FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. My biggest takeaway from Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio’s interview with the team’s website from the NFL combine was his acknowledgement that Dave Ziegler has been elevated to director of pro personnel, filling the void created by Bob Quinn’s January departure to become Detroit Lions general manager. Ziegler had spent the past three years as Quinn’s assistant, and like Caserio and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, is an alumnus of John Carroll University. The 38-year-old Ziegler broke into the NFL with Denver in 2010 (under McDaniels), and those who have worked closely with him in the NFL describe him as an attention-to-detail-type grinder with a knack for understanding a player’s strengths and weaknesses while not sitting on the fence in his evaluations. As we’ve seen with Quinn, vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli (former Chiefs general manager) and former Patriots directors of college scouting Thomas Dimitroff (Falcons GM) and Jon Robinson (Titans GM), these positions in New England can be launching pads to bigger things in the future.
2. A bit more on Ziegler: He was a wide receiver/punt returner/kick returner at John Carroll, setting Blue Streaks records for most receiving yards in a career, average yards per reception and touchdowns. He was later inducted into the school’s athletics hall of fame. Born in Tallmadge, Ohio, Ziegler's coaching career has included working with wide receivers and special teams at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York, and at John Carroll. Prior to joining the Broncos, he was special-teams coordinator and running backs/tight ends coach at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, Arizona.
3. Did You Know: The Patriots have five John Carroll University alums on their coaching and personnel staffs -- Caserio, Ziegler, McDaniels and offensive assistants Jerry Schuplinski and Nick Caley. Around the NFL, Chargers GM Tom Telesco and Jaguars GM David Caldwell are notable alums of the Division III school located outside Cleveland. Don Shula (Class of ’51), Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Jaguars director of player personnel Chris Polian and 16-year NFL linebacker London Fletcher are a few other notable alumni who have experienced NFL success.
4. With the NFL’s salary cap set at $155.2 million for 2016, the Patriots have $13.2 million in space based on their current commitments, according to cap wizard Miguel Benzan. But as is often the case, a few expected tweaks can increase that number significantly. So the bottom line is that while the Patriots aren’t swimming in cap space compared to teams such as the Jaguars and Raiders -- both of whom are north of $70 million -- they also aren’t restricted by financial handcuffs to make their annual strategic moves in the mid-range level of free agency (e.g. Jabaal Sheard -- two years, $12 million from last offseason). However it unfolds, the foundation of the club’s personnel strategy remains centered around the crucial group of players on the roster whose deals expire after 2016 -- linebackers Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, defensive end Chandler Jones and cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, among others.
5. While much of the focus regarding Patriots free agents is on the group of players whose contracts are expiring, not to be overlooked are those who have bonus payments due at the start of the 2016 league year on March 9 that need to be picked up for them to remain on the roster (see Brandon Browner becoming a free agent last year when his option wasn’t picked up). Defensive tackle Alan Branch is one Patriot who comes to mind in that category; he’s due a $400,000 bonus the first day of the ’16 league year. Branch, who turned 31 in December, played well in 2015, and if the Patriots envision that continuing in ’16, paying the $400,000 on the first day of the league year would activate the second year of the contract, which calls for a $1.2 million base salary, $400,000 in roster bonuses, $750,000 in playing-time incentives, a $400,000 weight bonus and a $2.75 million cap charge.
6. In Bill Belichick’s second year as Patriots coach in 2001, after having worked through some initial salary-cap issues, the team crushed it in free agency by focusing on depth and signing a group of moderately priced players that would help form part of the core of Super Bowl championship teams in ’01, ’03 and ’04 -- receiver David Patten, defensive lineman Anthony Pleasant, linebackers Larry Izzo, Roman Phifer, Bryan Cox and Mike Vrabel among them. That’s the first thing I thought of when I heard Quinn, the former Patriots director of pro scouting in his first year as Lions GM, say the following at last week’s NFL combine: “I really want to build the depth of this team. That’s something that I really truly believe in. We have some good players. I think the depth really needs to improve. That’s something I’m going to set out and do in free agency hopefully.” Quinn was in his second season in New England when the Patriots had their big free-agent haul in 2001. Replicating it in Detroit would get his regime off on the right foot.
7. Patriots fullback James Develin, who missed the 2015 season with a broken tibia sustained in the team’s third preseason game, stayed around the club for most of the season, taking part in meetings and chipping in from a scouting-type perspective. Not every injured player does so, but it reminds me of how linebacker Jerod Mayo approached things when his seasons were cut short in 2013 and 2014.
8. In 42 news conferences with head coaches and personnel executives at the NFL combine, the thing that stood out to me most came from Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman, who made reference to how NFL teams aren’t getting “instant oatmeal” with most players in the draft. He stressed the importance of player development, citing Bill Walsh’s popular book “Finding the Winning Edge” by saying, “One of the concepts he had was a two-year rule; from the day you walked in the building, you had two years to prove your value to the San Francisco 49ers, no matter who you were -- from first-round draft picks to coaches. If they haven’t proved their worth after two years, they have to go. Back then, the NFL was getting a much more finished product than we’re getting now. So now it’s really a three-year rule.”
9. Patriots season-ticket holders were sent their 2016 invoices over the past week, and for 81.5 percent of them, there was no change. The club did increase prices in the upper level -- adding $6 to the midfield section (now $105 per ticket) and $10 to the corner section (now $75 per ticket) -- which had been announced Feb. 4. The deadline for renewal is March 31. This is the third consecutive season the Patriots are using variable pricing, with three separate pricing categories for preseason, premier and marquee games.
10. Last year, the Patriots saw good value in the restricted free-agent market, signing multiple players who hadn’t been tendered an offer by their teams. Not all stuck, but linebacker Jonathan Freeny turned out to be a good find. So when considering free-agent possibilities for the Patriots this year, keeping this list handy -- and monitoring which restricted free agents don't receive a tender offer -- might be smart. Bills receiver Chris Hogan, given Buffalo's tight salary-cap situation, was one possibility that jumped off the page to me.