Monday, March 21, 2016

Free Agency vs. Draft - Pass Catcher Possibilities For The Patriots

Shepard has elite separation skills and goes deep from the slot
Trying to project what New England Patriots defacto General Manager Bill Belichick will do in the offseason to build his team to an elite level is an exercise in futility - and since he doesn't have a first round pick to ponder, that makes it even less likely that anyone will figure out what he's going to do.

But we can try, as his best bet for an immediate impact player may be in free agency, while his M.O. with rookies coming in through the draft process is to bring them along slowly and let them learn from the veterans.

That said, and with there being needs at weakside linebacker, running back, wide receiver and for a swing tackle on the offensive line and perhaps an outside the numbers press corner (which varies wildly depending on who you talk to) there figures to be a combination of tenured veterans and raw rookie talent finding their way to Foxborough in the next six weeks.

The New England Patriots' pass catching corps have too much of a good thing.

Well, perhaps that is understating the obvious, as they actually have an embarrassment of riches for quarterback Tom Brady to target in the passing game, so could they possibly be looking to add rookies to the log jam?

Before Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick went on a free agency rampage and secured the talents of former Chicago Bears tight end Martellus Bennett, the feeling among most experts was that Brady needed a speedy target to tear the lid off of the defense vertically - but now, even the most ardent supporter of that notion has to admit that Belichick is going heavy and physical.

Besides, the Patriots have never been about going vertical, except for the seasons that they had Randy Moss and Dante Stallworth, but that was another time long past.

Rather, the Patriots are more about spreading a defense horizontally, taking opposing corners outside the numbers to the sidelines on dig routes and isolation flats, the tight ends and possession receivers running crossers and seams, while a seemingly endless parade of passing backs wheel out of the backfield and into the pattern...

...and always within a box that extends to both sidelines and up the field no more than 25 yards.

Why? Because that is Brady's effective range on his deadly accuracy. Beyond that, it's a crap shoot. Now, if there were a receiver out there in free agency or in the draft that had elite speed and was adept at adjusting his route to run underneath wherever his long throws end up, then that player would be squarely on Belichick's radar, but there aren't too many Randy Moss clones out there to be had.

That was the thing about Moss. He was a once in a lifetime talent that could go get the balls that other players couldn't. He had the desire, the heart and the rare physical skill and god-given intangibles that made him the best pure pass catcher ever to play for the Patriots, and perhaps the greatest of all time.

The point here is not to crown Moss with any sort of title, rather, to warn off Patriots' fans that want this college receiver or that one, this free agent or that. You have to research what the Patriots do on offense, you have to look at what's already on the roster and keep track of trends - and what you find is that Belichick selects the receivers that he does for a reason.

Every player he brings in, he has a specific purpose for, and that purpose is to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses on an individual basis, then meld 53 different skill sets into a game day roster that gives his team the best chance to succeed - and he's been right a hell of a lot more than he's been wrong.

All of that said, who is out there, either in free agency or coming out of college, that could satiate the population who want a Johnny Torch deep threat, but also a guy that goes and gets the ball, wherever it may be?

Tulsa's Keyarris Garrett is as close as you're going to come in this draft class to a Randy Moss comparison because, in fact, Moss was mentioned a couple of times in his draft profiles:
"With a combination of height, strong hands and the speed to streak away from opponents, there were moments in 2015 in which Garrett brought back memories of a young Randy Moss. While he possesses the talent to warrant early round consideration, Garrett remains quite raw and may need a strong supporting staff and patience to maximize his potential." - Rob Rang, CBS Sports
Garrett has requisite size at 6' 3" and 220 pounds, but on paper he does not possess the same vertical speed and route running that screams deep threat, yet he somehow manages separation. The supporting staff is in place in Foxborough, and they have proven to be patient to a fault with their receivers, so Garrett could very well land in New England, particularly with having a late second day, early third day draft profile.

Clemson's Charrone Peake has the speed to take the top off of a defense, even after two knee surgeries, and had to sit behind DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins until he got his chance to be the Tigers' number one, but didn't post the eye-popping numbers that the aforementioned NFL stars did in their tenure. He has the size at 6' 2" and 210 pounds, but his medical charts and smallish hands have him graded out as a late fourth or early fifth round selection.

Many mock drafts have the Patriots selecting Ohio State's Braxton Miller in the second round, but Miller is a gadget player who needs a tremendous amount of work at route running - which isn't necessarily his fault as he switched positions from quarterback to receiver late in his college career, but that doesn't change the fact that he is more of a project than the Patriots may be willing to take on...

...which may or may not be true, because with the addition of veteran receiver Chris Hogan from the Bills in free agency, there is enough veteran talent for Belichick to be comfortable with bringing a kid with a lot of upside in and coaching him up, integrating him into the offense slowly.

Because as it stands, New England is suddenly loaded down with pass catching talent, and it's not just at wide receiver.

As a matter of fact, the tight end duo of All Pro Rob Gronkowski and Pro Bowl talent Martellus Bennett dominate the landscape in Foxborough, and the dual passing back threat of the electric Dion Lewis and the sneaky James White complement the wide receivers in such a way that they nearly could switch the tables and make the receivers the complement to the rest of the offense.

Even the depth behind Julian Edelman,Hogan and DannyAmendola has potential with Keshawn Martin and Chris Harper having some promise, while up-until-now bust Aaron Dobson could miraculously become a deep to intermediate threat between now and September, though that seems like a long shot.

So assuming that the Patriots have the talent curve that would allow them to coach up a project receiver,Miller could certainly still be on the table, but not at a second round grade, as a project should come from the middle rounds, like Oregon's Bralon Addison or Colorado State's Rashard Higgins.

Small and without elite deep speed, Oregon's Addison's calling card is video game-like elusiveness with toughness over the middle. He is a natural slot guy, but in the Patriots' offense he would run a lot of jailbreaks and dig routes, being counted on to make the defender miss in space, which, as mentioned previously, is his biggest strength. He also comes with a fourth round grade.

Higgins is another big receiver who doesn't possess top-end speed, but has terrific feet and is a great route runner, which should appeal to the Patriots as a possession type talent. He has some ball security issues but is supremely confident in his route running and his ability after the catch, but is lacking in explosiveness off the snap and could have difficulty against press corners in the NFL - which is why he comes with a second or third round grade, depending on who you talk to.

Finally, there is Oklahoma's Sterling Shepard, the best Patriots fit of all.

The lone drawback on Shepard is his diminutive size, and what is causing him to be a late second rounder instead of a first - and you find many scouts who wouldn't want him running routes for them out of the slot, where his "whip" route is particularly devastating.

But what may appeal more to Brady and to Patriots' fans in general is his penchant for getting behind his mirror in the pattern:
"Clean with his double moves and if cornerbacks bite, is able to get over the top to track throws and run under them for the big play. Will adjust routes to ball placement. Not afraid over the middle. Born to catch a football." Lance Zierlein,
Emphasis mine, as his ability to adjust on the fly and run under throws that are slightly off-target would give the Patriots the kind of over-under all-purpose receiver that they haven't had in a decade. His separation skills at the top of his routes are without peer in this draft class, the only drawback is the aforementioned size and lack thereof - but that slight, fair or unfair, puts Shepard right in Belichick's wheelhouse at the end of the second round.

Obviously, there are other receivers that bring different skill sets to the field, but the Patriots offense requires a certain type of receiver with brains and an explosive first step to gain immediate separation, as well as run precise routes once off the line - and if they need someone who will contribute immediately, the choices for the Patriots at the end of the second round are somewhat limited...

