Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. The Patriots didn’t lose out on free-agent defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who agreed to join the Seahawks on Thursday, because of money. In fact, Williams told ESPN.com NFL Nation Vikings reporter Ben Goessling that the Patriots actually offered a contract with greater earning potential than Seattle. That’s a surprise to me, and it might reflect some internal concern with 11-year veteran Tommy Kelly (coming back from a torn ACL) and first-year player Armond Armstead (missed 2013 season due to an infection and hasn’t been practicing the past two weeks). Also, first-round draft choice Dominique Easley is coming off a torn ACL, and stalwart veteran Vince Wilfork is coming back from a ruptured Achilles. The Patriots sometimes lure players to town for less money because of the appeal of playing with Tom Brady in a winning program, but this was a case where it went the other way, even with Williams’ former defensive line coach Brendan Daly now in New England. The Seahawks sit atop the NFL’s mountaintop right now.
2. Patriots 2012 first-round pick Dont’a Hightower, who is bigger than most linebackers at 6-foot-3 and 270 pounds, can sometimes seem out of place when chasing running backs downfield. He said as much Thursday, noting that organized team activities (a.k.a. passing camp) aren’t tailored to what he does best – getting physical when the pads come on. “I’m not a 7-on-7 [drills] person; I don’t like to chase [running back] Shane Vereen around.” So we took note during Thursday’s practice that Hightower was playing a bit more on the line of scrimmage, sometimes rushing off the right edge. When considering a starting linebacker trio of Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins and Hightower in the base defense, I’ve previously projected Hightower to the middle in a Brandon Spikes-type downhill thumper role. But the Patriots coaches might see it differently, preferring to keep signal-caller Mayo in the middle, flanked by Collins and Hightower. That would give Hightower a chance to play on the line of scrimmage at times in an outside linebacker/defensive end-type role, and potentially rush the passer more. That could be best suited to his skill set, even though we haven’t seen Hightower do much of that the past two years.
3. In 2012 and 2013, Patriots coach Bill Belichick canceled the team’s final organized team activity, but such was not the case this year. The Patriots had their final OTA, the 10th overall, in the rain on Friday. Why the change? It is probably a result, in part, of the Patriots having two fewer weeks with their rookies because the draft was later than the norm (May 8-10). For rookies like quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (extended reps the last few practices with Ryan Mallett not on the field) and offensive tackle Cameron Fleming (just reported to the team Tuesday due to NFL rules regarding late-graduating schools), this time can be especially valuable. Not everyone was thinking along the same lines, however. The Bills (paint ball), Jets (bowling) and Jaguars (bowling) were among the teams canceling their final OTA this year.
4. The Texans hold their mandatory minicamp Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week, and veteran receiver Andre Johnson isn’t expected to report, according to the Houston Chronicle. The maximum a player can be fined for not reporting to mandatory minicamp this year, per the collective bargaining agreement, is $11,575 for the first day, $23,150 for the second day, and $34,730 for the third day. For Johnson, who is scheduled to earn a base salary of $10 million this season, a total of $69,455 in fines is hardly a ripple in his bank account. Still, what will interest me most about the situation is if the Texans decide to actually follow through on the fines for Johnson, or if they take the Patriots’ approach with veteran guard Brian Waters at the start of 2012 training camp by calling it an excused absence based on the sensitivity of the situation. If the Texans go through with the fines, it would represent a shift to more of a hard-line stance with Johnson, and that would be notable to me.
5. By the end of this week, every team in the NFL will have had its mandatory minicamp except one, and that’s because the Rams won’t be having a minicamp at all. Why no minicamp for the Rams? Head coach Jeff Fisher has spoken in the past about the desire to preserve his players at this time of year, and there is also the natural assumption that with good attendance in voluntary organized team activities, he feels it is enough time to get the desired work done. This highlights the balance that coaches navigate at this time of year – how to create the most competitive environment that strains players while also balancing injury risk -- with Fisher the outlier among his coaching peers by favoring a less-is-more approach.
5b. One reason to adopt the less-is-more approach is to avoid injuries. Some notable injuries around the NFL in organized team activities this year: Giants linebacker Jon Beason (fractured foot), Bears receiver Domenik Hixon (torn ACL), Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee (torn ACL), Colts defensive end Fili Moala (torn ACL) and Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (torn Achilles).
