Friday, February 28, 2014

Patriots to release Steve Gregory

The agent for New England Patriots' safety Steve Gregory is reporting via Twitter that his client will be released by the club on Friday.

The 31-year-old Gregory has played in 26 regular season games with the Patriots after being signed as free agent from San Diego before the 2012 season.  The Syracuse University product logged 127 total tackles, one sack and three passes defended in his two season in Foxborough.

His release, which ultimately clears right around $2.85 million in cap space for the Patriots, indicates that versatile second-year safety Duron Harmon has been elevated to a starting role across from Devin McCourty, or that the team has identified the position as a priority in either free agency or the draft.

Much more on this story to come.

Projected cap numbers put Patriots in good position to re-sign free agents

New numbers suggest that Belichick favorite Talib will be returning
The news that the NFL's salary cap could top $140 million in 2015 and perhaps $150 million in 2016 may have the Patriots thinking that long-term deals for their most coveted of unrestricted free agents are not only now tangible, but likely.

At present, the New England Patriots have just shy of $118 million committed to their roster in 2014 according to a compendium of several different sources, so when the salary cap for the upcoming season was projected to be congruent to the 2013 cap, there was widespread fear among media and fans that the Patriots would have to slash payroll in order to do anything at all in free agency.

Which was bad news when considering that conerback Aqib Talib, running back LeGarrette Blount, nose tackle Sealver Siliga and wide receiver Julian Edelman are unrestricted free agents and likely would be gone simply because there just would not be enough money available to make an appropriate offer to them.

Panic was wide-spread and talk of restructuring contracts or of  releasing players outright surfaced, but then the reports of a $10 million increase in cap space brought the panic to low din, as the extra cap money added to what the Patriots were able to roll over from 2013 brought their cap number all the way up to approximately $137 million, or a full $19 million of space in which to play with...

...and while the idea of asking players like Vince Wilfork and Logan Mankins to restructure their contracts is still a good idea - as is the inevitability of releasing marginal or injured players for further cap relief - if the cap numbers are going to increase incrementally in the following two years, restructuring of contracts may give way to short-term extensions instead.

Wilfork would be the easiest number to decrease as he is on the last year of his big payday from New England, and a two or three year extension with some up-front bonus money could cut his $11.6 million in half, saving the team nearly six million this season.  To outright release Wilfork would still cost the team nearly four million against the cap so the path with the veteran nose tackle is clear.

Mankins, however, is a bit more difficult.  Scheduled to cost the Patriots $10.5 million against the cap, his six year, $51 million contact running through 2016 still has eight million of his protracted signing bonus left to be paid, so he will cost New England that amount of money regardless of a new deal or even outright release, so at most the Patriots would save a rather minuscule $2.5 million - not really worth hassling over at present.

As for releasing players, dumping the likes of Issac Sopoaga, Adrian Wilson, Jake Bequette and perhaps even Steve Gregory plus some other marginal talents would relieve the Patriots of another $11 million - and by playing out the process with the NFLPA over Aaron Hernandez' signing bonus due in March, they will probably recoup another $3.5 million currently absorbed.

Add all of these probabilities together, and the Patriots would be working from a base of an astounding $40 million in cap space for 2014, and given that the salary cap is to be increased by large margins over the next two years, the possibility of the Patriots' numbers guys getting all of their own free agents signed, setting aside what is needed for the rookie salary cap and hitting free agency with a tidy bundle to play with is more of a possibility than it was just a month ago.

That said, there are several contacts that expire for players after the upcoming season that need to be factored in - the priority money going to safety Devin McCourty and tackle Nate Solder, while Stephen Gostkoski will command top kicker pay, Matthew Slater top special teamer salary and both Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are looking at middle of the road running back salaries.

So, what does all of this mean?  Simply, it means business as usual, getting the teams' priority free agents signed, target a couple of external free agents for bidding on the open market, prepare for the draft and start working on extensions for the players whose contracts expire after next season.

Only now, there appears to be a lot more money to get these things done.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Reloading the Musket: 2014 Mock Draft, Volume 1 - Combine edition

Ryan Shazier, a linebacker in a safety's body, could find multiple purpose on New England's defense
There's a reason why the NFL draft is such a process, and why talent evaluation is such an arduous procedure.

The New England Patriots are stocked with talent at virtually every position on the field, but to hear some of the fans and national writers talk, you'd think they were the doormat of the AFC East and that they'll be lucky to win one game next season...

...which is absurd, of course, and the incessant whining about surrounding quarterback Tom Brady with more weapons is the stuff that General Managers and coaches get fired for, because to go "all in" on getting Brady that illusive fourth ring before he retires - regardless of cost - would have repercussions so severe that a great depression would fall upon Foxborough within hours after Brady retires.

The Patriots are the model franchise in the NFL due to their consistency, due to Bob Kraft's business sense and his knowledge and belief that consistency produces a winner over the long-term, and not just a flash in the pan whose fortunes rise and fall with the salary cap.

The truth is that the Patriots are loaded for a run at a fourth consecutive AFC Championship game appearance, and another shot at winning Brady that ring - especially considering that since 1996, a span of 18 years under Kraft's rule, the Patriots have made the playoffs an astounding 14 times, won the AFC East 13 times, are 6-3 in nine conference title game appearances and have three world titles.

So when Bob Kraft lays stuff on reporters like "The fans deserve a consistent winner", he's not just blowing smoke, he believes it and he believes in it.

The Patriots won't go "all in" on weapons - and they don't need to.  What this offseason is all about is putting the finishing touches on the complete team overhaul, a five year process that has seen every position on the field turn over to new personnel with the exception of Brady, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and and left guard Logan Mankins...

...winning the division each year and appearing in the AFC championship game for the last three, giving credence to the worn out axiom that the Patriots don't rebuild - even though that's exactly what they've done - they reload, and the process is complete after this draft.

That said, what do the Patriots need to accomplish to complete the process and get that fourth trophy?  Well, in addition to resigning running back LeGarrette Blount and cornerback Aqib Talib, they must find a nickle pass rusher, an intimidating presence in pass coverage, a "move" tight end to dominate the seam, one more pass catcher on the outside and some help on the interior of the offensive line along with some depth in the secondary.

The future franchise quarterback could be in the mix somewhere as well, but what you see is a team getting better from the inside out, taking care of business in-house and selecting pieces to put the team over the top and doing so while accounting for the future bottom line.

Whatever the Patriots end up doing in player acquisitions, it will be nothing fancy - filling spots where there is a depth need and rolling with a roster that is as talented as any other in the NFL from top to bottom - and ensuring that there is solid depth everywhere.

1. Houston - Jadeveon Clowney, DE. South Carolina

The Texans can not miss with the top pick in the draft, and with no sure-fire franchise signal caller in the draft, the Texans take the top rated player in the draft to team with JJ Watts to give them the most imposing pair of bookend pass rushers in the NFL.  A Quarterback?  They'll take Jimmy Garappolo with the first pick in the second round.

2. St. Louis - Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn

Unabashedly, the Rams are dangling the #2 overall pick in front of quarterback hungry teams willing to give up a boat load of picks as compensation - but it seems that the excitement surrounding the top three quarterback prospects has waned a bit with either poor combine showings, or not working out at all - so the Rams' status of having the second pick is a bit fluid.

On paper, this team has it all, everywhere except along the offensive line.  If they stay at #2, they take the top rated tackle in the draft second overall, than address a need for a field stretching wide receiver at #13.