...with only Shepard - and to a limited extent any other receiver mentioned - ready for immediate contribution, with names like Ohio State's Michael Thomas and Florida's Demarcus Robinson also possibilities if the Patriots are willing to be patient and work them into the lineup gradually...

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Free Agency Vs. The Draft - Possibilities For The Patriots On The Offensive Line

The New England Patriots offensive line is built to run the ball.

Unfortunately, given the difficulties the offense had last season with injuries and suspect play calling, not many in the media or in the fan base are willing to concede this fact, nor are they willing give the big uglies a free pass for what was viewed as very erratic pass protection.

And why should they? After all, quarterback Tom Brady found himself on his back more than an escort during Mardi Gras, as speed rushers pummeled him from the edges and bull rushers pounded him up the gut.

But here's the thing, and there's really no getting around it: the offense became so one dimensional in the second half of the season with a myriad of injuries among the "skill" positions that most times, the opposing defenses simply loaded the box, overwhelming the line and daring Brady to beat them over the top with single coverage on his pass catchers.
Mason blocking for Dion Lewis

Sheer numbers dictates that the line would have issues - given that it was normally the starting five trying to hold back a wave of seven or eight rushers on every play - and injuries among the line itself made that task all the more daunting, as left tackle Nate Solder missed the majority of the season with a torn biceps muscle...

...and injuries to every single starter at one point or another contributed to the fact that the Patriots used an unimaginable 37 different line combinations trying to find one that could protect the franchise signal caller. Altogether, the Patriots used five left tackles, five left guards, two centers, seven right guards and five right tackles.

Their thirteen different starting lineups in 16 games was an NFL high for the season and the most the Patriots have ever incurred since statistics for that kind of thing were begun, so it is generally accepted and understood among those who pay attention to such things that New England's offensive line was in flux all season long.

Curiously, the Patriots play calling countered all of the skill position injuries and flux along the line by asking the linemen to pass protect on two out of every three plays instead of seeking balance to counter the aggression of the pass rush.

Yes, it is understood that the hip injury to lead back LeGarrette Blount left the team without a true, experienced power back for the last three games of the season, but with Brandon Bolden, Joey Iosefa and James White on the roster - not to mention late-season pick up Steven Jackson - there should have been enough in the backfield to at least try to maintain so semblance of balance.

But in the post-season, the Patriots almost completely abandoned their running game, handing the ball to their backs just seven times against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional round, and 14 times in the AFC Championship game.

That is not enough.


The New England Patriots have been to the AFC Championship game for five consecutive seasons, resulting in two trips to the Super Bowl and one World Championship which, for statistical purposes places them on the Mendoza line, at .200 success rate.

Now, fans of many teams would take that any day of the week and twice on Sundays, but the Patriots have built a culture that thrives on winning - to the point that anything less than hoisting the Lombardi Trophy is grounds for a CIA-style grilling and the abject calling out of assorted scapegoats.

There were no such issues at the beginning of the Patriots' dynastic magic, as they went three for three in conference title games and in Super Bowls, winning three world championships in four seasons. Those teams were not flashy and the only thing remotely stylish about them were the glitter of the three trophies.

Those teams valued substance over style, balance over brazenness and fundamentals over flamboyance - in short, they were all old school tough,something that has been lost on the Patriots' offense since former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis left after the 2004 championship season.

For example, back in the 2003 AFC Championship game, the Patriots beat the Indianapolis Colts by countering their high-style, big play offense by punching them in the mouth, leading the media and fans everywhere to label the Colts "soft"and that they ran a "finesse" scheme - and those things were not said in a positive manner.

Contrarily, the Patriots offense was smashmouth, physical. They ranked 17th in the NFL in total offense and featured a nice balance between pass (52%) and run (48%), with big bruising back Antowain Smith and tough as nails change-of-pace back Kevin Faulk accounting for nearly 1400 yards between them, while averaging a meager 3.4 yards per carry...

...but Weis, being old school, kept feeding them the rock. What's the old saying, "Three yards and a cloud of dust"? Weis kept the offense balanced because he knew that the running game, no matter the success rate, offset the aggressiveness of any defense and kept the element of surprise viable throughout any given game.

And the greatest beneficiary of balance? Right, the big uglies.

Matt Light was the only big name on an otherwise anonymous unit that started names like Hochstein, Koppen, Andruzzi and Ashworth. Quarterback Tom Brady was merely average, with only 3600 yards passing, throwing for 23 touchdowns and getting picked off 12 times - yes, Brady was merely average because he didn't need to be the Brady that we've seen carry the offense for the past decade.

Brady was only marginally better in 2004, throwing for 3700 yards, 28 td's and 14 picks. This time, however, Andruzzi and Ashworth were replaced on the right side by the even more obscure Steven Neal and Brandon Gorin - and the percentages between run and pass actually switched places from the previous season and newly signed Corey Dillon stomped through opposing defenses for 1600 yards at a clip of 4.7 yards per carry.

In these seasons, the Patriots won back-to-back championships by being more physical than the other guys, something that has been lost through time and attrition.

Since, New England has been to seven conference championship games, but winning just three and taking home one lonely Lombardi Trophy, being pushed around in the process as the Patriots offense became that finesse squad that the teams' fans used to insult the Colts for being. Sure, the Patriots were an elite offense, finishing each season since 2005 in the top ten and tops in the league three times, but what difference does any of that make if there isn't a trophy accompanying them?

Since Dillon retired, the Patriots have gone through backs that were just good enough, as the power running game ceased to be anything more than a curious afterthought in an offense that featured elite pass catchers such as Moss, Welker, Brown, Hernandez, Edelman and Gronkowski.

In fairness, Belichick has tried to improve the personnel in the backfield by drafting power back Stevan Ridley and passing back Shane Vereen in 2011 to bring some relevance back to the ground game, and even brought in 250 pound LeGarrette Blount to lead the team in carries the past couple of seasons, but it's time to bump that notion up to an even higher level...

...and Belichick has by investing heavily in the offensive line in the past two drafts, bringing in the best two drive blockers in each draft, three of whom are with the team in a starting capacity as center Bryan Stork is flanked by his former Florida State teammate Tre Jackson at right guard and athletic Shaq Mason at left guard forming the nucleus of a ferocious wall blocking interior, joining behemoth book end tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer.

Solder is a former college tight end who is a better pass blocker than run blocker - which is to be expected for the man in charge of protecting Brady's back side - but the rest of those fellas are purely nasty drive blockers who were forced into pass pro-heavy game plans, ignoring the ghosts of championships past that saw Weis, Smith and Dillon maintain balance on offense, regardless of rate of success for the run.

That is what the Patriots' version of the Erhardt-Perkins offensive philosophy begs for and maybe, just maybe, this is the season where we will see the Patriots' turn back the clock and allow their drive-blocking linemen to do what they do best, which is jack the opposing run defense right in the teeth.

Especially with the addition of former Cardinals' guard Jonathan Cooper and Bears' tight end Martellus Bennett to the roster on successive days earlier this week, which signals an end to the finesse football that the Patriots have been playing since their dynasty days and ushers in a smashmouth style of ball that serves the talent along the line of scrimmage very well.

In that respect, there isn't much that needs tweaking among the starting five, but with Vollmer and Solder coming up on the expiration of their contracts, the thought with the offensive line looks to the future - to projects coming out of college on the second and third days who will be ready to assume larger roles next year rather than now.

Depth is what the line needs, though the current depth encountered the same long odds of holding back the tidal wave of pass rushers as the starters last season, and are not nearly as bad as they looked at times - but that doesn't mean there aren't better prospects coming out of college in 2016.

