Quick-hit thoughts around NFL & Pats

June, 9, 2013
6/09/13
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Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:

1. The usage and application of football analytics seem to be growing among teams, and Patriots 2013 third-round draft choice Logan Ryan represents one example of this. The Patriots obviously liked Ryan, the cornerback out of Rutgers, for a variety of reasons in picking him 83rd overall. One reason was ball skills, and when the club measured him against other cornerbacks in the draft, Ryan was rated to have the fourth-highest total of interceptions and pass breakups (behind first-round picks Dee Milliner and D.J. Hayden, and third-rounder Tyrann Mathieu). While the statistic is notable, it all also requires context. For example, was Ryan playing against the same level of competition as the others? This is the balance that teams seem to be trying to strike when it comes to incorporating more analytics into their decision-making process.

[+] EnlargeRas-I Dowling
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireRas-I Dowling has had each of his first two seasons cut short by injury.
2. When the Panthers traded a 2011 second-round pick to the Patriots for a 2010 third-round pick, and selected quarterback-turned-receiver Armanti Edwards 89th overall, it looked like a decisive victory for New England. Then, when the Panthers' 2011 pick ended up being the first of the second round (33rd overall), it looked even better for the Patriots. But neither side has been able to declare victory at this point. Edwards hasn't panned out, although the Panthers and first-year receivers coach Ricky Proehl still see positive signs that a breakthrough is possible. Meanwhile, the Patriots used the pick on cornerback Ras-I Dowling, who like Edwards hasn't broken through. Yet the oft-injured Dowling has generated some momentum in offseason camps just as Edwards has done with the Panthers. Thus, it might take another year -- or perhaps a glimpse of a one-on-one matchup between them when the teams clash Nov. 18 -- before the final judgment on the trade can be made.

3. Similar to what is unfolding in New England this year, the Ravens have some notable questions at receiver after trading Anquan Boldin to the 49ers. Torrey Smith is locked in at the No. 1 spot, but then there is some uncertainty. Jacoby Jones, whose primary impact in 2012 was as a special-teamer (30 receptions, 406 yards, 1 TD), is a candidate for an expanded role. Tandon Doss, a fourth-round pick out of Indiana in 2011 with seven career receptions on his NFL résumé, is in the mix. Then there is lesser-known speedster Deonte Thompson, who initially joined the club as a rookie free agent out of Florida in 2012 and has five career catches. Maybe 2012 sixth-round pick Tommy Streeter (0 NFL catches) or 2010 fifth-rounder David Reed (5 career NFL catches) emerges. So for all the talk about the Patriots' questions at receiver (we contributed to it as well), not to be overlooked is that the defending Super Bowl champions find themselves in a similar situation. Don Banks of SI.com had a nice breakdown of the Ravens' receiver outlook.

4. Baltimore's Torrey Smith (58th overall) and Green Bay's Randall Cobb (64th overall) are emerging NFL stars at receiver and both were selected late in the second round of the 2011 draft. That's right in the same range where the Patriots picked Aaron Dobson (59th overall) this year. So using Smith and Cobb as a benchmark from their rookie seasons, here is what might be a realistic expectation for Dobson in 2013 if the Patriots "hit" on the pick: Smith had 50 catches for 841 yards and 7 TDs as a rookie, while Cobb had 25 receptions for 375 yards and 1 TD. Opportunities will vary for rookies from team to team, but the door is open in New England for Dobson for a quick emergence if he shows he's capable.

5. The Patriots are carrying two kickers (Stephen Gostkowski, David Ruffer), two punters (Zoltan Mesko, Ryan Allen), and two long snappers (Danny Aiken, Mike Zupancic) on their 90-man roster, which stands out when compared to the rest of the NFL. Only two other teams are carrying as many as six specialists -- the Buccaneers and Steelers, both of whom have two kickers, two punters and two snappers like the Patriots. One line of thinking on double-layering the specialists is that a 90-man roster is almost too much, so why not devote three additional spots to specialists? It adds a layer of competition at each spot that helps keep the incumbents sharp and doesn't leave the team short in other areas. Far from it.

6. The other position in which the Patriots are carrying more players than the norm is tight end, with a league-high seven currently on the roster. The league average is about 5.5 per team. Bill Belichick's affinity for the position is well-documented, and that could partially explain the higher total. Another factor is that the Patriots knew they'd be going through the spring without Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez on the practice field, and that required some additional attention at the position. The Rams and Cardinals are also carrying seven tight ends.

7. The two-game suspension that Browns receiver Josh Gordon will serve to open the 2013 season has a minor trickle-down effect for the Patriots. Gordon will miss the home opener against the Dolphins, who look like the Patriots' stiffest competition in the AFC East. The revamped Dolphins figured to be favored to win even if Gordon was in the lineup, but for Patriots followers hoping for the upset, the task just got tougher for the Browns. Gordon will also miss a Week 2 game at Baltimore, which is a tough spot for the Browns as it is the home opener for the defending champions.

8. The Colts didn't sign former Patriots reserve offensive lineman Donald Thomas to a four-year, $14 million contract with the intention of him being a backup. Thus, it's no surprise that Thomas has been working as the first-unit left guard in organized team activities, flanked by left tackle Anthony Castonzo and center Samson Satele. Also, while checking in on the Colts, it caught the eye that kicker Adam Vinatieri, still going strong at age 40, enters the final year of his contract in 2013. This marks Vinatieri's 18th NFL season -- the first 10 spent in New England, with this marking his eighth in Indianapolis -- and he recently told the Indianapolis Star that he plans to do what he's always done: Evaluate at the end of the year and if he's doing well and feeling well, he hopes to keep playing.

9. The Patriots conclude the on-field phase of their offseason this week with their mandatory minicamp (June 11-13), and coach Bill Belichick is scheduled to meet with reporters each day. One player I'm interested to hear him talk a little more about is third-year receiver Kamar Aiken, who has made enough of an impression to be seeing a significant number of repetitions alongside Danny Amendola and Michael Jenkins in the team's top receiver trio. Could Aiken be a late bloomer who fits into the team's final receiver picture? He has good size (6-2, 213) and spent half of last year on the practice squad, which has given him a head start in the system compared to some of the players with whom he's competing. There's a long way to go, but after watching three practices over the last three weeks, it looks like it would be a mistake to overlook Aiken's potential to be a factor in the receiver competition (here's more on Aiken's "football journey").

10. Along similar lines, rookie free agent tight end Zach Sudfeld seems to have generated some momentum in Patriots organized team activities, seizing opportunities with top players Gronkowski and Hernandez not practicing. Sudfeld is older than the standard rookie, at 24, after spending six years at Nevada. The longer-than-anticipated college career was a result of some bad luck, as he redshirted his first season in 2007, didn't play his redshirt freshman season in 2008 because of injury, was a backup in 2009-2010, and then missed 2011 with a broken leg. So after receiving a medical redshirt for a sixth season in 2012, it was his only season as a front-line player (45 catches, 598 yards, 8 TDs). That background might have contributed to Sudfeld's going undrafted, even though he has the physical makeup teams generally look for (6-7, 255), runs well, is considered a good athlete with good hands, and is viewed as a smart player.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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