Quick-hit thoughts around NFL & Pats

May, 25, 2014
5/25/14
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Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:

1. The Patriots are carrying five tight ends on their roster, and with Rob Gronkowski not yet available for practice, it has them a bit lighter at the position than desired with just Michael Hoomanawanui, D.J. Williams and undrafted free agents Justin Jones (East Carolina) and Asa Watson (NC State). For some NFL-wide context, the league average for tight ends on a roster is currently 5.5, with the Broncos, Chargers and Packers tied with a league-high seven apiece, and the Bengals and Redskins on the low end with just four each. That’s why it’s probably not a coincidence that the Patriots, who have two open spots on their 90-man roster, have brought in veteran free-agent tight ends Dustin Keller, Ben Hartsock and Nate Byham for tryouts in recent weeks. If the team makes a move on any of those players, expect it to come after June 1, when it wouldn’t count against the league’s compensatory draft pick formula.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsWith Rob Gronkowski unable to practice, the Patriots are seeking more depth at tight end.
2. With Bill Belichick and Jay Gruden finalizing Patriots-Redskins joint practices in Richmond, Virginia, for Aug. 4-6, Belichick and Chip Kelly are now in the process of dotting I’s and crossing T’s for the Patriots and Eagles to do the same at Gillette Stadium the following week (likely Aug. 12-14) before the team's preseason game. While high-priced preseason games are viewed as a drag by many because top players see such limited action, I think joint practices are at the opposite end of the spectrum. They are exceptional value. It’s free admission, you get closer to the players than most can at a game, there’s potential for post-practice autographs, and you get to see top professionals in a competitive setting while fine-tuning their craft. These joint practices have become a true highlight in recent years and are highly recommended for those who can clear their calendars.

3. If you were the Chicago Bears, would you trade receiver Brandon Marshall for tight end Michael Egnew, wide receiver B.J. Cunningham, tight end Dion Sims and defensive back Will Davis? The reason I ask is that those are the players the Miami Dolphins selected with the picks acquired from Chicago for Marshall in 2012. The actual trade was for two third-round picks (2012 and 2013), which the Dolphins later parlayed into additional selections. With Marshall signing a contract extension last week, it led me to look back on the trade, and I came to this conclusion: Chicago general manager Phil Emery, two years later, has to feel very good about that deal.

4. First-year Patriots assistant coach Brendan Daly, formerly of the Rams and Vikings, has been working with the team’s defensive linemen and pass-rushers in the second phase of the team’s offseason program. That has been the 38-year-old Daly’s area of expertise since joining the NFL in 2006, and his addition to the New England staff has shifted fellow assistant Patrick Graham back to linebackers after two years with the D-line. Much like a player coming to a new system, Daly has been navigating a learning curve as well because the Patriots’ 4-3 defense is quite different than what he coached in St. Louis and Minnesota, in part because of its two-gap principles. One other thought: Belichick is almost like another position coach, spending significant time with the D-line in recent seasons. There is no reason to think that won’t continue in 2014.

5a. I liked Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert’s response when he was asked if selecting a specialist/niche player like Kent State’s Dri Archer in the third round (97th overall) was a reach. Archer is undersized at 5-foot-7 3/4 and 173 pounds and thus doesn’t project to a full-time role, but he flies; his 4.26 time in the 40-yard dash was the fastest among this year’s prospects. Colbert said return men like Archer are game changers, and he compared his possible impact to Purdue’s Mel Gray, who went on to a successful pro career with the Detroit Lions (1989-94), the team that Colbert worked for from 1990-99.

5b. Did you know: The Steelers not only selected the fastest player in this year’s draft in Archer, but also its biggest in Tennessee defensive tackle Daniel McCullers (6-foot-6 3/4, 352 pounds).

5c. From the New England college football files: Part of what appealed to Colbert about UMass tight end Rob Blanchflower, whom the Steelers selected in the seventh round, was that he did a little bit of everything. “He played attached, played some in the slot, played some in the wing, some as the H. The versatility is something we were real happy with,” he said, while noting Blanchflower’s production was down in 2013, in part because of a sports hernia. It looks like Blanchflower has a good chance to stick in Pittsburgh, as he is a strong candidate to be the No. 3 option behind Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth.