Offensive linemen are generally considered the safest selections in the early stages of any draft, but there are exceptions, though they are few and far between - and the Patriots happen to have a living, breathing example of how things can go sideways with a top draft pick, as they acquired guard Jonathan Cooper along with a second round draft pick from the Arizona Cardinals in exchange for defensive end Chandler Jones on Tuesday.

Cooper is an enigma, selected seventh overall in the 2013 draft by the Cardinals - and after a myriad of injuries derailed his debut, he has been just a guy, being benched a couple of times last season. It remains to be seen if a change of scenery can inspire Cooper, as in college he was an elite drive blocker with some pass protection issues, but this was a really inexpensive way to find out if Cooper can contribute as a swing guard.

At least it's inexpensive until the first week in May, when Belichick has to decide whether or not to pick up an insane $11 million team option for 2017. That's not going to happen, given Cooper's long-standing "bust" status, though a restructure could ensure that he at least gets a chance to compete in camp.

At worst, Cooper is an upgrade over incumbent swing guard Josh Kline, and at best will unseat Tre' Jackson at right guard, but the real issue with the line - the one-dimensional offense itself - has already been addressed resoundingly by the Patriots' free agency blitz,

The Patriots followed up the Cooper deal on Wednesday by trading a fourth round draft choice to Chicago in exchange for tight end Martellus Bennett, a move that not only upgrades the weapons stock in the passing game, but also positively impacts the offensive line.

Bennett is an accomplished run blocker, as is All-World tight end team mate Rob Gronkowski. giving the Patriots the option to go exclusively with two-tight end sets as part of five wide formations (02 Personnel where the Patriots are concerned), one back (12 Personnel) or 2 back (22 Personnel) sets, regardless of down and distance...

...without sacrificing a "skill" position on a swing tackle, which Belichick has employed for the past few seasons as a sixth offensive lineman to hopefully find the solution to their run blocking woes, and the results have been mixed. But with Bennett aboard to team with Gronkowski, the opposition will have to tough time determining what kind of play is coming at them when the Patriots don't have to substitute to open up another chapter of the playbook.

All of a sudden, the offensive line isn't five matadors any longer in pass protection - not to mention that running lanes will be more readily available to whomever they choose to be their Bell-cow. The line is suddenly doing what they were built to do.

So, is there is still a need for the Patriots along the line? Backing up the starting five are the aforementioned Cooper, who can play both guard positions, Kline, who is undersized but scrappy, and perhaps the line's best kept secrets, swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle and center David Andrews. Waddle is a pure left tackle who has the talent to eventually take over on Brady's blind side if Solder departs after this season. Vollmer is in his contract season as well, so there probably is a need to at least look at the tackle in the draft.

But even the need there is overblown, as Marcus Cannon and Cam Fleming has done spot duty on both sides, with varying degrees of success.

Andrews is interesting. He has virtually no position versatility and will live or die on the pivot, but he did such an excellent job filling in for Stork, who started the season on the IR with a return designation, that there are some that feel that Stork would be better used as a guard or even as a tackle, as he played both in college in addition to center.

Last season, Belichick even started Stork as an emergency right tackle, and he held his own despite the relative inexperience.

What all of this adds up to is that Belichick will probably draft a developmental tackle in the mid or late rounds and bring a few more linemen in as rookie free agents, but with the log jam on the interior, the incumbent depth at tackle and a switch in philosophy on the offense to a heavy-base set to promote the all-important balance, there is no need to spend early draft capital when there is such an abundance of both heft and skill.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Patriots Pull Off Another Stunner; Nab Bears' Bennett For Pick

I hate Bill Belichick.

Every season, I think I know exactly how Belichick is going to build his team for the upcoming season, and every season Belichick mauls my predictions like a pit bull would a frisbee. I mean, the only prediction that I've nailed thus far was the Chandler Jones trade, which was probably the worst kept secret in New England to begin with, so it barely counts as a win...

Especially now that the Patriots have pulled off two major - dare we say "Blockbuster"? - trades in the space of 24 hours that have changed the face of the team and rendered our draft big boards and mock drafts smoldering ruins.

The latest trade occurred on Wednesday night around dinner time for most civilized folk, when the Patriots sent their fourth round selection in the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft to the Chicago Bears for Pro Bowl tight end Martellus Bennett, a former second round selection of the Dallas Cowboys back in 2008.

Bennett is just a year removed from a "Gronkian" 90 receptions in 2014, and was well on his way to eclipsing that number when he reportedly bruised some ribs in a game against the Denver Broncos and saw very limited action in the following weeks before being placed on the Bears' injured reserved list.

Bennett had been visibly frustrated with new Bears' coach John Fox and lashed out with talk about how he was being misused in the offense, especially in the red zone. There has been rampant speculation that Fox, whose rigid system has alienated many players long before his conforntation with Bennett, used the rib injury as a way to get Bennett to the IR to be rid of him...

...which isn't the best baggage to be carrying around to your new team, but Belichick is hardly as rigid in his philosophy as Fox is, and Fox is simply no Bill Belichick.

In introducing his new offensive coordinator last season, Fox took the opportunity to let everyone know who was in charge in Chicago. "Let me make this clear: Our systems are our systems" Fox began, "They are not any individual's systems, they are our systems, and our systems are not changing."

In contrast, Belichick has a philosophy in which he adapts his playbook on a weekly basis in order to get his players in the best possible matchups, in accordance with their talents and what fire they bring to the field.

So where Bennett complained openly about red zone targets that were his in previous seasons, and now were split with fellow tight end Zach Miller (who was in his first season with the Bears after three in Jacksonville), he now goes to a team who has the undisputed best tight end in football already established..

Bennett never had a complementary tight end in Chicago before Miller's arrival, nor did he have one with the New York Giants, but he did spend his first four years in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, playing second fiddle to - and learning the tools of the trade from - Jason Whitten, and became an excellent drive blocker under Whitten's tutelage.

So what the Patriots get is mostrously large and talented free spirit who likes his red zone targets and is an excellent drive blocker, and joins the ultimate NFL free spirit in Rob Gronkowski, who enjoys red zone targets just as much and who is excellent in run blocking - which brings up the concern as to whether Bennett will play nice and acknowledge the mastery of Belichick and embrace the number of weapons that future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady has to spread the ball around to.

It's going to cost the Patriots a little over $5Million to find out, but if he melds with the rest of the fellas, Belichick is going to find ways for Bennett to put his handprints on this offense

Looking forward and assuming all goes according to plan, this move changes the landscape of the Patriots' offense. With two"complete" tight ends able to line up anywhere in the Patriots' offensive formation, the opposition is going to see plenty of two tight end sets regardless of the down and distance, and always with at least on running back, which should bring back memories of a magical time that the Patriots had two premier tight ends to focus their offense on.

So Patriots' fans should be very happy with the move to secure Bennett, and also with the physical, smashmouth look the offense is taking on, and is becoming more and more transparent every day - because any offense that can run a 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) or even a 22 personnel and still spread the defense thin due to the multiple options these athletes give the play caller, is going to be very difficult to stop.

This move eats up the money on the cap that the team saved by dealing defensive end Chandler Jones to Arizona on Tuesday, and should have New England right where they need to be in order to sign all of their draft picks, so this should be all the Patriots can muster in free agency, barring more cap relief with cutting salaries - and if it is, you can certainly say the Patriots were successful in imporving their offense.

On second thought, I love Bill Belichick, and mock drafts be damned...

