FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. QB checkpoints: Timing and leverage are often two of the most important factors for striking deals, and they are at the heart of the Patriots' current quarterback decision-making approach.
Coach Bill Belichick is sometimes fond of saying "Last time I checked, our first game isn't until September." That basically explains why the Patriots are pressing the QB "pause" button at the moment, with owner Robert Kraft expressing support for Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham in 2021, while also acknowledging the team has to solidify the position long-term.
Here are three key checkpoints to watch:
Draft (April 29-May 1): Selecting at No. 15 in the 2021 NFL draft, the Patriots likely won't be in position to land a top prospect unless they move up. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has them jumping to No. 11 to pick Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields in his most recent mock draft. But the QB class goes beyond the top five of Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Mac Jones, Trey Lance and Fields. And if the Patriots follow a path similar to what they did in 2014 with Jimmy Garoppolo (second round, No. 62) -- with Florida's Kyle Trask, Stanford's Davis Mills, Texas A&M's Kellen Mond and Wake Forest's Jamie Newman among the second-tier options -- they could go into 2021 with Newton/Stidham/prospect, hold firm, and see where the chips fall.
End of organized team activities/start of training camp (mid June/late July): At this point, the San Francisco 49ers would have a better grasp of their comfort level with their No. 3 overall pick, and if it might be realistic to turn the team over to him. If so, that could lessen their asking price for Garoppolo. In turn, the Patriots will also have more information on Newton and Stidham from OTAs to gauge if their offseason analysis that both could be the answer in 2021 has merit. That intelligence would dictate how far the Patriots might be willing to extend in a potential trade offer.
Opening weekend (early September): Once Garoppolo is on the 49ers' roster for the first game of the season, his $24.1 million salary is guaranteed. That's a true leverage point to see how committed the 49ers are to carrying both Garoppolo and the No. 3 pick for the 2021 season -- especially when considering future extensions for defensive cornerstones Fred Warner and Nick Bosa. It also assumes Garoppolo doesn't force his exit before that point, which as of now, doesn't seem to be part of his thinking. This might be late from a Patriots standpoint, but given Garoppolo's background in the system, still tenable for a player they view favorably.
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2. Culture starts at top: Kraft's conference call with reporters Wednesday, as part of his annual Q&A at the time of the NFL's owners meetings, struck a chord from the standpoint the culture of every organization starts at the top. Kraft was direct, passionate and even critical at times (e.g. the team's recent draft results). Some organizations might accept a 7-9 season as part of the ebb and flow of an NFL structure that is geared toward everyone being 8-8. Kraft, who has spent an NFL-record $165 million in guaranteed money since free-agent negotiating began March 15, made it clear the Patriots do not.
3. McDaniels and QBs: It wasn't a coincidence Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was present at Alabama's pro day Tuesday, followed by Florida's on Wednesday. It gave him a close-up look at Jones, followed by Trask, and highlighted how he will be a leading voice as the Patriots consider draft options. While it now seems clear Jones won't be available for New England, there is still value in getting the most thorough scouting report to provide a comparison point to other QB prospects.
4. Patriots' 'different' approach: One popular follow-up question from Kraft's comments was about his belief he has seen a "different approach" with the team's draft-based scouting. What exactly is different? Other than Dave Ziegler earning a promotion following Nick Caserio's departure to become Texans GM, the staff essentially remains intact, with Ziegler having previously mentioned Eliot Wolf, Steve Cargile and Brian Smith among those playing notable roles in the transition. Matt Patricia is also making his presence felt. Perhaps that's what Kraft meant when he said of free agency: "This was a team effort on the part of our personnel department. There's three or four [who were] very active with Bill. They were so thorough."
5. Stability counts: While Kraft's remarks on the team's recent drafts could be viewed as a challenge of sorts to Belichick, not to be overlooked was something Kraft also said about how much he values their extended time together. "He's been with us for 21 years. He's maybe the best ever to do it. I don't think [stability and] continuity in coaches in the modern era has been stable. I'm pretty happy with our working relationship." Belichick is easily the NFL's longest-tenured head coach followed by Sean Payton (Saints, 15 years) and Mike Tomlin (Steelers, 14 years).
6. Times change: In a reminder of how times change, former Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli was reflecting on the team's 2001 free-agent splurge on "The Peter King Podcast," noting how it was 23 players signed for a total of $2.5 million in signing bonus money, and there were no private planes and limos on the recruiting visits. Those prices don't exist today, and the in-person visits are mostly a thing of the past.
7. Meritocracy returns: One other point Pioli made about the early years that has relevance today was when he said: "The New England Patriot model was really meritocracy. The best players were going to play." Because of a decline in overall talent in recent years, there wasn't as much internal competition at various positions to allow that type of meritocracy to truly manifest itself. Now, with an infusion of free-agent talent across several positions, and what the Patriots hope will be a productive draft, the thinking among some in the organization is that they can get back to that.
8. Draft nugget: The Patriots own 10 selections in the draft, which is the type of volume they have grown accustomed to. Since the draft was shortened to seven rounds in 1993, they have selected at least 10 players in 13 of 28 drafts. The highest total of selections the Patriots have made is 13, in 1996. That was followed by 12 picks in both 2009 and 2010.
9. Ticket value: When a team raises ticket prices, it usually results in a headline. In the spirit of fairness, there should be a headline when ticket prices not only remain flat, but the value of season-ticket holders' 10-game package increases with the addition of a ninth regular-season game in 2021 in place of a second preseason game. That's what happened last week for Patriots season-ticket holders; like a stock portfolio gaining value without having to make an additional investment.
10. Did you know: The Patriots' 29 trades in the 2019 to 2021 calendar years are the most in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information, followed by the Dolphins (26), Raiders (20) and Seahawks (20).