Quick-hit thoughts around NFL & Patriots

March, 30, 2014
Mar 30
5:00
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Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:

1a. Running back LeGarrette Blount’s two-year, $3.85 million reported contract with the Steelers (including a $950,000 signing bonus) is hardly a bank breaker, and in that case, his departure from New England reminds me of last offseason with Danny Woodhead. It's almost the same deal Woodhead signed in San Diego. In the end, I wonder if the Patriots will regret not being willing to extend financially to that level to keep a powerful big back who excelled in the inclement weather conditions often experienced in the Northeast. Between the defections of Blount and Woodhead, I think it’s a reflection of how the Patriots don’t place a high financial value on complementary-type backs.

[+] EnlargeLeGarrette Blount
AP Photo/Matt SlocumProducing for the Patriots in 2013 helped LeGarrette Blount earn a multi-year deal with Pittsburgh.
1b. Credit the Patriots for this: They revived Blount’s career. It’s easy to forget that while Blount might be viewed as a value signing in Pittsburgh this year, he was available for anyone to acquire last offseason at a minimum-level cost because he had fizzled out in Tampa. The Patriots traded for him, Blount slashed his pay from $1.2 million to $630,000, and in a prove-it type of situation, he delivered. That’s why I think Blount’s Patriots-based remarks (part 1 and part 2) after signing in Pittsburgh were sincere. Without the Patriots, I think the odds are longer that Blount would be signing that type of deal with the Steelers this year.

2. Immediately after the Eagles released receiver DeSean Jackson on Friday, the obvious question was if the Patriots might show interest. My immediate reaction was no. Whether the reports are true or not regarding Jackson’s possible ties to a gang, the simple fact they are mentioned and in the news essentially made it a non-starter to me. After everything the organization went through so recently with Aaron Hernandez, I just can’t see how owner Robert Kraft signs off on that.

3a. One of the topics that came up as defensive tackle Vince Wilfork’s Patriots future hung in the balance before he reached a three-year deal with the club on Thursday was that he was somehow less valuable because he’s a prototype run-stuffing nose tackle in a league that trends toward the pass. That’s too simplistic of an outlook and I think the Patriots’ contract offer was reflective of this. For a team like the Patriots that tailors a specific game plan weekly on what it perceives to be the opponent’s weakness, Wilfork will still be a big part of some sub packages. Think about last year’s regular-season game against the Broncos, when the Patriots were in their nickel defense the entire time, as a prime example of this. In a six-man box, the Patriots were gashed up the middle by Denver, but that’s a lot tougher to do to the Patriots when Wilfork is in there because he is almost the equivalent of two players.

3b. All that said, it makes sense to think we’ll see Wilfork’s playing time reduced closer to 2010-type levels, assuming good health. As the numbers show, Wilfork’s playing time spiked in 2011 and 2012 before last year’s injury-shortened season. There are more miles on that odometer, and while Wilfork should still be a big part of the plans, we could envision a built-in rotation at times to lighten his load.

2009: 51.8 percent
2010: 69.8 percent
2011: 86.8 percent
2012: 81.3 percent

The 70 percent threshold looms as a key incentive for Wilfork in his restructured contract.

4. Fewer than 50 percent of NFL coaches favored Bill Belichick’s proposal to allow coaches to challenge anything other than scoring plays and turnovers. The main thing I heard from coaches on that was that they feared a situation where challenge flags would be flying liberally on long gains and momentum-swinging plays, with coaches referring to holding at the line of scrimmage (even if they didn’t really see it) in hopes of negating the play. As Belichick said, the proposal itself was as much about a concept as anything else. Discussion should continue in the seasons ahead, with modifications and tweaks to be considered.

5. Center Ryan Wendell had a couple of things working against him before he re-signed with the Patriots on Friday for two years. A market never really developed because the teams that had the most interest viewed him as the fallback option and they ultimately landed their top choices. Also, one of Wendell’s biggest champions with the Patriots was former offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who has retired. So the end result was that Wendell returned to the Patriots on a deal that will pay him at starter-like levels if he starts, and as a center/guard backup if that’s the way it turns out. After a solid 2012 season and an up-and-down 2013, Wendell should expect some competition for the top job this year as he has a bit of a prove-it type of situation.

6. Can something good happen for the Bills? Please. Last week, owner Ralph Wilson passed away at the age of 95 and franchise icon Jim Kelly learned that cancer in his jaw had returned, a double whammy for an organization that has the NFL’s longest active playoff drought. Here’s to hoping that better days are ahead, and that specifically goes out to some of the nice down-to-earth folks we’ve met over the years in the organization.

7. Eye-opening media-based stat from the NFL owners meetings held this past Monday-Wednesday in Orlando, Fla.: More than 250 credentials for the working press were issued. Some teams like the Patriots live streamed the coaches breakfast on their official websites, while one Philadelphia radio station carried coach Chip Kelly’s breakfast chat live.

8a. I did some pinch-hitting duty for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation Eagles coverage on Wednesday, sitting in at Kelly’s table. I left impressed with the work of the Philadelphia media with the direct-yet-professional approach in which they grilled Kelly on DeSean Jackson, and also with how Kelly himself handled it all. In a way, it sort of felt like sitting at Bill Belichick’s table (it was actually the same table location where Belichick sat the morning before). One X’s and O’s note that stood out to me: Kelly talked a lot about how the Eagles probably faced as much man coverage as any team in the NFL, and how the addition of running back Darren Sproles is somewhat tied to that. If a defense plays man against the Eagles, that probably means a linebacker on Sproles, and that’s something the Eagles think they can exploit regularly.

8b. Speaking of Philadelphia, no word from Belichick on what he’s doing to keep morale up in the office of assistant to the coaching staff Mike Lombardi, who is a diehard Philadelphia 76ers fan and has seen his favorite NBA team lose a record-tying 26 games in a row (they were going for 27 on Saturday night). As for Lombardi himself, Belichick likes what he’s added to the organization. “Mike has extensive background in the National Football League. He’s done a lot of different things, handled a lot of different responsibilities. We’ve had him work on different things and he’s done a great job on those.”

9. I’m always fascinated with the various aspects of building a team and one line of thinking is that sometimes the addition of a veteran player can get in the way of the development of a youngster. This is something the Rams have had in mind this offseason, and it explains, in part, their less-than-proactive approach in signing unrestricted free agents. They want to see what they truly have in their younger players, with third-year cornerback Trumaine Johnson one prime example of a prospect they want to “let breathe” a bit. Is he a No. 1? A No. 2? There’s only one way to find out – put him in that position and see how he responds.

10. One of the biggest takeaways from the 45 minutes spent with Belichick at the owners meetings was sparked by veteran NFL reporter Jason Cole, who broached a topic that Belichick seemed to particularly enjoy discussing: How a growing number of receivers are entering the NFL from systems in which they aren’t required to understand the full concept of a play, just their own assignment, because that’s all that’s given to them in the huddle. That has added a challenge in the scouting process, especially for a coach like Belichick who wants players to understand all aspects of the game. “I’d say it’s becoming more and more common in college football,” Belichick said. “I’d say that’s a relatively new thing for me. I haven’t seen that, but it’s come up more and more in the last 2-3 years, particularly this year. I’d say five years ago, I’d never heard of that."

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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