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Patriots Deal Jones To Cards, Shed Cap Dollars, Late-Season Slumps

Chandler Jones has 36 sacks in 55 career games.

That's quite a feat these days, what with the National Football League playing in an era where offensive tackles are athletic and violent and can usually match good defensive ends punch for punch in the trenches, so what Jones was able to accomplish through the first four years of his career was nothing if not impressive.

But stats are so very deceiving. 36 sacks in 55 games is nothing to sneeze at, yet pro Football Focus rated him as the 25th best pass rusher in his rookie year, 70th in an injury-marred sophomore campaign, 29th in 2014 and just 40th last season despite receiving his first Pro Bowl nod. How could they have rated him so low?

The answer may lie in how he performed in the most tense of moments - late-season contests and in the playoffs - where the best of the best rise to the occasion.

It's called being clutch, coming up with the big play in the critical situation and in football, where clutch means being in the right place at the most opportune of moments, Jones has lousy timing.

Chandler Jones was traded to the Arizona Cardinals on Tuesday afternoon, and the reaction from the fan base was predictably terse, because most of what they see are those numbers 36 in 55, but a trip inside those numbers tells a story of how Jones disappeared off the face of the map in the most critical of times.

Jones started his career on the fast track, gathering up six sacks in the first eight games of his rookie season, only to get shut out of the final eight games of the regular season and both Patriots' playoff games.

2013 started out just as promising with 8.5 sacks in nine games, only to hit paydirt three more times that season. 2014 was a tough year for Jones as he played only 10 games - gathering 4.5 sacks in seven games before a hip injury kept him out of the next seven games, only to see 1.5 sacks in the final three regular season games, but did manage a sack against Seattle in the Super Bowl.

Last season was his best, though, as he raced out to the league lead with 10.5 sacks in his first nine games, then fell off a cliff in collecting just two more for the team down the stretch. For those keeping score, that means that Jones generated 29.5 sacks combined in the first halves of each of his four seasons of professional football, and only 6.5 in the second halves of those seasons. Combined.

Playoffs? In nine career playoff games, Jones has two sacks.

Now, this is not meant to disparage the legacy of Chandler Jones. He is a phenominal athlete and one of the best pure pass rushers in the game, statistically speaking - but that's all he is, and that's all Arizona gets and, fortunately for them, that's all they need out of Jones.

Jones goes from New England's 4-2-5 Big Nickle alignment to Arizona's traditional 3-4, where he is already listed as weakside linebacker on the Cardinals' depth chart, and all they will want him to do is to get after the quarterback - and probably just on pure passing downs as they attempt to break his habit of wearing down late in the season by not asking him to set the edge in the running game, something he is loathe to do in the first place.

No? When Jones is manning the weak side edge on running downs, the opponent is rushing for well over five yards per carry, while those numbers drop significantly for those same teams when they rush up the middle (3.4 ypc) and to the strong side (3.2ypc).

Look, Jones is a pure pass rusher, and that's what the Cardinals will focus him on. They found a way to make Dwight Freeny look like his old disruptive self last season, so perhaps with the way that Bruce Ariens' defense attacks in layers, Jones could have a huge year.

I hope so. We all hope so. Jones is well liked and forever a part of Patriots' lore, but he is gone and all that head ball coach Bill Belichick is left with is $5.5 Million in liquid cap space and a solid gold second round draft picks that could end up being the talisman for Trader Bill to move up the draft board and pick up an elite targeted athlete in an area of true need...

...and we're talking having the ability to move up to the top of the second round, where there is sure to be first round talent still on the board - say someone like a Derrick Henry, or a Will Fuller or a Noah Spence may still be in draft limbo.

Or they could just keep the draft picks as they are and go heavy in the middle rounds where the true value in any Belichick draft lies, as the Patriots now hold two picks in the second round, two in the third round, one fourth rounder, two sixth and two seventh rounders.

An example of how important this draft pick is lies in our own mock draft. At number 60 overall, we had the Patriots selecting Oklahoma wide receiver Sterling Shepard, then not picking again until the end of the third round where we projected them to take a running back (Jonathan Williams) and a linebacker (Scooby Wright) - but the additional second rounder changes things a bit in that names like Missouri linebacker Kentrell Brothers and Texas Tech offensive tackle Le'Raven Clark figure to still be available.

Not to mention that part of the Jones-to-Arizona deal involves the Patriots receiving a former top 10 draft selection of the Cardinals in offensive guard Jonathan Cooper, who has all of the physical tools to be an elite drive blocking load, but has been a colossal bust thus far in his time in the NFL. If a change of scenery turns out to be just what the doctor order for Cooper to realize his potential in New England, then the Patriots certainly got the best of this deal.

But that is what is known as future earnings. Right now all anyone needs to know is that Chandler Jones is gone, replaced on the roster by a tenured veteran who is looking for a ring in the twilight of his career, and that Belichick has five million additional dollars to work with along with much coveted high draft capital.

And if anyone can make those kinds of circumstances work, it is surely the Dark Master...

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Free Agency Vs. NFL Draft - Possibilities For The Patriots At Running Back

Trying to project what New England Patriots defacto General Manager Bill Belichick will do in the offseason to build his team to an elite level is an exercise in futility - and since he doesn't have a first round pick to ponder, that makes it even less likely that anyone will figure out what he's going to do.

But we can try, as his best bet for an immediate impact player may be in free agency, while his M.O. with rookies coming in through the draft process is to bring them along slowly and let them learn from the veterans.

That said, and with there being needs at weakside linebacker, running back, wide receiver and for a swing tackle on the offensive line and perhaps an outside the numbers press corner (which varies wildly depending on who you talk to) there figures to be a combination of tenured veterans and raw rookie talent finding their way to Foxborough in the next six weeks.

Today: Running backs

In the AFC Championship game back in January, the New England Patriots offense sputtered like a lawnmower going uphill on wet grass until midway through the fourth quarter, when all of a sudden a light went on and their passing game became unstoppable.
Razorbacks' Jonathan Williams

Unfortunately, it was too little, too late for the Patriots, as curious decision making combined with un-Patriots' like errors and a leaky offensive line had reduced quarterback Tom Brady to a twitching mass of anxiety.

But that's what happens when you don't have a running game.

Without a running game, what happened to the Patriots in the AFC Title tilt is exactly what could be expected, as the Broncos loaded up the box and came after Brady like sharks in a feeding frenzy, giving him precious little time to make his read and throw the ball. The line had no chance of holding up under such overwhelming numbers, and many of Brady's throws were simply to get rid of the ball, overthrowing a few and throwing at his receivers' feet other times.

The problem of becoming one-dimensional on offense had it's genesis in week nine when dynamic scatback Dion Lewis tore his ACL in a game against the Washington Redskins, but became a full-blown issue when power back LeGarrette Blount suffered a season-ending hip injury in week fourteen. The promotion of rookie load Joey Iosefa from the practice squad looked to be a decent solution to a backfield that had just Brandon Bolden to run between the tackles...

...curiously, however, Iosefa was released after the week fifteen matchup with the Titans and was relegated back to the practice squad once he cleared waivers. The move was made to make room for unemployed power back Steve Jackson, who took some snaps the following week, but proved to be nothing like the dominant big back that he was earlier in his career.

As a result, the Patriots were stopped cold on the ground by the Jets and Dolphins to close out the regular season - two losses that ended up giving the homefield advantage to the Broncos - followed by a narrow win over the Chiefs in the divisional round in which New England ran the ball a grand total of seven times, then just 14 times in the gut-retching loss to Denver.

That is called abandoning the running game, and it has no place in Patriots' football.

