AFC East: Bill Belichick

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- AFC East

July, 3, 2014
Jul 3
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New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has job security. His three counterparts in the AFC East? Not so much.

Rex Ryan landed a contract extension this offseason, but don't let that fool you. He will have reason to be nervous if the New York Jets miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. The Buffalo Bills' 6-10 record last season wasn't ominous for Doug Marrone -- that was just his first year on the job. But with an ownership change on the horizon, a failure to improve in 2014 might not bode well for Marrone.

Then there is Joe Philbin of the Miami Dolphins. He survived a bullying scandal that took place in his locker room and on his practice field. A late-season collapse that cost Miami a playoff berth couldn't sink Philbin, not when you consider the adversity the team fought through just to be in contention. But now Philbin enters his third year, when a lot is expected of a regime. He is likely out of second chances.

The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the AFC East hot seat and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.

First Down

Which AFC East coach enters camp on the hottest seat?



Rich Cimini: Doug Marrone's seat is lukewarm and Rex Ryan's is warm. Joe Philbin? Let's just say his tush is feeling extreme heat. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised he survived last season's debacle. Not only did the Dolphins collapse down the stretch to blow a playoff spot, but they became a national punchline because of the bullying scandal. The mess cost general manager Jeff Ireland his job, but Philbin emerged as the Teflon Man. He has now run out of mulligans. Philbin is working for a new GM, Dennis Hickey, and it's hard to imagine him returning in 2015 if the Dolphins miss the playoffs again. Philbin is an offensive-minded coach, but his offense -- quarterback Ryan Tannehill, in particular -- has shown no improvement. ... We would mention Bill Belichick's seat, except it's really not a seat. In this division, it's a throne.

Mike Reiss: Is it possible for someone to go from a Coach of the Year candidate last December to the hot seat in late July? It shouldn't be, but that is the situation in which Dolphins coach Joe Philbin finds himself. I thought Philbin deserved a lot of credit for keeping things together last season, and after the Dolphins beat the Patriots in mid-December many were singing his praises. But the team sputtered the final two weeks of the season and now Philbin, entering his third season, could be viewed as having the hottest seat among AFC East coaches. Crazy business, this NFL.

Mike Rodak: This is a close race between Rex Ryan, Doug Marrone and Joe Philbin. Ryan faces the tough scrutiny of the New York market, and if the Jets' combo of quarterbacks Geno Smith and Michael Vick doesn't pan out, Ryan could be gone, despite his contract extension this year. In Buffalo, a pending ownership change naturally puts Marrone's future in doubt. I don't think CEO Russ Brandon or general manager Doug Whaley would fire Marrone even if things don't go well this season, but their voices might not matter if a new owner wants sweeping changes. In Miami, new GM Hickey has given Philbin his vote of approval, but how long will that last? If I had to pick one situation where the head coach's job is most in question, it's Philbin with the Dolphins.

James Walker: Miami's Joe Philbin has the hottest seat in the AFC East. After going a combined 15-17 his first two seasons, this year is really playoffs or bust for Philbin. He was fortunate to survive last year's late-season collapse and major locker-room issues with the bullying scandal that embarrassed the franchise. General manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and others lost their jobs, but Miami owner Stephen Ross offered Philbin one more opportunity to prove he's the right coach for the team. The key for Philbin will be winning within the division. He is 4-8 against AFC East teams, and that won't cut it this season.


Second Down

Which of your team's positional battles intrigues you the most?



Cimini: No question, it's the quarterback situation even though Geno Smith versus Michael Vick isn't a true open competition. No matter, it's still a compelling story, one that will create many headlines in training camp. It's Smith's job to lose, but I'm curious to gauge his development now that he has had a full season and a full offseason to immerse himself in the offense. More than anything, he should be better at seeing the field and reading defenses. How will he handle the pressure of knowing there is a capable replacement if he falters? Let's be honest, he never had to deal with that as a rookie. If Smith is outplayed by Vick, it will put the coaches in a delicate position. Clearly, they want Smith to be the starter, but they also have to consider the possible message it sends. If the best guy isn't playing, it's bad form. One position, so many fascinating subplots.

Reiss: Receiver looks like the Patriots' most compelling position battle. They are counting on big-time improvement from second-year players Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), while big 2013 free-agent signing Danny Amendola will be looking to prove he can stay healthy and recapture the magic we saw in the 2013 season opener. Veterans Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are also expected to play significant roles, and can slippery-quick seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon be a sleeper? Lots of questions to answer.

