Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. The Patriots’ release of veteran safety Steve Gregory led me back to review some in-season notes on Duron Harmon, the 2013 third-round pick out of Rutgers (91st overall) who now projects to the starting spot next to Devin McCourty. Harmon is similar to Gregory in that a high football IQ is one of his best assets. Although a bit bigger in body type at 6-foot, 205 pounds and some room to grow, Harmon offers a bit more range than Gregory (5-11, 200), with a few examples of this showing up in the fourth quarter of the Dec. 22 game against the Ravens when he broke out to the sideline to create disruption on incomplete deep passes to receivers Torrey Smith (7:03 remaining) and Marlon Brown (6:52 remaining). Similar to most young players, the biggest issue for Harmon was consistency over his extended defensive snaps (36.9 percent), as there were times when his overall play/tackling dipped (e.g. vs. Houston, Dec. 2). If the Patriots didn’t see that improving relative to the economics -- Harmon counts $633,000 against the cap compared to Gregory’s $3.6 million hit if on the roster -- I don’t think they would have released Gregory.
2. One of Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s greatest frustrations in 2012 was the high total of big plays given up in the passing game, and Gregory was a significant part of fixing that problem in 2013 because of his smarts and role in the all-important communication among defensive backs. While he missed some tackles, took some poor angles at times, and doesn’t have top-flight athleticism, I think his contributions in helping the Patriots tighten up in the deep passing game (along with McCourty’s full-time move to safety) were appreciated much more by the coaching staff than those on the outside.
3. With Gregory’s release shining a brighter spotlight on the Patriots’ safety spot, it led to this thought: Belichick and his personnel staff haven’t been as sharp in drafting and developing players at the position when compared to others. From 2007-13, the team has used early-round draft picks on Brandon Meriweather (24th overall, 2007), Patrick Chung (34th overall, 2009), Tavon Wilson (48th overall) and Harmon (91st overall). With the jury still out on Harmon, the other high picks haven’t turned out to be long-term answers despite the significant investment. The Patriots’ best hit in drafting a pure safety was James Sanders (fourth round, 2005) unless one includes switching college cornerbacks (McCourty, Eugene Wilson) to the position even if that wasn’t the original intention.
4. Twice over the past six weeks, Chargers general manager Tom Telesco shared his viewpoint that other than quarterback, he feels the hardest position for rookies to come in and make an immediate impact is receiver. Some of the reasons for this are the varied coverages in the NFL, no-huddle offenses, and how many adjustments receivers have to make after the snap based on coverages. This hit home in two areas. First, in a deep 2014 draft (in part because of the influx of underclassmen), teams would be best to temper expectations on an immediate return on investment (Telesco said Keenan Allen, for example, was balancing flashes of brilliance in training camp with still having a long way to go). Second, for a team like the Patriots who thrust three rookies into front-line roles at times last season, the development of Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted) is as important of a storyline as almost any other this offseason.
5. While Keenan Allen was one of the bright spots for the Chargers in 2013, one of their disappointments was free-agent cornerback Derek Cox. The Chargers projected bigger things for Cox, the former Jacksonville Jaguar, and that’s one reason Telesco said “free agency is so hard” because there is often an unknown on how a player will transition from one system to another. I listened to Telesco’s remarks on the same day the Eagles were capping off a spree of four re-signings (Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, Riley Cooper, Jeremy Maclin), which was almost perfect timing because it served as a reminder of why teams are often more comfortable committing to their own players than those from other teams.
6. Along those lines, after reading Dan Pompei’s NFL notes on the Bleacher Report, in which the respected Pompei reports that Danny Amendola’s name has been floated in trade talks, it makes one wonder if the Patriots are having some buyer’s remorse. I thought Amendola looked terrific in offseason camps, the preseason and the regular-season opener before significantly injuring his groin, and I put Amendola’s lower than expected production in that context. If I’m Amendola, it hurts to read that after playing through the groin injury in 2013.
7. One pure football takeaway from the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Friday, and it was first noted by colleague Field Yates as we sat together watching an “athletes analytics” panel, is how the Indianapolis Colts have created a great situation for quarterback Andrew Luck by having 16-year veteran Matt Hasselbeck as his backup. It seems obvious to pair a talented younger player with a veteran nearing the end of his career, but it’s not always easy to find players like Hasselbeck who have the combination of knowledge and willingness to mentor. Luck spoke humbly about how he hasn’t been around long enough to know certain things and glowingly about Hasselbeck’s willingness to enlighten him. Sitting in the crowd, it was almost as if we got a quick glimpse of what it might be like to be in the quarterbacks' room with them.
8a. Does Belichick get challenged enough by his staff? That was a question Patriots president Jonathan Kraft was asked on the “Building a Dynasty Panel” at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and this was his answer: “I think some people look at Bill’s desire to hire young people as opposed to bringing in lots of people who have been around the league a number of times as a sign that he wants ‘yes’ men around him. I think it’s really just the opposite. I think he likes bringing in young people because he wants to train them in how he thinks about running a football team. But the young people also come in with an ability with technology, with how young people are learning today. As a coach, you’re a teacher, and I think he finds the young people can give him good insights into how to teach and explain things in a world that is evolving and moving. By the weight of his personality he might intimidate people but when you’re in the system, if you want to challenge, you’re encouraged to challenge him. I think the more credibility you build up with him, with a track record of doing things, he’ll listen to you. He takes it all right.”
8b. As for Belichick’s smaller inner circle, Kraft said: “He likes fewer people because he would rather have fewer, more competent people than these wide swaths of people who maybe a good percentage of them aren’t competent or more importantly, the more people that are there, you start to deal with things with media leaks, people promoting their interests and their profile. Or people start going outside the circle when they think they have to start watching their back. I think that’s why there isn’t a larger group in our organization.”
9. Belichick has said that he views the sack statistic as overrated, in part because the player who gets the sack often didn’t produce the initial pressure. That’s why Belichick puts more stock in the “pressure” stat, and rookie defensive tackle Chris Jones was extremely impressive in that category in 2013. Because of a run of injuries at the position, Jones was pressed into early-down duties as well, and my view was that the 6-foot-1, 309-pounder wore down at times later in the season. Looking ahead, I could envision Jones in a Jarvis Green-type sub-rushing/fill-in starter role and being even more effective.
10. Last year was the first time NFL teams had the legal tampering period as part of free agency, and the Patriots used it as a deadline for their dealings with Wes Welker. By the time the official start of free agency opened three days later, they had made the decision to move on to Amendola, because they didn't want to lose Welker and Amendola. No reason to think this year will be any different -- with cornerback Aqib Talib the player in question. That's why I think we should have a definitive answer on Talib's status by the start of free agency on March 11.