To avoid getting locked into another circumstance like that, it was generally speculated that Belichick was going to target a running back in free agency, the draft, or both - but the first three days of free agency have dragged by like dead animals and nary a running back has been added to the Patriots' roster despite a glut of decent runners on the wire.

But the Patriots actually need a certain type of runner. They are already well stocked with passing backs, as Dion Lewis and James White are now proven commodities, the need is for a power back, preferably one who is good in pass protection, has reliable hands in the pattern, but can blast through the line and pick up the tough yards up the middle in the running game.

That job has been handled by plodder LeGarrette Blount for the past couple of seasons, his success actually greeted with indifference by many fans because he running style is about as exciting as watching syrup running off of waffles - but the truth is that he has been and can still be highly effective in this offense.

Though it may not seem like it, Blount averaged 4.3 yards per carry last season, this after averaging 4.9 in limited action in 2014 and 5.0 splitting duties with Stevan Ridley the season before that - not bad for a one-cut downhill runner who has next to no lateral agility, which may be exasperated and diminished ever further due to the hip injury that ended his season four games short last year.

So it would make sense that Belichick would at least explore the possibility of another power back, especially since Blount is an unrestricted free agent and is no guarantee to re-sign with the team - though there have been reports of mutual interest in doing so - but with four of the top five free agent backs already off the radar, the team's options are limited to lower-tiered veteran talent or the draft.

Of the veteran talent available, Green Bay free agent James Stark has been to Foxborough for a cup of coffee with Belichick, the 6' 2", 220 pound load leaving without an offer from the team, but he is more of a complementary back, not the grinder that the Patriots need - but there are still some of those floating around free agency limbo.

Redskins' bell cow Alfred Morris had his worst statistical season of his career last season, failing to top 1000 yards for the first time in his career, an anomaly considering his great success in his first three seasons, but word is the Redskins are actively trying to make a deal to keep him. Same goes for Tim Hightower of the Saints. Neither player has had much of a market thus far, not surprising since they are all substance with little flash...

...which is exactly what the Patriots need - a no nonsense, one cut downhill runner. But since both the 'Skins and Saints are seeking to re-sign their backs, there is but one wildcard back still out there that could be just what the running game begs for, and is at the very least worth a cup of coffee.

Robert Turbin spent the first three years of his career backing up Beast Mode in Seattle, averaging 4.3 yards per carry while averaging just around 75 carries and 12 receptions per season with the Seahawks. He suffered a high ankle sprain in the third preseason game for the Seahawks last season and was waived with an injury settlement.

He was picked up by Cleveland, but still was not fully healed and ended up finishing the season in Dallas. Now fully healthy after platooning with Darren McFadden for the final few games of 2015, Turbin and his violent running style are still available on the open market. Turbin has the bulk at 5' 10", 225 to thump a few skulls between the tackles, but also has light feet and can make sharp cuts to allude tacklers.

But if none of these guys excite Belichick, there's always the draft, where one back awaits that has New England written all over him.

Derrick Henry is an absolute load, and his draft profile says all Patriots' fans need to know - "Bell-cow running back with the ability to strap on a feed bag and eat for four quarters." Belichick has not had a running back with his size, 6' 3" and 247 pounds, and raw talent since the glory days of balance with Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon.

And he's bigger and faster than them both.

Henry even addressed his two biggest flaws, according to the experts, at his pro day, which was attended by Belichick - he lined up at different positions, including split wide, and caught several passes from teammate Jake Coker to rebut the feeling among the experts that he wasn't a natural receiver, and at the same time showed off some sharp cuts to demonstrate elusiveness.

But he needn't have bothered, because what Henry is, is what the Patriots need most.

Rated at the same level as Henry is Indiana's Jordan Howard, who at 6' 0" and 230 pounds punished the second and third levels at throughout the Big 12. In fact, if Belichick were looking for a back that has already demonstrated lateral agility, optimal vision and steady work between the tackles, Howard may be a better all around running back.

Unlike Henry, however, Howard runs upright and takes some massive shots to his frame and as a result, has spent some time on the trainer's table. There are concerns about his style from the experts, who feel that his upright running is going to cause him to spend more time on the sidelines and less griding down the clock.

Louisiana Tech's Kenneth Dixon is another player who has incurred injury due to his running style, but not because he runs to upright, rather, he initiates contact on the second and third levels and runs through defenders. He finishes runs and does not go out of bounds, seeming to enjoy a little contact with safeties and corners.

Devontae Booker is a bit of a different runner from the first three on this list, as he is a patient back with excellent vision and has an explosive cut into the hole once he sees it forming, and has ankle-breaking moves on the second level. The 5'11". 220 pound Runnin' Ute is right on the edge of how NFL scouts see power backs in terms of size, but the talent is apparent and obvious.

There are two backs from Arkansas that could be considered good fits for the Patriots' running game. Alex Collins is the better known name of the two, but his battery mate Jonathan Williams may be the more complete back.

Collins is pure power, a one-speed, one-cut north and south runner, but that might not be enough for Collins to be truly considered as there is just a small body of work in regard to receiving, which isn't necessarily a red flag in this offense, but when combined with poor pass protection technique, that doesn't translate to a three-down power back in Foxborough...

...while Williams is an instinctive slasher, who carries a power back size - he's excellent in the pattern and is a willing blocker in blitz pick up. Collins will be selected before Williams because there are questions about how healthy Williams is, after missing the entire 2015 season with a foot injury that required surgery.

That said, we have Williams as one of the Patriots' third round draft picks in our first mock draft of the offseason.

There are others, obviously, and the scenarios are as plentiful as yards and points when the Patriots offense is running full bore - but with a very specific need in mind for the Patriots, it looks like they either will trade up to snag Henry or go with one of the aforementioned Bell-cow backs...

Reloading The Musket - Initial Mock Draft Addresses Perceived Glaring Needs

The National Football Leagues' annual petting zoo known as Free Agency is well under way and, as usual, the New England Patriots are hanging back in the shadows, allowing the market to set players' values in order for head ball coach Bill Belichick to get the best value for Bob Kraft's money.

Belichick and his scouting staff have hosted many players, but signed a precious few, most notably picking off wide receiver Chris Hogan from Buffalo, signing the restricted free agent to a three year deal after the Bills refused to match their offer.

Hogan fills a perceived need of an all-purpose pass catcher with some speed to get over the top, and with decent size to challenge the intermediate zone and the seam, but that's about it for free agency, meaning that the Patriots' team building strategy will be top-heavy with draft selections and, thankfully, the 2016 draft class is chock full of skill at positions of need for the Patriots.

Perhaps the greatest need of all is at running back, where New England is currently void of a powerful Bell-cow back who can eat turf all day long, as last season's version of a lead back, LeGarrette Blount is still languishing in free agent limbo, awaiting word from Belichick as to whether he will be returning to the team this season or not.

He is a good fall back option, and since New England either lost out on the prime meat at running back in free agency or just didn't care to compete for their services, he will likely return - but he's going to have a rookie to contend with - and if it were up to us, we would be making deals to get up to the top of the second round to draft Alabama Bell-cow Derrick Henry...

...and that still may be an option that the team is working toward, but a more likely scenario is for them to concentrate on using their draft picks to select the best players available at a position of need and then get down to the process of winning another division title, taking another trip the AFC title game and hopefully making it back to the Super Bowl.

With that in mind, Foxborough Free Press introduces their initial mock draft of the 2016 team building season:

2. Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma
    5' 10", 195
If ever there was a receiver born to play for Bill Belichick, this is the guy. Like incumbent receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, Shepard has slot receiver size and separation ability, but possesses deep speed to take the top off of a defense, unlike the aforementioned Patriots. At the Senior Bowl, he routinely abused the top cornerbacks in the draft class.

