- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. One of the most interesting behind-the-scenes developments that I heard in the first week of free agency was how running back Danny Woodhead was on the radar of the New York Jets, and the idea that he might return to the team that cut him in 2010 was discussed seriously. Imagine that: the Patriots having to face the clutch "passing" back who was one of their most consistent and reliable players from 2010-2012 twice each season. The Jets wound up going with Mike Goodson instead, but there was legitimate interest in Woodhead, and it was reciprocated until the Chargers stepped up with their aggressive pitch. As for the Patriots, they were in the mix to retain Woodhead, but this was a case where they set their financial limit and felt the right decision was to move on once the numbers exceeded that. I wonder if they might ultimately regret the decision.
2. I'm sometimes asked who my favorite Patriots player to watch has been over the years. The answer: He just signed with the Broncos this week. Wes Welker was also one of the best guys, from this perspective, to come through the locker room as well. Stepping away from the "blame game" and all the pointing fingers as to who is most responsible for the Welker/Patriots split, my underlying feeling with what unfolded is disappointment. Writers don't root for teams, but I don't think it's crossing lines to root for good things to happen to good people who treat people right and are excellent at what they do. That's Welker for me.
3a. Can we also put one overblown Welker-based story to rest? When Welker's snaps were reduced in the first two games of the 2012 season, it wasn't because the Patriots were phasing him out of the offense. But somewhere along the line, this storyline grew so powerful that it almost became fact in the forum of public opinion. First, Welker admits he didn't have a great training camp. Also, part of the idea all along was to take a long-range view and limit some of the early-season wear and tear on Welker, who had slowed at the end of the 2011 season in part because of a high snap total. So when offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called a running play that required a receiver to make a crack block or something of the like, if Welker could be spared that physical grind, why not? The other part of it was that Julian Edelman had earned more time in the eyes of the staff; his speed had improved markedly from 2011 to 2012, which added a different element to the passing game. So yes, Welker's playing time was reduced in the first two games (the Titans opener was a run-based plan), but only if you believe in conspiracy theories was it done in the context of phasing him out. The idea, first and foremost, was to preserve him for the long run.
3b. Even though we don't see it the same way on Welker's departure, I want to thank Michael Felger and Tony Massarotti for giving me the forum to defend myself on their Boston-based sports radio show Friday. When someone questions your integrity and says you are in the bag for the team, it can't go unchecked. It was good to air out our differences. I hope most people understand that the idea is to be in the bag for the truth, and that anyone in this position should be talking to well-placed sources at both sides of the negotiating table in hopes of ascertaining as close to an accurate picture of what unfolded as possible. If you enter with an agenda-free goal of being as fair as possible, and convey that, the hope is that it earns the trust of both sides. That's what resulted in these two stories -- 1. how the Patriots & Wes Welker parted ways; and 2. how the business side bit Welker.
3c. The final piece on Welker is how such an optimistic outlook could turn so suddenly. Optimism was high in February because sources said Welker wanted to be here and the Patriots determined they wanted him. Usually that's a good starting point for striking a deal, so momentum was generating. But what ultimately unfolded is that the sides had widely different views of the reshaped marketplace, which had yet to solidify itself at that point. Welker's representatives overshot their target based on the deal Welker ultimately ended up with.
4a. One word comes to mind when thinking about the Patriots' signing of veteran safety Adrian Wilson: toughness. I thought the Patriots needed more of it in 2012, and as long as Wilson can still run well, he has the potential to have a Rodney Harrison-type impact on this defense.
4b. Another thought on Adrian Wilson, who's 33, as well as the Patriots' addition of kickoff returner Leon Washington, who's 30, is that if you talk to those who have been around them on a daily basis they relay how they are strong veteran locker room guys. They should have a significant presence in a Patriots' room that has trended younger in recent years.
5. The NFL's annual meeting takes place over the next four days in Phoenix, and ESPNBoston will be there to pass along any relevant news on the Patriots. The potential elimination of the tuck rule is on the table, which figures to spark natural discussion that might not be well-received back home. AFC coaches have their annual media breakfast Tuesday, with the NFC coaches on Wednesday, and there could potentially be news on opening-week prime-time games. We could also learn which teams receive compensatory draft choices, although the Patriots aren't expected to score big in that area.
6. I feel like former Patriots receiver Brandon Lloyd got a bad rap when it came to the possible reasons for his release. I believe it was mostly tied to production as it relates to economics, not personality. Yes, he is wired a little differently and is not always the easiest guy to read. But if Lloyd was making the veteran minimum instead of due a $1.9 million salary and $3 million bonus this year, or if he produced at a higher level last year, I think he would still be on the roster.
7. Not sure enough attention has been paid to how dramatically the market has been lowered for player contracts this year. When a top cornerback like Cortland Finnegan signs a deal averaging $10 million per season as a free agent last year, and this year's top cornerbacks feel fortunate to get half that, it is stunning to watch unfold. Remind me again how this is good for the players? I am already hearing that 2014 is likely going to be more of the same.
8. As part of his regular routine on the scouting trail, Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio recently spent time at Syracuse, which drew a little extra attention from this perspective because the team nabbed Chandler Jones from Syracuse in the first round last year. So let's file away the name Justin Pugh as a possible prospect of interest for the Patriots this year. A tackle/guard projected as an early-round pick, Pugh (6-foot-4 7/8, 301 pounds) looks like a Patriots-type target from a playing style and intangibles standpoint.
9. If the Patriots ultimately do decide to sign restricted free-agent receiver Emmanuel Sanders to an offer sheet, it wouldn't be the first time they took this approach with a Steelers player. For their sake, hopefully the results are better than the last time; in 2004, the Patriots signed defensive lineman Rodney Bailey to a modest offer sheet and when the Steelers didn't match, the Patriots surrendered a sixth-round pick. Bailey tore his Achilles in training camp and never played a regular-season game for the Patriots. Meanwhile, the Steelers used the pick on Stanford center Drew Caylor, who never emerged, making it a largely forgettable exchange. One other thought on the possibility of signing Sanders to an offer sheet -- it is not just potentially surrendering the third-round pick to consider, but also the salary paid to Sanders and its salary-cap implications. A productive third-round pick is especially valuable from an economic perspective because it is "cheap labor," but to lure Sanders to New England, the Patriots would have to up the ante to a significantly higher level.
10. With offensive tackle Jake Long's free-agent status taking longer to resolve than first anticipated, that has appeared to have a trickle-down effect on Sebastian Vollmer. Vollmer is one of the top tackles still on the market, and the Rams and Eagles are two teams I'm keeping an eye on as possibilities. The Patriots would like Vollmer back but, as always, will have a number they are willing to extend to and won't go much further because of its trickle-down effect in terms of building the overall roster. Once Long inks his deal, it makes sense to think things will move quickly with Vollmer.
Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:1. One of the most interesting behind-the-scenes developments that I heard in the first week of free agency was how running back Danny Woodhead was on the radar of the New York Jets, and the idea that he might return to the team that cut him in 2010 was discussed seriously.