Rodak: The starting spot that seems most up for grabs in Buffalo this offseason is at safety. Who will start opposite Aaron Williams? The Bills lost Jairus Byrd and didn't address the loss in free agency or the draft, instead putting their faith in two of their draft selections from last season -- Duke Williams (fourth round) and Jonathan Meeks (fifth round) -- as well as a more experienced veteran, Da'Norris Searcy. With Aaron Williams recovering from shoulder surgery for most of organized team activities, we didn't get a great feel for which player had the best shot to win Byrd's old job. In the few times that Williams was on the field, it was Searcy lining up with the first team, but Duke Williams and Meeks also got reps with the first unit throughout OTAs. It's a battle that will continue into training camp.

Walker: The Dolphins have a few good position battles, but I am most intrigued by the competition to be the slot receiver because of the immense depth at the position. The Dolphins have Brandon Gibson, Rishard Matthews and rookie second-round pick Jarvis Landry all competing for one spot. In addition, these receivers have different styles. Gibson is more detailed and cerebral. He gets open with his route-running. Matthews is the biggest and most physical receiver of the bunch. Landry is sort of a combination of the two, but he lacks blazing speed. I think all three are capable of handling the position. It's just a matter of who performs the best and which style the coaching staff prefers.


Third Down

Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?



Cimini: For several reasons, it should be Quinton Coples. After two nondescript seasons, it's time to turn potential into production -- and he knows it. The talent is there. With Coples, whose work ethic was questioned when he came out of North Carolina, it is a matter of want-to. Does he want to be great? The former first-round pick was slowed last season by a position change ("rush" linebacker) and a fractured ankle in the preseason, which cost him three games. Now he should be comfortable at the position and he dropped weight in the offseason, which should help his quickness on the edge as a pass-rusher. Coples has the ability to turn a middling pass rush into a very good one.

Reiss: With the Patriots bolstering their secondary with Darrelle Revis, a player like third-year defensive end Chandler Jones could be a primary beneficiary of better coverage. He had six sacks as a rookie and followed that up with 11.5 last season. Could he hit 15 this season? As long as he stays healthy, it wouldn't surprise me.

Rodak: There was no shortage of breakout performers for the Bills last season, especially on defense. Defensive end Jerry Hughes, cornerback Leodis McKelvin, safety Aaron Williams and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus all enjoyed the best seasons. This season, I see two strong candidates for breakout performances: wide receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Woods had a strong start to last season -- he was a candidate for NFL rookie of the month in September -- but a revolving door at quarterback and a late-season ankle injury hampered his progress. If quarterback EJ Manuel bounces back from his up-and-down rookie season, Woods could stand to benefit. I would give him the edge to break out over Gilmore, a former first-round pick who was limited by a wrist injury most of last season but is among the better cornerbacks in the division when healthy.

Walker: Last season the Dolphins saw significant returns from a second-year defensive end, Olivier Vernon. He led the Dolphins with 11.5 sacks and really came on strong in 2013. So I'm going to stick with the same position and the same experience level and go with current second-year defensive end Dion Jordan. The Dolphins got little return for their No. 3 overall pick last year -- he had just 26 tackles and two sacks. But I like what I saw from Jordan during organized team activities and minicamp. Jordan hit the weight room hard this offseason and bulked up about 17 pounds. He's much stronger, which is key because Miami's coaching staff was concerned about Jordan's ability to stuff the run. Jordan should put up better numbers and be an all-around better player. His biggest issue is getting playing time behind Vernon and Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake.


Fourth Down

How many years do you think Tom Brady has left?



Cimini: No doubt, Jets fans will celebrate the day Brady decides to call it quits. Statistically, he's in a two-year decline, but he played with such a patchwork receiving corps last season that it's hard to say he is going south. Brady, who turns 37 in August, should have at least two more Brady-like seasons. I'm basing that on recent history. After all, John Elway won his second Super Bowl at 38 -- and promptly retired. It's rare in the modern era for a quarterback to play well beyond 38. Brett Favre had a great year at 40, and Warren Moon enjoyed a good year at 38, but the examples are few and far between. The Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round for a reason. Brady is signed through 2017, but I'd be mildly surprised if he's still around at the age of 40.

Reiss: I'm not going to be the one who bets against Tom Brady. I still see him playing at a high level through the completion of his current contract in 2017, and based on the way he takes care of his body, the dedication to his craft, and the desire to play as long as possible, I could see him going the Warren Moon route and playing into his 40s. It's all contingent on good health, but will Tom Brady still be slinging passes and winning games in the year 2020? Yup.

