Quick-hit thoughts around NFL & Pats

April, 13, 2014
Apr 13
5:00
AM ET
Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the New England Patriots:

[+] EnlargeDevin McCourty
AP Photo/Jim MahoneyDevin McCourty made up half of the NFL's smallest starting safety tandem last season.
1. The Patriots had the NFL's smallest starting safety combination in the NFL last season with Devin McCourty (5-foot-11, 193) and Steve Gregory (5-11, 200), which has led some, such as Rodney Harrison, to call for the team to add a more imposing presence at the position. Second-year safety Duron Harmon, who is 6-foot-1 and most comfortable between 205 and 210 pounds, would lead the team closer in that direction if he wins the job now that Gregory has been released. Harmon checks off almost all of the boxes when it comes to size, smarts and intangibles; the question is more about his pure physical skills after he was a surprise third-round pick last season out of Rutgers (91st overall). He showed some promise in playing 36.9 percent of the defensive snaps last season, and would be the starter if the season began today, thus making him one of the most important players on the roster who might be overlooked from a more national perspective.

2. After catching up with Harmon on Friday, I went through the depth charts of all 32 NFL teams to get a feel for what would qualify as a “big” starting-caliber safety in today’s NFL. Many talk about Seattle’s Kam Chancellor as the prototype at 6-3 and 232 pounds, but what I quickly learned is that he’s really the “only-type.” Tennessee’s Bernard Pollard (6-2, 225) was the next “big” safety, and after that, pretty much all of them fall in the sub-220-pound range. Even in this year’s draft, the prospects who might be considered either in the “big” or “hard-hitting” category are all in the 210-220-pound range -- with Louisville’s Calvin Pryor (5-11, 207), Washington State’s Deone Bucannon (6-1, 211) and LSU’s Craig Loston (6-0, 217) among those in the discussion. From this viewpoint, that is something to think about when the idea of adding a big, hard-hitting safety is discussed, and also where Harmon (6-1, 205/210) fits in the still-developing safety snapshot.

3. Was it just me or did the lack of marquee teams playing nationally televised preseason games go largely overlooked by many when the NFL released the slate on Wednesday? No Patriots. No Broncos. No Cowboys. No defending champion Seahawks. That seemed to be a significant shift from what we’ve seen in recent years. It almost seems like the league threw some of the smaller-market teams a bone by giving them a national platform at a time when the product isn’t at its best anyway, and in turn, help them absorb some of the costs that come with producing their own preseason television broadcasts.

Belichick
4. Whenever the time comes that Bill Belichick retires, and it seems like that is still far off in the distance, he would be the ideal candidate to have a John Madden-type role with the NFL in helping shape the way the game is played on the field. His knowledge of the game, coupled with his encyclopedic recollection of football’s history, would be a great benefit to the league. The remarks of competition co-chairman Rich McKay this past week, of how Belichick is shaping the way the league views instant replay in the future, only further confirms that line of thinking. It all sounds good ... except Belichick would probably never entertain the thought because my perception of him is that he's more of a "football guy" than an "NFL guy."

5. Belichick still hasn’t officially announced how the Patriots have filled the vacancies created when tight ends coach George Godsey departed to join the Texans’ staff, and linebackers coach Pepper Johnson left to join the Bills. Barring an unexpected change, here's how it should unfold: Brian Daboll will work with the tight ends after serving as a coaching assistant in 2013, new hire Brendan Daly will take over the defensive line, and Patrick Graham will shift from the defensive line to the linebackers. And as defensive end Rob Ninkovich said last Tuesday, Belichick is heavily involved as well.

6. Because they often have the luxury of taking a long-range view in the draft because of their well-stocked roster, the Patriots have selected players in the past who slip a bit because of medical questions. Offensive lineman Marcus Cannon, a fifth-round pick in 2011, is probably the best example of this. Wide receiver Brandon Tate (third round, 2009), also falls into that category as he was coming off a torn ACL when drafted. With this in mind, one name we’ll be keeping an eye on this year is Clemson guard Brandon Thomas, who tore his ACL last week in a pre-draft workout. A projected second-round choice before the injury, how far does he fall? And at what point does it become too great of a value to pass up?

7. The Patriots have four running backs on their roster, which puts them in the mix to add at least one more in the coming weeks either through the draft or free agency. One aspect of preparing for the draft is considering other teams who might be considering the same position, and the Bears are one club to watch as they have only two running backs on their roster, which is easily a league-low. For league-wide context, half of the NFL’s 32 teams have five or more running backs on their roster, which makes the Bears a hard-to-miss outlier right now.

8. A few follow-up thoughts on the Patriots transitioning to a new medical director with Matt Provencher replacing Thomas Gill: 1) After 16 years, Gill filled his NFL bucket and will now focus on new projects as part of a private practice, while also having more flexibility to be around his children. The time for change works for him; 2) While the Patriots have always had the chief of sports medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital serve as the team’s medical director, Gill still has admitting privileges at MGH after stepping down within the past year. So the team could have continued with the status quo, and still had ties to MGH, if both sides desired to do so; 3) The NFL Players Association had applied pressure on the club regarding Gill over the last calendar year, mostly stemming from the Jonathan Fanene grievance that was ultimately settled. The Patriots, and specifically Belichick, backed him strongly at the time; 4) The Boston Globe reported on one aspect of Gill's tenure on Saturday in a piece headlined, "Former Patriots doctor involved in rift, MGH says"; 5) Late last season, in a rare scene played out in front of many after a game, Gill verbally confronted a reporter in the crowded Patriots’ locker room regarding a report that called into question his care for Rob Gronkowski. Serving as team doctor for a club that is notoriously tight-lipped about injuries probably led to some frustrations for Gill, and it boiled over that day.

Mack
9. The Jaguars’ willingness to sign transition-tagged center Alex Mack to a five-year, $42 million offer sheet (which was quickly matched by the Browns) was interesting to me because they already had paid free-agent left guard Zane Beadles to a five-year, $30 million contract. That would have been a lot to invest for two interior linemen, but the Jaguars could do it because tackles Luke Joeckel (second year) and Austin Pasztor (third year) are on cheaper rookie deals. If the NFL hadn’t adopted the rookie wage scale following the 2011 lockout, and Joeckel had landed the type of contract rookies selected No. 2 overall received pre-lockout, the Jaguars probably couldn’t or wouldn't have made a play for Mack because the finances would have handcuffed them.

10. The three finalists for the Patriots Hall of Fame are scheduled to be announced by the team on Tuesday, and my expectation is that cornerback Ty Law (1994-2004) is going to be one of them. I think he’s the favorite this year and it’s going to be tough for anyone to beat him in his first year of eligibility, just as it was last year with Tedy Bruschi. I can almost see it now -- Law and owner Robert Kraft sharing one more dance on-stage, just like at the first Super Bowl parade.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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