Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. Everyone knows that the early rounds offer the best odds to draft a projected starter, and the Patriots’ 2013 draft will almost certainly be defined by what they do with their top selections. But let’s not overlook this point either: This projects as a unique year in terms of the club’s potential aggressiveness in rookie free agency. The numbers tell the story. With 68 players under contract, and then an NFL-low five draft picks (for now, at least), that would up the roster total to 73. With teams allowed an offseason roster limit of 90 (which includes unsigned draft choices), it potentially opens the door for as many as 17 rookie free agent signings. For a comparison, the Patriots signed just seven rookie free agents immediately after the draft last year, 12 in 2011, and nine in 2010. So while the draft ends on Saturday, some of the Patriots’ most important work will come post-Saturday. You never know, you might find another BenJarvus Green-Ellis ... or even better a Wes Welker or Victor Cruz.
2. Patriots’ best rookie free-agent signings in Bill Belichick’s tenure: long snapper Lonie Paxton (2000); guard Stephen Neal (2001), cornerback Randall Gay (2004), defensive lineman Mike Wright (2005), outside linebacker Pierre Woods (2006), Green-Ellis (2008), linebacker Gary Guyton (2008), center Ryan Wendell (2008), quarterback Brian Hoyer (2009), linebacker Dane Fletcher (2010), defensive lineman Kyle Love (2010), defensive end Justin Francis (2012) and running back Brandon Bolden (2012).
3. When it comes to having just five draft picks (1, 2, 3, and two 7s), I don’t think this is the type of situation Bill Belichick wants to be in on an annual basis. He has spoken in the past about how he values flexibility to trade in all directions on draft day, and that flexibility comes with having a full arsenal of picks, and often more. With no picks in rounds four (Aqib Talib trade), five (Albert Haynesworth trade) and six (Chad Johnson trade), it sets up a scenario where a trade up the board in the early rounds is highly unlikely this year unless Belichick is willing to give up a pick in a future draft. And based on his past draft-day activity with the Patriots, the chance of that happening is slim. Belichick has never traded a future pick as part of a draft-day deal.
4. Not expecting to see Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez in organized team activities or mandatory minicamp over the next two months after his recent shoulder surgery. Word is that Hernandez can expect about a four-month recovery period. One would expect Hernandez to be managed carefully once training camp opens, possibly even opening on the physically unable to perform list, but there is enough time for him to be ready for the season barring any unexpected setbacks.
5. Given what has been reported as the potential return for Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, I still don’t see the compelling reason for the Jets to make the move, although it seems that viewpoint might be in the minority. In a draft defined more by its depth than star quality, the Buccaneers’ first-round pick (13th overall) isn’t an overwhelming value from this view. That's why I think it makes more sense to keep Revis this year, give Rex Ryan a legitimate chance to save his job, and attempt to stay in the mix to sign Revis next year at a time when the salary cap isn’t expected to rise much and a record-breaking offer might be hard to come by. After all, top cornerbacks were getting around $5 million per year this offseason (even if Revis doubles that, it's still within reason). The Jets seem to be conceding that they couldn’t sign Revis once he becomes a free agent. So much can change over the course of a year that anything is possible, and I wouldn’t just give him away.
6. Here were some of the draft-specific things that stood out to me from various news conferences with NFL general managers over the last week or so:
Chargers general manager Tom Telesco: “This year it’s really unique. I’d say the first 15 picks or so … we don’t really know who may go in the first 15, which is a little different. Usually the first four or five, you can pretty much pinpoint, and after that you have to start doing some educated guessing. But this year, the first round from a fan’s standpoint, it should be really exciting. For us, it just means probably more preparation than usual because it’s hard to get a really good feel for what will happen in the first 15, certainly the first 10.”
Bills general manager Buddy Nix: “There are more safeties, good safeties, available this year in the draft than I’ve seen in the last 10 years. Sometimes you have three guys in the first 3 or 4 rounds. This year we have them all through the draft.” (Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said his club is likely to select one at some point.)
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff: “There is not necessarily a 'wow' factor, but there are very solid players in the draft, not only in the first round, but 2-3-4 rounds. It’s a good defensive draft along the front, with good cornerbacks and safeties. Some good offensive linemen too. It’s a good solid depth draft.”
Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta: “There are 32-35 extra players [who are] draftable [in our evaluation]. The pool is greater, almost an extra round.”
Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland: “We’re going to try to upgrade the offensive line.”
Browns CEO Joe Banner: “What we’re really trying hard to do is resist the temptation of doing something quickly and not being able to sustain it versus trying to have some degree of patience; [to] build a team that should be sustainable and has the right strengths to compete against the best teams in the league.”
Lions general manager Martin Mayhew: “You don’t have those seven immediate impact starters that change your franchise at the top of this draft. … We didn’t give as many first-round grades this year as we normally would have. It’s deep, though. It goes deeper into the second round this year.”
Colts general manager Ryan Grigson: “Defensive line, offensive line and secondary, I feel like it’s better than last year … The game is won and lost in the trenches and this is a really good trench draft.”
7. I enjoyed listening to Grigson, now in his second year with the Colts, from the perspective of learning more about his philosophy and approach to building a team. One thing that came through clearly is that the Colts want to get bigger on defense this year. “No more running the ball down our throat,” Grigson said, later noting the importance of being stout at the point of attack, with players who set the edge (that’s one reason they liked Green Bay linebacker Erik Walden) and have a bigger body type. Because the Colts were one of the league’s smallest defenses under the prior regime, it’s been a dramatic shift since Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano came aboard.
8a. It will be interesting to see the financial terms of linebacker James Harrison’s two-year contract with the Bengals, which was signed Friday. Harrison had turned down a pay cut from the Steelers earlier in the year which would have brought his $6.57 million salary down to around $3.7 million. After receiving little interest on the free-agent market, it’s hard to imagine Harrison will come very close to $3.7 million in pay for 2013.
8b. Harrison’s presence should provide an additional spark to Steelers-Bengals games in 2013, both of which are scheduled for prime-time. Division foes meeting in prime time twice a season is rare, as it’s happened just three times before – Steelers-Oilers in 1990, Cowboys-Giants in 2011 and Seahawks-49ers in 2012. There is, of course, the possibility that the Week 15 Sunday night matchup gets flexed out of the prime-time spot.
9a. Did you know, Part I: One Las Vegas oddsmaker noted that if the season began today, the defending champion Ravens would be 7.5-point underdogs in the season-opener at Denver. It would mark the first time in nine years that the defending champ opened the following season as an underdog.
9b. Did you know, Part II: North Carolina offensive tackle Brennan Williams, the son of former Patriots defensive lineman Brent Williams (1986-1993), is a projected middle-round pick in this year’s draft.
9c. Did you Know, Part III: The Jets lead off their annual pre-draft press conference by providing the number of prospects they’ve scouted. This year’s numbers, via senior personnel executive Terry Bradway: 1,426 players evaluated, 271 different schools, 5,000-plus reports, more than 300 interviews, with 220 players on their main draft board.
10. With the Patriots opening at the Bills this season, here’s the type of personnel switch that figures to be looked at closely at Gillette Stadium: Buffalo was working 2011 second-round draft choice Aaron Williams at safety, not his natural cornerback position, in the team’s first minicamp. Williams was drafted with the second pick of the second round, right after the Patriots selected Ras-I Dowling (to this point a disappointment because of injuries). The Bills like the idea of having a cover corner at safety given all the spread passing games in the NFL. Although there are some differences, a connection could be drawn to the Patriots moving Devin McCourty to the position.