Rodak: I would peg Brady's window at 3-4 years. In the past, he has spoken about his fear of the "abyss" that will follow his playing career. Yet we've also seen him in the public eye as a father in recent years and I think he would embrace that role in retirement. The bigger question is whether Bill Belichick would ever "move on" from Brady or simply allow him to play -- and start -- as long as he'd like. Belichick is markedly unemotional when he makes personnel decisions, so I don't think he would necessarily let Brady dictate when his career ends. Even if Belichick's final season coincides with Brady's, I think Belichick would want to leave the organization in a good spot. That could mean handing over the reins to a younger starter if the situation calls for it.

Walker: I covered Brady for two seasons as ESPN.com's AFC East reporter. To me, he has always come off as a player who wished he could play football forever. You would be surprised how many NFL players are not that way. Brady isn't motivated by money or fame. I think there is a genuine love for the game and thirst for competition that will be hard for Brady to let go. That is why I expect Brady to hold on for as long as he can. I expect two or three more quality seasons, but I wouldn't be surprised if Brady tries to go longer. I think Brady is too competitive to walk away on his own. Father Time might have to pull him away from the NFL.

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Hall of Famer Curtis Martin, one of the central figures in the New York Jets-New England Patriots rivalry over the past 20 years, said Monday it would be a significant advantage for the Patriots if they have a copy of Rex Ryan's playbook.

Since PlaybookGate erupted last Thursday, most experts have downplayed the potential impact of having an opponent's playbook. Not Martin, who responded this way when asked if it could help coach Bill Belichick:

"Oh, tremendously, to be honest with you," Martin told ESPN.com at the Big Daddy Celebrity Golf Classic at Oheka Castle in Huntington, New York. "What most people don't understand is that football is a science. There are little signals and little movements from one person that can give an indication on where the entire play is going. I think it can have a tremendous effect on a game. If we're playing chess and I understand all of your moves before you make them, my probability of winning is pretty high."

Martin said he wasn't taken aback by Ryan's decision to give a playbook to Alabama coach Nick Saban, whom former Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine suspects may have passed it along to Belichick. Martin figures that sort of stuff goes on between coaches. Belichick, he said, doesn't need any help.

"Belichick is one of those football savants," he said. "He (understands) the game, especially from a defensive perspective, at a different level. Does he need it? No. Does he have it? I don't know. I don't think so. Who knows? I don't like to talk on things that are assumptions. If they come out and say Belichick has the book, I'd say, yeah, it makes a big difference."

Patriots safety Devin McCourty said he laughed when he first heard the story.

"I have no idea about any of that," said McCourty, who also attended the charity golf outing. "I feel like to comment on it keeps the nonsense going."

Another person with knowledge of the Jets-Patriots rivalry, Eric Mangini, said the benefit of having an opponent's playbook would be minimal.

"There may be some value from an off-season perspective, but you still have to get through the terminology and you have to get through the adjustments," said the former Jets coach and ex-Patriots assistant. "Ideally, you have someone in the system that can take you through it. From a weekly perspective, it would be hard to get much (useful information) because you can't be sure that what's in there is what you're going to see."

Mangini is the broken branch on Belichick's coaching tree. He was cut off when he reported Belichick's illegal spying tactics to the league, resulting in SpyGate. So, yes, he can relate to the Pettine-Ryan situation. He's not sure why Pettine revealed such information, but Mangini believes it has been blown out of proportion by the media. Asked if he's ever given a playbook to a friend or colleague outside his organization, he paused for a moment.

"Typically, I haven't done that," he said, "but I don't think it's so far out of the range of what happens."

Another undefeated season at home?

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
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NFL Network's "NFL-AM" show keeps the football discussion going on a daily basis, and Friday morning it sparked a discussion on the New England Patriots' excellence at home.

Since 2002, the Patriots are 92-18 at home (including playoffs), which is the best mark in the NFL. They went 9-0 last year.

SportsNation

Will the Patriots go undefeated at home in 2014?

  •  
    69%
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    31%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,972)

So could another undefeated regular season be possible?

That was the question tossed out for discussion by host Molly Qerim, as analysts Steve Wyche, Jordan Babineaux and Shawne Merriman opined on a home slate that includes the Bills, Dolphins, Jets, Broncos, Bears, Bengals, Lions and Raiders.

Babineaux: "The answer is no ... As long as Rex [Ryan] is in that division I'm always going to give the Jets an opportunity and a chance to beat Tom Brady and the Patriots. I think Rex Ryan comes up with the best game-plan for Tom Brady."

Merriman: "Another team that's on that [schedule] is Denver. They have two outside pass-rushers now in DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, who is probably going to come back healthy. Now you're looking at an offense that can put up points, I don't see [the Patriots] getting a win over those guys at home. It's just too much."

Wyche: "I have them going 7-1, but I have them losing to the Chicago Bears. That defense is going to be better this year. I know the Patriots have [Darrelle] Revis. I know they have Brandon Browner. But Chicago has a whole lot of other weapons there, and if it's cold, it doesn't matter [to them]. So I like Chicago."

