade front. The Patriots have made 42 draft-day trades since 2010, which easily leads the NFL over that span. The Vikings (35), 49ers (32) and Eagles (30) are the only other teams with more than 30.
5b. Thuney holds all the leverage: With the Patriots tight against the salary cap (about $1 million in space), and having surprisingly assigned the franchise tag to starting left guard Joe Thuney at the top-of-the-market figure of $14.78 million, Thuney's future with the franchise bears watching during the draft. If a guard-needy team is willing to deal a second- or high third-rounder to help fill in the Patriots' draft board, that would have to be something Belichick seriously considers with the knowledge that the sides haven't been close to an extension. Thuney holds notable leverage because of the high franchise-tag figure.
5c. Closer look at the financial crunch: Jason Fitzgerald of OverTheCap.com nicely detailed the strain on New England's financial picture, in context to the rest of the NFL. The Patriots will need about $2.8 million in space to sign their rookie class, and they currently have slightly more than $1 million in space.
6. Parcells and the Patriots Hall of Fame: The annual Patriots Hall of Fame committee meeting took place Monday, this time virtually, and one of the things that stood out to me from the discussion was the potential for renewed momentum for coach Bill Parcells. And it pleasantly surprised me. I can't think of someone whose candidacy has been more polarizing than Parcells', which I wrote about in 2014 when he was a finalist for the third time in four years. Some swear by him. Others swear at him. I respect both positions, while acknowledging that I am more forgiving than some for his Patriots sins (e.g. how he left the franchise was obviously not Hall of Fame-caliber). So I include Parcells on my three-person ballot each year. And after five straight years of his candidacy not making the cut among finalists, I left Monday's meeting thinking there was a chance he could be one of the final three, alongside the other two on my ballot: Richard Seymour (three-time finalist) and Mike Vrabel (four-time finalist).
7. New jerseys on Patriots Day: Unlike the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns and Falcons, who unveiled entirely new uniform sets this offseason, the Patriots haven't contributed much hype to the jersey changes they will be unveiling in 2020. Instead, they made a modest announcement on Friday to stay tuned. Those changes, which have been described by those in the know as more subtle, will be announced Monday through the team's social media. The date is fitting: Monday is Patriots Day, the annual holiday in Massachusetts in which schools and most businesses are closed to commemorate the battles of Lexington and Concord, which were fought near Boston in 1775.
New uniforms: Patriots Day 2020 pic.twitter.com/mpXSoTqT5n— New England Patriots (@Patriots) April 17, 2020
8. Well stocked for 2021 draft: As the Patriots prepare for this year's draft, not to be overlooked is the draft capital they have already accrued for 2021. They have original picks in every round, as well as two additional sixth-rounders from trading away Michael Bennett and Demaryius Thomas. In addition, Nick Korte projects they will receive a compensatory third-round pick (Tom Brady) and two compensatory fourth-rounders (Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins).
9. Belichick's link to NFL's longest win streaks: With Caesars Sportsbook setting the Patriots' win total at 8.5, it forecasts that the franchise's streak of winning seasons will end at 19. That would preserve the Cowboys' streak of 20 straight winning seasons from 1966 to 1985 as the longest in league history. There is an obvious link to Belichick in both streaks, as the Cowboys were 6-2 in the 1986 season when they faced the Giants, for whom Belichick was defensive coordinator. Giants linebacker Carl Banks sacked quarterback Danny White in that game, with White breaking his wrist -- an injury that dramatically changed the trajectory of the Cowboys' season. They lost seven of their final eight games.
10. Virtual offseason program: With the NFL and the NFL Players Association agreeing to modified offseason workout rules last week, it clears a path for the Patriots to officially begin their virtual offseason program on April 27. This is good news for players who have significant workout bonuses in their contracts, such as receiver Julian Edelman ($300,000), and for coaches like Belichick who use the spring to teach in hopes of putting players in the best position to compete come training camp. Some have compared this offseason to what teams experienced during the 2011 lockout offseason, but Belichick noted that having a virtual program is a big difference. "I do think we can get a lot of teaching done that we weren't able to do nine, 10 years ago," he said, pointing out that coaches couldn't have any contact with players in 2011. Belichick noted the biggest similarity to the lockout year will be with on-field fundamentals and timing at training camp, as players won't have the same base to fall back on that they would have had otherwise in the spring.