Wednesday, April 26, 2017

New England Patriots Mock Draft 3.0: Minimal Picks Doesn't Necessarily Mean Minimal Talent

The New England Patriots have no real needs when it comes to starting talent, so projecting their 2017 draft has become somewhat of a effort to find projects to provide decent depth in the present and with enough upside to displace incumbent depth on the 53 man roster - and with a depth chart as loaded as the Patriots' is, that is no small task.

"Draft and stash" is the the term most often used for what New England looking for, and while that process is not as sexy as Patriots' fans would like to hear, It would be a challenge for anyone to name a position on the roster that is an immediate need - as any perceived weaknesses coming into the 2017 offseason were addressed in free agency and through trades.
Utah's Isaac Asiata

Of course, that doesn't mean that General Manager Bill Belichick is just going to throw darts and hope one sticks, as his mantra has always been to find a player with a distinctive skill set that can be incorporated into the system that helps to unlock as much as the playbook as possible, given the needs from week to week.

That said, Patriots' fans shouldn't be looking for any players with immediate starting "Wow" factors, but they should be prepared to see Belichick select solid projects to task his talented staff to coach up...

3rd Round (72nd overall) - Derek Rivers, DE/OLB, Youngstown State
6' 4", 245 lbs

At 6' 4" and 245 pounds, Rivers is more suited for an off-the-line role, and there are some that even liken him to a Jamie Collins-like talent.  The precursors are all there, freakish athletic ability, able to bend the corner either from a standing position or with his hand in the dirt.

What makes Rivers unique is a rare second gear after making initial contact with the right tackle, giving him the speed-to-power ability to blow past most bookends, and has the natural body placement to make it easy for him to shed and disengage from his mirror to force an outside rush or screen to the sidelines - though not bulky enough to set a steadfast edge, he can hold the fort until help arrives.

3rd Round (96th Overall) - Isaac Asiata, G, Utah
6' 3", 325 lbs

Nasty-tempered intimidator on the interior that wants to mix it up.  Jarring puncher who finishes blocks, then lets his opponent know about it.  Absolutely filthy run blocker.

A bowling ball with legs, Asiata is more athletic than his frame would suggest and is an accomplished pass protector and wins with sheer strength and determination.  Would be perfect to man up along side center David Andrews as his wide base and experience in pass pro would free up the undersized Andrews to concentrate on his own assignment rather than in helping out on the left.

4th Round (131 Overall) - Tarell Basham, DE, Ohio
6' 4", 270 lbs

A different talent from Rivers, Basham is a straight up edge defender that loves mixing it up with tackles and tight ends in the running game.  As a pass rusher, Basham is still a work in progress - which is fine in the Patriots' rotational system where he would be an early-down edge-setter with a decided mean streak.

Has the developmental skill set to be a three-down end, his high-motor and relentlessness as a pass rusher will do exactly what Belichick likes from his rush ends, and that is to collapse the pocket and get the quarterback off his mark.

5th Round (183rd Overall) - Julie'n Davenport, OT, Bucknell
6' 7", 325 lbs

A Division II project with all of the measurables and who dominated lower levels of competition in college. Davenport has huge hands to shove into a defensive end's chest and a massive wingspan to hold speed rushers at bay.  Footwork will need some refinement, but with his size (6' 7", 325) and athleticism, he gives Dante Scarnecchia a lot more to work with than most projects.

Could contribute right away as a swing tackle, and may have the natural ability to step in if injury besets either tackle position.

6th Round (200th Overall) - Jonnu Smith, TE, Florida International
6' 3", 245 lbs

Neither solely an in-line tight end nor a move tight end, but a combination of both, which makes him a rare commodity that many teams wouldn't know what to do with.

Jumps off the line and into the pattern like a jack-in-the-box and possessing electric moves and functional speed to gain separation and to challenge the seam, Smith is a body catcher that seems unwilling to trust his massive hands, as evidenced by his penchant for double clutching balls that are challenged by safeties - needs work with hands but is already an effective zone blocker who likes mixing it up.