At that point, Qerim said, "I know the chances are slim, but you can never count out Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. There's always a chance."

Lighter moments with Bill Belichick

March, 25, 2014
Mar 25
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Bill Belichick chatted with reporters for about 45 minutes at Tuesday's AFC Coaches Breakfast and the Q&A was most expansive when the subject was rule proposals and football concepts, and light on specifics as it related to the New England Patriots.

Belichick
We'll get to all that shortly, but before we do, let's recap some of the lighter moments as Belichick arrived, placed his Florida Gators visor on the table, and mentioned that eating breakfast wasn't on his agenda.

"How are we doing here?" he asked the media crowd that included five cameras (one live-streaming the breakfast online) and at least 20 reporters crowded around. "A lot more [sun] here than we have in Boston."

On the cost issue of the NFL potentially installing cameras at all boundary lines to aid instant replay: "We just spent however many millions of dollars on the replay system. I mean, there are 1,000 cameras in every stadium, so if somebody spills a beer on somebody, we have it on record, right? Maybe we could have a bake sale to raise some money for the cameras. We could do a car wash."

On supporting the Florida Gators basketball team: "Shout out to Billy [Donovan] here. Going to the Sweet 16."

On why he was the only coach not present for Monday's traditional photo: "I missed it. Maybe they can photoshop me in there."

While Belichick had a few witty one-liners ready, there was one point where he trended in the other direction. Asked if there was a timetable for tight end Rob Gronkowski's return, Belichick said, "Are you seriously asking that question?"

He wasn't smiling at that point.

Belichick: Should verify with Vince

March, 25, 2014
Mar 25
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- When a reporter asked Bill Belichick about defensive tackle Vince Wilfork's request to be released, this was Belichick's response at Tuesday's AFC coaches breakfast:

"You need to talk to him about any of those statements, which I think you should verify first."

Wilfork
Earlier in the breakfast, Belichick had been asked about the "contentious" situation with Wilfork and said, "I don't really know the nature of your question, maybe that's something you have to talk to Vince about."

Belichick's remarks came one day after owner Robert Kraft said, "I very much hope we get it done, and I believe [Vince] very much would like to do it as well."

These comments have stood out to me over the past 24 hours.

Belichick's, in particular, seems to call into question the context and/or accuracy of Wilfork's reported request to be released, or perhaps Belichick is simply focusing on the present snapshot, which has shifted from two weeks ago.

There was a point Tuesday morning when Belichick was asked specifically if Wilfork had requested his release, and the coach said he wouldn't get into specifics on any players.

The big takeaway from all of this?

It's clear the sides are working through a complicated contractual issue, and in light of that, Wilfork's future with the franchise still hangs in the sensitive balance.

But remarks from Belichick and Kraft paint a picture of a situation that isn't as contentious as it might seem to be from a public perception standpoint.

How that affects the endgame still remains to be seen.

Free-agency primer: Patriots

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: CB Aqib Talib, WR Julian Edelman, RB LeGarrette Blount, LB Brandon Spikes, C Ryan Wendell

Where they stand: The Patriots would like Talib back, and Brent Grimes' four-year, $32 million contract with $16 million guaranteed in Miami provides a ballpark for the marketplace. Is that too rich for the Patriots? The club would also like Edelman back, but after investing in a receiver with a similar skill set last offseason (Danny Amendola), it will be interesting to see how far the Patriots are willing to extend to do so. Talib is the key piece, and similar to Wes Welker last year, it makes sense to think the team will quickly move to Plan B if a deal isn't struck by the start of free agency.

What to expect: The Patriots aren't flush with cap space, and Bill Belichick often says that free agency is one slice of the team-building process, along with the draft and trades. A focus on retaining their own, with a few complementary pieces from other teams added in free agency, would be our best guess as to how the Patriots approach things in 2014. Key spots in addition to retaining Talib and Edelman are adding a more dynamic presence at tight end, more pass-rush help and depth at defensive tackle.
BOSTON -- The essence of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is hearing some of the top businesspeople and football personnel discuss ideas, concepts and innovations.

Along these lines, a question was posed to Patriots president Jonathan Kraft toward the end of his panel discussion on "Building a Dynasty" about the value of trading a first-round draft choice for a head coach. This possibility recently came to light with the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Jim Harbaugh, and this is how Kraft answered:
“In the context of football, an exceptional coach, at the end of the day, is probably more valuable to a team long-term than any individual player. If you are going to make that trade, you probably have more data on the coach than you ever could on that No. 1 draft pick. It worked out well for us. I would say, yes, certainly in football.”

