- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the New England Patriots:
1. The Patriots’ connections naturally stand out on Bill O’Brien’s Houston Texans coaching staff -- defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, linebackers coach Mike Vrabel, assistant strength and conditioning coach Anthony Pleasant and quarterbacks coach George Godsey -- but it is something else that really caught the eye from a New England perspective. O’Brien, having seen the inner workings of the Patriots’ operation from 2007-11 and how director of football research Ernie Adams had a prominent role, created a similar type of position with Jim Bernhardt. Much like Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Adams have a connection that goes back decades to their formative years, O’Brien and Bernhardt do, too. Bernhardt was O’Brien’s position coach at Brown.
2. February has become an “economic” month on the NFL calendar, a time to dissect and analyze a team’s salary cap, and potential moves that could be made to help increase flexibility to improve a roster. That’s why some media-based momentum has built surrounding Vince Wilfork and the Patriots, with Wilfork set to earn $7.5 million in 2014, a year in which he will count $11.5 million on the cap (second highest on the team). The 32-year-old Wilfork is coming off a season-ending Achilles injury, which has led some in the media to ask the question: Would the Patriots consider cutting Wilfork? I’d be surprised if they did because a strong case could be made that he’s still worth it for 2014 (I think he is). For example, Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (just turned 30 in January) had a cap charge of $11.5 million in 2013, and is scheduled to earn a base salary of $8.5 million in 2014 with a cap hit of $16 million. I know it’s not the exact same situation, but I haven’t heard the same type of salary-cap chatter with him in Baltimore.
3. If I had to project where things might lead with Wilfork, I think it makes sense that the team will, at some point in the near future, appeal to him for the sides to work together on a two- or three-year extension that is drawn up in a way that guarantees Wilfork his $7.5 million in addition to some future financial upside, gives him the best chance to finish his career with the franchise, and also provides the club some immediate cap relief. It would be similar to how the team approached Tom Brady’s contract extension last February. If the sides can’t find common ground, only then would a potentially tough decision have to be made. And, to me, it’s not really that tough at all. The Patriots need Wilfork and the 2014 numbers aren’t that unreasonable based on the current market and dynamics in play.
4. Tom Pelissero of USA Today tweeted a good snapshot of teams which have the most/least salary-cap flexibility at this time, and the Patriots weren’t part of either list which reflects that they don’t have the best cap situation but also not the worst. Teams above the projected cap include the Cowboys, Saints, Steelers, Lions and Chargers, while teams well below and in position to be aggressive if they so choose are the Raiders, Jaguars, Browns, Colts, Dolphins and Packers. Pelissero also noted that the Browns, Jaguars, Dolphins, Bills and Eagles all carried over more than $17 million in cap space from 2013. The Patriots, as a point of comparison, carried over $4 million.
5. The Falcons got what they hoped for, and maybe more, out of cornerback Asante Samuel in 2012 after acquiring him from the Eagles for a seventh-round draft choice. Samuel brought a much needed spunk to the team that year, but things trended in the other direction in 2013. So it came as little surprise, when also factoring in Samuel’s escalating salary, that the Falcons released him on Thursday. As for Samuel's possible return to New England, it seems unlikely -- mainly because Aqib Talib is the team’s top priority at the position and also because I don’t think Bill Belichick would want to risk his young corners being negatively influenced by a player who pretty much wore out his welcome in his last two stops.
6. We’ll have the next three months to get familiar and better understand the prospects in this year’s NFL draft, but from a general sense it’s already clear that 2014 is a stronger class than 2013, especially at the top. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. compared the top offensive tackles this year -- Michigan’s Taylor Lewan, Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews and Auburn’s Greg Robinson -- as an example to reflect this by noting they have higher grades than the top three offensive tackles from last year (Eric Fisher at 1, Luke Joeckel at 2 and Lane Johnson at 4).
7. Leftover from Kiper, Part I: Because of the high volume of underclassmen declaring, which makes this a deep draft, he thinks this could be a year where more undrafted free agents break through. In making that point, Kiper used Patriots receiver Kenbrell Thompkins as an example of an undrafted player emerging in 2013 despite facing long odds to do so. He sees more Thompkins-type situations in 2014.
8. Leftover from Kiper, Part II: With many focusing on the Seahawks’ defensive approach, and the possibility of others in the NFL looking to duplicate it, Nebraska cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste is a draft prospect to file away. Nebraska lists him at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, as he’s in the mold of the bigger cornerback the Seahawks prefer. Kiper said he could envision a scenario where he rises into the early rounds based on the possibility of others modeling themselves after the Seahawks’ approach.
9. One of the questions teams often ask when considering signing a free agent to a significant contract is if the money might change the player’s approach. Do they get content? When it comes to Patriots free agent-to-be Julian Edelman, I view the answer is a decisive no. He has that Tom Brady-like 199th-overall pick chip on his shoulder that doesn’t figure to go away any time soon. While Houston seems like a logical landing spot, I could also envision the Browns, with plenty of salary-cap space and a shaky situation with slot receiver Davone Bess, potentially having interest. Add Edelman to a top receiving tandem of Josh Gordon and Greg Little and it gives whomever lines up at quarterback on kickoff weekend (Brian Hoyer?) a nice group of weapons in the passing game.
10. The Patriots’ team-operated website had a nice sit-down interview with retiring offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia in which we learned, among other things, that Scarnecchia was in Green Bay interviewing with then-Packers head coach Mike Sherman at the time the Patriots were in transition from Pete Carroll to Bill Belichick in 2000. Scarnecchia relayed that he received a call from Belichick while in Green Bay, asking him to hold off making any commitment until they had a chance to talk. Neat little detail that highlights how Scarnecchia’s 30-year run as a Patriots assistant was on some shaky ground at times.