1. The Patriots were in their sub defense 67 percent of the time last season, which is right around the league average, and highlights in part the importance of a nickel pass-rusher/third defensive end in the team’s scheme. The Minnesota Vikings have two free-agent defensive ends of note in Jared Allen (11.5 sacks in 2013) and Everson Griffen (13.5 sacks over the past two seasons), and at the least, the Patriots will have rock solid inside intel on what they are all about because first-year assistant coach Brendan Daly was their position coach the past two years in Minnesota. I’m not sure if the Patriots will take a run at either Viking, but that is a position I believe will be a high priority for them in free agency. After starters Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, there was a noticeable drop on the depth chart in 2013. Even if Jones (98.1 percent of defensive snaps played) and Ninkovich (95.6 percent) come close to duplicating their ironman performances in 2014, a strong case could be made for reinforcements to give them a breather at times.
2a. With Bill Belichick saying at the NFL combine that the Patriots’ coaching staff is mostly solidified, we’ll connect some dots to answer the important question of how the team will transition following the retirement of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. It seems likely that 2013 coaching assistant Brian Daboll will now work more specifically with the team’s tight ends (filling the void created by George Godsey's departure to Houston), which creates a natural linkage with first-year offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo, because the tight end position is intimately involved in the team’s blocking schemes and run-game coordination. Daboll and DeGuglielmo were on the same Miami Dolphins staff in 2011 when Daboll was offensive coordinator and DeGuglielmo was offensive line coach, so there is some important history there. Wouldn't be surprised to learn Daboll's voice was a significant one in the hiring of DeGuglielmo.
2b. Daboll, by the way, didn't make the trip to the NFL combine as he's recovering from a recent knee operation. File under the category of "offseason surgeries aren't just for players."
3a. One of the most consistent themes heard from coaches and general managers is that the goal is for sustained success. It sounds nice in a news conference, but it’s a lot harder to act on those words over time. Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman seemed to sum it up best at the NFL combine when he said, “If you always go for the instant, immediate gratification, you’re going to get burned. We have to be very thoughtful planning our cap, planning our strategy, planning our budget. You don’t want to jump up and have a great year, then the next two years you’re floundering around. There are only two teams in this league right now that have had winning seasons four years in a row -- New England and Green Bay. And Green Bay was 8-7-1 this year. That’s what our goal is.”
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have led the Patriots to 13 consecutive winning seasons.
3b. The Patriots have had a winning season 13 years in a row. When putting that in the context of the rest of the NFL, it’s off the charts. I know sports talk radio isn’t an accurate reflection of an entire region, but after spending one day co-hosting a morning show in Boston last week, I was left to wonder if enough people appreciate/understand the Patriots’ unprecedented run of success in the salary-cap era.
4. I thought one of the most insightful points I heard from NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock’s marathon conference call last week was about positional value along the offensive line. Mayock was asked about the shrinking distinction between the left tackle and right tackle in terms of importance, and agreed with the line of thinking before adding this: “I think the second most important position on the offensive line might be center. ... If you talk to any of the Peyton Manning, Tom Brady type of quarterbacks that are drop-back quarterbacks, the thing that bothers them the most is immediate pressure up the middle. I think the center and that interior offensive line has become more important, and the center, on top of that, [is] calling the protections and coordinating the line.”
5. Ryan Wendell, the Patriots’ heady/scrappy starting center each of the past two seasons, is scheduled for unrestricted free agency on March 11. My take on Wendell: A team can win with him, as has been proven the past two years, but in a division with three of the best defensive lines in the NFL, his lack of size (6-foot-2, 300) sometimes shows up as a negative. The AFC Championship Game, when Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton controlled the heart of the line of scrimmage for long stretches, also highlighted this. Lions center Dominic Raiola signed a reported one-year, $1.5 million contract with a $250,000 signing bonus this month, and that is the neighborhood I would assume Wendell's market will be. If that is the case, I think the Patriots would re-sign him and still look to upgrade competition at the position. If it goes higher than that, I could envision the Patriots moving on.
6. Center Alex Mack and safety T.J. Ward are two of the top unrestricted free agents this year. They are also two of the top draft picks in Eric Mangini’s short stint as Cleveland Browns head coach (2009-2010). Like everyone else, Mangini had some personnel slip-ups (e.g. Vernon Gholston, 2008 first-rounder) when primarily calling the shots, but I have long thought his personnel acumen was overlooked by some. If you take his top draft picks from when he was in charge with the Browns and Jets (2006-2008), you can field a darn good core.
7. I put the Patriots’ hire of Michael Lombardi as an “assistant to the coaching staff” in the same category as when the San Francisco 49ers hired Mangini in 2013 as an offensive consultant. Mangini’s initial charge was to study opponents and help evaluate how teams planned to defend the 49ers (he’s moving to tight ends coach in 2014). Some might look at personnel and coaching as two separate entities, but they are really intertwined because of the variety of schemes that are run in the NFL and how players fit differently based on scheme. This is why Bill Belichick has sometimes had his young coaches start their careers in scouting (e.g. Josh McDaniels). It is also why the Jacksonville Jaguars revamped the inner-workings of their facility, tearing down walls and opening things up to create more linkage between the personnel and coaching staff.
8a. It’s been fun to watch first-year Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien as he communicates his vision for the team publicly. It struck me as almost Bill Parcells-ian, the way he intensely stared at some of his questioners at the NFL combine, before answering decisively. Of course, O’Brien doesn’t have any connections to Parcells. Some of his primary coaching influences are the head coaches he worked under -- George O’Leary, Chan Gailey, Ralph Friedgen, and Belichick.
8b. Something I didn’t know: When the Texans set out on their search that ended with O’Brien, one of their requirements was someone with head coaching experience. O’Brien’s two years at Penn State were viewed as vital to owner Bob McNair, who cited a statistic that NFL coordinators promoted to their first head coaching gig have failed much more than they’ve succeeded (he said his research showed that about 40 percent of coordinators “made it” after getting the top job). McNair’s viewpoint on the struggles of some coordinators-turned-first-time-head-coaches is rooted in the thought that the head coach is more than just a coach, he’s really a CEO of the entire organization.
9. We’ve heard a lot about the quality depth of the 2014 draft, which has led some like Vikings general manager Rick Spielman to say he’d love to trade down from No. 8 for additional picks if the right scenario presents itself. But I also thought something Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said was notable: “In my mind, it’s a fantastic top-10 draft. And throughout the first round, there are some marquee players that are going to be the impact-type players in this league for a number of years to come.” So it’s a depth draft with high-end quality at the top. A team like the Indianapolis Colts, which traded away its first- and fourth-round picks in deals for running back Trent Richardson and defensive lineman Montori Hughes last year, is one example of a club whose 2013 impulse buying now seems to be regretful. After their free-agent binge last year, the Colts also are unlikely to receive any compensatory draft picks, giving them just five picks overall.
10. The Patriots have sometimes focused on the AFC East when it comes to free-agent targets, in part because they have more familiarity with those players from having faced them twice a year. Tight end Scott Chandler (Bills), safety Chris Clemons (Dolphins) and special teamer/defensive back Ellis Lankster (Jets) would top my list of free agents from AFC East teams that could most interest the Patriots based on a combination of the player, Patriots need/value, and projected cost.