3. Jacksonville - Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M

The Jaguars are a mess, but they're not as bad off as they were at this point last season due to the drafting of Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, who protected the blind side of manic quarterback Johnny Manziel - and who has spoken on record that he believes that his former teammate belongs in northern Florida.

"Johnny Football" becomes "Johnny Jaguar" and give the Jaguars their franchise quarterback - not to mention putting butts in the seats at EverBank Field.

4. Cleveland - Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson

New Browns' bench boss Mike Pettine is apparently enamoured with brief 2013 starter Brian Hoyer and says that he's the top guy going into the offseason process - and while things change in a hurry in the NFL, for the moment it sounds like he won't take a QB with the #4 overall.

Cleveland follows the lead of the Texans and grabs the most explosive playmaker in the draft and waits until #26 to snag their franchise quarterback, who will have the luxury of being able to use his huge arm to throw to both Watkins and Josh Gordon, then solidifies their line with guard David Yankey in the second round.

5. Oakland - Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville

Bridgewater calls himself a perfectionist, saying that he would not throw at the combine because he wanted to throw to his own guys back on the campus of Louisville on his Pro Day in mid-March - citing chemistry and that "You want to be with your guys to have that timing and that connection"...

...something that the Raiders haven't known for a decade or so between their quarterbacks and receivers - and with it being rumored that Bridgewater was the only quarterback the Raiders would take in the first round, the fit is there - if Bridgewater is still on the board.

The most NFL-ready quarterback goes to the team that surely needs a quarterback right now.

6. Atlanta - Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M

It's a toss up in Atlanta, where both sides of the line of scrimmage were woeful in 2013 - they are the wild card at the top of the draft and Jadeveon Clowney all but begged them to trade up to the second pick of the draft - but that's going to take some draft capital that the Falcons can't afford to part with, as many holes as they have to fill, so the smart choice is a tackle to keep the NFC South pass rushers off quarterback Matt Ryan's back.

The camera will pan to Matty Ice just as he hears that his blind side will be protected by Matthews for the rest of his career and will be inconsolable with joy...

7. Tampa - Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA

The biggest need in Tampa is for an edge rusher, and short of Jadeveon Clowney slipping to the Buccaneers at seven - which wouldn't happen in even the strangest of parallel dimensions -  Barr is the guy, whether the new regime has a stongside linebacker spot waiting for him or they need him to bulk up to play with his hand in the dirt.

8. Minnesota - Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida 

Bortles has climbed most mock drafts all the way to the top pick of the draft, but this quarterback class has it's share of mystery and certainly no locks to be a success - and with a talent evaluator's charge being to find the guy that give the offense the best chance of succeeding, the Vikings would have to be considered a perfect destination for Bortles.

Classic pocket quarterback that can balance the Vikings' offense and with the play action talent to take advantage of the attention that defense pays to their running game - and the big hands that you want your quarterback to have when you go to places like Green Bay and Chicago in the middle of the freaking winter.

9. Buffalo - Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina

When approached on the matter of trying to resign tight end Scott Chandler, coach Doug Marone was less than enthusiastic in his response, telling reporters that it was a matter for team management, not him - not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Without a doubt, the fastest and most versatile tight end in the draft is an immediate upgrade over the plodding, yet effective Chandler - which is more an indication of Ebron's skill than any thing to do with the serviceable Chandler and immediately gives quarterback E.J. Manuel a solid safety valve in the middle of the field and a huge, athletic target in the red zone.

10. Detroit - Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M 

The Lions desperately need a big, fast wideout to take some heat off of Megatron, and the speedy Evans can do just that. At a rangy 6' 5" and a sturdy 231 pounds and the longest arms of any receiver in the draft class, the only question the Lions needed answered was what manner of straight line speed Evans brings - and he ran a respectable 4.53 at the combine.

11. Tennessee - Kahlil Mack, OLB, Buffalo 

A defensive end is what the defense really needs along with a violent safety - but they can have the best of both worlds with Mack.  A relentless pass rusher off the edge and a hard hitting run defender with good coverage skill to take on the running backs coming out of the backfield.  Mack dropping to 11, they can't pass that up.

12. New York Giants - Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan

Lewan's got a questionable reputation coming out of college, being linked (in name only) to a couple of indiscretions on the campus of the University of Michigan, but he did his best at the combine to quell the talk and stop the rumor mill - did he say enough to keep the Giants enticed?

This is need number one for the Giants, protecting Eli Manning's blind side.

13. St. Louis - Marquis Lee, WR, USC

The Rams used the second pick to protect Sam Bradford's blind him time so he can throw to Marquis Lee down the field.  See how that works?

And while Lee didn't wow anyone with his combine 40 time, when coupled with his solid hands and the fact that he looked fluid in and out of his cuts while dealing with a sore knee that limited him in the latter parts of his 2013 season, his toughness may have even raised his draft stock a bit.

14. Chicago - Hasean Clinton-Dix, SS, Alabama

With the passing attacks that the Bears have to face in the NFC North, not to mention a couple of pretty good running backs, the Bears just can't continue to rely on patchwork in the safety positions any longer.  In Clinton-Dix, Chicago gets a free safety that can cover deep or underneath and has some man press abilities.  He's not the most physical of safeties, but his speed and lateral quickness could work wonders.

15. Pittsburgh - Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State

Ike Taylor fell apart in the second half of last season and carries a cap hit equivalent to what the franchise tag offers, and the Steelers just can't afford it. Releasing Taylor for cap relief is probable, and even if they somehow manage to retain him, he's 33 years old with a lot of wear on his tires.

As fluid a corner as you'll find in the draft, the Steelers will snatch up Dennard in a heartbeat if he's there for them at 15.

16. Dallas - Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh

Word out of Dallas is that both Jerry Jones and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli are enamoured with the undersized and lightning quick defensive line swiss army knife, as Donald reminds Marinelli of a younger faster Henry Melton, whom he coached on the Bears as their defensive coordinator from 2010 through 2012.

They should bite, provided Chicago doesn't feel the same way and lets Melton walk in free agency with the intent of drafting Donald.

17. Baltimore - Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State

How perfect was Anquan Boldin for the Baltimore Ravens' offense?  Well, good enough to take a stab at another big, reasonably fast possession receiver.

Benjamin is a beastly cross between the storied Ravens' possession receiver and a move-type tight end and will undoubtedly draw plenty of attention away from Torey Smith on the other side of the field - and at 6' 5" and 240 pounds and huge hands, he could be a natural insurance policy should tight end Dennis Pitta either not be retained or get injured.

18. New York Jets -O'Dell Beckham, WR, LSU

This is where things get dicey, mostly because Rex Ryan likes blowing up draft boards.  At this juncture he still has one of the best tight end prospects available plus a myriad of wide receiver options - but one thing is certain, if the Jets want quarterback Geno Smith to succeed, they've got to give him some guys to throw to.

Beckham is lightning in a bottle, his 4.43 speed, sure hands and precise routes exactly what Smith needs to gain early confidence.  A vertical threat but with a skill set that can see him operating out of the slot and picking up yards after the catch, plus he's an explosive return man.

19. Miami - Zack Martin, T/G, Notre Dame

It requires zero brains to realize that dysfunctional Miami needs to rebuild an offensive line torn apart by scandal last season, and Martin could wind up being the binding agent that brings it all together.  While not as accomplished as a Matthews or a Robinson, he is far more versatile and can play every position along the line - though his best spot would probably be holding down Richie Incognito's old left guard position.