7th Round (239th Overall) - Howard Wilson, CB, Houston
6' 1", 190 lbs

His lack of experience and skinny frame have caused Wilson to slide down draft boards, but he has two things that just can't be gained by experience: size and speed. Of course, players can be coached to properly utilize their God-given intangibles and Wilson has tremendous upside and all reports verify his coachability.

Has a proven track record as a ball hawk, but needs a professional strength and conditioning program to add some mass before he can be reasonably expected to hold his own as a press corner against the growing trend of larger receivers in the NFL, but has all of the intangibles to become an effective starter in time.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

With Gillislee Signing, Erhardt-Perkins Offense In Full Swing

The 1978 New England Patriots set an NFL record with 3,165 yards, a record that has stood the test of time and remains the gold standard.

What was unique about that team is that they had four legitimate rushing options who all produced at least 500 yards on the ground and averaged a combined 4.7 yards per carry - which augmented a receiving corps that featured two burning speedsters split wide and one of the best tight ends of the day wreaking havoc up the seam.

The 2017 edition of the New England Patriots have all of that, and more.

Not saying that the modern-day Patriots are going to be setting rushing records, because with all of the receiving talent on the team led by the greatest quarterback in the history of the professional game, head ball coach Bill Belichick is going to be like a mad scientist, combining talents to formulate a game plan to decimate the will of his opponent...

...and all under precept of the Erhardt-Perkins offense, the mantra of which has always been, "Pass to score, run to win.", and by signing a young power back to a two-year offer sheet in addition to earlier deft acquisitions, Belichick's offense should be able to do plenty of both.

Monday's deadline for the Buffalo Bills to match the New England Patriots' offer sheet to running back Mike Gillislee has come and gone, and the Florida product is officially a member of the World Champion New England Patriots.

While it is hardly newsworthy that Patriots head ball coach Bill Belichick has a habit of feeding off of other teams' veterans, it is noteworthy that he has fleeced the Bills for skill position players the past two seasons. Last season, Belichick signed wide receiver Chris Hogan to an offer sheet that the powers that be in Buffalo immediately declined to match...

...and all Hogan did to show his appreciation was to set career highs in yards per reception and in receiving touchdowns in the regular season, but then really turned on the afterburners once the post-season began, catching 17 balls for 332 yards (19.5 ypc) and scoring two touchdowns in being a huge part of the Patriots' championship run.

Hogan was no better than the fifth option on Buffalo's roster in 2015, but circumstances and sheer talent made him second among Patriots' wide receivers in 2016, and his deep speed and penchant for crisp route running opened up the underneath routes for the likes of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and James White, and now Belichick is going to ask Gillislee to do the same thing out of the backfield.

Gillislee, a former fifth-round pick by the Dolphins in 2013, was released by Miami on final cutdowns two seasons later, cracked the Buffalo Bills lineup late in 2015, then won the backup role to LeSean McCoy in training camp last season and ran for nearly six yards per carry, despite facing several of the league's top run defenses.

Of course, the Bills are built around the running game and it dominates their offensive philosophy - but Shady McCoy is tough act to follow and Gillislee ran like a boss in his limited opportunities, and especially against the Patriots whom he ripped for well over six yards per carry, but his success was not solely limited to games against New England.

The measurables on Gillislee indicate how he acquires his yardage, gaining 3.34 yards per play after contact which was the third best number in the league behind Oakland's Jalen Richards and Miami's Jay Ajayi. He was also third in the league in breakaway percentage - or number of yards that came from runs of over 15 yards - and was rated the eighth toughest runner to bring down, which is also known as the elusiveness rating.

But that elusiveness rating has little to do with how shifty a runner is, instead gleaning it's numbers from forced missed tackles and subsequent yards after contact.

So what the Patriots gain in Gillislee is, essentially, a power back with optimum vision and patience who allows his offensive line to create lanes, then is decisive when cutting against the grain in zone runs, and who is a battering ram in the short game - which means that the Patriots have two such runners when Rex Burkhead is mixed into the equation.

Redundant talents, the Patriots will be able to attack a defense on early downs much like the Bills did with McCoy and Gillislee, but with the added dimension of Dion Lewis as a change of pace guy and with James White locked in as an all-purpose third down back - In theory producing a devastating rotation of backs that will wear down a run defense while spelling each other to keep all of them fresh for the fourth quarter, when games are won or lost.

