- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. In studying this year’s draft, and the Patriots’ needs and first-round slot (No. 29), I think a parallel could be drawn to drafts in 2004 and 2006. In 2004, the Patriots were at No. 21 and watched as three quarterbacks (Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger) and five receivers went off the board in the top 15. When that happens, it pushes top players at other positions down and the Patriots were content to stay at No. 21 and make the decisive pick with defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (a major coup). In 2006, it was a similar situation with a slightly different twist. The Patriots were again at No. 21 and watched as three quarterbacks went early (Vince Young at 3, Matt Leinart at 10, Jay Cutler at 11) and then 14 of the other 17 top prospects picked were defenders. That pushed top players at other positions down the board, and the Patriots thought they were getting great value with running back Laurence Maroney (not the coup they thought). This year, if many quarterbacks, receivers and offensive tackles go off the board as early as many expect (those aren’t positions we’d expect the team to target), the Patriots could have the chance to pick a player who normally wouldn’t be a consideration at No. 29.
2. Last year, when linebacker Brandon Spikes elected to stay away from voluntary Patriots offseason workouts, the decision was framed as one in which Spikes made because he was committed to becoming more of a three-down linebacker. It seemed like a puzzling reason to stay away. Fast-forward to this year and Spikes, one of our personal favorites from a media perspective, now says he’s “all-in” for Bills offseason workouts. So we’re left to wonder: Is he doing so because he’s committed to simply becoming a two-down linebacker?
3. Patriots vice president of player personnel Nick Caserio is scheduled to head to the Midwest early this week to work out under-the-radar Illinois tight end Evan Wilson, and from what I understand, Caserio has led several private workouts with tight ends over the past few months. It makes sense when considering former Patriots tight ends coach George Godsey is now coaching quarterbacks in Houston, and his likely replacement -- Brian Daboll -- underwent knee surgery this offseason that has affected, in part, his ability to travel (he didn’t attend the combine) and conduct workouts. As for Illinois’ Wilson, he had just six receptions in his senior season and wasn’t invited to the combine, but later tested extremely well at the school’s pro day. When that happens, it often results in some catch-up work from those on the personnel side. Overall, this year’s tight end class is considered light.
4. Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski was 38 of 41 on field goal attempts last season, but he thinks he maybe should have been 39 of 41. That’s why the AFC’s Pro Bowl kicker from 2013 is pleased the NFL has passed a rule proposal (put forth by Bill Belichick and the Patriots) to extend the uprights five feet on both sides. Gostkowski still wonders if one of his misses last season – a 48-yard attempt against the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 15 – might have been good (it sailed high over the left upright). “From my vantage point, it looked like it could have been in,”Gostkowski told me last week. “I’d rather know 100 percent and have it hit the post and bounce back; at least there is no shadow of doubt in your mind … I think this [change] is a great idea. I’ve had plenty of kicks where it went right over the goalpost and sometimes I got the benefit and sometimes I didn’t. That seemed like an easy fix. Guys are so strong and guys kick the ball so high, and the turf is good, so there are not a lot of low kicks anymore.”
5. Two draft nuggets of note from the past week: It looks like a good year for teams that might be seeking a developmental quarterback (count the Patriots in that category with top backup Ryan Mallett entering the final year of his contract). ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said some teams have as many as 15-20 quarterbacks with draftable grades, “which is a unique situation at that spot.” As a point of comparison, 11 quarterbacks were drafted last year. … Do you know what a “buffet blocker” is? I hadn’t heard the term until ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay used it to describe North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron, a top prospect who “picks and chooses” when he wants to block. By the way, if you’re a “buffet reader,” thanks for feeding your appetite here. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
6. One challenging aspect of the Broncos’ 2014 schedule is the bye week coming at the earliest possible point – Week 4. Teams generally prefer it later in the season, although the last time the Patriots had it that early (2008), it was actually well received. The club was still recalibrating from quarterback Tom Brady’s season-ending ACL injury on the 15th offensive play of that season and the early break helped the coaching staff make crucial tweaks to tailor the offense more to backup Matt Cassel’s strengths en route to an 11-5 campaign (narrowly missing the playoffs). Three of the last four teams to have the Week 4 bye have made the playoffs – Packers (’13), Panthers (‘13) and Colts (’12) – which reminds us that if a team is good enough, overcoming the early bye shouldn’t be a major issue.
7. Jets coach Rex Ryan told reporters that it “isn’t ideal” to host the Broncos on Oct. 12 and then have a Thursday night road game at the Patriots on Oct. 16. Hard to argue with that, but here’s one thing Ryan probably does like: The Jets’ AFC East games are Weeks 7, 8, 12, 13, 16 and 17. With the Patriots dominating the division in recent years, the later-than-usual division slate gives the Jets -- who open at home against the Raiders -- a chance to work through any early-season issues without digging any type of early hole with potential division tiebreakers.
8. With the Patriots visiting the Dolphins in the season opener, the microscope will be focused a bit more sharply on Miami over the next four to five months. The most significant changes from a coaching perspective is at offensive coordinator with Bill Lazor replacing Mike Sherman, so the Patriots will study Lazor’s background closely and how things might look differently in 2014. Lazor has worked under head coaches Dan Reeves, Joe Gibbs, Mike Holmgren and Chip Kelly and head coach Joe Philbin has already said “tempo” and “play speed” are buzzwords the offense is targeting. The Dolphins also have new offensive line coaches in John Benton and Jack Bicknell and that’s where the big questions appear to be, particularly on the right side of the line. The Dolphins, by the way, played in 10 games decided by one possession, among the highest total in the NFL.
9. When the Atlanta Falcons were struggling in the red zone last season, I think there was a feeling that they left too many opportunities on the field by not throwing enough into the end zone and giving their top playmakers a chance to deliver. It’s a mindset of sorts, a willingness to take the shot, and it comes to mind this offseason as the Falcons sit at the No. 6 pick and spent time with presumed No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney over the past week. Would the Falcons really be that aggressive and potentially trade up for a player like Clowney? Coming off a 4-12 season, if general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith take a there’s-no-thinking-about-tomorrow approach, it would be the type of headline-grabbing move that would be the talk of the draft.
10. Improving special-teams coverage has been one of the priorities for the Washington Redskins this offseason and so it was a bit unusual to see them release their leading special-teams tackler from 2013, linebacker Josh Hull (14 tackles in 11 games). The Patriots, whose linebacker/special-teams depth was thinned by the free-agent departures of Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher, pounced rather quickly. So why was Hull even available? The Redskins have almost a completely new coaching staff and as is often the case, a new regime sometimes sees things differently than the old one. I’m not sure Hull will make the Patriots’ final roster, but I can see why he’s the type of player that is worthy of giving a shot. In a meaningless season finale last year against the Giants played in cold, rainy conditions, Hull had four special-teams tackles (one in which he dropped punt returner Jayron Hosley for a 6-yard loss) and was playing as if the game meant something.
EXTRA POINT: Our fifth-annual mock draft, which includes three regulars from the Patriots blog in an interactive format, is scheduled for Monday at 10 a.m. ET. If you have the time, and are interested in having some fun, join us then. If the Patriots followed our advice last year, they would have had receiver Keenan Allen.