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Sunday, March 10, 2013
Quick-hit thoughts around NFL & Pats

By Mike Reiss

Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:

1. When the Patriots lined up Devin McCourty (5-foot-10, 195) next to Steve Gregory (5-11, 200) at safety in 2012, it was one of the NFL’s most undersized duos. Because of this, opposing receivers didn’t often have reason to fear going over the middle. So when news came down Friday that the Arizona Cardinals released hard-hitting safety Adrian Wilson (6-3, 230), it was only natural to wonder if he would be the type of player the Patriots would consider signing, somewhat similar to Rodney Harrison in 2003. The idea of the 33-year-old Wilson perhaps rubbing off on 2012 second-round draft choice Tavon Wilson (6-0, 210) also crossed the mind as well.

2. I’ve enjoyed listening to former Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli in his media appearances, most recently on Sirius XM NFL Radio. Occasionally, Pioli passes along some insight on the inner workings of the Patriots, such as Bill Belichick’s role in personnel (from Sirius on Friday): “Yes, absolutely, Bill has the final say and makes the final decision. That being said, Bill is one of the best listeners that I’ve ever been associated with and ever worked with. He has his own set of eyes. The people he trusted -- he trusted opinions, thoughts and input. I know there were times when I was there where he allowed for decisions to be made; even though he didn’t see things the same way, he deferred to people he respected in making those decisions.”

Bill Belichick
It's hard to imagine Bill Belichick tipping his hand before the free-agent signing period begins Tuesday.
3. When it comes to the NFL’s “legal tampering period”, which began first thing Saturday morning and extends until the start of free agency Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, I read with caution any reports of a team’s legitimate interest in a player. Of course, any agent is going to pump up his client by saying multiple teams are interested, and throwing in the Patriots is often a nice way to generate some buzz (if Belichick is interested, maybe we should be too). If I had to make an educated guess of the way the Patriots are approaching this time, they’re using it to gather as much intelligence as possible on the marketplace, while keeping their own financial intentions concealed until Tuesday at 4 p.m.. It’s hard to imagine Belichick saying to an agent, “We’re willing to give your guy $8 million per season, so we’ll be in touch.”

4. The Steelers’ release of outside linebacker James Harrison on Saturday means that Jason Worilds, a 2010 second-round draft choice, is one of the top candidates to replace him. Worilds (6-2, 262) hasn’t matched the potential many saw in him coming out of Virginia Tech, and when his name comes up in any football discussion, I compare him to Patriots defensive end/outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham because they were picked back to back that year (Worilds 52nd, Cunningham 53rd). Had Worilds been available, I wonder if the Patriots might have picked him instead because they seemed to have him on their radar. Here’s a partial tale of the tape so far: Worilds (42 games, 10 starts, 10 sacks) vs. Cunningham (36 games, 14 starts, 3.5 sacks). Neither player has emerged as their teams had hoped.

5. With the jury still out on Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (is he truly a franchise guy?), I thought Miami made a smart move to re-sign free-agent backup Matt Moore. While the reported contract numbers seem a bit rich for a backup (2 years, $8 million), that’s a worthy insurance policy because Moore has proven he’s a capable fallback option. It’s the type of insurance policy that Bill Polian didn’t have in 2011 behind Peyton Manning, and it cost him his job. One more thought on this topic: Some were puzzled when the Patriots took quarterback Ryan Mallett in the third round of the ’11 draft, but this is the reason why. If you don’t have insurance at that position, you put the entire team at risk.

6. Fair or not, if I’m an opposing general manager, I’d be careful when it comes to two of the Ravens’ top free agents, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and defensive end Paul Kruger. Maybe it’s a result of having watched Adalius Thomas struggle after making the Ravens-to-Patriots transition in 2007, and to a lesser degree not hearing much about Jarret Johnson’s impact after he signed with the Chargers last offseason, that makes me wonder about projecting Ravens defenders to a different scheme.

7. Teams around the NFL have begun the process of tendering offers to their restricted free agents, although there has been no official word on the Patriots’ plans with their lone player in that category -- tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. The Patriots paid Hoomanawanui a base salary of $540,000 in 2012 and he played in 22.8 percent of the offensive snaps, providing depth behind starters Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The question for the Patriots is whether they view Hoomanawanui worthy of a low tender of $1.3 million. With recovering Jake Ballard primed to compete for a roster spot (he’s due to earn $630,000 in 2013), this could be a situation where there is no tender for Hoomanawanui, and in that case, he would become an unrestricted free agent. We’ll be keeping an eye out for the Patriots' decision.

8. The reported four-year, $20 million contract for Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin seemed generous from this perspective. While McKelvin is a dangerous returner, he hasn’t been a No. 1 corner worthy of his selection in the first round of the 2008 draft (11th overall), and maybe that viewpoint is skewed from having watched Patriots quarterback Tom Brady seem to target him in New England-Buffalo games. Sometimes it seems like the Bills set the market when they don't necessarily have to (e.g. signing defensive end Mark Anderson in 2012).

9. Veteran center Jeff Saturday signed a contract so he could retire as an Indianapolis Colt last week, and in his farewell news conference, he called the AFC Championship game victory over the Patriots following the 2006 regular season as one that “trumps them all ... even above the Super Bowl.” It’s interesting how the game can be viewed from different perspectives. Saturday felt the Colts’ offensive line controlled the game while in New England, we remember Reche Caldwell’s costly dropped passes and a defense that couldn’t stem the tide.

10. I still think re-signing cornerback Aqib Talib is the Patriots’ preference, and if the Yahoo! Sports report is also true that New England is in the mix for Miami cornerback Sean Smith, Bill Belichick wouldn’t be messing around. I’m not sure the Patriots could pull it off financially, but the possibility of a Talib-Smith 1-2 punch at cornerback would go a long way toward quieting critics who have pointed out some of Belichick’s struggles drafting at the position. Making such an investment would be authoritative and very much out of character for the Patriots, but pondering such a scenario is part of what makes free agency fun.