That is what Belichick is doing all over the roster, and together with an over-the-top conditioning program, he has set a standard that no other team in the league can match - and it is this depth-intensive forward thinking that has allowed the Patriots to close games out when other teams flounder, shrink and otherwise choke games away.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Assessing The Patriots' Roster With Draft Looming

The New England Patriots have 65 players on their preseason roster, 25 short of the 90 man limit heading into offseason workouts and, ultimately, training camp - and what you see thus far is pretty much what Patriots' fans are liable to get when camp breaks in early September.
Hightower and Roberts in Super Bowl

After all, the Patriots have already had their "draft", per se, as they have traded their top draft capital to New Orleans and Carolina for wide receiver Brandin Cooks and defensive end Kony Ealy, respectively - not to mention that in free agency they picked up another defensive end in Lawrence Guy, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and running back Rex Burkhead, leaving them with an early third-round selection as their first pick of the 2017 draft.

With so many camp spots left to fill, and with so few draft picks in which to fill them, there are many opportunities for undrafted rookies and marginal veteran talents to earn a surprise spot on the roster or on the practice squad.

Quarterbacks (3)

Tom Brady
Jimmy Garoppolo
Jacoby Brissett

Jimmy Clipboard isn't going anywhere, hammering home the notion that he is viewed to be the future of the franchise.  Many writers and fans find it curious that the team isn't willing to part with Garoppolo to gain value for him in the final year of his rookie contract, but all these folks have to do is look around the league to see teams that have everything else in place, but aren't as successful as they should be because they don't have a franchise quarterback...

Chances of drafting a quarterback: Zero

Candidates for draft if Garoppolo dealt: Central Michigan's Cooper Rush

Possible veteran signings if Garoppolo dealt: Matt McGloin (Oakland), 

Running Backs (7)

James White
Dion Lewis
Rex Burkhead
*Mike Gillislee
Brandon Bolden
D.J. Foster
James Develin
Glenn Gronkowski

With the only question mark being whether or not the Bills will match New England's offer sheet to Gillislee, this is a solid group that will be pared down to five players at final cutdowns - bad news for Gronkowski and possibly Foster...and anyone who had designs of being drafted by the team.

Chances of drafting a running back: If Gillislee stays, minimal.  If Gillislee remains with Buffalo, very good.

Candidates being Wyoming's Brian Hill, Pitt's James Connor, Wisconsin's Dare Ogunbowale, Boise State's Jeremy McNichols

Veterans that could be signed include LeGarrette Blount (NE), Adrian Peterson (Minn), Justin Forsett (Balt)

Wide Recievers (8)

Julian Edelman
Danny Amendola
Chris Hogan
Malcolm Mitchell
Brandin Cooks
Devin Lucien
Matthew Slater
De'Andrew White

How many receivers does a team actually need?  A better question for Patriots' fans may be, how many very good receivers does a team actually need?

The Patriots generally keep four receivers on the 53 man roster - not counting Slater who is a receiver by label only - but this season it looks like it's going to be six, because who do you cut?  Certainly not Cooks, whom Belichick gave up a first round draft pick for, not Edelman nor Hogan.  Amendola is as clutch as clutch can be and took a serious pay cut to stay with the team and Malcolm Mitchell qualifies as an emerging threat bordering on stardom...

Chances of drafting a receiver: Zero

Tight Ends (4)

Rob Gronkowski
Dwayne Allen
Rob Housler
Matt Lengel

Gronkowski is perhaps the greatest mismatch in the league today when he's healthy, while Allen has never lived up to his full potential as a hybrid, move tight end, and may not get the touches to do much more in Foxborough, as the pass catching talent on the roster is among the league's best, and certainly the most versatile...

...which is even worse news for Housler, who is a receiver only and never saw a man he could block.  Lengel has a chance to stick on the roster due to his blocking prowess, but given all of the aforementioned talent on the roster, his spot is nowhere close to being guaranteed.

Chances of drafting a tight end: 50/50, if the Patriots feel they need to develop a long-term player.