Usually, you see things like the above gushing tribute and think "First Rounder", but his size and perceived system fit limit him to a projected second or third round player - exactly the kind of value Belichick enjoys receiving from his draft capital.

3. Jonathan Williams, RB, Arkansas
    5' 11", 220

Williams suffered a foot injury last August that required surgery and robbed him of his Senior season. But before the injury, he was considered a better all-around  back than his more well known contemporary, Alex Collins.

At full health and full speed, Williams is a slasher in the body of a power back. Instinctive with good patience and excellent vision, Williams seeks to punish defenders, with the ability to run through arm tackles and will finish runs on his own terms rather than taking the big shot. He has soft hands in the pattern and is a willing blocker in blitz pickup. If his foot is 100%, Williams represents great value in the third round.

3. Phillip Wright, ILB, Arizona
    6' 0", 239

Known by the nickname "Scooby", Wright missed all but three games last season with a meniscus tear, but the previous season he put up numbers never seen on a college gridiron before: 163 tackles - an insane 29 for loss - forced six fumbles and notched 14 sacks, and this from an inside linebacker.

Wright played in a defense that aligned 3-3-5 Big Nickle, which makes him farther ahead of the game as far as being prepared to step into New England's Big Nickle than any other pure linebacker in the draft class. He has elite instincts and always seems to know where the play is going. His one drawback is in man coverage, where he has to angles and toughness to hang with a running back in the pattern, but not the requisite speed.

Combine that with the fact that he is coming out after his injury-marred Junior season, and Wright is still available in the 4th round, and what a steal he would be.

4. Tyler Higbee, TE, Western Kentucky
    6'6", 250

If Rob Gronkowski is to realize the potential of his likely Hall of Fame career, he is going to need a sturdy, reliable presence in the move tight end capacity to compliment his skill. That's where Higbee comes in.

At 6'6" and 250 pounds, Higbee is comparable in size to Gronkowski, and has the speed to threaten all three levels of the field. He has the run-after-the-catch mentality from his days as a wide receiver - yes, his acceleration and straight line speed is that impressive. Flying a bit under the radar due to a knee sprain that kept him out of Western Kentucky's bowl game and the Senior Bowl, not to mention that he's making the leap from a small school.

6. Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU  
    6' 1", 171

Robinson's draft grade is all over the place, which is to be expected with as many red flags and character concerns he carries in his baggage - but there is no denying the kid's skill.

Multiple suspensions, including a permanent ban from the LSU football team and an arrest for illegal entry into a teammate's apartment overshadow Robinson's shut-down quality athleticism and intuition. Has not played organized ball since early in 2014 - and that, plus his spindly frame and aforementioned baggage lowers his 1st or 2nd round talent into the third day of the draft.

Had an impressive Freshman year where he locked onto the opposition's best receiver and pinned him against the sideline, taking some gambles though his makeup speed and explosion to the ball in the air are first class. In other words, he can put on an island and will likely survive anything an opposing quarterback can throw his way. Belichick has had some luck with troubled corners in the past, and if Robinson does fall to the sixth round, he would come as a tremendous value.

6. Willie Beavers, OT, Western Michigan
    6' 5", 321

Carries a 5th to 6th round draft grade because of coming from a small school and because he is still raw in his technique - but there is no denying that Beavers has all the tools to become a solid left tackle in the NFL, with proper coaching and a little patience.

Mirrors speed rushers on the outside and physically manhandles them, pushing them around the pocket or simply stymieing them. His issue is moving to his right, where he will lose his balance against strong interior moves by the pass rushers. It is a technique issue, but one that will prevent him from coming in and becoming a force right away. He is excellent in the running game and could help a team as a swing tackle while perfecting his game.

6. Thomas Duarte, TE/WR, UCLA
    6' 2", 231

Is he a receiver or a tight end? On one hand, he has great size to be a receiver, but lacks the straight line speed expected over the top of the defense. On the other hand, his size is also appropriate for a move tight end, and frequently wins on crossing routes and up the seam, but is not as physical as you would want your tight end to be.

Reliable hands and being a touchdown maker are his calling card, but he is a it soft on the takedown, as he will go down like a sack of potatoes with a solid hit from a corner or safety, and isn't much for dragging folks - generally, he catches the ball and looks for a place to sit down, but his separation ability and speed up the seam dictates that if he is in the clear, he will aim for the end zone.

7. Antwione Williams, OLB, Georgia Southern
    6' 3", 247

Intimidating sideline to sideline hitter who lacks burst and straight line speed, but has learned to use attack angles to become a draftable linebacker. Stout and violent against the run with some edge-setting properties - may be a better interior gap-plugging linebacker at the pro level.

7. Devon Johnson, RB, Marshall
    6' 0", 238

Nicknamed "Rockhead" due to his no-nonsense, downhill running style, Johnson doesn't try to avoid contact with linebackers - rather, he takes pride in driving through their attempt to tackle him. Recruited to Marshall as a tight end, so he shows soft hands in the pattern, though he is not a threat to run away from defenders and has limited run-after-catch ability. Could be a convert to H-Back and would have some competition in camp to gain a roster spot.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Free Agency Vs. NFL Draft - Possibilities For The Patriots At Outside Linebacker

Trying to project what New England Patriots defacto General Manager Bill Belichick will do in the offseason to build his team to an elite level is an exercise in futility - and since he doesn't have a first round pick to ponder, that makes it even less likely that anyone will figure out what he's going to do.

But we can try, as his best bet for an immediate impact player may be in free agency, while his M.O. with rookies coming in through the draft process is to bring them along slowly and let them learn from the veterans.

That said, and with there being needs at weakside linebacker, running back, wide receiver and for a swing tackle on the offensive line and perhaps an outside the numbers press corner (which varies wildly depending on who you talk to) there figures to be a combination of tenured veterans and raw rookie talent finding their way to Foxborough in the next six weeks.

Today: Weakside Linebacker

In the Patriots' 4-2-5 Big Nickle scheme, the weak side linebacker is essentially the same as strong safety, so it makes sense to look for a hybrid that can handle a box role. In free agency, the fits are Los Angeles Rams hybrid Mark Barron and Tennessee's speedster Zach Brown.

Barron, a former top 10 pick in the 2012 draft by the Buccaneers as a strong safety, he was rarely the sum of his parts and fell out of favor quickly. The title "Bust" was attached to him as he was traded to the Rams for two third-day draft picks in 2014 - which turned out to be a steal for the Rams.
Zach Brown

Once in a Rams' uniform, the coaching staff changed his moniker to that of weak side linebacker, where he filled in for starter Alec Ogletree who went on the IR with a broken leg early last season and played well enough to keep the job through the season. That said, Ogletree is an upgrade at the position and the Rams weren't willing to exercise his $8.4 Million, fifth-year option, but have mentioned that they'd like to have him back at a reduced price...

At 6'1" and 245 pounds, Brown runs in the low 4.5's and is a gifted with good coverage technique in space. There are very few running backs or tight ends that can out run him, and with his size, he can engulf backs and take them right out of the passing game - and can work the gaps in the box, exploding into the ball carrier.

Brown came into the league as one of 2012's most athletic linebackers, but also with an "allergic to contact" reputation which caused him to eventually get benched. He has improved in that area and would be a decent pick up.

