FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Zappe’s plan: If there was an offseason injury report, quarterback Bailey Zappe joked that he might put himself on it.
“I’ve been signing so many [trading] cards, it’s cramping up my wrist,” he cracked from the Panini America Rookie Closeout event in Los Angeles.
Zappe was in attendance last week with others from the 2022 draft class, a group including Patriots teammates receiver Tyquan Thornton and running back Pierre Strong Jr., and New York Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner, running back Breece Hall and receiver Garrett Wilson, among others.
The event included a leadership summit, with players also attending the Los Angeles Clippers’ 138-100 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night, one of the only NBA games Zappe has ever seen in person.
After a rookie season in which he was effective as a fill-in for injured starter Mac Jones, helping the Patriots to two victories, the fourth-round draft pick from Western Kentucky (No. 137) still pinches himself that he’d even have his own football card.
“I wasn’t really big into collecting at a young age, but of course you’d always say, ‘It would be cool to have your own card.’ Then a few of my friends bought a pack this year and pulled [my card] out. I think it’s pretty amazing,” he said.
Zappe had given his pals specific instructions: “During the season, I was like, ‘If you’re going to contact me, just text me. Don’t call, because I’m busy.’ So they sent me a picture of it.”
Zappe plans to be busy once again -- one of his offseason goals is to improve lower-body and core strength, while fine-tuning mechanics such as footwork -- but forgive him if he has allowed himself a brief respite to reflect on a wild rookie season (207 snaps, 65-of-92 for 781 yards, 5 TDs, 3 INT) that few saw coming.
Patriots QB @baileyzappe04, in LA as part of the @PaniniAmerica Rookie Closeout, on offseason goals: "I think I have a good plan set, continuing to get strong in the lower body, core wise. Fine-tune some mechanics - like footwork - that I got loose with, and get ready for April." pic.twitter.com/fvkgp7EfTJ— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) January 26, 2023
One thing he now acknowledges: The jump from college was steep.
“Joe Judge, Matty [Patricia], Bill Belichick, being surrounded by those three [coaches], I was able to learn a lot of ins and outs of coverages, defensive schemes and things like that, which coming out of college I had zero idea about. I never learned them,” he said. “To be able to have that knowledge now, to carry into next year, is going to help a lot.”
One need only look at Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers (3 p.m. ET, Fox) -- and the role 49ers rookie quarterback Brock Purdy has played after injuries to Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo -- to understand the importance of teams stacking the QB depth chart.
Jones returns as the Patriots’ starter in 2023, with plenty to prove as the team transitions to Bill O’Brien, who returns to the offensive coordinator role he had in 2011. Then there is Zappe (who turns 23 in April) and veteran Brian Hoyer (37), who had played multiple seasons under O’Brien and is guaranteed $1.4 million of his base salary.
O’Brien’s arrival means it’s a clean slate for the QBs, and Zappe has his days mapped out before returning for the voluntary offseason program in mid-April. He plans to split time between Dallas, where he trains at QB Country, and Foxborough, Massachusetts. He relayed a conversation he had with fellow players the past few days.
“We were just talking, and I said, ‘I can’t complain. I’m practically living the dream that I had when I first started playing football at 5 years old.’ For me, this is the best time of my life. There’s nothing more that I can wait for to get back in April, be with the guys, and start playing football again. There’s nothing like playing the game.”
2. Slater’s presence: Some players skip town when the season ends, while others stick around. Count Matthew Slater in the latter category. The venerable special teams captain, who is deliberating playing a 16th NFL season, has been a regular at Gillette Stadium in recent weeks.
3. Ted and Thuney: One obvious Patriots link to Sunday’s AFC Championship Game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs (6:30 p.m. ET, CBS) will be on the offensive line, with Cincinnati center Ted Karras (sixth round) and Kansas City left guard Joe Thuney (third round) having both entered the NFL with New England in 2016. Does that mean recently retired Patriots O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia will be watching?
“Heck yeah!” he said, before sharing his tales from scouting both players at NC State and Illinois, respectively.