The Patriots. of course, traded their 2000 first-round pick to the Jets as part of the compensation package to land Bill Belichick.

Earlier on the panel, Kraft touched on why the Patriots were so intent on hiring Belichick at the time, with his understanding of the salary cap (implemented in 1994) the key.

"The salary cap, in a league that shared virtually all of its revenue, now had leveled the playing field competitively. So you were going to compete not by how rich you were, but by how good you were at evaluating talent for your system, signing it up under the rules of the salary cap, and then coaching it. Literally, unlike any other sport, money was coming out of the equation because of our revenue sharing and because of the cap. It was going to rely on the analytics and the intellect. Coming from other businesses, we stepped into that and we were surprised that traditional football people didn't get that concept. It shows you that 20 years ago in the NFL, there literally was nothing analytical brought to the table," Kraft said.

"What we did over the first six years we owned the team, we went to one Super Bowl -- it was the year Belichick was with us with [Bill] Parcells -- we were searching hard for somebody who had the intellectual capacity to understand the analytics but who also had grown up in coaching and had the instincts of a great coach. We were lucky that Bill was somebody we got exposure to [in 1996] because I really believe our competitive advantage as an organization, and what we hoped to find when we bought the team at the time we did, was somebody in Bill; because maybe people, on the outside, view him as a little bit not warm and fuzzy and wouldn't want them working for them, he actually has not only an amazing ability to coach players, but an intellectual capacity and understanding of the salary cap and the analytics that go into it that he can do the whole thing and tie it together. I really believe that's what has been our competitive advantage."
BOSTON -- At the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference on Friday, New England Patriots President Jonathan Kraft was part of a panel called "Building a Dynasty." Kraft took the stage along with former NBA coach Phil Jackson for a session moderated by ESPN's Jackie MacMullan.

At one point, Kraft was asked a question from the audience on whether the increasing influence of analytics might have somehow led to a situation in which quarterback Tom Brady wouldn't slip to the sixth round of a draft like he did in 2000.

Kraft then went back in time to tell a story that probably never gets old to Patriots followers.

"I have to go back and give Bill [Belichick] and Scott Pioli, who were running our personnel department at the time, a little bit of credit here. We had Drew Bledsoe on our team at the time, and we had just given him a large contract. It was Bill's first draft, and we had a lot of needs. Brady was rated pretty highly on the board, and, in the fifth round, Bill walked over to the board -- I clearly remember this -- and he picked up Brady's card, looked at Scott, and said 'What's Brady still doing here? This is too much value to be sitting here, and this kid is a winner. We have too many other needs. We can't take him, can we?' I'm basically paraphrasing. ...

"I remember my dad and I were standing there in the war room and we stared at each other and said, 'Why are we thinking of taking a quarterback? We have all these other needs.' In the sixth round, when it was about eight picks away, 10 picks away, Bill started to get very focused on drafting Brady because I think he felt the value was just way too great.

"So, what I would say about today, I would say Bill had an inkling and I think it came down to the intangibles. I think each team has its own way of evaluating players, and, for a lot of people, I bet you because Tom ran a 5.2 or 5.3 [in the 40] and didn't appear that athletic, he'd be off the board. I think his coachability and his passion for the game and his record as a starter -- when he starts, he wins -- that might even carry more weight other places, but I wouldn't see people thinking about him as a raw talent as a first-, second- or third-round draft pick. Because in the first, second and third rounds, you need to take your best guess of statistical sure things because those players in the salary-cap world, if they can come in and play like good, starting veterans under the rookie wage scale, you have a competitive advantage. People are always weighing the cost benefits of that.

"So, the same Brady we've seen, I would argue would still be ... he deserves to be the first pick, but I don't know it would happen today."

NFL combine: What we'll be watching

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
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The on-field workouts at the 2014 NFL scouting combine begin Saturday, Feb. 22, but Wednesday marks the first day players will begin to arrive in Indianapolis as they embark upon a critical step in the pre-draft process.

We won’t be far behind them, as ESPNBoston.com is scheduled to touch down in Indy Wednesday evening.

With the event looming, here’s the rundown of what we’re hoping to learn this year.

1. Who measures up? Ultimately, the combine is known most for the physical testing and drills that will take place from the 22nd to the 25th. We’ll keep a close eye on standout performers, players who struggle, fast risers, fast fallers, and anything else in between. The combine is just a part of the process in evaluating draft prospects, but it can provide extremely important information. One area that the New England Patriots were able to reinforce about top choice Jamie Collins last year was his explosiveness. He set the record for best broad jump in combine history at 11 feet 7 inches.