Candidates being Virginia Tech's Bucky Hodges, Ashland's Adam Shaheen, Washington's Darrell Daniels.

Offensive Tackles (5)

Nate Solder
LaAdrian Waddle
Marcus Cannon
Cam Fleming
Michael Williams

Solder had a terrible first half of last season, but came on at the end, while Cannon had such a great season that he was named a second-team All Pro.  Solder's cap hit is enormous this season, and if his 2017 is anything like the second half of last season, he will be demanding huge dollars.  Cannon turned in an excellent performance and is under contract for the foreseeable future.

Fleming is invaluable as a swing tackle, while Waddle is apparently fragile, but a decent depth option if healthy.  Williams is actually a massive tight end converted to tackle - but none would be able to fill Solder's shoes in the event of emergency or attrition.

Chances of drafting an offensive tackle: Almost certain

Candidates being Troy's Antonio Garcia, Florida State's Roderick Johnson, Texas A&M's Avery Gennesey, Bucknell's Julie'n Davenport, Alabama State's Jylan Ware.

Available veteran tackles: Ryan Clady (Den), Sebastian Vollmer (NE)

Offensive Guards (5)

Joe Thuney
Shaq Mason
Chase Farris
Chris Barker
Jamil Douglass

Thuney was roughed up in pass protection in his rookie year, but Mason made great strides and was the most improved player on the team.  Behind those two are huge question marks and untested depth with the release of Tre' Jackson last week due to injury concerns.  This could be Barker's chance to finally ascend from the Practice squad, but the Patriots likely won't take any chances and are likely to pick up another guard through the draft or free agency.

Chances of drafting a guard: Certain

Candidates being Pitt's Dorian Johnson, LSU's Ethan Pocic, Western Michigan's Taylor Moton, Utah's Isaac Asiata, Texas A&M's Jermaine Eluemunor, TCU's Aviante Collins.

Available veteran guards: Mike Harris (Minn), Jahari Evans (NO)

Centers (2)

David Andrews
Ted Karras

Both players are mean scrappers.  No need to upset that apple cart.  In a pinch, both Mason and Thuney have experience at center, so the position should be set.

Chances of drafting a center: Zero

Defensive Tackles (5)

Alan Branch
Malcolm Brown
Vincent Valentine
Woodrow Hamilton
Darius Kilgo

Branch, Brown and Valentine represent one of the best interior rotations in the NFL, and Hamilton is a project with tremendous upside.  When New England goes into their three-man line in the Big Nickel variation ends Trey Flowers and Lawrence Guy reduce down to become effective five-technique rushers.

Chances of drafting a defensive tackle: Slim

Available veteran tackles: Jared Odrick (Jac), Sen"Derrick Marks (Jac)

Defensive Ends (5)

Trey Flowers
Rob Ninkovich
Geneo Grissom
Kony Ealy
Lawrence Guy

Flowers is on the verge of superstardom, which means the Patriots need to extend him quickly to avoid the inevitable contract squabbles.  Ninkovich is a warrior with lots of miles on him, but still a capable edge setter while Ealy is young, but mostly a situational edge rusher.  Guy is an unknown and underrated five and seven technique end who graded out as PFF's number ten rated edge setter last season.

Depth is certainly a concern, and the best case scenario is for the Patriots to bring in an all-purpose end to compete for three-down duties.

Chances of drafting a defensive end: Certain

Candidates being Wisconsin's T.J. Watt, Florida State's DeMarcus Walker, Ohio's Tarell Basham, Youngstown State's Derek Rivers, Villnova's Tanoh Kpassagnon.

Available veteran edge defenders: none of consequence

Linebackers (6)

Dont'a Hightower
Kyle Van Noy
Shea McClellin
Elandon Roberts
Trevor Bates
Jonathan Freeney

The re-signing of Hightower augments the presence of Van Noy and McClellin to form an intriguing linebacking corps with plenty of interior depth with Roberts and Freeny.  If there is a need, it is for a cover backer, which always seems to be a need in New England, who typically drops a safety down onto the second level to handle those duties on passing downs.

Chances of drafting a linebacker: 50/50

Candidates being Louisville's Josh Harvey-Clemons, Houston's Tyus Bowser.

