Quick-hit thoughts around NFL, Patriots

September, 8, 2013
9/08/13
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Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the New England Patriots:

1. Last week it was noted that 14 of the NFL’s 32 teams kept just two quarterbacks on their initial 53-man roster. The Patriots are one of them, and I wanted to take it one step further by seeing how many of those 14 teams also didn’t have a quarterback on their practice squad, leaving themselves potentially vulnerable in the event of an injury. Surprisingly to me, it’s a high total of six teams -- the Patriots, Ravens, Bears, Panthers, Seahawks and Rams. The Patriots did have three quarterbacks, a group including Graham Harrell, in for tryouts last week.

2a. In 2007, the Patriots played a Monday night game at the Bengals, which presented a neat opportunity to head to the Midwest a day early to take in the Broncos at Colts game the day before. I remember it because then-Colts quarterback Peyton Manning couldn’t have been more accommodating to a Boston-based reporter after the game -- not to mention insightful -- when discussing how impressed he was with the early chemistry Tom Brady had developed in his short time with Randy Moss that year. He explained, from a quarterback’s perspective, how hard that is to do. This past Thursday, I thought of that conversation because it looks like Manning has the same thing going with Wes Welker. It’s special stuff, very rare, when that connection happens so fast.

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsFormer Patriot Wes Welker seems to have developed chemistry quickly with Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
2b. After the hubbub about Welker’s declining snaps early last season with the Patriots (turns out the coaching staff was managing him with the long-term in mind), I was curious how the Broncos managed Welker’s snaps in Thursday's season-opening blowout win over the Ravens. The final numbers: Welker was on for 56 of 71 offensive snaps. Receivers Demaryius Thomas (68) and Eric Decker (64) logged more snaps, and one could draw the conclusion that the Broncos’ staff is thinking along the same lines as the Patriots were in 2012. Smart.

3. Since Sunday, Sept. 1, the day after rosters around the NFL had to be trimmed to 53 players, the Patriots have made a whopping 16 transactions on the roster (not including practice squad). Five players have been cut and brought back -- running back Leon Washington, guard Josh Kline, fullback James Develin, defensive back Marquice Cole and center Braxston Cave (practice squad) -- and it could be six if defensive lineman A.J. Francis clears waivers and decides he wants to remain in New England on the practice squad. One of the big questions that has been asked over that time is, “Why?” The best answer from this view is that it all ties in to Bill Belichick’s team-building approach with a 61-player snapshot in mind (53 on the active roster, eight on the practice squad). The practice squad, and building depth at specific positions, seems like a big part of this. The Patriots target some young players from other teams, show an initial commitment to keep them on the 53-man roster by being willing to risk losing veterans they probably have a good feeling won’t sign elsewhere, and it develops some currency with the young players to keep them around on the practice squad if they clear waivers when later released. The timing of the Patriots’ decisions also seems to have a layer of strategy, as practice squads around the NFL are mostly formed quickly which can make it less likely for another team to pursue one of the young players they waive.

4. One could excuse second-year Penn State coach Bill O’Brien if he has some mixed emotions when it comes to today’s Patriots-Bills season opener. First-year Bills coach Doug Marrone is one of O’Brien’s closest friends; their wives were college roommates at Boston College. And O’Brien’s connections with the Patriots are well-known. Some of his closest friends in coaching are on the New England staff from his time here (2007-2011). O’Brien might be the only person happy today if the game ends in a tie. “When we talk, it’s rarely about football,” O’Brien relayed of his connections to both sides. “It is always about families and probably more about Penn State than anything.”

5. With the Saints placing starting inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma on the injured reserve/designated to return list, that eliminates him from playing the first eight weeks of the season, a stretch which includes an Oct. 13 game against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Vilma’s absence means free-agent signees David Hawthorne (Seahawks) and Curtis Lofton (Falcons) start at the two inside linebacker spots in Rob Ryan’s revamped defense. Every team can place one player on the injured reserve/designated to return, and the Patriots have yet to take advantage of the opportunity this year. Last year’s choice, tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, didn’t pan out as desired.

6. One of the Patriots’ surprising roster decisions at the 53-player cutdown came with second-year defensive end Justin Francis, who was waived/injured. Francis started last season’s AFC Championship Game and had seemingly carved out his spot as a top reserve behind Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, and also as an interior sub rusher. But he missed time in training camp with a sprained ankle and probably needed only a couple of weeks into the regular season before he’d be ready. Instead of waiting, the Patriots moved on. I spoke with two people last week (one agent, one former personnel man) who felt more teams across the NFL seemed to be showing less patience in situations like Francis’. Not sure why that's the case. The Patriots and Francis worked out an injury settlement that became official Saturday, in which Francis gets paid a negotiated sum and now he could potentially play in the NFL later this season. The same thing happened with Patriots defensive end Jermaine Cunningham.

7. The Patriots did right by receiver Julian Edelman, giving him a chance to earn a good portion of a $50,000 offseason workout bonus when he later needed clean-up surgery on his foot and couldn’t fully participate in the offseason program. The club shifted the workout bonus into a $40,000 roster bonus if Edelman was on the roster for the first week of the regular season. Edelman will be on the roster today and don’t be surprised if he plays a significant role in the season-opener against the Bills. With the Patriots expecting plenty of man coverage with a single-high safety, it puts a premium on the ability to get off the line of scrimmage. That’s one of Edelman’s strengths.

8. Jets coach Rex Ryan took some heat from some in the media for attending his son’s first collegiate football game during cut-down weekend instead of being at the team’s facility, but from what I understand, he’s not the only NFL head coach who has taken that approach in recent years on cut-down weekend. Ryan is on the hot seat and an easy target, but this was one of those stories that seemed overblown from this perspective.

9. Something that interested me from a New England college football perspective: The Ravens’ starting (nickel) defense in Thursday’s NFL opener included a cornerback who played at the University of New Hampshire (Corey Graham) and a safety who played at the University of Massachusetts (James Ihedigbo). While good for New England college football, I’m not sure how good that truly is for the Ravens after the Broncos hung 49 points on them.

10. Watching Bills rookie Marquise Goodwin’s blazing speed returning kickoffs in the preseason, here is a stat that probably should have been mentioned more this week leading up to the Patriots-Bills season-opener: New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski ranked fourth in the NFL last season with 52 touchbacks. We don’t often refer to kickers as weapons, but that shouldn’t be overlooked Sunday. It will be a successful day for Gostkowski if he keeps the football out of Goodwin’s hands.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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