6. If the Patriots are seeking some veteran depth at linebacker, particularly from a coverage standpoint after not tapping the position in the draft, James Anderson might be their guy after June 1 (wouldn't count against the compensatory pick formula). The former Carolina Panther (2006-12) and Chicago Bear (2013), who turns 31 in September, was in town last week for a tryout. He was part of Chicago’s nickel package last season and at 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds was viewed as a player whose athleticism and coverage skill trumped his physicality. He led the Bears in tackles, but Chicago, which struggled on defense in 2013, made little effort to re-sign him. The Bears had to rely heavily on Anderson last season, but in New England, he’d be more of a complementary/depth option and I could see his smarts and versatility potentially appealing to the coaching staff to challenge for that type of role.

7. With the Patriots opening the season on the road against the Dolphins on Sept. 7, New England quality control coaches are zeroing in on Miami’s roster, in addition to the team’s next three opponents – Minnesota, Oakland and Kansas City. One thing that naturally stands out is the new look along the Dolphins’ offensive line, where center Mike Pouncey is the lone returning starter. Revamping the O-line was a top priority for the Dolphins this offseason after Miami surrendered a league-high 58 sacks in 2013, which is why they paid big bucks for left tackle Branden Albert in free agency and drafted Tennessee right tackle Ja’Wuan James in the first round. So some foundation pieces are in place, with one of the remaining questions how the guard spots play out with quality options in free-agent signing Shelley Smith (Rams) and third-round draft choices Dallas Thomas of Tennessee (2013) and Billy Turner of North Dakota State (2014). It’s hard to rebuild an offensive line in one season but I think the Dolphins have taken a significant step forward to strengthen a weakness of their club.

8. Matt Cassel or Teddy Bridgewater? That will be a quarterback question the Patriots will be monitoring closely in the coming months, given their Week 2 matchup at Minnesota. While Bridgewater has made an early impression from a “first guy in, last guy out” perspective, the Vikings seem committed to not rushing him at this point. If that stays true to form, it would be the first time Tom Brady squared off against Cassel, his former backup from 2005-08.

9a. With cornerback Ty Law beating out finalists Raymond Clayborn and Bill Parcells via fan vote as the 2014 inductee to the Patriots Hall of Fame, some have asked if the process is flawed because candidates from earlier eras are at a disadvantage. To account for this dynamic, there is a “Seniors Committee” that meets every 4-5 years and has the authority to vote an “early era” candidate into the Hall on its own. The committee is scheduled to meet in 2015 and I’m interested to see who generates the most momentum among defensive lineman Houston Antwine (1961-71), Clayborn (1977-89), safety Fred Marion (1982-1991), offensive tackle Leon Gray (1973-78) and coach Chuck Fairbanks (1973-78). Those are the “senior” candidates (retired for at least 25 years) who have been finalists in recent years but haven’t been voted in.

9b. The last four years of Hall voting have been defined by strong first year-eligible candidates Drew Bledsoe, Troy Brown, Tedy Bruschi and Law, all of whom were inducted on their first try. Two notable first-year eligible candidates for 2015 are linebacker Mike Vrabel and safety Lawyer Milloy. Meanwhile, defensive end/outside linebacker Willie McGinest will be in his third year of eligibility and he’s yet to crack the final three. Could 2015 be the year? “He’s someone I think should be in the Patriots Hall of Fame,” owner Robert Kraft said at the NFL draft.

10. A few things to look forward to this week – our first on-field look at the Patriots in their Friday organized team activity; quarterback Tom Brady, as co-chair of the 15th annual Best Buddies Challenge, holding his annual “Best Buddies” football game on Friday night in which he’s sure to draw a large media crowd; NFL commissioner Roger Goodell visiting town on Thursday to take part in a “Mom’s Football Clinic” with owner Robert Kraft at the Patriots’ indoor practice facility, the Dana-Farber Fieldhouse. The clinic, touted as the first of its kind in the region, is geared toward educating mothers about proper equipment fitting, concussion awareness, and heat and hydration, among other things.

11. On Memorial Day Weekend, we remember those who sacrificed for our country. We also remember Marquise Hill, the backup Patriots defensive lineman who was 24 years old when he drowned in a boating accident on 2007 Memorial Day weekend.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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