Available veteran linebackers: Perry Riley (Oak), Gerald Hodges (SF)

Cornerbacks (6)

Stephon Gilmore
Malcolm Butler
Eric Rowe
Cyrus Jones
Jonathan Jones
Justin Coleman

Gilmore, Butler and Rowe represent the best set of corners in the league - if they remain together.  At this point, it doesn't make any sense to break them up, giving Belichick a nice problem in finding enough playing time for all three, plus getting some dime work in for Cyrus Jones and Justin Coleman.

Butler may or may not still be on the trading block after signing his very affordable tender, and if he does indeed leave, the unproven depth behind Gilmore and Rowe may be enough to make the Patriots look at corners in the draft.

Chances of drafting a cornerback: 50/50, depending on Butler's situation

Candidates being Michigan's Jourdan Lewis, Clemson's Cordrea Tankersley, West Virginia's Rasul Douglas, Houston's Howard Wilson, Central Florida's Shaquill Griffin, Temple's Nate Hairston, Michigan's Channing Stribling and Utah's Brian Allen

Available veteran cornerbacks: Darrelle Revis (NYJ), Alterraun Verner (TB)

Safeties (6)

Devin McCourty
Patrick Chung
Duron Harmon
Nate Ebner
Jordan Richards
Brandon King

McCourty, Chung and Harmon represent the best set of safeties in the league, and allow Belichick to run his Big Nickel without fear.  Ebner and King are special teams standouts, leaving only the thus-far disappointing Jordan Richards as depth, and with Chung reaching 30 years old during camp, the need for a strong safety is great.

Some of the corners already mentioned fir the Patriots need for a physical box safety with coverage ability - Tankersley, Griffin and Allen come to mind, but there are other candidates coming out of college as safeties.

Chances of drafting a safety: Good

Candidates include Louisville's Josh Harvey-Clemons, UConn's Obi Melifonwu, Florida's Quincey Wilson, Utah's Marcus Williams, Air Force's Weston Steelhammer

Available veteran safeties: Duke Ihenacho (Wash), Shamarko Thomas (Pitt)

Kickers (3)

Joe Cardona
Ryan Allen
Stephen Gostkowski

Cardona and Allen continue their steady play, and Gostkowski is decently reliable on field goals, but extra points seem to give him trouble - and being that he's missed extra points in championship games two seasons in a row has to be disconcerting to Belichick.  That said, it is still a longshot for the team to bring in any competition, though it is certainly possible.

Chances of drafting a kicker: Remote

Saturday, April 22, 2017

New England Patriots' Mock Draft 2.0: Provisional Gillislee Impact Edition

The New England Patriots are loaded, just in case anyone was wondering - but it doesn't mean that they have achieved their goal of complete depth saturation.

This is particularly true along the offensive line - and even more so when considering that left tackle Nate Solder is coming up for re-enlistment, and probably at a number that the team would prefer to have on the books, given his injury history, as well as the fact that left guard Joe Thuney was one of the lowest rated guards in the NFL last season, so far as pass protection is concerned...

...and while it's too early to give up on the second-year guard, the depth behind him is inadequate with the recent release of Tre' Jackson, who landed with the Rams on a bad knee (and subsequently released with a failed physical), leaving just fellow sophomore Ted Karras and a trio of practice squad players.

Karras is ideally suited for the center position anyway, so releasing Jackson has triggered an immediate need for quality depth.

Another shift in draft needs occurred when the Patriots signed Buffalo Bills restricted free agent running back Mike Gillislee to an offer sheet - the dollar amount thought to be in excess of what the Bills should be able to match, given their cap situation and enormous needs elsewhere.  Gillislee's offer coupled with the three-year contract extension signed by Super Bowl hero James White has the potential to put to rest a glaring need for a long-term running back through the draft.
Houston's Tyus Bowser

Should the Bills not match the offer to Gillislee, the Patriots will lose a fifth-round selection but will have four quality backs on board, plus a fullback in James Develin.  If they do match the offer, there is still Rex Burkehead, White and Dion Lewis to form a quality three-headed monster, though White is the only back on the roster under a long-term deal...