20. Arizona - Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech

The tight end position in Arizona is pot luck at best, and a stud yards-after-the-catch tight end like Amaro would elevate the talent level in the pattern and give pass defenses a nightmare matchup to contend with, opening up just a smidge more room for receiver Larry Fitzgerald on the outside.

Most mocks have Amaro going to New England at 29, but there's no way he falls that far.

21. Green Bay - Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State

There is much debate in Titletown whether the Packers should continue with their standard 3-4 defense or switch to a 4-3 - Green Bay answers the question by taking Jernigan - an undersized 4-3 tackle with a non-stop motor to get things started in that direction.

22. Philadelphia - Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville

The Eagles need an enforcer to keep offenses honest when dealing with the middle of the field, and Pryor's 6' 2", 220 pound frame brings that kind of attitude and pain - and Chip Kelly likes him some big physical safeties.

And he needs to replace Patrick Chung, who performed nowhere near the exorbitant salary the Eagles paid him in his first year away from New England - which has been the M.O. in Philadelphia's secondary for years, and what better place to start than a kid that could be the cornerstone of a rebuilt secondary.

23. Kansas City - Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State

Speed is what Andy Reid needs.  Actually, what Reid needs is some consistency, and with the explosive Dexter McCluster probably on his way out of town, it leaves just Dwayne Bowe and the wildly inconsistent Donnie Avery for Pro Bowl quarterback Alex Smith to throw to on the outside and down the field.

Enter the appropriately named Cooks, who absolutely burned up the field at Lucas Oil Stadium during the combine with an overall best 4.33 on the 40 yard dash, coupled with him going for over 1,700 yards and catching 16 touchdowns in an incredibly average Oregon State offense and winning The Bilitnikof Award for the nation's best receiver...

24. Cincinnati - Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State

The Bengals needs are very simple: they need some help at offensive tackle, maybe at guard depending on how things shake out in a seemingly fluid situation - and also at corner, where Terrence Newman is getting a little long in the tooth and Dre Kirkpatrick is not the successor.

Gilbert is a high-wire act, taking incredulous risks and relying on his his range and athleticism to get him by if his plans backfire - but a solid man corner with a nose for the ball, and while he isn't overly aggressive or physical at the point of contact, his risky style leads to some spectacular plays and with a little NFL coaching, he could be the outside shut-down corner of the immediate future in this defense.

25. San Diego - Jason Verrett, CB, TCU

Verrett is the intense, twitchy guy that would be the pest on a hockey team - smallish, talkative, always buzzing around your head, just waiting for the opportunity to drop the gloves...

The TCU product is smallish in stature but big in confidence and attitude, a perfect combination for a nickle slot back - his athleticism and natural football instincts allow him to be exceptional in space and he is willing in run support - a perfect addition to an over-achieving team.

26. Cleveland - Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State

So now Cleveland has Josh Gordon and Sammy Watkins and a truly great offensive line - they also have Brian Hoyer at quarterback, who will play the part of "incumbent" to the strong-armed rookie and let the chips fall where they may.

Ideally, Carr would win a quarterback competition (isn't that what you would expect from your first round pick?) and have one of the most able backups in the NFL in Hoyer, just in case.

27. New Orleans - Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri

Ideally, the Saints could use a good cover corner, but the best ones are off the board by this time.  The Saints are pretty lean on pass rushers as well, and Ealy is the best athlete left on the board in an area of need.

Not a ringing endorsement because he's not an every down player - he is a pass rusher and not much against the run, but a nickle rusher who has been compared favorably to Justin Tuck can't be all bad - and can you just see defensive coordinator Rob Ryan finding a seam for this guy in a cloud?

28. Carolina - Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State

The Panthers have an issue in that they need a wide receiver and some help along the offensive line, but all of the elite talent has already been scooped up - so a question to ask themselves is if they reach for a second round talent in an area of need, trade out of the round and pick up draft capital for the second day or take the best athlete left on the board?

At this point Robinson would be a decent pick as a bigger receiver who has a knack for making himself available as a safety valve type possession receiver who picks up the majority of his yardage after the catch.  He's not a burner by any means, but gets constant separation and works the middle of the field like a tight end.

29. New England - Ryan Shazier, LB/SS, Ohio State

The need here is for a nickle rusher as well as a physical intimidator underneath the coverage - and Shazier could be both.

Small for a linebacker at 6' 2" and 235 pounds, Shazier was the fastest linebacker in the nation the past two seasons, easily covering running backs and tight ends in the pattern underneath with a penchant for causing cases of alligator arms amongst them - he was a finalist for the Lott IMPACT Trophy, and anyone who saw Ronnie Lott play for the 49ers knows what "impact" means.

An accomplished blitzer who hits like a brick wall, coupled with being one of the best sideline-to-sideline talents in college football, Shazier projects as a big nickle who would also provide quality depth on the weak side - a cover backer with his safety skill and range, as well as being an explosive pass rusher, Shazier would complete the back seven picture for the Patriots' defense.

30. San Francisco - Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota

An interesting prospect that would be among the highest rated tackles in the draft were he more consistent.  He's explosive in getting into the backfield, and when rushing the passer he can shoot through gaps or simply pull his man to the ground and run over him, but he is a project when it comes to the running game, his length working against him as shorter guards can get under his pads.

Not a bad pick in this spot for the 49ers, however, as he would be used as more of a nickle rusher and line up all over the line of scrimmage.

31. Denver - CJ Mosely, ILB, Alabama

Denver needs a leader, a middle linebacker with the football IQ and intense focus to lead the defense tothe next level - and it's not beyond the realm of imagination that Mosely could fall this far - and if he didn't, he's the one player that it is speculated John Elway and John Fox would trade up to go get if necessary.

There's nothing spectacular about his game and he is rated as high as a top 10 pick in some mocks to as low at the top of the second round in others, so it's more or less a crap shoot with Mosely.  He lands here with the idea that the teams in front of Denver have more pressing needs, and that Denver would go get him if need be.

32. Seattle - Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington

Big, rangy, incredible hands - a true all-around tight end who can line up next to the tackle and block in the running game and can also stretch the seam in the pattern - but questions about his maturity and a fractured bone in his foot that may or may not heal before training camp drives down Sefarian-Jenkins value as a first rounder, and the Seahawks snag him.

It might be that the off-field issues and the foot injury doesn't bother other teams that are desperate for an athletic freak of a pass catcher, but chances are that if Seattle doesn't take him here, he becomes a better value somewhere on the second day.

For those that are interested, other players who would fit in well with New England later in the draft:

Corners: Keith McGill, Utah; Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska; Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State
Tight ends: Jacob Pedersen, Wisconsin; C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa; Joe Don Duncan, Dixie State
Receivers: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin; Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt; Martavis Bryant, Clemson
Centers: Weston Richburg, Colorado State; Bryan Stork, Florida State; Tyler Larsen, Utah State
Guards: Xavier Su'a-Filo, UCLA; Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State; Dakota Dozier, Furman
Defensive Tackle: Dominique Easley, Florida; DaQuan Jones, Penn State; Daniel McCullers, Tennessee
Safety: Jimmy Ward, Northern Illinois; Ed Reynolds, Stanford; Tre Boston, North Carolina
Quarterback: Zach Mettenberger, LSU; A. J. McCarron, Alabama; Tom Savage, Pitt; Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech

Monday, February 17, 2014

Eye on the draft: Patriots may find suitors to trade up for Eric Ebron

Eric Ebron's greatest strength?  How about running folks over?
"The Minnesota Vikings have traded the eighth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft to the New England Patriots, and with the number eight pick in the draft, the New England Patriots select Eric Ebron. Tight End, University of North Carolina."

