Quick-hit thoughts around NFL & Pats

April, 6, 2014
Apr 6
5:00
AM ET
Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:

1. The Patriots are one of four teams in the NFL with just two quarterbacks on their current roster. Most clubs have three, while a small handful of clubs have four. There is no way the Patriots will go into training camp with just two, which highlights the team’s need at the position, and also probably explains in part why resources were devoted to in-house visits with Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater this past week. Unlike 2012, when the Patriots didn’t bring in Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III for pre-draft visits, there is a greater need to understand 2014 quarterback prospects from top to bottom because adding a third quarterback – especially with top backup Ryan Mallett entering his contract year – is a guarantee.

[+] EnlargeRyan Mallett
David Butler II/USA TODAY SportsA strong preseason could help increase the potential value for Patriots backup quarterback Ryan Mallett.
2. There was a time when the Patriots might have felt Mallett could develop into a tradable commodity, but I don’t think it ever generated the momentum the club hoped. So at this point, my feeling is that whatever the club could get in return (projected here as a late-round pick at best) pales in comparison to the value Mallett has on the roster as Tom Brady’s insurance policy. I think the best-case scenario for the team and Mallett at this point is that he lights it up in the preseason, creating some value for himself, and then he can sign elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent next offseason and the Patriots could potentially be rewarded with a high compensatory draft choice.

3. It would be right on pace for the NFL to announce preseason opponents this week (last year it was April 4), and the buzz I hear is that the Patriots and Eagles would once again like to hold joint practices, this time in New England. It should happen. With Greg Schiano out as Buccaneers coach, it likely eliminates Tampa as an option for a second set of joint practices, so we’ll keep an eye on either New Orleans or Atlanta to fill that void, as both have done so in the past with New England. It would be fun if Bill O’Brien’s Texans squad was a consideration as well. And, as usual, it wouldn’t be a Patriots preseason without a finale against the Giants. The teams have met in the preseason finale the past nine years.

4. When the Patriots host a veteran free agent on a visit like they did with defensive end Will Smith this past week, the question is sometimes asked, “How did the visit go?” Obviously there was no contract agreement between the Patriots and Smith, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t happen in the future. As it stands now, the sides have open-ended communication and Smith is keeping his options open. In situations like these, sometimes waiting until after the draft is the smart thing for players because it can create a clearer picture of the depth chart. In 2012, for example, defensive end Trevor Scott signed with the Patriots and then watched as the team drafted ends Chandler Jones (first round) and Jake Bequette (third round).

5. The Bills’ acquisition of Buccaneers receiver Mike Williams for a sixth-round draft choice seems like a low-risk, potentially high-reward investment, as it adds another explosive weapon (on and off the field) to give quarterback EJ Manuel a greater chance at success. The jury is still out on Manuel, but if you’re the Bills, I’m not sure you look at this year’s class of quarterbacks and see any sure-fire answers, either. A lot of questions and a reminder of something we haven’t had to think about in New England for the past two decades: It can be awfully challenging to identify the next “franchise” quarterback.

6. The Patriots have a strong trio at the top of their linebacker depth chart with Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, but after that, there is a total of zero career starts between backups Steve Beauharnais (2013 seventh-round pick), Chris White (fourth year) and Ja’Gared Davis (2013 rookie free agent). The team had former Broncos veteran Wesley Woodyard in for a free-agent visit before he signed with Tennessee, and thus it wouldn’t surprise me if the Patriots now consider a high pick at the position, even after making Collins their top choice last year (52nd overall). When considering that about 70 percent of the game is played in sub packages, which highlights the importance of linebackers who can run, someone like Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier falls into the category of smaller athletic sideline-to-sideline ‘backer that might now have greater value to a team that has traditionally trended bigger at the position (e.g. Brandon Spikes, Hightower etc.). Analysts project Shazier in the late first-round range.

7. When the Patriots drafted Illinois safety Tavon Wilson in the second round of the 2012 draft, it was the ultimate outlier pick because few, if any teams, had him rated even close to that range. We gave Bill Belichick the benefit of the doubt on draft day, but two years later it’s not looking so good. When considering that the Patriots just paid veteran safety Adrian Wilson $2 million despite him never playing a snap, and just re-signed veteran safety Patrick Chung to a one-year deal with a maximum value of $1.1 million to provide depth and a special-teams presence, it led me to the following thought: If Tavon Wilson had turned out to be the player the Patriots viewed him to be on draft day, those moves with Adrian Wilson and Chung probably don’t happen.

8. The Ravens’ signing of tight end Owen Daniels made sense in that the top coaches on Baltimore’s offensive staff came from Houston, where Daniels played from 2006-13, and it also addressed GM Ozzie Newsome’s concern about having players who can deliver on third-and-7-type situations with dynamic ability after the catch. Still, I see Daniels and Dennis Pitta as similar type tight ends and if they’re on the field together, a defense almost certainly would match in sub because they aren’t known for their blocking prowess. While the Ravens sometimes call on a sixth offensive lineman as an eligible receiver/tight end to add bulk up front, it looks like they could still use more of a pure Y on-the-line tight end on the depth chart.

9. University of Massachusetts tight end Rob Blanchflower, of Leominster, Mass., and St. John’s-Shrewsbury High School, is one of the top NFL prospects from a New England-based college this year and teams are still gathering important information on him. Blanchflower has scheduled a workout for NFL teams on UMass’ campus on Wednesday April 23 and it figures to draw significant attention, in part because clubs will want to see how well Blanchflower is moving after undergoing groin/sports hernia surgery. Blanchflower, who has NFL-caliber size at 6-foot-4 1/8 and 256 pounds, didn’t work out at the NFL combine or at UMass’ pro day.

10. The quality of the tight end class in the draft has seemed to spark more questions than answers since the NFL combine, which isn’t the best news for the Patriots considering their need at the position. I’ve always felt like Bill Belichick placed higher value on those at the position who are pure combination players (blocking and pass-catching) more so than glorified wide receivers, which is why I’d project Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas (6-6, 270) to top the team’s rankings. He’s projected as an early-round pick. If the Patriots wait a bit longer, it’s players like Fresno State’s Marcel Jensen, Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz and Colorado State’s Crockett Gillmore who figure to warrant a closer look as developmental types, and as one would expect, the Patriots have spent or are scheduled to spend time with those "second-tier" prospects as part of the pre-draft scouting process. They are extremely thorough when it comes to scouting.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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