...which means that Wyoming running back Brian Hill will be in play for the Patriots for one of their third-round selections, most likely at 72nd overall.

The good thing for the Patriots is that the Bills must decide by Monday afternoon whether to match their offer not, then New England can begin to answer questions of depth for the defensive side of the ball, mainly at defensive end but also with a need for some forward thinking at outside linebacker and at box safety.

That said, here is our 2.0 mock draft:

3rd Round (72nd Overall ) -  Tyus Bowser, OLB, Houston

Played in the same linebacking corps with current Patriots' inside load Elandon Roberts and is just as explosive setting the edge and rushing the passer as Roberts is going downhill to plug running lanes.

Has the ability to pattern match tight ends in the passing game or to drop into a crossing zone to impeded the progress of running backs and slot receivers in the flat, and seems natural in sniffing out screens, as he stacks and sheds to get to the ball carrier.

3rd Round (103rd Overall) - Taylor Moton, G, Western Michigan

Drafting a guard is rarely the aesthetic or sexy move that fans like to see, but this is one of the very few need picks for a New England team loaded everywhere else on offense.

At 6' 5" and 325 pounds, Moton is a steam shovel that manhandles defensive tackles in both the power running game and in pass protection.  Moton played tackle his senior season at Western Michigan and had some difficulty with speed rushers around the edge, but played guard every season before that and dominated the opposition, no matter the skill level.  He is a natural on the right side, but is also a zone scheme fit on the left.

4th Round (131st Overall)  - Josh Harvey-Clemons, SS, Louisville

It was no secret that both Jordan Richards and starting strong safety Patrick Chung declined in production last season, so the Patriots should be prioritizing box safeties.  But Harvey-Clemons is no ordinary box safety.

Of course, he checks all the boxes as a strong safety, but he is also a natural at diagnosing plays from the box, taking on tight ends and using his huge wingspan to shield them from the ball, and plays downhill with violent intent in run support.

5th Round (163rd Overall) - Tarell Basham, DE, Ohio

A three-down defensive end that is a better edge-setter than pass rusher, but his high-motor and relentlessness as a pass rusher will do exactly what Belichick likes from his rush ends, and that is to collapse the pocket and get the quarterback off his mark.

In the running game, he is a stack-and-shed edge-setter with the lateral agility to get to the sidelines, if need be - and seems to genuinely dislike tackles and tight ends, and makes sure they know it on the field.

6th Round (200th Overall) - Jylan Ware, OT, Alabama State

Huge, powerful hands and excellent placement define Ware.  Has a decent slide step to mirror speedy defensive ends but will struggle with elite ends that can convert speed to power - but then again, who doesn't?

Possesses the height that the Patriots prefer in their bookends at 6' 8", but played in college at less than 300 pounds and needs some time in the weight room under the tutelage of a professional strength coach - that said, Ware is a natural left tackle and could work his way into being a major contributor as a draft-and-stash project for Dante Scharnecchia.

7th - 239th -  Weston Steelhammer, FS, Air Force

Belichick is a sucker for military academy guys and for safeties over all, so he should love Steelhammer.

Known as a route-breaker, Steelhammer's game is cutting off receivers routes by reading the quarterback's eyes and getting to the point of the reception before the receiver.  Not particularly fast, and relatively skinny (6' 2", 200), he nevertheless is worth a seventh-round flyer, particularly because he has a four-year commitment to the Air Force, and with proper weight room instruction could become a stashed force.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Analysis: Patriots' Schedule A Matter Of Perspective

It's good to be the king...

The National Football League released the 2017 schedule on Thursday evening, and while the fans of the New England Patriots have known for weeks who their opponents were going to be, the schedule revealed the details - and the schedule makers couldn't have been any kinder to the defending champions.

But many are viewing the Patriots' overall schedule with gritted teeth - and that because of playing five of eight after the bye on the road, including three in a row in early December and two in a row in altitude in November - and those games will be challenging for sure, but things do tend to balance out.

How? Well first of all, the two games in altitude come at a fortuitous time, coming off of the midseason bye.