Pipe dream?  Not so fast.

The Vikings need a quarterback, and no one on their roster is the long-term solution but the one quarterback that they have that they hope will just be a quality backup is Matt Cassel, formerly of the New England Patriots - and the fact that All Pro running back Adrian Peterson is a fan and a friend of current Patriots' clipboard holder Ryan Mallett...

...couple that with the comfortable business relationship that Patriots' de facto General Manager has with Vikings general manager Rick Spielman- and the possibility exists that the Patriots could very well put together a package that includes Mallet and the Patriots' 29th over all selection and both sides win.

The Patriots win because they pick up the best overall tight end prospect since Rob Gronkowski came out of Arizona four years ago without having to fork over a ton of draft currency to Minnesota, and the Vikings get their quarterback and still have a first round draft pick to go after their second biggest needs at Defensive end or linebacker.

And the truth is, Minnesota is not the only potential trade partner that could make a deal similar to this scenario work, as quarterback hungry teams such as St. Louis and Cleveland could be in the mix - and even better, they both have two selections in the first round and if either went after Belichick's lure, they could have their quarterback and still have two first round picks.

Madness, madness, all of this trade talk - but when considering the benefit to both teams in a deal for Mallett - and with New England able to field a tight end with 4.65 speed, huge hands and an impressive resume as far as blocking, being a safety valve and stretching the seam would give the New England offense the weapon that it needs to exhume it's buried two-tight end offense.

Ebron's versatility means less stress and less wear and tear on Gronkowski and would open up the outside and underneath routes to accommodate Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Danny Amendola, plus he will draw the nickle safety out of the box to aide the running game.

So...Pipe dream? 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Reloading the Musket - Part 8: Secondary Protocol

Logan Ryan has the talent to man the corner if Aqib Talib leaves
Aqib Talib is a goner.

A look at the top annual salaries for cornerbacks in the National Football league reads like a Forbes Magazine Top 20 list, and with the cap squeeze that the New England Patriots are under, the only way that they would be able to pay Talib what he is worth, comparatively, is to scrap their plans for - well - everything else.

The franchise tag is no help because that will be more on a one year deal than the team could probably sign him for per year on a long-term deal, and restructuring the contracts of players like Vince Wilfork and Logan Mankins won't free up nearly enough money - even slashing the salaries of marginal players like Steve Gregory, Issac Sopoaga and Dan Connolly won't make the nut.

Because someone is going to pay him like a Top 10 corner, but it can't be New England - not unless Talib settles for whatever New England can scrape together for an annual salary with a truck full of money as a signing bonus - up front - and that is a dangerous game to play with cap dollars, for many reasons...

...not the least of which is the lesson learned by the team in extending the contracts of tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski two summers back, which will eat up $13 million annually right off the top of the Patriots' salary structure for a monstrous, oft-injured neanderthal of a pass catcher still on the roster and a nefarious monster who is not.

Add those to the handful of players who are signed for 2014 with a cap hit over $4 million and half of the projected salary cap is is lining the pockets of just seven players - and one brutal street thug, in abstentia.

Regardless of who did what to whom and how much the salary cap will actually end up being, there's not enough cap space to make another mistake, so it's a roll of the dice with Talib - even if he does the unthinkable and accepts a hometown discount to stay in Foxborough.

So working from the assumption that Talib is not in the picture, does that mean that the Patriots need to adjust their game plan in free agency or the draft?  Not necessarily.

I makes little sense to go after a player in free agency when a matter of a couple of million dollars would have made the difference between Talib going or staying, and anyone that you're going to get on the cheap - well, there's a reason why they come so cheap...

...and that leaves us with the draft.

In previous editions of this series, it has been suggested that quarterback Ryan Mallett be shipped off in order to realize a gain on the Patriots' third-round investment, and that a suitable replacement be drafted on the second day; a cap friendly move in free agency to pick up tight end Scott Chandler from the Buffalo Bills is in order, along with picking up a select "move" type tight end in the draft...

...that the team invested heavily in the receiver position in 2013 and will probably ride their class for 2014, picking up a mid-round talent in Jared Abbrederis from Wisconsin at some point on the second day or even the third; the talent in the backfield dictates that the team will just roll with what they have after resigning Blount and that there is enough overall talent along the offensive line that a late round guard would foot the bill.

But where things start to become desperate is on the defensive side of the ball, as identified needs suggest a high round pick for a nickle pass rusher and a second or third day selection going for a cover linebacker/hard-hitting nickle safety - so that leaves very little latitude for error, and coach Bill Belichick simply can not afford to miss with any of his picks.

So assuming that this makes the priority list look something like Defensive Tackle, Cover 'Backer/Strong Safety, Tight End, Wide Receiver, Quarterback, and Offensive Guard, what gets sacrificed in order to pick up a cover corner?

Perhaps nothing.

What the Patriots desire in a cover corner could be found anywhere from the first to the fourth round, and all are a mixture of multi-dimensional skill and attitude.

Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State possesses a skill set and a frame that makes him a virtual clone on last season's rookie corner Logan Ryan - aggressive - perhaps too much so, if there is such a thing - he is a pure man cover corner, but he is projected to be off the board way before New England selects at 29, and a first round pick is too much to spend on a corner when there are other more pressing needs...

...while potential early second day prospects Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech and  Florida State's Lemarcus Joyner still may be taken too early for New England to get the most bang for their buck, the third and 4th rounds have some very intriguing possibilities that feed into Belichick's needs in the secondary.

But get a load of Joyner - at 5' 8" and 190 pounds, the kid is a tank in the body of a Ferrari - Quick and instinctive, plays much bigger than his frame and hits like the aforementioned tank.  He played strong safety for the Seminoles as a sophomore and junior before moving to corner for his senior season.

So, is Joyner a safety or a corner?  Is it too much to ask for both?

And with versatility being key, is Joyner worth a second day pick?  Without a doubt, and despite his smallish frame, he could be the big hitting safety that is aesthetically pleasing to Patriots' fans while doubling up as a slot corner - either way, the nickle sub-package would never be the same.

But if size is what you're looking for, the third round should produce Keith McGill out of Utah.

McGill is a 6' 3", 215 pound cover corner that NFL Network's Mike Mayock recently commented was a mixture of Seahawks' defensive backs Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman, with tape and draft profiles showing to be alert of his surroundings, very fluid out of the break with good straight line speed that played safety in Junior College and his first year at Utah before being switched to Corner.

Stanley-Jean Baptiste of Nebraska is nearly as big as McGill, just as physical and is perhaps a bit more seasoned in that he was asked to play many different techniques - a patient corner, he is adept at letting the receiver go into his break before moving in, and uses his length to make a play on the ball.  Like McGill, some think he would make a solid safety as well.

Pierre Desir of Linwood College is another name that could be found on the third day, as is Walt Aiken of Liberty - but the Patriots should boast enough draft currency in the third or fourth round to pluck McGill or Jean-Baptiste and get excellent value in a potential long corner.

If the Patriots end up looking for a pure safety in the draft instead or or in addition to a corner, names like Dion Bailey from USC or Tre Boston from North Carolina should be available in the third round or beyond.