That is, if the team addresses the position at all because, as previously stated, the Patriots' big nickle alignment sees strong safeties Pat Chung and Jordan Richards reduce down into the box for the same purposes, so it wouldn't be the least bit surprising to see Belichick surprise the world with yet another strong safety taken in the draft using second-day draft capital.

He's done so before to bring in unknown safeties Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon in previous drafts and also Richards last season - and with Wilson announcing that he is done in a Patriots' uniform and will be hitting free agency, there may be a surprise or two in the draft.

New England is limited in the draft due to the aforementioned lack of a first round pick and, in fact, the first pick they get is at number sixty near the bottom of the second round. That effectively eliminates names like Joshua Perry and Darron Lee from Ohio State, Utah State's Kyler Fackrell and USC's Su'a Cravens, leaving only middle round risks like Oklahoma's Dominique Alexander and Boise State's Kamalel Corea...

...though third-day gems may be found in Maryland's Yannick Ngakoue or Fackrell's Aggie teammate, Nick Vigil. Both are undoubtedly projects, Ngakoue because he lacks the play strength against the run and isn't effective setting the edge despite playing defensive end in college, and Vigil for essentially the same reason, though Vigil seems to be more highly rated due to the fact that he's played inside linebacker his entire college career and is more acclimated to the second level.

There is a possibility that the team could look at interior college linebackers to fill such a void, and send Hightower to the weakside that he manned at times when Jerod Mayo was healthy last season and needed to be protected by the defensive line.

In that case, someone like Missouri's Kentrell Brothers would be a second round possibility, but it is more likely that Arizona's Scooby Wright would make sense in the 3rd or 4th round.

Brothers has elite vision and is considered the best pass coverage interior linebacker in the class, but his stock varies, so there's no way to really ascertain whether he would be available at #60, but Wright is projected to be a mid round selection, as he is most closely compared to ex-Wisconsin and 49er linebacker Chis Borland, who was a little ball of hate until he retired after one pro season due to concussion concerns.

So as it stands, it appears the Patriots best option to pick up a weakside linebacker - the middle and strong side in a traditional 4-3 alignment would go to studs Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, respectively - would be to bring in a free agent. But if they want an interior linebacker, their best bet would be through the draft.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

2016 Foxborough Free Press Big Board

NFL rosters top out at 53 players for the regulars season, so why not limit our 2016 Big Board of the top offseason targets to the same number?

The New England Patriots are unique in the way they approach their team building process in that they value tenured free agents who can fill holes and contribute right away over rookies who have proven nothing at the professional level.

This is not to mean that rookies can't or won't fill holes and contribute right away, but Patriots' head ball coach favors filling as many holes as he can with veterans so as not to have to approach the draft with immediate needs to lay on a kid just coming out of college, instead allowing himself time to ease said kid in gradually.
Vikings tackle Mike Harris could be effective swing tackle or more

Therefore, our 2016 Big Board includes tenured free agents whom the Patriots could target to fill needs before the draft, allowing Belichick the enviable task of drafting the best athlete available rather than perhaps reaching for a rookie in order to fill that need.

Akiem Hicks, DT, Free Agent - New England
   Patriots don't have many free agents hitting the market, but Hicks is an absolute must-sign
Mike Harris, OT/OG, Free Agent - Minnesota
   Harris is under-valued by the Vikes, who offered him a 2 year, $3.5 million contract
Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
   Huge and fast back who enjoys running folks over. If available in 2nd round, Pats should jump
Jermaine Gresham, TE, Free Agent - Arizona
   Vet "move" tight end who had five good seasons with Cincy before signing with Arizona
Austin Hooper, TE, Stanford
   Junior "move" tight end whom we rate the best in class
Matt Forte, RB, Free Agent - Chicago
   Cagey vet nearing the end, great in both run and pass games
Joshua Perry, OLB, Ohio State
   Undersized weak sider who compares himself with Steelers' Ryan Shazier
Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma
   Electric speed, great hands and terrific route runner. Our top WR in class
Kyler Fackrell, OLB, Utah State
   Long pass rusher with cover ability and maturity beyond years
Chris Ivory, RB, Free Agent - New York Jets
   Violent runner, and Belichick loves guys who have given him problems in the past
Kentrell Brothers, ILB, Missouri
   Elite vision and instincts, best play action-aware inside linebacker in class
Will Fuller, WR, Notre Dame
   Elite acceleration and separation, 4.32 speed to take top off of defenses
Travis Benjamin, WR, Free Agent - Cleveland
   Explosive slot receiver and kick returner, 4.36 speed but just one good season of production
Tyler Boyd, WR, Pitt
   Good-sized, reliable possession receiver with vice-like hands
Scooby Wright, ILB, Arizona
   A man possessed, non-stop motor and hits like a freight train
Jerald Hawkins, OT, LSU
   Lean prospect that needs a year or two, but could become elite left tackle
Germaine Ifedl, OT, Texas A&M
   Massive swing tackle prospect that has versatility at right guard as well
Kendall Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
   Ball hawking risk-taking press corner with good instincts and coordination
Anquan Boldin, WR, Free Agent - San Francisco
   A pro's pro in the twilight of career - needs no build up
Jordan Howard, RB, Indiana
   Violent running three-down back who would contribute right away
La'Raven Clark, OT, Texas Tech
   Best left tackle prospect in reach of Pats, could need a year
Su'a Cravens, OLB, USC
   Playmaking weak-sider, excellent processing and playing speed
LaDarius Green, TE, Free Agent - San Diego
   Underused "move" tight end that has fresh legs and good speed
Charone Peake, WR, Clemson
   Latest in a long line of excellent Clemson pass catchers
Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas
   Projects to be another Chris Ivory, one-speed downhill runner
Braxton Miller, WR, Ohio State
   Elusive burner who has played only one year at position - mid-round steal
Patrick Robinson, CB, Free Agent - San Diego
   Former bust that found his stride on year deal with Chargers
Keyarris Garrett, WR, Tulsa
   Great leaper with solid hands - good sized possession receiver
Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina
   Elite "get off" from the line with speed to get over the top
Cedric Thornton, DT/DE, Free Agent - Philadelphia
   Stout three-tech who can play some end - excellent run stuffer
Mark Barron, OLB, Free Agent - Los Angeles
   Bust as a safety, found his position fit as a violent weakside linebacker
Morgan Burns, CB, Kansas State
   Under the radar prospect - reminds many of Malcolm Butler
Dominique Alexander, OLB, Oklahoma
   Former insider who got pushed around, is fast enough for the outside
Harlan Miller, CB, Southeast Louisiana
   More quick than fast, but an athletic press corner that competes
Yannick Ngakoue, OLB, Maryland
   Edge-setter with good burst in pass rush - a project
Chris Long, DE, Free Agent - Los Angeles
   Elderly edge rusher seeking last big paycheck - situational pass rusher only
Rashard Higgins, WR, Colorado State
   Focused hands-catcher that needs route work
Xavien Howard, CB, Baylor
   Has issues with penalties, but one of the better corners at timing his look back and leaps
Brandon Boykin, CB, Free Agent - Pittsburgh
   Looking for a more consistent role in someone's secondary, played well in a limited role in '15
Thomas Duarte, TE/WR, UCLA
   Is he a "move" tight end or a big wide out? Either way, he's a versatile weapon
Kenneth Dixon, RB, Louisiana Tech
   Not big on pass protection, but beastly between the tackles with good change of direction skill
Tyler Higbee, TE, Western Kentucky
   Pure pass catcher with exciting separation speed
C.J. Prosise, RB, Notre Dame
   Speedy big back with untapped potential. Perhaps a bit of a project, but the tools are there
Leonte Caroo, WR, Rutgers
   Excellent blocker though still trying to sharpen route running
Kenny Lawlor, WR, California
   Thin, tall slot receiver - not a deep threat but a solid possession type
Tahir Whitehead, LB, Free Agent - Detroit
   Run stuffer only, but an ascending talent
Zach Brown, LB, Free Agent - Tennessee
   weaksider with speed to burn - good size and decent edge setter
Kamalel Correa, OLB, Boise State
   College defensive end that could be an edge-setting outside backer in the pros - a project
Derrick Shelby, DE, Free Agent - Miami
   Strong side, run plugging defensive end that was underutilized in Miami
Joe Barksdale, OT, Free Agent - San Diego
   Young tackle with plenty of experience - could be a nice swing tackle
Eric Murray, CB, Minnesota
   speedy but slight corner that fits best in a zone scheme or in the slot
Tyler Matakevich, ILB, Temple
   weaksider with plus intelligence and excellent work ethic
Deondre' Hall, CB, Northern Iowa
   A candidate for transition to safety, length and impressive wingspan are pluses
Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU
   Best press corner in the draft but character concerns limit his stock
Nick Vigil, OLB, Utah State
   Project for a team that has patience - needs weight room work and may redshirt