After playing two consecutive home games to close out the first half of the season, the Patriots take their bye in week 9, the effective two week break giving them many options to prepare for games at Denver and at Mexico City to play the Raiders - perhaps taking off for Denver on Tuesday or Wednesday to acclimate to the thinner air in the Rockies...

...then after playing the Broncos on that Sunday night, they will have the option to either stay in Denver or head straight for Mexico City, depending on the availability of venues in which to prepare for the Raiders.

After that two week stretch, the Patriots return home for the Dolphins, the go for three straight at Buffalo, Miami and Pittsburgh - but then end the regular season with two straight at home against the Bills and Jets.

According to my math, those circumstances neutralize both the disadvantage of playing two straight games in high altitude by giving the Patriots two weeks to prepare, physiologically, for the thin air of Denver and Mexico City, gives them two of their three game roadie against divisional opponents, then see them closing with two straight at home against divisional opponents.

The latter means that if the Patriots take care of their business down thew stretch and secure a first round bye after playing the Steelers in Pittsburgh on December 17th, they may not have to leave Foxborough for the following seven weeks until having to travel to Minneapolis to participate in Super Bowl LII.

So stress out all you want about the schedule, but the glass-half-full perspective shows that there is nothing goofy about the schedule-making - no conspiracies, no hanky-panky.  And the fact that they play five prime time contests and also play in two late-afternoon games scheduled for National Broadcasts means that Patriots' fans around the globe will be sure to catch nearly half of their schedule by doing nothing more than picking up their remote and clicking a couple of buttons.

Thursday, September 7 (8:30pm)
Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

Raising the banner is always a special occasion, but the Patriots need to figure out where to put the sucker, as they have run out of room adjacent to the scoreboard.  But, alas, they will figure it out - and also get the opportunity to face a dangerous Chiefs' squad that won the tough AFC West last season before being scalped by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Divisional round of the playoffs.

On the surface, the Chiefs did very little to improve upon last season, re-signing a couple of core players and signing TE Gavin Escobar while giving the ax to RB Jamal Charles - so don't look for them to improve much over their 20th ranked offense and 24th ranked defense.

Sunday, September 17 (1:00pm)
New England Patriots at New Orleans Saints
The Superdome, New Orleans. Louisiana

An early test for the Patriots' defense, as the Saints finished first in total offense in 2016 - but lost a playmaker when they traded WR Brandin Cooks to New England.  The Saints still have Drew Brees chucking the ball about and they signed former Panther Ted Ginn to try and replace Cooks' speed on the outside.

They still sport a terrible defense (27th overall, 31st in scoring defense), so the first round pick they got from New England in the Cooks trade will probably go toward shoring up their secondary, which ranked dead last in the NFL.

Sunday, September 24 (1:00pm)
Houston Texans at New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

The Texans have a great defense - tops in the NFL last season - and they have plenty of receiving weapons on offense, but no one to get the ball to them.  Unless Houston takes a quarterback in the draft, it will be third-year man Tom Savage pulling the trigger in the passing game.  Savage will have a top ten running game to keep the heat down to a minimum, but that might not be enough for them to repeat as the "Default" champions of a horrible AFC South...but then again, the division is so bad, it just might.

Sunday, October 1 (1:00pm)
Carolina Panthers at New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

The Super Bowl that should have been in 2015, but the Panthers were a just a shadow of themselves in 2016 - but a play here or a play there and a little luck, and it would have been them winning the NFC South instead of the Atlanta Falcons.

The Panthers lost seven games by less than three points, and still finished with six wins.  Fighting through injuries, they were able to hold things together, and now they have almost all of their weapons returning healthy.  Don't let the Panthers' record fool you, they were nowhere near as bad as their record indicated.

Thursday, October 5 (8:25pm)
New England Patriots at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida

Scary team on the rise.  The Bucs tripped over themselves coming out of the gate in 2016, losing five of their first eight, four of those losses dropping close decisions to eventual playoff teams, then went 6-2 down the stretch to make a valiant run at the post-season, but coming up just short, beating the likes of Kansas City, Seattle and Atlanta in the process.