Ebron
2. Targeting tight ends. Things can change before the draft (free agency plays a big part in this), but our current feeling is tight end is the Patriots' biggest positional need. This year’s crop of tight ends is considered deep and talented, with North Carolina’s Eric Ebron leading the way, followed by Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro. Meeting and learning more about the prospects at the position is a top priority for us.

3. Offseason update. Teams are not required to, but nearly every NFL team provides either its head coach or general manager for a question-and-answer period in the media room during the combine. The Patriots announced that they won't be talking, but in case that changes, it’ll be interesting to hear what either Bill Belichick or Nick Caserio say about the team’s current state.

4. League-wide Patriots perception. Even if Belichick and Caserio don't speak, we’ll pick the brain of the available personnel for their take on areas that the Patriots can improve upon and other franchise-related thoughts.

5. Game of tag? Speaking of franchise, the combine falls in the middle of the current franchise-tag window, and we’ll continue to keep a close eye on any possible movement on that front, both for the Patriots and around the league.

6. Quarterback crop. Quarterback obviously isn’t a top need for the Patriots, though Ryan Mallett does enter the final year of his contract this season. But the position typically headlines the event, with several prominent prospects this year. We’ll look forward to hearing from some of the top players such as Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, and also to see which players opt to throw at the combine.

7. Other notable prospects. During last year’s combine, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o drew what some believed was the largest audience for a player interview in combine history. There are prospects this year who are expected to draw robust crowds, with Manziel and Missouri defensive end Michael Sam topping the list. Sam recently announced he is gay.

8. Players with local ties. We'll aim to track down some of the local area players, as there is a host of combine invitees from New England schools, as well as four players who hail from Massachusetts.

9. Expecting the unexpected. You never know what is going to happen at the combine, which is one reason it’s a particularly unique event. On our way to Lucas Oil Stadium during the first day of the event last year, team ESPNBoston.com crossed paths with former Patriots long-snapper Lonie Paxton, who was in town to promote a product line. We’re counting on more of the same unexpectedness this year.

Exploring Michael Sam and Patriots fit

February, 10, 2014
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With Missouri defensive end Michael Sam announcing publicly Sunday that he was gay, putting him in position to become the first openly active gay player in NFL history, the thought probably crossed the mind of many team-based reporters:

Could you envision a scenario in which Sam lands on the team you cover?

Here are some of my Patriots-based thoughts:

1. It’s about winning: If Bill Belichick thought Sam could help the Patriots win, and he represented the oft-stated “value pick” when he was available, I don’t think he’d hesitate to draft him or sign him after the draft.

2. Something Kraft would root for: Owner Robert Kraft doesn’t make X’s and O’s football decisions, deferring to Belichick, whose track record speaks for itself. But if all things were equal, I think adding Sam is something Kraft would root for because of the inclusive message it would send by his franchise. I think that would mean a lot to Kraft, who takes pride in the Patriots being a “pillar in the community.”

3. Locker-room culture: As an anonymous scout mentioned in Peter King’s “Monday Morning Quarterback” piece on TheMMQB.com, the Patriots have the type of culture -- with strong leadership at the top with Belichick and in the locker room -- where the hubbub that is sure to follow Sam would be quickly extinguished. Former Patriots receiver Donte’ Stallworth made a similar point on Twitter. There are countless examples of situations that were supposed to be distractions (e.g. Aaron Hernandez's murder charge, Tim Tebow's signing etc.) that turned out to be anything but distractions because it’s about football, first and foremost, in New England. For that to work, the player(s) and team have to be working off the same script.

4. Sam’s football fit in New England: Sam is an undersized defensive end by NFL standards (6-foot-1 5/8, 260 pounds) and those players usually don’t carry as high of a draft grade with the Patriots, who have generally preferred their end-of-the-line players to be in the 6-foot-5 and 255-pound range (similar to 2012 first-round pick Chandler Jones). So purely from a height-weight-role standpoint, I don’t see the perfect football fit with the Patriots based on the team’s drafting history. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t happen, as one possible comparable is 2003 Patriots seventh-round draft choice Tully Banta-Cain, who was in that same type of “tweener” category of 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker. Banta-Cain developed into an effective pass-rusher for the team, and every club is looking for disruptive pass-rushers.
Speaking on the “John Murphy Show” on WGR 550, longtime New England Patriots assistant coach Pepper Johnson explained, in part, his move to the Buffalo Bills to serve as their defensive line coach.

“My legs are still shaking a little bit. But I’m excited. I’m so excited,” Johnson said Tuesday on the program. “I always have been a fan of Doug [Marrone] and the Buffalo Bills [and it’s] just getting the opportunity to spread my wings and getting up from under the shadows of Coach Belichick. So it’s a good thing and a good opportunity. ”

Johnson, who got his start in coaching from Belichick, detailed how his responsibilities varied in his 14 years with the Patriots, including his start as almost a personal coach for linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer.

