- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. Jake Ballard's recovery from knee surgery is coming along nicely, and there have been no setbacks, thus putting him closer to competing for a spot on the Patriots' crowded tight end depth chart in 2013. Here's something I didn't realize when the Patriots claimed Ballard last June after he was waived by the Giants: He doesn't qualify for unrestricted free agency until after the 2014 season. I thought Ballard would hit unrestricted free agency after the 2013 season -- making him a one-year rental of sorts for the Patriots -- because it would have been following his fourth year in the NFL. But Ballard didn't qualify for an accrued season toward free agency in his rookie campaign due to a limited number of games on the active roster. Knowing the Patriots had 2013 and 2014 to essentially control Ballard's rights, that had to be another positive factor that led them to claim him last June. Ballard is on the books for a "modest" $630,000 base salary in 2013, and the Patriots paid him $540,000 to rehab last year on injured reserve. It's a limited financial risk for a potentially nice reward.
2. With the Colts making the expected decision to not re-sign defensive end Dwight Freeney, I looked back at his career stats against the Patriots. Any guesses as to how many sacks he totaled against New England in 13 career games, including the playoffs? The answer is four, with just one of them coming in his final eight games versus New England. I thought it would have been more, but having watched all of those games, it's clear that the stat doesn't capture what a difference-maker Freeney was in those games. Freeney impacted almost all 13 of those matchups with his sheer presence, as almost every Patriots game plan seemed centered on having tight ends and running backs chip him on seemingly every snap. In 2009, quarterback Tom Brady called Freeney the most intimidating defensive player he's faced.
3. With Freeney not back with the Colts, Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star noted that just four players are still on the roster from the Colts' 2006 Super Bowl championship team -- receiver Reggie Wayne, defensive end Robert Mathis, safety Antoine Bethea and kicker Adam Vinatieri. Likewise for the Patriots, there are just four players still on the roster from 2006 -- quarterback Tom Brady, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, offensive lineman Logan Mankins and kicker Stephen Gostkowski. This is no major surprise; it's just a reflection of the annual turnover of NFL rosters.
4. The work of draft analysts like Mel Kiper, Todd McShay and Mike Mayock, among others, is appreciated because it helps narrow things down and provides some general context on such a large group of prospects. What has shined through from listening to all three over the past week is that the marquee position -- quarterback -- doesn't currently have a sure-fire first-round talent this year. That makes it about as anti-2012 as it could be when all the talk was about Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. The 1996 draft was the last time a quarterback wasn't selected in the first round (Tony Banks, St. Louis, 42nd overall, was the top QB pick that year). Often times, because of the importance of the position, quarterbacks can rise up late in the process, but at this point, a 16-year streak in which a quarterback has been selected in the first round looks like it could be snapped.
5. The Packers' release of veteran defensive back Charles Woodson was expected because of financial considerations, and some wonder if he might be a perfect target for the Patriots. A few areas make me think it isn't: He's 36, broke his clavicle in the 2011 Super Bowl and had a broken collarbone that sidelined him for most of the second half of the 2012 season. Then there is his play at safety, where he moved from corner last season and how some who watched him closely in 2012 felt he was too much of a freelancer.
6. If the NFL's rotating scheduling format stays true to form, the Patriots' 2014 trip to Minnesota could feature a different twist. Instead of a game at the Metrodome (remember the 2006 "Monday Night Football" blowout there in which the Patriots spread the field and let it rip?), the Patriots-Vikings '14 tilt would be played at the University of Minnesota's outdoor TCF Bank Stadium. The reason is that, if all goes according to plan, construction will have started on a new stadium for the Vikings, forcing them into a temporary home. It would be similar to the Patriots' 2002 trip to Chicago when the teams played at the University of Illinois in Champaign as Soldier Field was renovated.
7. Most of the Patriots' free-agent chatter has revolved around the "big three" of Wes Welker, Aqib Talib and Sebastian Vollmer, and rightfully so. They are the team's most-talented players set to hit the market. Another free agent who shouldn't be overlooked is cornerback Kyle Arrington, who has played some good football for the team in recent years. Here is the way I see Arrington's situation unfolding: The Patriots would be comfortable re-signing him to a contract that reflects he's a slot corner, but if Arrington hits the market and another team is willing to up the ante by viewing him as a pure No. 2, it would probably lead to Arrington's departure from New England (similar to former defensive end Mark Anderson, who, last offseason, earned a contract of a front-line starter instead of a nickel rusher). Projecting the market is part of what makes free agency fun from this perspective.
8. I'm intrigued by the defensive changes taking place in Dallas from a scheme perspective, with new coordinator Monte Kiffin transitioning the Cowboys from a 3-4 to a 4-3. Whenever that happens, it calls into question how a player might fit the new plan. How is free-agent-to-be Anthony Spencer affected? Is DeMarcus Ware going to thrive or be miscast? Who could be the disruptive interior rusher like Warren Sapp was for Kiffin in Tampa Bay? Can Sean Lee be another Derrick Brooks? A lot of interesting questions there.
9. The Redskins have told former Patriots defensive lineman Ron Brace that they view him as a nose tackle in their 3-4 scheme, which piqued my interest because Brace wasn't deemed a fit at that position in New England. So I reviewed the first half of the Redskins' playoff loss to the Seahawks, and after focusing on nose tackles Barry Cofield and Chris Baker, came to this conclusion: What the Redskins will ask Brace to do at nose will be significantly different than what the Patriots asked him to do in that role in their 3-4 scheme. The Redskins attack more; on one play Cofield lined up over the center, took a lateral step to his left at the snap and bull-rushed the right guard. Contrast that to how the Patriots most often had their nose holding his ground, locked up with the center, and playing two gaps, and it's almost completely different. Maybe the change brings out the best in Brace, who will vie for a backup role behind Cofield. Brace's contract was for one year and has a $715,000 base salary, which puts him in the low-risk economic category from the Redskins' perspective.
10. The Patriots were thinner at defensive tackle than they planned for much of 2012, in part because free-agent signing Jonathan Fanene didn't pan out, and later in the year when four-year veteran Myron Pryor had an unexpected setback while attempting to come off the physically unable to perform list. Since Pryor was never activated, it affected his free-agent status. He could have been an unrestricted free agent this offseason, but instead, he remains under contract to the Patriots for the 2013 campaign with a $715,000 base salary. While Pryor isn't considered a roster lock -- and his recent injury history makes him a risky bet to count on -- he adds another layer to a position that concluded last season with Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick and Marcus Forston on the depth chart. With Wilfork having two years remaining on his contract and Love, Deaderick and Pryor in the final year of their pacts, it wouldn't be surprising if Bill Belichick targets this area early in the draft with the future in mind. Former CFL star Armond Armstead, who inked a three-year deal, could also be an important part of the future.