6. Longtime Jets beat writer Rich Cimini provided a nice snapshot of three former Patriots-turned-Jets vying for roster spots and niche roles: cornerback Ras-I Dowling (second-unit), outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham (first-unit nickel) and tight end Zach Sudfeld (possible No. 3 option). It doesn’t surprise me that Dowling and Sudfeld are catching the eye in this offseason setting, because more of their struggles with the Patriots arose when the pads came on and the game got more physical. With this in mind, here are four players on the current Patriots roster who have flashed in passing camp and I’m curious to see if they can sustain when the pads come on:
Danny Amendola (5-11, 195) – Veteran receiver looks the part once again.
Reggie Dunn (5-9, 178) – The first-year receiver from Utah has an extra gear on kickoff returns.
Roy Finch (5-7, 167) – An undrafted running back from Oklahoma, he’s a jitterbug with the ball in his hands.
Justin Jones (6-8, 277) – Undrafted tight end from East Carolina has rare size, runs well and seems to have pretty solid hands.
7. When it was announced Thursday that the Atlanta Falcons would be featured on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” this summer, my first thought was, “What does assistant general manager Scott Pioli think of that?” Pioli, as we know, mostly grew up professionally in the ultra-secretive, let’s-keep-it-in-house environment of Bill Belichick. He brought a similar approach to Kansas City in his time as general manager (2009-12). This is Pioli’s first year in Atlanta, where things are a bit more open and the idea of building the Falcons’ brand through “Hard Knocks” has to be appealing to owner Arthur Blank.
8. Former Patriots left tackle Matt Light, who often kept things light in his time with the team, was back in town this weekend to host his “Cornhole Commotion” event at the Dana-Farber Fieldhouse, raising money for his charitable foundation. In the days leading up to the event, he was asked his viewpoint on the Patriots’ transition from longtime line coach Dante Scarnecchia to Dave DeGuglielmo. “I think it will force everyone to really work together. You don't replace a guy like Dante, you figure out how to get things done at the same level by everyone chipping in to fill the gap,” he said. “All of the offensive coaches will be weighing in on how they want to see things and I'm sure it will get a little confusing, but they are darn good at what they do. So it may not sound and look the same scheme-wise, but they will make it work. The veteran linemen, all the starters, have a firm grasp on what's expected. They will have a good feel for things after the minicamps and by training camp it will be business as usual. The only difference will be not hearing the old gray chest-haired Scar screaming commands at his linemen!”
9. The Dolphins, who host the Patriots in the season opener Sept. 7, are naturally hoping for more from defensive end Dion Jordan after trading up to the No. 3 spot to select him last year. Jordan, whose entry to the NFL was affected by a prior shoulder injury at Oregon, totaled just two sacks in 2013 and didn’t start a game as Olivier Vernon seized the defensive end role opposite Cameron Wake. The Dolphins aren’t giving up hope for Jordan, who has been running with the second team in organized team activities and playing on multiple special-teams units, as he has been getting some one-on-one tutoring from former Dolphins great Jason Taylor. The 6-foot-6 Jordan has also added some muscle to his frame, now weighing 265 pounds, with head coach Joe Philbin saying last week that he’s noticed him playing faster as a result of “probably less thinking and more familiarity with what we’re asking him to do and how to do it.” Jordan, who could also be a factor as an interior rusher in sub packages similar to how the Patriots utilized Chandler Jones in 2013, will be an interesting player to monitor leading into the opener.
10. With many around the NFL stopping to remember the life of Pro Football Hall of Famer and longtime Steelers coach Chuck Noll, who passed away Friday at the age of 82, there is a small but significant part of the story that touches close to the New England region. Noll’s career could have taken on a much different course had then-Patriots owner Billy Sullivan hired him as the team’s head coach in 1969. But Sullivan, as ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton explained, might have been worried about public perception from hiring a coach from a losing Super Bowl team and instead went with Clive Rush, who had served as offensive coordinator on the Super Bowl champion Jets squad. Noll went on to become a Pittsburgh fixture, leading the Steelers to four Super Bowl championships in his tenure (1969-91). I think the stability and link between the ownership of the Rooney family and Noll as head coach left an indelible impression on Robert Kraft, the Patriots' season-ticket holder-turned-owner in 1994 who hoped to someday follow a similar model.