“Joe was a left tackle who played tight end, and there was a projection: Was he stout enough to play inside? I worked him out, visited with him, and his football IQ was off the charts. There were six or seven other O-line coaches there that day, and I kept my mouth shut, but when I came back I said, ‘If there’s one guy you want to see on your team, it’s that guy.’
“I went to Ted’s pro day within a month of that, had called him to tell him I was coming -- and when I arrived, parking right near the stadium, I get out of the car and Ted was waiting for me. He says, ‘Let me show you where the offices are so you can get started.’ That doesn’t usually happen. Nate Solder did it one time. Fortunately that day, there were no other line coaches there, so I got to put him through everything, along with some scouts. I thought he was smart, really tough, and athletic enough to play any of the positions inside.
“For four years, every day, all day, they were invested, perfect guys you want to be around. No two guys are more deserving to be in the AFC Championship Game, but now as opponents.”
4. O-line coach: Now that the Patriots have rehired O’Brien as offensive coordinator, one of the next important dominoes to fall is not just who coaches the offensive line, but what terminology/system are they coaching: the 2022 version switched up by Belichick or something closer to what the Patriots did pre-2022? Oregon associate head coach Adrian Klemm, and assistant O-line coaches Mike Devlin (Ravens), Ryan Wendell (Bills) and Tony Sparano Jr. (Giants) are possibilities to consider.
5. Shrine staff: Patriots coaches Bill Belichick, Steve Belichick, Jerod Mayo, O’Brien and Judge all traveled to Las Vegas for the Shrine Bowl, helping advise as they also scout prospects. Some will head to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, early this week, while the majority of the staff stays to lead the West team in Shrine Bowl practices and the game Thursday. Here are the Shrine coaching assignments, which are designed to help coaches grow beyond their usual positions:
Head coach: Troy Brown
Offensive coordinator: Ross Douglas
OL: Vinnie Sunseri
RB: Evan Rothstein
Defensive coordinator: Mike Pellegrino/Brian Belichick
DB: V’Angelo Bentley
Assistant DL: Keith Jones (Bill Walsh fellowship/Arkansas State)
Special teams: Joe Houston
Strength & conditioning: Deron Mayo
6. Patricia’s future: Matt Patricia was notably absent from the Patriots' contingent as he sorts through what to do in 2023 -- whether to stay in New England or explore other options. Safety and longtime captain Devin McCourty said of Patricia on NBC Boston’s “Patriots Talk” podcast: “He played a huge part in my development as a football player when I was younger. I think everything he is about, his character and morals, has been cool. … There’s so many other things that go into being out there on the field, and relationships that are built, that are everlasting and help guys out tremendously. I think Matty P is one of those good guys to have around for that.”
7. Caley’s future: Similar to Patricia, the future of tight ends coach Nick Caley, who interviewed for both the Patriots' and Jets' offensive coordinator jobs that went to O’Brien and Nathaniel Hackett, respectively, bears watching. The 40-year-old Caley, who has spent his past eight seasons in New England and whose contract is set to expire, also isn’t with the team in Las Vegas. Players and fellow coaches speak highly of him.
8. Bills’ study: The Bills have won the AFC East the past three years, making them a top team the Patriots have to beat, and so the Bengals’ 27-10 win over Buffalo in the divisional round is a worthy study for them. How did the Bengals hold the Bills to their lowest scoring output of the season? One thing that stood out is that Cincinnati consistently generated pressure with the standard four rushers (15 QB hits), and similar to New England’s approach, often disguised where the fourth rusher was coming from to create confusion for Buffalo’s O-line. On 44 dropbacks, I counted just 10 plays in which the Bengals sent more than four rushers at Allen.
9. Marcus’ mindset: “I like to be defense, whether it’s slot or outside. I’m a defensive back first. However I can help the team after that -- offense or special teams -- I’m cool with that as well.” – Patriots 2022 third-round cornerback Marcus Jones, to the Jim Rome Show, when asked where he’d like to make the biggest impact in 2023
10. Did You Know: Jones is one of just 10 players to score on offense, defense and special teams in their career, joining Deion Sanders, George Martin, Nolan Cromwell, Terence Newman, Bobby Humphrey, William White, Mike Fuller and Chris Moore.