Boston has elite deep speed and could actually play corner, which he did his first two years at North Carolina, but was moved to safety where his 4.43 speed, 6' 1" frame and ballhawking skills caused him to be both the leading tackler for the unit both as a Junior and Senior, as well as leading the team in interceptions...

...while Bailey played both safety and outside linebacker at Southern California, and while he's probably too small to play linebacker in the pros, he certainly has the intagibles to be a strong safety or nickle safety - perhaps one of the better underneath pass defenders in the entire draft.

So, is Talib actually a goner?  If so, Belichick has options in the draft to add versatile talent to the already talented - but very young - secondary.  Without Talib, the Patriots are looking at third year steal Alfonzo Dennard at one corner with second year talent Logan Ryan at the other, and a hopefully fully healed Kyle Arrington in the slot.

It was revealed recently that Arrington was dealing with a very painful torn groin muscle throughout the second half of the season which severely affected his effectiveness, that he needed to have surgery for - but if he's not healthy or the Patriots decide to go another direction in the slot, there are options above.

At safety, Devin McCourty is a second-team All Pro and Duron Harmon showed enough in his rookie season to think he could play either safety position, which gives the unit some flexibility.  Steve Gregory may be a goner too, given his cap number and erratic play at times - so it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see Belichick address the secondary in some manner through the draft.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Reloading the Musket: Part 7 - Impact depth sorely needed at linebacker

Collins (C) was coached up early, then came on strong late
Steve Beauharnais hits people.

When he was a three year staring middle linebacker at Rutgers, he hit 274 people and sacked 12.5 quarterbacks - rather, he tackled multiple people a total of 274 times and accounted for twelve and a half quarterback sacks.  Pretty sure he hit them hard though.

When the New England Patriots took a seventh round flyer on the 6' 1", 240 pound downhill run-stuffer in last season's draft, the only buzz surrounding Beauharnais was from the bees flying around the practice fields at Gillette Stadium - a curious afterthought, considering that he was the last of a group of players from the State college of New Jersey to be drafted...

...joining cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon in the draft class plus fellow alum, safety Devin McCourty, to give the Patriots a group of players that already had familiarity with each other - and that helped Ryan and Harmon immeasurably, but didn't trend toward Beauharnais as the rookie linebacker was a healthy scratch for 13 games.

Even so, there was a reason why coach Bill Belichick kept Beauharnais on the 53 man roster, and with starting middle linebacker Brandon Spikes likely gone in free agency, we may be about to discover why.

No one is going to mistake Beauharnais for Spikes - there is no flash or swagger to his game, just all business and the task at hand - uncomfortable in front of the microphone and cameras, he prefers to let his play do his talking, which means he didn't say much in 2013, except in the preseason where he filled gaps quickly and stood up more than a few backs in the hole.

Beauharnais is not at an elite level at anything, but he does many things very well.  He doesn't have the speed or lateral agility to cover backs or tight ends one-on-one, but he's a pest in the middle of zone coverage with a knack of getting his hands on the ball. He's not known an an elite pass rusher, but he can get there.  What he is known for is meeting the running back in the hole and making sure he knows that it's going to be a long day.

But is that enough? As things stand now, the answer would be a resounding "No!", but that's why we go through the reloading process every offseason.

Depth is important in New England.  It has been said of Belichick that he believes that the bottom third of the roster - comprised mostly of special teams standouts and young developmental players - is just as vital to the success of the team as the rest of the depth chart, and even though the Patriots haven't hoisted a Lombardi trophy in the past decade, they've been right there to give themselves the chance every season.

"I think how you manage the bottom third of the roster is critical to your development, so how you invest your dollars." said Patriots' owner Bob Kraft many times over this offseason. "It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback, but I think with what happened this year and the fact that we got to the championship game, it’s a pretty remarkable feat. You’re always looking to improve the team on both sides of the ball.”

That said, in entering the offseason acquisition process, it is safe to say that the Patriots' linebacking corps is set with it's starters, even with Spikes being shown the door, and that the players Belichick will be looking to back them up will be affordable depth types - like Beauharnais.

Strong side 'backer Jamie Collins is an example of this philosophy.  Drafted for his unique athleticism, Collins came into the NFL as a man without a position - a jack of all trades, it seemed, but a master of none.  Used sparingly in the first two-thirds of the season, Collins was being evaluated, coached up and then groomed to have a significant impact when he finally hit the field - and what an impact it was.

So now he, along with weakside linebacker Jerod Mayo and middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower comprise one of the most unique and functional corps of starting linebackers as you will see.  Hightower will finally be in the position to capitalize on his strengths as an elite run stuffer, while Collins and Mayo handle things on the edges and the flats.

So what this team needs out of the offseason is depth - affordable, durable, coachable depth. Particularly on the wings where, as usual, the Patriots' cap issues along with the overall lack of talented depth in the free agent class will have the team looking toward the draft more than likely - with names like Brian Orakpo, Jason Worilds, Shaun Phillips and Mike Neal all are expected to remain with their current teams.

One name to pay attention to in free agency however is Seattle Seahawks' outside linebacker O'Brien Schofield whom the World Champs picked up from the waiver wire at the beginning of their championship season - cutting his pay in half and promptly burying him on their depth chart behind their excellent starters.  Schofiled started two games at strongside linebacker, picking up 9 tackles and a sack in his limited opportunities.

“Absolutely getting after the passer,” Schofield replied when asked what he does best. “Pass-rusher, first.".

Though his skill set and experience and speed make him an intriguing prospect in covering tight ends, an area that the Patriots were deficient in last season - another area where the Patriots deficient in last season was on the edges and on screens, something that Schofield plays particularly well - and how many times did we see the Pats get burned on screens, particularly on third down?

The price will be right if New England decides to give him a look, as his depth status with the Seahawks will render him into a cap friendly deal - but as far as quality depth through free agency, it doesn't get any better from there, which leads us to the draft.

It is uncertain how the Patriots view their need at linebacker, given their futures contracts and the presence of Beauharnais, but one thing is for certain, the need for a physical nickle safety type that doubles as weak side depth is something that is a high priority for the team, and if the Patriots are looking for versatility in that regard, there is but one player who fits the bill cleanly.

Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier is undersized for a linebacker, but has every intangible that there is for a big nickle safety - and at 6' 2" and 230 pounds, Shazier fits the profile of a monstrous underneath cover backer - a throwback of sorts in the mold of Tampa's Lavonte David and San Francisco's Navarro Bowman...

...and if New England is seriously seeking a big safety/weakside linebacker hybrid that will put the fear of God in running backs and slot receivers coming over the middle, Shazier would be the choice.  Problem being, he is projected to be a top 60 selection and perhaps a late first rounder, so it would take some finagling to get in position to draft him.

Florida State's Christian Jones is more of a strong side entity who is an incredible athlete - not quite in the mold of Collins, but is projected to be more NFL ready that Collins was.  At 6' 4" tall and 240 pounds, Jones runs a 4.64, 40 yard dash and uses his length to keep tight ends for gaining separation from him.

Used as a defensive end at Florida State, just as Collins was at Southern Miss, he can probably be found in the late second round or even the third round as athletic depth on the strong side.

Bill Belichick has shown an affinity for local products in the recent past, which makes UConn's Yawin Smallwood a candidate to be selected by New England.  A late second day or early third day prospect, Smallwood is an excellent run defender and has a quick twitch to close on ball carriers, and doesn't get lost in space.

