FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. With Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo retiring from the NFL last week, I wanted to reach out to his former teammate and current ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi to share his thoughts on Mayo. This is what Bruschi said: “When a player retires from an organization that he’s been with for a long time, he’ll look at who’s going to be taking over for him -- no matter the position -- and if that level of play will be able to be maintained. Well, before I even decided to retire [in the 2009 preseason], with Jerod Mayo already there, I knew the linebacker position would be well-manned. That was his rookie year. I could already tell his professionalism he had and one day he would be a captain on that team. Since then, I’ve watched every snap of his career, and it’s been a joy for me. He’s a guy I felt connected with. I felt every injury he had, and the two comebacks from major injuries, I felt that too. There are certain feelings you know they’re going through. I’m so proud he had so much success.”
2. Patriots running back Dion Lewis’ recovery from a torn right ACL on Nov. 8 has been encouraging to Dr. James Andrews, who performed surgery on Lewis Nov. 18. When Lewis visited Andrews in January for a routine check-in, the feeling was that things were exactly where they should be, if not better. The Patriots still figure to take it slowly with Lewis this offseason and perhaps even into training camp, but at this point, there’s no reason to think Lewis won’t be available for when the games count. The sparkplug rusher/receiver is planning on splitting his time training this offseason between Arizona, Albany and Foxboro.
3. Get ready to hear more about the NFL combine this week, with draft prospect and head coach/general manager interviews scheduled for Wednesday through Saturday, and on-field workouts set for Friday through Monday. Speaking at a season-ticket holder event on Thursday, Titans general manager Jon Robinson echoed ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s remarks that this is a strong draft along the offensive and defensive lines. Kiper, in a conference call with ESPN NFL Nation reporters Friday, called this an “in the trenches” draft, saying the defensive line talent and depth is probably the best he’s seen since evaluating college prospects in the 1978 college football season.
4. Robinson, the former Patriots director of college scouting, seems to be doing an effective job sharing his vision and communicating with Titans fans who are disenchanted with the franchise’s recent struggles. I’ve been watching from afar, because he sometimes references his experience with the Patriots, such as last Thursday when he said this of free agency: “We are trying to play a little bit of a chess game and position ourselves not only for this year, but the following year. I was part of the Patriots and we were able to do that on a year-after-year basis and make strategic moves in free agency to add guys to the team to meet certain roles.” That’s a good primer on what to generally expect from New England in free agency: Think strategic, not big splash.
5. When I asked Kiper what type of player the Patriots might be looking at around their first selection of the draft (No. 60), he mentioned Rutgers receiver Leonte Carroo as the type of prospect who could fill both a need and be a scheme fit. We know how much the Patriots like players from Rutgers (an NFL-high five on the current roster), although Carroo has a two-game suspension on his resume that could be reason for concern. Also at receiver, Pittsburgh’s Tyler Boyd and Ohio State’s Michael Thomas (does he slide that far?) and Braxton Miller were part of the discussion.
6a. For those who follow New England college football, seven players from Massachusetts-based schools will be represented at this week’s combine: Mehdi Abdesmad (DL), Steven Daniels (LB), Justin Simmons (DB) and Connor Wujciak (DL) of Boston College; Tajae Sharpe (WR) of UMass; and Ben Braunecker (TE) and Cole Toner (OL) of Harvard. One point Kiper made was that with the eyes of many scouts who visited BC during the season on the run-thumping Daniels, it helped the 6-foot-6, 282-pound Abdesmad. “Tremendous size,” Kiper said of the Quebec native. “I saw three games, you’re kind of watching Daniels, but then you’re noticing this other guy. With his frame, he was getting into the backfield and wreaking havoc. I think he could sneak up on people a little bit and people will get more intrigued with him as we move through the process a bit.”
6b. Sharpe, of Piscataway, New Jersey, has built momentum in the pre-draft process with some solid work at the East-West Shrine Game and then in Senior Bowl practices. One question scouts have is his hand size, which is smaller than the norm (8 inches). That was a similar issue that followed Patriots receiver Brandon LaFell (8 3/4 inches) out of LSU.
7. Cornerback Leonard Johnson had made a quick impact with the Patriots in December after signing a two-year deal, with his pass defense and post-play dancing a highlight in a Dec. 13 win over the Texans. Johnson’s exuberance was hard to miss, but his production faded quickly (he was active but didn’t play in either playoff game as rookie Justin Coleman took his reps) and he was ultimately released last week. The Patriots needed to build depth on the fly at cornerback in 2015, which led them to give Johnson a chance, and it makes sense to think they will aggressively target the position this offseason. I currently rank cornerback as the team’s No. 4 need area.
8. Defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker is one under-the-radar free agent to file away as a possible Patriots target this offseason. The Patriots offered Walker a three-year deal last offseason as an untendered restricted free agent, but Walker chose a one-year deal with Detroit instead. Now he’s scheduled to hit the unrestricted free-agent market, and I’m interested to see if former Patriots director of pro scouting Bob Quinn -- now the Lions’ general manager -- ensures Walker stays put knowing New England’s past interest. Walker is coming off a broken fibula that limited him to four games in 2015, but he still landed on one analyst’s list as a top-50 free agent, which made me think the Patriots’ pursuit last offseason was reflective of them being ahead of the curve on a rising player.
9. Steelers tight end Heath Miller, who retired from the NFL last week after 11 seasons (all in Pittsburgh), was one of the game’s most durable players at one of its most punishing positions. He is a good example of how players’ medical status entering the NFL draft process can create a challenge for teams, as in 2005, Miller had a sports hernia coming out of Virginia and couldn’t run a 40-yard dash until after the draft. Once considered a top-10 pick, he ended up slipping to No. 30, which was the Steelers’ gain.
10. The combine is a significant part of teams’ draft evaluations -- primarily for medical information, and to a lesser degree with on-field testing -- but it’s far from the complete picture. Here is something to consider this week as an explosion of media coverage awaits; the following Patriots players weren’t even invited to the combine in the years they were drafted/signed as undrafted players: receiver Julian Edelman (2009), guard Shaq Mason (2015), offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (2009), safeties Nate Ebner (2012), Duron Harmon (2013) and Tavon Wilson (2012), and cornerbacks Malcolm Butler (2014) and Darryl Roberts (2015).