“That’s a long story. That was my project, I had to learn Andy Katzenmoyer,” Johnson said on the program, before detailing how and why he moved from inside linebackers coach, to linebackers coach, to defensive line coach, then back to linebackers.

Johnson, who said his move to Buffalo has already contributed to him learning more about the game by hearing a different terminology among coaches, was asked if he has ambitions to become a defensive coordinator at some point.

“I would love to,” he answered. “In a sense, those 13 years that I played in the NFL, I graduated to calling a lot of the defenses and having the responsibility of running our defense and being an extension of the coach from the sideline. It’s a dream of mine, a goal of mine.”

Johnson was asked what Bills fans should know about the mystique of Belichick.

“He is what you see. That is him. It’s like his mind is constantly going. He’s always thinking, he’s always trying to stay three steps, three months, three years ahead. So lots of times, you can’t really take him personal because he has walked by me plenty of times in the hallway and doesn’t say hello, or with his head down or whatever," he said.

"I know a lot of players, when they first experience Bill, they think, ‘This guy is dry. He doesn’t address anybody. Did I do anything wrong? Is he mad at me?’ I’m like, ‘Trust me, if he’s not talking to you, it’s a good thing. It’s just being Bill.’ But as soon as he stops you in the hall and starts talking to you, that’s when you need to pay attention and see what you’ve been doing wrong in the past or out there on the field, because something is coming.”

Johnson also spoke of his friendship with Belichick and how much he appreciated Belichick's remarks about him, before adding he's "a guy we’re going to beat next year twice."
In a column for the New York Daily News, Mike Lupica talked with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick about what it's like preparing a game-plan against quarterback Peyton Manning, as well as his thoughts on the Seahawks-Broncos Super Bowl matchup.

Belichick
Belichick peeled back the curtain on some of his pregame preparations for the AFC Championship, and how he was especially curious how Manning had success drawing the Chargers into encroachment/offside penalties. That included the usage of television copies of Broncos-Chargers games.

"Not just watched them so much as listened to them," Belichick told Lupica. "I listened to the rhythm of his cadence in those games, and then I listened to his cadence in that first playoff game, and realized he’d changed, like, four different cadences. And got ’em with that! And you know something? He would have gotten me, too."

Belichick, who drew a comparison between Manning and Joe Montana in terms of the challenge of preparing a team to face them, also shared his thoughts on the Broncos-Seahawks Super Bowl matchup.

"I think Seattle is a tough matchup for Denver," Belichick told Lupica. "They don’t have to do things much differently than they have been doing. They’re looking for enough pass rush and doing enough to jam (Manning’s) receivers to cause problems for him doing the things he likes to do. And the amount of zone they play could be a problem for him. But of course that becomes a problem for Seattle if Manning is picking them apart.”

Sound bites from Robert Kraft at Bowl

January, 31, 2014
Jan 31
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NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will hold his “state of the NFL” news conference on Friday, which is usually attended by most team owners. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft is in attendance and expected address reporters later in the day.

This morning, Kraft was a guest on “CBS This Morning” and CNBC’s “Squawk Box”, and one of the common threads in the interviews is that Kraft is a big proponent of a cold-weather Super Bowl.

Here were some of the sound bites from Kraft:

Kraft
Kraft
Looking ahead to the Patriots’ 2014 season (CNBC): “The good news is, I believe we’re the third youngest team in the NFL. People don’t realize that. We have a great young crop of players, and we’re still privileged to have Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo -- core veterans. I think we have the best coach and best quarterback in the NFL.”

On quarterback Brady, who turns 37 in August, and his current standing (CNBC): “I’ll just tell you, all week this week, he’s been in the stadium, working with our offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to see what they can do to improve. There is a great focus.”

On an NFL franchise potentially located in London (CBS): “We have three games there; [I think] they’re sold out next year. We’ve played there a couple times. I think that’s a great place. I really believe that before the decade is out we’ll have a team there.”

On the Thursday night broadcast package out for bid (CBS): “We have a Thursday night package that’s in the bidding process now, and you talk about the great interest of football, the interest in our Thursday night package from all our broadcast partners is tremendous. We are the only way to get a mass audience watching, as you will see this Sunday. I would hope the next few weeks we’ll choose the right partner.”

What the Brady vs. Peyton Manning rivalry has meant for football (CBS): “It’s wonderful. We’re going to play them again next year, and it might be the last time the two of them -- the two greatest quarterbacks in the modern era are on the field [together]. They have great respect for one another. They’ve played 15 times, and my guy Tommy has won 10 of them. Not that we’re competitive [panel laughter].”