Friday, March 4, 2016

Deflategate, Round 3 - Panel Beats Up On Both Sides in Effort To Understand Motivations

5:34am, somewhere between Lewiston and Augusta on Route 202...

Single digit temperatures in Maine this morning and the resultant squishiness of my brand new tires has me keenly aware of the ideal gas law - as proposed by Emile Clapeyron nearly 200 years ago, and rendered into complete irrelevance ever since.

It is too cold to get out to put air in the tires, plus I realize that they will reinflate to their proper levels once the sun comes out and warms the air temperature to a more moderate level. Besides, I'm kind of skittish about pulling into a gas station for any purpose after the harrowing dream I had in the initial stages of the Deflategate saga...

...pulling into a random station to get some gas when out of the dark garage bay NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell emerged with a menacing scowl on his face and wielding an air hose, ranting about proper inflation standards. I dodged Goodell and sprinted into the building and up to the service desk, where Mike Kensil was engaged in an immense amount of self love while looking at the Wells Report.

Throwing my money on the desk, I dashed to my car, jumped over the now-prone Goodell who was slobbering on himself while unscrewing the plastic caps from my tire stems and muttering about 12.5 pounds per inch, only to encounter Jeffery Pash, who was cleaning my windshield with a stack of court briefs and shrieking like a banshee about preponderance of the evidence.
NFL Attorney Paul Clement

The dream came to a sudden end when I was pulled over a few miles from the station by Dean Blandino, who began taking the pressure of my tires while his partner, Troy Vincent, just stared at me, arms folded and saying over and over, "You,re suspended, you're suspended, you're suspended"...

And, yes. We will just continue on our journey without stopping for air, particularly from one of these backwoods filling stations, where the things worse than that dream have probably happened. Besides, none of these people - neither in my dream nor anyone who would happen to be working at a filling station at 5:30am would really care about the Ideal Gas Law...

...and the only reason that anyone - besides scientists - really cares about it is because it is a central feature in the ongoing "Deflategate" saga, the third round of which took place in a Federal courtroom in New York on Thursday afternoon.

I was still mulling over in my head the awful manuscripts that I received late last night in regard to the NFL's appeal of Judge Richard Berman's order vacating the league's suspension of New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady, and it was good to be on the road. The solace afforded one on an early morning, high speed dash from Lewiston to the Maine state capital was necessary to break down what I had read in some cohesive fashion - to be alone with my thoughts and away from the influence of the evil media in order to draw my own conclusions from the text of the hearing.

And what I came up with is that the three-man appeal panel went into Thursday's hearing united in their quest to simply understand how this case came to be and, more importantly, why their valuable time was being used up in having to deal with it. As a result, the panel hammered both sides equally.

Now, the media has Patriots' Nation all tied up in knots by reporting that the panel seemed to favor the NFL in it's body language and tone of voice, and then hammering the point home that New England is probably going to have to start the 2016 season with their franchise quarterback in Goodell's dog house.

But there are two things that they fail to mention.

First, the Judges absolutely flogged both NFLPA lawyer Jeffery Kessler and NFL attorney Paul Clement, not just Kessler. And the tone taken with both matched the rhetoric being thrown about by both sides. Clement was treated like a child who didn't understand that it was wrong to cover up for a friend who lied, and, similarly, Kessler was treated like like a timid husband being given the fifth degree by an angered wife.

But in the end, it seemed that the three judges were united in their search for one thing, that is, why did commissioner Goodell feel so compelled to punish Brady, to the point that he completely abandoned his original argument in regard to ball deflation and focused his attention on Brady's destroyed cell phone to uphold his original suspension... which Clement hemmed and hawed and fell back on testimony that painted Brady as an unsavory individual with poor moral character, following that up with the all-inclusive Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement which gives the commissioner full authority to pretty much do whatever he pleases.

This was the same argument that drew judge Berman's ire back in August, as if the NFL was rubbing executive immunity in the face of the court, and the panel on Thursday didn't seem to enjoy having it thrust in their faces either, as judge Parker wondered aloud if Goodell being "Judge, jury and executioner" was in such contrast to traditional arbitration that judge Berman was correct in not lending the normally high deference to arbitration findings.

Clement responded with his carbon copy response that the CBA gave the commissioner the authority to serve all three purposes, and that because of this, the deference shown to the commissioner's decision should have been proportionately higher, simply because judges that preside over such matters wouldn't be aware of the process, and therefore should not be inclined to overrule.

The questioning of Kessler was just as contentious, but instead of focusing on the rights of the commissioner to wear three separate uniforms in doling out and administering punishment, the judge instead peppered the NFLPA counsel with bitchy little points of order.

The ticky-tack feel of the questioning of Kessler commenced almost immediately when Judge Chin and Kessler bantered back and forth about why he felt that Brady should only have been fined on an equipment violation - that is, until Judge Parker had heard enough and blurted out that he saw nothing in the equipment rules that included footballs.

This was the most compelling statement of the questioning of Kessler. How in the world could tampering with a football be an equipment violation if the football was not listed as equipment? Then again, if a football isn't equipment, then what is it?  The initial argument set the tone for the rest of the allotted time, as the judges took turns nailing Kessler's feet to the floor on hypothetical situations.

Even more disturbing - as if the hearing going sideways from the start by not focusing on procedure and instead feeling more like a criminal trial - is that the judges all questioned Brady's integrity. The destruction of the cell phone and the "Bribing" of equipment personnel were brought front and center,

However, the fact remains that the panel of judges are not allowed to find Brady guilty of anything, as that has already been taken care of by Goodell. Thier job is to determine whether Judge Berman's decision to overturn Brady's suspension was appropriate, procedurally, which means that the hearing on Thursday seemed to be some sort of discovery hearing, with the panel trying to get a feel as to why Goodell invoked such a "Draconian" punishment on Brady in the first place.

So however these judges behaved in court has no bearing on what must be done, and shouldn't be taken as an indictment either way.

The second thing that the media fails to mention is that the judges could simply remand the entire thing back to Berman, who will not be compelled to change his own ruling. But if the panel decides to rule, whoever wins, there will be measures that can be taken by either side to further the appellate process.

So don't get your panties in a bunch, Patriots' Nation. All that the panel of judges were doing were questioning the appropriateness of the actions on both sides in an effort to understand why this case ended up on their respective desks, and the manner in which they did such suggests that they are not very happy that it did.