He also is good dropping into coverage with enough speed to stick with backs or tight ends, which gives him the flexibility and versatility to back up any position on the second level - and at 6' 4" and 240 pounds has great length to play on either the weak or strong side for three downs.

Other names that will pop up on the second and third day of the draft that could possibly fit with New England are BYU's Kyle Van Noy, Arizona State's Carl Bradford, Louisville's Marcus Smith and Wisconsin's Chris Borland.

As stated earlier, there is no way of knowing where the Patriots view their linebacking corps at present, but the layman's eye tells us that they have three quality starters and zero experienced depth - and while the free agent pool is shallow for linebackers, the draft is as well, so if the Patriots want a top quality linebacker, they will have to spend a second day pick - at minimum - to get what they desire.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Reloading the Musket: Part 6 - Nickle rusher top priority for defensive line

Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald represents New England's best case first round scenario in the draft (Getty Images)
The nickle pass rusher.  A hot commodity for the New England Patriots, seeing as that the kid that they signed to be just that in 2013 spent the entire season on the non-football injury list.

By all reports, Armond Armstead has fully recovered from surgery that he had to eradicate a bacterial infection, purportedly a complication stemming from a 2011 taradol-induced heart attack that robbed him of his senior year at USC and causing him to go undrafted and unwanted in the NFL.

Of course, he went to the Canadian Football League and performed every bit his top NFL Draft projection that crumbled when the doctors at USC refused to medically clear him for his senior season,  Armstead showed what a disruptive force he could be against the finest the CFL had to offer - earning an All Star bid as a rookie - before the call came from Bill Belichick.

It was a coup.  Belichick signing the projected 2nd round defensive tackle to the league minimum three year deal.  But so enamoured was the Hooded One with Armstead that he guaranteed his salary for all of 2013 and half of 2014...

...and from watching the above video, one can easily guess why.  Armstead has a cat-quick first step, violent punch to disengage from the blockers and keep them back on their heels, which sets up his killer array of moves - from any position along the line.

Belichick got nothing out of him in 2013 except having to dodge questions about Armstead's health but he has high hopes that he'll get his money's worth in 2014.

The nickle pass rusher.

Armstead joins a defensive line that, when healthy, should be among the best in the league.  Injury sapped the entire interior of the Patriots' line last season, having to rely on a weird variety of undrafted rookies and waiver wire finds, forced to change their philosophy from an attacking entity to a read-and-react smoke and mirrors act that had a negative effect on the entire defense.

The linebackers were always a step slow to their assignments because their first priority was in the box to plug holes that the opposition created for their backs to run through, and making them just that much susceptible to the play-action pass - and even more so with the safeties...

...and forget about disrupting the flow of a passing game, because while the Patriots were sixth in the NFL with 44 sacks, the majority of those came in bunches, usually after New England's offense had built a lead and was able to turn their pass rushers loose, not having to worry so much about stopping the run with the clock on their side.

Oh, what might have been.

In successive weeks, New England's defense lost nose tackle Vince Wilfork to a torn Achilles tendon against the Falcons, rush tackle Tommy Kelly to a torn ACL in the loss to the Bengals and defensive play caller, linebacker Jerod Mayo to a torn pectoral muscle in the miraculous win over the Saints - these three injuries gutted the Patriots' defense.

Gutted them right up the middle, and while rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano tried to fill in, the difference between the starters and two rookies that nobody else wanted was like the difference between night and day, and the Patriots dropped to one of the worst rush defenses in the NFL as teams gouged their wounded middle...

...that is, until coach Bill Belichick signed and then activated nose tackle Sealver Siliga - then suddenly teams weren't ripping off seven yards per carry, the Siliga was holding the middle, making it possible for the linebackers and safeties to start creating plays instead of the offense dictating to them.  But in the end, the Denver Broncos just had too many weapons and took the Patriots out in the AFC Championship game.

But think about that last sentence for a minute.  Even with all of the Patriots' devastating injuries, they still made it to the AFC Title game, the defense holding the Broncos' prolific offensive juggernaut to just 26 points, but falling short of the Super Bowl when the New England offense failed to take advantage of their opportunities.

Again, Oh, what might have been.

But in following the axiom that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger, the adversity that this unit endured in 2013 leaves the defensive line with incredible depth in 2014, health permitting, of course.

Wilfork and Kelly will return fully healed and take their places as starters in the Patriots' 4-3 alignment, backed up by Siliga on the nose and Chris Jones at the rush - and with Armstead plugged in as the nickle rusher, aligned just about anywhere Belichick can think of to put him.

Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich return as excellent defensive ends, but backed up only by a seldom used Michael Buchanan and an aging veteran in Andre Carter.  Needless to say, the line could use one more piece to put them over the top into an elite unit - but where that comes from is a matter of some conjecture amongst experts.

Salary cap space being what it is, the free agent market for rush ends is extremely limited, the top options either in line for a big-time payday or the franchise tag, so the Patriots will most likely have to find their depth and another nickle rusher in the draft.

At the very top of the free agency class, including names like Carolina's Greg Hardy, Cincinnati's Michael Johnson and Oakland's Lamar Houston are out of New England's price range, plus there's the probability that any or all could be tagged - but a relative of one current Patriot and a pair of Minnesota Vikings could be possible targets.

Arthur Jones, brother of Patriots' defensive end Chandler Jones, would bring some positional versatility to the line, as he goes 6' 3" and 315 pounds and could double as a rush tackle while having the speed to come off the edge as well.  He could cost a team a pretty penny, but would the chance to play along side his brother in Foxborough trump being overpaid by some other team?

If not, the Vikings have a pair of ends that aren't likely to return, one because he wants too much money and the other because he wants to play for a title.  The want of money probably excludes the possibility of Everson Griffen ever being in the Silver and Blue, but even if they could afford his asking price, maturity questions and various runs-ins with the law are concerning...

...and while there are no such questions regarding the fun-loving and great locker room presence of Jared Allen, his likely monetary demands could preclude him coming to New England - though he has hinted that he would play for less money for a shot at a championship.

"I don't want to be chasing the ring. I want to earn the ring," Allen said just before the trade deadline last season. "I want to be somewhere, and obviously, you've got to have parts in place and you've got to be contenders."

That aside, to sign any of these players would put a big dent in the Patriots' cap - which leads us to the NFL draft, which is deep in defensive ends and tackles.

But there is only one player that the Patriots should be targeting, and he should be the number one priority because the man is so versatile, so fast and arrives at his target with such violent intent that Patriots' fans would be in perpetual drool in anticipation of how Belichick could use him.

His name, Aaron Donald:

Pittsburgh's Donald is an undersized defensive tackle at 6' 1" and 290 pounds, but with 4.80 speed - yes, 4.80 in the 40 - he is faster than most defensive linemen and most linebackers - no need to go into superlatives with Donald because it's all on the tape.

Donald has lined up as a rush tackle, rush end and rush linebacker - his versatility, speed and non-stop motor screams "New England Patriots.", and if the experts are correct (they are) that New England's number one defensive priority is to find a nickle rusher to compliment the athletes that they already have, there can be only one choice at #29...

...if he lasts that long.  Donald blew up the Senior Bowl, abusing every guard and tackle the coaches threw in front of him, blowing by them with a variety of moves like they were standing still - relatively obscure playing for the Panthers and due to his size, or lack thereof, Donald opened many eyes this post-season - and the Patriots could call themselves very fortunate if he fell to them in the first round.