Who is he rooting for in the Super Bowl (CBS): “I have people on both sides. I love Wes Welker. I’ve hired two coaches in my career, Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick, in 20 years. I get torn, but to be honest, it’s hard to root for anybody when you’re in my position. ... [Pete] is such a great guy, one of the nicest men. He’s a different profile than most of the coaches; he’s like an energetic, enthusiastic young man on the sideline. He has a great family. He’s a very special person. ... Wes Welker is also a pretty special guy.”
Former Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo is a good follow on Twitter, as he offers a perspective of someone who has been responsible for putting together an NFL roster.

Today, he was critical of the New England Patriots' team-building approach in 2013.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady and Bill Belichick
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY SportsJerry Angelo argues that the Patriots did not give Tom Brady enough talent at receiver.
In explaining his viewpoint, Angelo compared the Denver Broncos' approach with the Patriots' plan.

"When you have a great quarterback, you need to give him as many quality receivers as possible, regardless of where they are aligned on the field," he wrote, using Sulia so he wasn't limited to 140 characters. "... When you look at New England, the strengths of their offense was their line and running backs. When you break down Denver, it was their tight end and receivers.

"I believe, if you don’t have an elite QB, you build your offense the way New England did, from the inside out. Protect the quarterback with a good offensive line and run the ball. A large part of your passing game is going to be based off run action. On the other hand, if you have a quarterback who sets the standard at his position, you built it around him from the outside in, meaning with top-notch receivers.

"This is where New England calculated wrong. Brady is an elite quarterback, and they handcuffed him with talented but unproven receivers. ... My point: New England missed the mark and Denver hit it."

Angelo then explained further.

"New England’s problem is they fell in love with their system. A fatal mistake for successful coaches. I said Bill Belichick did one of his finest coaching jobs this year and I know it. I’m a great admirer and would agree with Bill Cowher when he said that Belichick would go down as the greatest coach in football. But in this case, his thinking was misguided.

"This shows you regardless of how great a coach is, if his philosophy isn’t applicable to the strengths of his personnel, then it’s unsound, not in principal, but in relevance to his personnel. And in football, the labor force starts with CEO of the offense, the quarterback."

SportsNation

Do you agree with former Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo that Bill Belichick's approach to building the Patriots' offense was "misguided"?

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    58%
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    42%

Discuss (Total votes: 11,586)

QUICK-HIT THOUGHTS: This is a strong opinion from Angelo, who was a regional scout with the Giants in the 1980s when Belichick was an assistant coach on staff. So the two have a connection that extends back decades and their connection was later highlighted by some trades they swung in 2003 and 2004. I don't detect any agenda here.

To me, the makeup of the Patriots' offense traces back to the decisions to extend the contracts of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez after their first two seasons. The Patriots were banking on good health for Gronkowski (he didn't miss a game in his first two seasons) and obviously didn't see a murder charge coming for Hernandez. They then viewed Danny Amendola as a capable replacement for Wes Welker in 2013 and liked the idea of a Gronkowski/Hernandez/Amendola core. Young receivers Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins could then complement that core, and if Julian Edelman was healthy, he'd be another valuable piece.

The plans obviously didn't unfold the way they hoped, and the young receivers were thrust into front-line roles. Not good. It's easy to say the plan was misguided now, but I didn't see too many criticizing those tight end contracts when they happened; in fact, many were applauding the organization for finally being proactive in contract-extension talks with young players. That doesn't take the Patriots off the hook, and Angelo's point is well-taken here. But things seem to move so fast these days that sometimes we forget about the context in which each personnel decision was made.
The Miami Dolphins lost one of their top choices Thursday when Cleveland Browns assistant general manager Ray Farmer backed out due to concerns about the team’s structure.

But according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Miami has moved on to interview New England Patriots Director of Pro Personnel Nick Caserio. Although Caserio doesn’t have final say, he works closely with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.

The biggest thing this tells me is the Dolphins are not satisfied with their current list of finalists. Miami recently paired down its list to Farmer, who backed out, Dennis Hickey of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami assistant GM Brian Gaine. It’s not a deep or impressive list, and it appears the Dolphins may be willing to wait to see if there are bigger names out there.

Caserio is now the biggest name in this group. But you have to wonder if he would leave a stable job in New England as Belichick’s right-hand man for Miami. The Dolphins told prior candidates that the GM is not the boss over coach Joe Philbin or vice president of football administration Dawn Aponte. All three would be on equal footing.

It's unknown if Miami would be willing to change that way of thinking to lure Caserio. The Dolphins don’t have a lot of time left to figure out this GM situation with the NFL scouting combine looming (Feb. 19-25).

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