Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. The question isn’t so much whether the Patriots want free-agent cornerback Aqib Talib back in 2014 and beyond. It’s at what cost, because almost everything in free agency comes down to price. Our initial projection is that Talib is most likely to command a three- to four-year deal with an average yearly value between $6 million and $8 million, and bonuses and guarantees in the $12-14 million range. The factors considered in coming to that conclusion: Last offseason was a buyer’s market for cornerbacks and there are no tell-tale signs right now it will change in 2014, Talib is a top player, and there are also some injury questions as part of the consideration. If the numbers ultimately land in that range -- and we know it only takes one team to up the ante -- I think Talib is back in New England.
2. As for Julian Edelman’s potential market, it makes sense to think it will be close to Danny Amendola range after Edelman's 105-catch season. If that’s the case, the Patriots could absorb it but I think they would ultimately decide not to. If I’m Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, and the goal is to put a new quarterback in the best position to succeed, the idea of Edelman in the slot with Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins on the outside is particularly appealing to me unless there are strong feelings third-year pro Keshawn Martin, already on the roster, could fill the role.
3. When it comes to veteran free agency and signing players from other teams, it seems fair to say the Patriots didn’t get the bang for the buck they hoped for in 2013. The top four signings were receiver Danny Amendola, safety Adrian Wilson, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and kick returner Leon Washington, and when adding up the money paid out to those players last season between bonuses and base salary – Amendola $8 million; Kelly $2.1 million; Wilson $2 million; Washington $1.35 million – there wasn’t a significant return on investment. Add in the failed Jonathan Fanene signing in 2012 and this is an area where the Patriots’ money hasn’t gone as far as it has in past years.
4. Pepper Johnson’s defection to coach the Bills' defensive line naturally leads to the question, “Why would he leave the Patriots for a lateral move?” In the end, I think this is a case where both sides agreed the time was right for a fresh start. Ending a long-term relationship can sometimes be emotional and sticky but both sides, publicly and from what we gather behind the scenes, did it with a classy touch.
5. With coach Bill Belichick not specifying a position for newly hired defensive assistant Brendan Daly, despite having a vacancy at linebackers coach, he obviously doesn’t want to box himself in regarding position coaches just yet. It makes one wonder if there is at least one more move on the defensive staff to come. The team also is without a tight ends coach with George Godsey heading to Houston to reunite with O'Brien. There are currently no former players on the Patriots' staff, and Belichick has spoken in the past about how that can be an important perspective to have.
6. Which NFL referees made the playoff cut? For those who are interested in the “third” team on the field as much as we are, the following referees weren’t selected for this season’s postseason assignments, which are based primarily on a year-long grading system: Jerome Boger, Mike Carey, Walt Coleman, Scott Green (Pro Bowl), Bill Leavy, John Parry and Ron Winter.
Here was the breakdown for playoff referees:
Wild-card round – Walt Anderson, Ed Hochuli, Jeff Triplette, Bill Vinovich
Divisional round – Clete Blakeman, Carl Cheffers, Terry McAulay, Pete Morelli
Conference title – Gene Steratore, Tony Corrente
Super Bowl – McAulay
7. After listening to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s “state of the league” Super Bowl news conference Friday, as well as multiple interviews with Patriots owner Robert Kraft, three issues that seem to be coming down the chute are: A) Expanded playoff field; B) Centralized replay system; C) Thursday Night Football television package granted to a broadcast partner, with the games still simulcast on NFL Network. Of the three, the television package seems most imminent, with Kraft putting the time frame in the two-week range. Look for more momentum to build on the first two topics leading into March’s annual meeting when owners could approve a vote.
8. I’m in the midst of an offseason study that reviews every NFL team’s depth chart and season-ending news conference, with a goal of having a better feel for team needs and understanding of each team’s power structure. Along the way, some little pieces are picked up, such as one in Buffalo where second-year head coach Doug Marrone is hoping for significant special-teams improvements in 2014. In his explanation, Marrone cited Patriots captain Matthew Slater as a “special-teams killer” and discussed how top special-teams units usually have about six core players, and the Bills would like to bolster their numbers there. This is an often-overlooked area where the Patriots have done a superb job, led by Slater, safety Nate Ebner, linebacker Dane Fletcher and Co.
9. The Ravens were disappointed in the running game in 2013 and that seems to be a major reason why they hired Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator; Kubiak’s one-cut, downhill, zone-blocking scheme, which has roots in Mike Shanahan’s old Broncos system, has generally produced solid results. So this is a significant overhaul on the offensive side of the ball for Baltimore. Overall, I was struck by the contrast of the new directions taken by the Texans and Ravens this offseason. While the Texans seem enamored with a fresh game-plan specific offensive approach under O’Brien that evolves weekly, and were perhaps frustrated at times with what might have been viewed as Kubiak’s stagnancy, the Ravens view Kubiak’s approach as the best solution for their biggest 2013 trouble spot.
10. My Super Bowl pick: Broncos 24, Seahawks 17. The main factors were how impressed I was with Denver’s run defense against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game; a weather forecast that shouldn’t hamper the Broncos’ passing game; and the feeling that the Seahawks are not as potent away from home.