Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. We’ve hit the quiet time on the NFL calendar and it’s time to take a break to recharge the batteries. As part of planning for a two-week vacation, this blog will still have posts that have been scheduled to appear each day (full schedule here). In preparing those posts, one thought came to the forefront: While much of the discussion has been offense-based and if there are enough weapons for quarterback Tom Brady, I think the most exciting part about the 2014 Patriots will be the development of a potentially very good defense. Of the projected 11 starters, there are 6-7 first-round draft choices. While draft status isn’t a perfect way to measure talent, I think this unit has potential to rival arguably the best defense in Bill Belichick’s tenure – the ’04 unit. This assumes relatively good health across the board.
2. Tight end Rob Gronkowski likes to have his fun, and the cameras seem to find him (or does he find them?), but he continues to work hard behind the scenes. One example of this came last week, when many players left town following the conclusion of mandatory minicamp June 19, and Gronkowski was checking into Gillette Stadium to continue his rehab from a torn ACL. As Gronkowski has said multiple times this offseason, there have been no setbacks for him in his recovery, making this year much different than everything he went through in 2013 with multiple forearm surgeries and a back procedure as well.
3. In the 2008 regular season, the Patriots had back-to-back games on the West Coast twice and stayed away for the full week both times. It was a way to minimize travel and maybe a residual effect was that it broke up the routine and contributed to some team bonding free of distractions back home. Perhaps Bill Belichick does something similar this year, with a little bit of a different twist, when it comes to the challenging Nov. 30/Dec. 7 back-to-back road set against the Packers and Chargers. A potential six-day stretch in San Diego in early December? Yes, please.
4. Colleague Field Yates reported the specifics of Patriots first-round draft pick Dominique Easley’s contract last week, and one additional detail is the specific date in which the club can decide to exercise its fifth-year roster bonus on Easley – the fifth day of training camp in 2017. The roster bonus is $415,939. The timing of that is a bit different than the fifth-year option bonus, which has to be decided upon earlier in 2017, so this builds in a little extra wiggle room/financial protection for the Patriots. Of course, they hope they don’t need the wiggle room/financial protection for all the right reasons – that Easley became the explosive player they thought he would.
5. Belichick has said in the past that the sack stat is overrated, and the 2013 Patriots' defense is a good example to support his point. The Patriots were fifth in the NFL with 48 sacks, but would anyone really say they had a pass rush to be feared? I think they are positioned to be better this year, yet I wouldn’t be surprised if the sack stats go down.
6. The Patriots have received some notable contributions from seventh-round picks over the years – running back Patrick Pass, receiver David Givens, outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, quarterback Matt Cassel, receiver Julian Edelman and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard among them. Seventh-round success stories aren’t just a Patriots thing, though, as evidenced by this somewhat surprising nugget from ESPN’s Stats & Information: Of the 48 players drafted in the seventh round in 2013, a total of 47 made it on to an active roster at some point last year. That was a popular stat when considering what the future holds for St. Louis Rams rookie Michael Sam, the 2014 seventh-round pick and first openly gay player in the NFL.
7. The contract that veteran safety Adrian Wilson signed with the Bears – a one-year pact with a base salary of $955,000, a salary-cap charge of $570,000, and no signing bonus – is reflective of a 34-year-old who missed last season with an Achilles injury. With little risk, the Bears figured Wilson was worth a look as the team is a bit light at the position with Ryan Mundy and rookie Brock Vereen (brother of Patriot Shane Vereen) taking first-team reps in some of the final spring practices. The Bears are indeed buying low when considering one year ago, the Patriots paid Wilson a $1 million signing bonus and $1 million base salary. It’s far from a lock that Wilson will make the Bears' final roster.
7b. While Adrian Wilson landed in Chicago, former Chargers and Patriots safety Steve Gregory has yet to sign on with another club. He’s staying ready for when the call comes, but if it hasn’t happened by now, it probably will take an injury in training camp before a team considers moving on Gregory.
8. Did You Know: When the Patriots selected Wisconsin running back James White in the fourth round of the NFL draft, it was the fourth alum of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Florida who heard his name called during the 2014 draft. Defensive backs Lamarcus Joyner (Rams), safety Dez Southward (Falcons) and offensive lineman Brandon Linder (Jaguars) are the others. When you have talent like that, it’s no wonder they are seven-time state champions and two-time national champions.
9. What positions account for the Patriots’ most salary-cap space? Here's the breakdown:
Offensive line: 19.79 percent
Cornerback: 12.2 percent
Quarterback: 11.8 percent
Receiver: 10.9 percent
Linebacker: 10.7 percent
Defensive tackle: 9.16 percent
Safety: 6.8 percent
Tight end: 5.9 percent
Defensive end: 5.64 percent
Running back: 3.5 percent
Specialists: 2.74 percent
My biggest takeaway: Potential game-changing investments at cornerback this offseason with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, while the Patriots are among the lowest percentages league-wide at running back.
9b. Revis, by the way, sat down with ESPN NFL Insider Ed Werder at the Drew Brees Passing Academy in Orlando, Florida, last week. Parts of that interview are tentatively scheduled to be aired on ESPN platforms Wednesday or Thursday of this week. Check out a portion of it here.
10. One thing that stood out to me in watching six Patriots spring practices is the difference in how Revis and former Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib comport themselves on the field and around teammates. I’d sometimes refer to Talib as part of the “soul” of the team and the defensive backs meeting room because of his infectious energy (e.g. sprinting up and down the sideline and yelling out in excitement at Patriots-Eagles joint practices), as players seemed to gravitate toward him and he brought a certain confidence to his position group. Revis, meanwhile, is much more reserved and quiet in the way he approaches his craft and there has seemingly been an internal effort to keep some of the spotlight off him. It’s two different styles, but Revis’ immersion has seemingly been just as smooth as Talib’s.