Man love?  Gushing admiration?  Perhaps, but watch the tape and you tell me, and then think about a rush lineup that features Donald, Armstead, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Reloading the Musket: Part 5 - Offensive line at a crossroads

Braxston Cave.  Remember that name.

Not because it screams "Offensive Lineman", which it does, but because he may just be the next big thing along the New England Patriots' offensive line - or maybe not, depending on who you talk to.  But one has to realize that there was a reason that coach Bill Belichick snatched the former Fighting Irish center of the waiver wire.

A final cut by the Cleveland Browns, who were looking to back up former 1st round draft pick and two-time Pro Bowl selection Alex Mack, and who were hoping that Cave cleared waivers so they could assign him to their practice squad as a developmental project - but the Patriots beat them to the punch.

Tough as nails but not terribly athletic, Cave is a road grader with a nasty disposition that the Patriots signed to a futures contract immediately after the season and will be given the opportunity to display his wares in training camp this summer - this much is certain.

The question is, who will he be competing against?

Ryan Wendell will most likely be gone, while primary backup at center, guard Dan Connolly, will have to take a serious pay cut to stay with the team.  That leaves Cave and whomever the Patriots bring in through either free agency or the draft - and the options are not that plentiful in free agency - but there are optionsin the draft nevertheless.

The free agent market for interior linemen is likely to look much different in March than it does in February, particularly at the top where Brian De la Puente of New Orleans, Alex Mack of Cleveland and Evan Dietrich-Smith from Green Bay reside.

The Saints are locked into a lot of money at the guard position and are perhaps too far in to be able to make De la Puente an offer that he can't refuse, and the Patriots are locked into the same situation as guard Logan Mankins's cap hit is almost as much as what New Orleans' interior linemen make combined, so that's a dead stick.
Stork at Florida State

Mack, the two-time All Pro, is likely to be franchised by the Browns and Dietrich-Smith has Aaron Rodgers pleading his case in Green Bay.

Not even Detroit's Dominic Raiola is a good fit in the long-term for New England as he is 35 years old and on his last legs.  Obviously free agency is not going to be the direction that the Patriots will be able to improve at center, but if they are to bring in players to compete at the position, there are several good ones available on the second and third days of the draft.

Florida State's Bryan Stork tops the list of draft worthy centers, but it will require an investment of a second round draft pick for a team that is serious about improving their interior blocking - and there are options in later rounds that could be an improvement for the Patriots as well - including Weston Richburg of Colorado State in the third or fourth round and a sleeper in Utah State's Tyler Larsen in the fifth round.
Richburg at Colorado State

Just as with the center position, free agency at guard - where the top of the class is a mixture age and injury - also looks to be lacking in viable options for New England.

Long-time Carolina Panther Travelle Wharton is the top rated guard in free agency, but is 32 and has bad knees.  Kansas City's Geoff Schwartz isn't going anywhere and the Jets' Willie Colon tore his biceps in December and is facing a long road in recovery - after that, well, how does Brian Waters and Richie Incognito strike you?

Right.  The lone possibility in the veteran mix is Kansas City right guard Jon Asamoah, who has quietly become one of the better right guards in the NFL despite splitting time with Schwartz, and if there's any way that the Patriots could lure him to Foxborough with a contract similar to Connolly's, it gives Belichick and his new line coach some flexibility.

Asamoah took over as a sophomore for Brian Waters, and while he struggled initially with run blocking, he excelled at pass blocking, and then returned in 2012 with a renewed emphasis on run blocking and has succeeded in becoming a more complete player in the past two years, Chiefs' backs averaging nearly five yards a pop running behind him.
Asamoah with the Chiefs

Of course, if things got really tight the team could just roll with what they already have and be competitive, but this accomplishes just two things: the team is settling for what wasn't good enough last season and it puts them in even more dire straits next offseason when left tackle Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon and Connolly come up for a pay raise.

It is critical to make improvements along the line now to start the process of improvement and to avoid a bigger mess next offseason.

But if they decide to go with what they have, Connolly could compete for the center spot and third year man Cannon could assume his natural guard position, but this is assuming that right tackle Sebastian Vollmer returns completely healed from a nasty broken leg, which is no guarantee - and this is where things become dicey because of the unknown. 

What is known is that the interior of the offensive line is an area where New England has just been making due with Wendell at center and Connolly at right guard, both full effort guys without a lot of gumption, technically sound competitors that were either unable or unwilling to mix it up underneath - and that's what this offensive line needs - attitude and nastiness...
Martin playing tackle at Notre Dame

...which the draft is abundant in, particularly given that this is a deep draft for guards, the Patriots may be turning their attention to all of the interior talent available in the first three rounds.

Top tier prospects such as Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson, Baylor's Cyril Richardson and Stanford's David Yankey will most likely be gone before New England gets a chance to select, but names like Notre Dame's Zack Martin and Florida State's Tre Jackson are possibilities on the second day - with Martin being intriguing not just for his talent, but also due to the fact that he played next to Cave for two years.

A sleeper on the third day is Nebraska's Spencer Long, a top prospect until tearing his ACL in October, so there would be no guarantee that Long would be able to go when training camp came around.  Regardless, Belichick has made a career on picks like this, and as most scouts agree that he is a "nasty mauler" that "fights through the echo of the whistle", taking a sixth or seventh round flyer on the little brother of St. Louis Rams' Jake Long would be worth the effort.
Long at Nebraska

As things stand now, on the edges Solder and a fully-healed Vollmer are solid bookend tackles, and third year guard/tackle Cannon is road grader on the right and guard Logan Mankins showed surprising agility filling in for Solder when the big man went down with a concussion late in the season.

Currently on the depth chart, undersized scrapper Josh Kline backs up both guard spots and was impressive at left guard when Mankins slid over to take over for Solder, while Chris Barker is listed as a back up to Wendell, but has little experience.  Both second year players will be given every opportunity to earn roster spots in 2014.

But are Cave, Klein and Barker the future on the interior?  If Belichick thinks so, then there won't be a lot of movement in the market or draft in this area.  But if he can get Asamoah within Connolly's price range as a free agent right guard and draft a guy like Notre Dame's Martin - who can play both guard and tackle - and pick up a late rounder at center like Utah State's Larsen...

...the infusion of youth mixed with the veteran core could make the next several years painless both in transition and on the cap, freeing up cash to resign or extend Solder and be to able to absorb Mankins' hefty salary if he is unwilling to restructure.

There is little doubt that the Patriots must address the offensive line now to avoid cap and performance issues in the near furture - and doing so combined with resigning LeGarrette Blount, bringing in an athletic tight that can take the heat off of the current pass catchers and getting everyone healthy should be the priorities on offense for the Patriots.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Seahawks rout Broncos for World title

Defense wins championships.  Boy, does it ever.

Sporting the league's number one ranked defense, nicknamed the "Legion of Boom", the Seattle Seahawks came into Sunday evening's Super Bowl with enough swagger and trash talk for both teams - and backed up every bit of it with a hard-hitting, dominating victory over the Denver Broncos to claim their first World Championship.
The Seahawks defense dominated the Broncos offense.

Russell Wilson passed for 206 yards and two touchdowns and the Seahawks' vaunted running game went for 135 yards and one score as Seattle rode it's stellar defense to a 43-8 shellacking of the Broncos, holding Denver's running game to 26 yards and teeing off on quarterback Peyton Manning, who completed a Super Bowl record 34 passes, but was picked off twice.

