Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. If the Patriots do attempt to recover some or all of Jonathan Fanene's $3.85 million signing bonus, it will be watched closely by teams, agents and players across the NFL as a precedent-setting situation. Given that the NFL just instituted the category of "failure to disclose physical condition" -- which is what the Patriots designated Fanene when releasing him -- this is new ground.
2. One might say the Fanene situation highlights some of the risk for teams in free agency, investing in players with whom they don't have a deep background (as compared to one they draft and develop before the player receives big up-front money). When the Patriots courted Fanene in free agency after missing out on Red Bryant, my understanding is that things moved along quickly even before the team officially met with him (Fanene was in Samoa at the time a financial agreement was struck). It makes one wonder if the Patriots' scouting fundamentals broke down before making their financial commitment; they might have liked Fanene as a player, but not dotted all their I's and crossed all their T's in terms of how he'd fit in their program. That's something Patriots coach Bill Belichick always stresses -- the program fit. So while the team seems to want Fanene to be held accountable for not fully disclosing all medical information, there is an element of accountability on the team side as well; they still thought enough of the player and person to give him a $3.85 million signing bonus.
3. Which team has the best offensive line in football? It's a question that I've been pondering all week, mainly because of the Patriots' preseason struggles and my belief that almost every contender has some significant questions up front (for example, the Steelers look like they just lost first-round pick David DeCastro to a serious injury). The Broncos and Saints were two teams that come to mind, but if you look closely enough, they still have question marks. Seems like more teams have more O-line questions than in recent memory, which is why the quarterback is ultimately the key. The best quarterbacks can make an average O-line look that much better.
4. I think Sebastian Vollmer will ultimately return and help the Patriots at right tackle this season, but in watching him closely during warm-ups at practice in Tampa, he appeared stiff while running (and finished last among his teammates for what it's worth). He also didn't bend over to touch his toes in stretching. Don't want to read too much into it, but I wouldn't be surprised if loosening up his back is an issue he's dealing with all year.
5. Speaking of back issues, that's what knocked starting Patriots right cornerback Kyle Arrington out of Friday night's preseason game in the second quarter. Members of the training staff were working on his back on the sideline. It was probably a case of in-game spasms that shouldn't keep him down long, similar to what Jason Pierre-Paul and the Giants are going through. The Giants didn't play Pierre-Paul in their third preseason game as a precautionary measure.
6. The feeling here is that Sebastian Vollmer and Patrick Chung have to prove they can make it through a season healthy before the Patriots would make a substantial long-term investment in them (they both are in the last year of their contracts). Meanwhile, the Patriots already tried with Wes Welker, and it didn't work out. Put all those factors together, and consider how the Patriots have been more proactive with the projected flat salary cap in mind over the next few years, and it would seem to open a window for Aaron Hernandez as the current top target for a potential long-term contract (even with two years remaining on his deal). That would be smart business from this perspective, similar to the team's dealings with Rob Gronkowski. No need to wait if the sides could find a common ground.
7. Thursday's Titans-Cardinals preseason game presented a nice opportunity for the Patriots to scout their first two regular-season opponents. Not surprisingly, the Patriots had advance scout Ronnie McGill in Nashville to scout the game, which is standard operating procedure. While that scheduling benefited the Patriots, one NFL-based glitch of note had the Eagles and Browns playing a preseason game on Friday despite the fact they face each other in the season opener. That shouldn't happen.
8. Spending four days in Tampa, and getting a feel for how the Buccaneers are viewed locally, the main question surrounds quarterback Josh Freeman (fourth year) and if he can join the elite ranks of NFL signal-callers. Haven't seen enough of him to have an informed opinion (my hunch is no), but do think first-year coach Greg Schiano and his staff are the right fit here. So if Freeman doesn't elevate to that level, at least the Buccaneers will have put him in the best position possible to succeed. Sounds like it was a train wreck with Raheem Morris as head coach; he wasn't ready for the job.
9. Also a lot of Warren Sapp chatter in Tampa, as Sapp is eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013. Belichick's opinion, for example, could carry significant weight for someone campaigning on behalf of Sapp given Belichick's standing as one of the top coaches of all time. When I think of Sapp, he's the first player that comes to mind with Belichick's preference for system-specific scouting. A player might be a stud coming out of college, but how will his skills fit in the team's system? I think that's what Sapp was to Belichick -- top-notch player, but not a fit for the style of defense he long preferred to play (Belichick wanted bigger defensive tackles for his 3-4, not penetrators like Sapp).
10. The Cardinals' succession plan for Kurt Warner, 2010 to present, hasn't gone according to script. And for those who believe in the motto "no quarterback, no chance" (hand raised here as a believer) it's hard to be optimistic about their chances this season (which is good news for the Patriots, who entertain the Cardinals on Sept. 16). Kevin Kolb doesn't look like the answer, and that makes the decision to pass on some of the young quarterback talent in the draft the past two years sting a bit more.
11. It was a Belichickian-type tone-setting move by first-year Jaguars owner Shad Khan to hold the line on running back Maurice Jones-Drew regarding Jones-Drew's holdout. Impressive and an early indication that the Jaguars are in good hands, especially now that it sounds like Jones-Drew (with two years remaining on his contract) realizes he isn't getting what he wants and is publicly positioning himself for a possible return. That sends a message to all Jaguars players in future years about how business will be handled.
12. The Titans' defensive line is going to give the Patriots' offensive front a big challenge in the season opener, and it's more than just big-money free-agent defensive end Kamerion Wimbley, who had his way Thursday with overmatched Cardinals left tackle D.J. Young. Here's a name to file away: defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, a 2011 third-round pick out of USC. The Titans aren't as big as the Giants up front, and more of their depth is on the interior than at end, but they sort of remind me of the Giants in the way they can send waves of linemen with the depth they have (they've drafted five linemen the past two years in addition to signing Wimbley). If the Titans played in a larger media market, I think we'd hear more about their defensive line.
13. Embattled Jets offensive tackle Wayne Hunter, who was demoted Thursday, reportedly handled the situation with class (little-known Austin Howard now steps in). Closer to home, I'd put Patriots second-year offensive tackle Nate Solder in the same category. Solder was under some early media fire in the preseason, but he took the shots and answered tough questions from reporters after each of the first two games. Patriots followers mostly just want to make sure Solder protects Tom Brady's blindside, and that's understood, but I think it's also notable that Solder handled himself with maturity and class at a time when it wasn't easy to do so.
14. Overheard from an NFL scout in attendance at a recent Patriots preseason game: "Ryan Mallett sort of reminds me of Drew Bledsoe." I can see the comparison based on physical makeup and arm strength, but from this amateur scouting perspective, Mallett has actually been a pleasant surprise when it comes to keeping plays alive with his feet (which wasn't Bledsoe's forte). My big question with Mallett is whether the Patriots' system is the right fit to maximize his assets.