FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Ranking top needs: The major activity in free agency has subsided, and while that doesn’t stop teams from signing players or making trades, the core of the Patriots’ roster is set.
Thus, here is one view of a ranking of the top short- and long-term needs entering the 2023 NFL draft on April 27-29.
Offensive tackle: Trent Brown and free agent signings Riley Reiff and Calvin Anderson top the depth chart. Anderson, veteran Conor McDermott and 2022 seventh-round pick Andrew Stueber are the only players under contract beyond 2023.
Cornerback: Jalen Mills sticking around on a revised one-year deal helps, even if he adopts more of a hybrid role with safety responsibilities. Prevalent questions are how much the team believes it can count on 2022 fourth-round pick Jack Jones after he finished last season on the team suspension list -- and how important it is to target a player with more size/length.
Receiver: DeVante Parker, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Tyquan Thornton and Kendrick Bourne are the top four, with Parker and Bourne in the final year of their respective contracts.
Defensive tackle: Promising 2021 second-round pick Christian Barmore is coming off an injury-filled campaign, and 33-year-old Lawrence Guy is closer to the end of his career, entering his 12th NFL season, alongside returning starter Davon Godchaux.
Outside linebacker/edge: Matthew Judon, Deatrich Wise Jr., Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings are back at a premium position, with Uche and Jennings set for free agency after 2023.
Tight end: Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki are scheduled for free agency after the 2023 season, the No. 3 spot on the depth chart is wide open, and NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah called this the best tight end draft class he’s seen in the past 10 years.
Inside linebacker: Ja’Whaun Bentley, whom assistant coach Jerod Mayo referred to as one of the most underrated players in the NFL, enters the final year of his deal. Fellow starter Jahlani Tavai is the only linebacker signed beyond 2023.
Safety: Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, Jabrill Peppers and Joshuah Bledsoe return, with Dugger scheduled for free agency after the 2023 season. It will be intriguing to see how coach Bill Belichick fills the void created by Devin McCourty’s retirement, and if he feels the need for more of a center-field-type option.
Specialists: Recently signed Corliss Waitman should expect competition at punter. Likewise with veteran kicker Nick Folk.
Center/guard: Continuity with longtime captain David Andrews flanked by 2022 first-round pick Cole Strange (left) and Mike Onwenu (right), with Onwenu entering the final year of his contract.
Quarterback: Eyeing a No. 3 in the developmental pipeline behind Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe.
Running back: Rhamondre Stevenson, James Robinson and Pierre Strong Jr. all have multiple years left on their respective contracts, and 2022 sixth-round pick Kevin Harris and veteran Ty Montgomery are also on the depth chart.
2. Long odds: Las Vegas doesn’t believe in New England, which is 70-1 to win the Super Bowl this season, per Caesars Sportsbook, the Patriots' longest preseason Super Bowl odds under Belichick (2000-present). According to SportsOddsHistory.com, it’s the franchise’s longest preseason Super Bowl odds since 1993, when it was 100-1. From the silver-lining department: The last time the Patriots entered a season at least 50-1 to win the Super Bowl was 2001 … and they won their first title with Belichick and Tom Brady (20-17 over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI).
3. NFL annual meeting: The NFL’s annual owners meeting takes place Monday and Tuesday in Arizona, and the expectation is that Belichick will address reporters at the AFC breakfast on Monday. It would be Belichick’s first news conference since Jan. 9, the day after the team’s season-ending 35-23 loss to the Bills. Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who last year made headlines by saying he was frustrated the team’s last playoff win was Super Bowl LIII (2018 season), is also expected to answer questions from reporters.
4. Corner marker: ESPN senior draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. loves the 2023 cornerback class, calling it the “deepest position in the draft, by far” last week. He opined that as many as 35-40 corners can play in the NFL, which begs a question for the Patriots: Would it be wiser to wait beyond pick No. 14 at that position?
Kiper projected Penn State cornerback Joey Porter Jr. -- a longer, physical prospect to pair with the team’s current smaller personnel -- as his current Patriots pick. But he also said Ohio State receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba would be hard to pass up at 14, even after he missed most of last season with a hamstring injury. Calling him “silky smooth,” Kiper pointed out Smith-Njigba had more receptions and receiving yards than 2022 first-round picks Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave when they were together in 2021.
5. Mac’s presence: Five current players were in attendance at McCourty’s retirement news conference on Tuesday: Jones, Bentley, Bledsoe and offensive linemen Kody Russey and Bill Murray. Seeing Jones, in particular, seemed to make an impression on McCourty, who said: “I look at my guy Mac here, first row, here to support me. I know the team has great leadership because of a guy like him.”
6. JuJu’s incentives: Smith-Schuster has $7 million in incentives in his three-year, $33 million contract with the Patriots, which is a higher total than the norm. He can earn $750,000 for 950 receiving yards this season, and an additional $750,000 for 1,110 receiving yards. Then, for 2024 and 2025, reaching 800, 950 and 1,100 receiving yards would earn him an additional $1 million for each level -- for a potential total of $3 million (for 1,100 yards) each season. Smith-Schuster eclipsed 950 receiving yards just once in his six-year career, when he had 1,426 in his second NFL season with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
7. Scar’s honor: Longtime Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia received a call from former NFL assistants Terry Robiskie and Jimmy Raye a few weeks ago, informing him that he was receiving an "Award of Excellence" from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This is the second year the Hall has given out the awards, with Scarnecchia one of 17 to be honored at an evening reception on June 28 and awards luncheon on June 29, emceed by Dan Fouts.
“Flattered beyond words,” Scarnecchia said of his reaction to the phone call. “You don’t ever think anything like this would ever happen to you. Our family is very excited; I look forward to the ceremony and all that goes with it.”
8. Bailey’s side: Former Patriots punter Jake Bailey, who signed with the Dolphins last week, told South Florida reporters that his back injury from 2022 was a result of too many squats in New England’s strength and conditioning program -- a change from his usual routine. He also relayed that his grievance with the team had been resolved. Bailey didn’t divulge reasons for his team suspension late last season, saying there was “confusion,” which sources close to the situation say were related to differing viewpoints on if Bailey was ready to return to game action and handle his full-time role on punts, kickoffs and holding.
9. They said it: “I’ll leave you with a quote I heard [NBA legend] Bill Russell say as I watched his documentary. He said if he left his kids with a million dollars, he really would have left them with nothing. But if he teaches them how to be better people and how to live life the right way, then he gives them everything. All of you gave me the opportunity to live life the right way, and I’m proud to say I’m a father of three, and because of you, I’ll be able to show them how to live the right way. I want to say, ‘Thank you.’” -- McCourty, concluding his remarks at his retirement news conference.
10. Did you know: When former Patriots running back Damien Harris signed a one-year deal with the Bills on March 21, it capped off a 10-day stretch when nine players went from one AFC East team to another within the division, per ESPN Stats & Information. In addition to Harris, the others were receiver Trent Sherfield (Dolphins to Bills), tight end Gesicki (Dolphins-Patriots), running back Robinson (Jets-Patriots), quarterback Mike White (Jets-Dolphins), receiver Braxton Berrios (Jets-Dolphins), guard Dan Feeney (Jets-Dolphins) and punters Bailey (Patriots-Dolphins) and Thomas Morstead (Dolphins-Jets).