The final score, as lopsided as it was, doesn't begin to tell the story of outright dominance.

The Seahawks offense scored on three of their four first half possessions, their defense delivering excellent field position to start each drive - when they weren't scoring themselves.

After the offense spotted the Seahawks a 2-0 lead on the first play of the game - Broncos' center Manny Ramirez airmailing a shotgun snap past Manning who wasn't expecting the ball, Knowshon Moreno getting to it at the back of the end zone before Seattle linebacker and Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith could - the Seahawks drove down to the Broncos' 13 yard line after Britton Colquitt's ensuing free kick...

...but would have to settle for three after Seahawks' quarterback Russel Wilson couldn't quite reach the first down marker on a 3rd and 5 - and after the next Broncos' drive ended with another Colquitt punt, the Denver defense again held tough inside their own red zone, forcing another Steven Hauschka field goal for an 8-0 lead.

The Broncos' defense came to play early, as evidenced by them holding Seattle to the two field goals after the hole that Manning and the offense left them in - the 8-0 lead certainly would never hold up once Manning got things settled down and had the offense on the right track...

...but the Seahawks' pass rush caused Manning to throw interceptions on two consecutive drives, both leading to Seattle touchdowns - the second a pick-six by Malcolm Smith - and after the Seahawks held the Broncos on downs on a desperation 4th and two at the Seattle 19 yard line, Seattle coach Pete Carroll was content to have his guys run out the clock and head into the locker room with a 22-0 lead.

Smith's interception broke the game wide open, stepping in front of Denver running back Knowshon Moreno and picking off the Manning floater caused by Seahawks' defensive end Cliff Avril hitting the five-time NFL MVP's arm as he released the pass and taking it 69 yards for the touchdown and the final points of the half.

Then twelve seconds into the second half, the Seahawks were up 29-0, courtesy of a Percy Harvin 87 yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and the game was over for all intents and purposes.

The Broncos could have very well overcome the 27 points that the Seahawks offense could muster on their own, but there was no way that they were going to overcome their own mistakes that led directly to the safety, the Smith interception return for a touchdown and the Harvin dagger on the second half kickoff.

And as the second half progressed, the mistakes just kept on coming.

After the teams traded punts, Denver looked to have the offense untracked, driving into Seahawks' territory again, but a Demaryius Thomas fumble at the Seattle 23 yard line quashed yet another drive - six plays later Jermaine Kearse wiggled his way for a 23 yard touchdown and the Seahawks' faithful could begin celebrating in earnest.

Denver finally sustained a drive and got on the board with a Manning touchdown passes to Thomas to end the third quarter, but the Seahawks got the score right back, Wilson airing it out to Kearse for 24 yards to set up a 10 yard strike to Doug Baldwin, and cruised from there to take the Lombardi Trophy.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Reloading the Musket: Part 4 - Patriots should roll with Blount

If the Patriots resign Blount, the most talented backfield in the NFL will return intact.  photo credit: David Silverman
The New England Patriots have zero need to delve into free agency to improve the running back position - nor the draft for that matter - because between LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, Belichick has three starting-quality running backs already on the roster.

That said, there is one universal truth for the New England Patriots going into the the 2014 season, and that is that there is no way that they let LeGarrette Blount, himself an unrestricted free agent, walk.

Brought to the Patriots in a draft-day trade for a disinterested Jeff Demps and a third-day draft pick and agreeing to a large slash in his pay rate to do so, Blount did everything that he had to do to revive his career that had been left for dead on Tampa Bay's depth chart - outperforming the meager contract that the Patriots worked him under.

Belichick has always been effusive in his praise for the player he traded for during draft - sometimes going out of his way to make sure that he ackowledged the effort - and Blount, in kind, gave Belichick full effort, endearing himself to the both the coaching staff and to the team's fans.

Blount relished the opportunity to revive his career in New England, did everything that was asked of him and came within one yard of being the Patriots' leading ball carrier, taking the starting job by force - Blount force - late in the season, racking up 431 yards on the ground in wins over Baltimore and Buffalo to end the regular season as well as a divisional round win over Indianapolis in the playoffs.

He has earned his payday.

It's not as if he's going to break the bank, as he's going to command a two or three year deal with money in the range of three million per, and according to Ian Rappaport of NFL Network, Blount wishes to stay with New England, where he and coach Bill Belichick have built a strong relationship.

Part of that - well, actually, most of it - is due to Blount's attitude.  Percieved as a problem child as defined by an incident in college for which he was suspended, the Oregon product agreed to a salary that paid him half of what he was scheduled to earn sitting on Tampa's bench - in fact earning less than everyone in the Patriots' backfield with the exception of seldom-used Brandon Bolden...

...and he earned every penny, and then some.  In fact, Blount's value to the team goes far beyond his cap hit and his even protracts beyond his on-field performance, though the attitude he carries with him toward the game translates to his running style.

Angry?  Yes.  And truth be told, that's one of the things that endears the 27-year-old running back to his coaches, both now and in the past - in fact, when Jeff Fisher was still the bench boss at Tennessee, he brought Blount in as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2010 specifically for that reason:

"He's very competitive." Fisher said after Blount was involved in a brief skirmish in training camp. "He apologized, and I said he didn't have to apologize, it's football. It's training camp. His past is his past. Is that the first punch you've seen in camp this year? No. I'm not disappointed whatsoever. I have great confidence in the young man - That's why we brought him in here is to watch him run the football like that."

And that's why Belichick traded for him, to watch him run with the football like this:

Some may argue that there are greater needs on the offense besides the "luxury" of having three starting-quality running backs on the roster, but it's time for the Patriots to start investing in the future of the unit.

Last season, the five Patriots' running backs combined hit the salary cap for just over $4 million - a grand total of just three percent of the entire cap, so with Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden and fullback James Develin all coming into contract years, coach Bill Belichick has some decisions to make...

...and he can make things a lot easier on himself by locking up the 250 pound wrecking ball for the next two or three or four years.

Blount is easily a thousand yard back - even with splitting carries - and both he and Ridley have already rushed for over a thousand in a season in the recent past.  Vereen splits his touches between the rushing game and passing game as the third down back while Develin is a huge battering ram that opens holes for the trio and has good hands coming out of the backfield in the pattern... with Ridley and Blount rushing for 773 yards and 772 yards respectively, a greater sense of balance in 2014 could make them the first set of 1000 yard rushers since since Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams accomplished such in 2006 for the Carolina Panthers.

But a championship is what the Patriots are all about, and Belichick knows that his team can reach that goal with his dynamic running game setting the table.

Usually in this spot in the series, you would see videos of the top three running backs that the Patriots would have a tangible opportunity to select in the draft, and also a list of the unrestricted free agents in the NFL that would be the best fit in the Patriots' backfield.

But you're not going to see any of that.  Oh sure, there's guys like Houston's Ben Tate and Denver's Knowshon Moreno - over-rated and over-hyped backs that will probably be over-paid as well, particularly since the draft class for running backs is the weakest in - well - forever, the top back in the class, KaDeem Carey of Arizona, is projected to be selected no earlier than the middle of the second round.

Instead, here's what your running back corps will look like for 2014:

So as was noted earlier, it makes zero sense to consider going after a free agent or to waste a draft pick on a position that is well covered for the Patriots, three times over.

Resign Blount and hit the 2014 season running.