Sunday, October 15 (1:00pm)
New England Patriots at New York Jets
MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey

Sunday, December 31 (1:00pm)
New York Jets at New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

The Jets come into this season is full rebuilding mode, and with a coach who is squarely on the hot seat.  A team with nothing to lose - especially a hated division rival - is a very dangerous team.  Unfortunately for the Jets, they come into the season without a quarterback of any note, offensive and defensive lines in disarray and zero weapons.  Tough go for the Jets.

Sunday, October 22 (8:30pm)
Atlanta Falcons at New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

How motivated are the Falcons going to be to cone into Foxborough and give the Patriots a taste of the whip?  This game is the crown jewel of the NFL's first half and a chance for the Falcons to gain some measure of respect after having their hearts ripped out of their chests in the Super Bowl.

Problem is, Atlanta will be fielding a team that is essentially the same as it was in February, a team that gave New England all they could handle and then some, but eventually wore down and blew a 25 point lead.  We all know the story, now the Falcons want some payback.

Sunday, October 29 (1:00pm)
Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

The second of tow consecutive home games to finish up the first half of the season heading into their bye, the Patriots should have a decided advantage over the helter-skelter Chargers - but this team should not be taken lightly.

Playing in the toughest division in all of football, the Chargers went 1-5 in the division, but taking the Chiefs into overtime and playing the Raiders tough before dropping heartbreakers, and splitting their series with the Denver Broncos - in between beating good teams from Atlanta, Tennessee and Houston.  The Chargers have inherent talent, but not the the intestinal fortitude to finish off an opponent.  We'll see if that improves with a new coaching staff.

Sunday, November 12 (8:30pm)
New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, Colorado

The Broncos may all well be the Patriots' division rivals, having played each other at least once a year since the 2011 season, New England going 6-3 against the Broncos in nine tries in that time span - with two of their losses coming in conference championship games played at Denver.

So no one has to remind Patriots' fans of the consequence of playing the Broncos.  They have a great defense and plenty of weapons on offense, but their quarterback situation took a step back last season after they let Brock Osweiller leave in free agency, as he had already proven that his skill set was a good match for what Denver liked to do with the football.  But altitude aside, the Broncos are always a tough matchup.

Sunday, November 19 (4:25pm)
New England Patriots vs. Oakland Raiders
Azteca Stadium, Mexico City, Mexico

Denver may be known as the Mile High City, but Mexico City has them beat by a full third of a mile. Playing the Broncos in Denver the previous week will act as an impromptu hyperbaric chamber for the Patriots, allowing them to acclimate to being a mile above sea level in advance of traveling to Mexico City, which one can reasonably expect to happen immediately after their Sunday night gig in Denver.

The Raiders are as high-powered on offense as any team the Patriots will play all season, though their defense leaves them scratching and clawing to score enough points to win.  The Raiders bitch-kitty is their run defense, and the Patriots have four excellent running backs to rotate in and out to keep their running game fresh...

Sunday, November 26 (1:00pm)
Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

Monday, December 11 (8:30pm)
New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins
Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida

The Dolphins are always a tough draw, and the fact that they play each other twice in a span of three weeks doesn't make that any easier for either team.  Miami may have made the playoffs last year, but did so ranked in the bottom third of the NFL on both sides of the ball.  The difference between the Dolphins and most other teams on the Patriots' schedule, however, is that they have the stones to finish tight games.

Many will remember their comeback and near upset of New England in Foxborough early last season when the Dolphins scored 21 unanswered points to close within a touchdown of the Patriots, and were threatening to tie the game up with seconds to play until safety Duron Harmon picked off quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the end zone to salvage the win.

One can expect the same effort from Miami this time around as well, as the current staff seems to have the team headed in the right direction.

Sunday, December 3 (1:00pm)
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills
Ralph Wilson Stadium, Orchard Park, New York

Sunday, December 24 (1:00pm)
Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

This is another instance when the Patriots have to play a division rival twice in a short period of time.  The first was when the Patriots and Dolphins combined to make a Buffalo sandwich in between their contests, and now the Patriots have to play the Bills twice in four weeks, with the Dolphins and Steelers on the docket in between.

The Bills have plenty of talent on offense and play an explosive brand of football, though most of the explosion comes from their dynamic running game, but in contrast, the Bills defense can't stop the opposition's running game to save their lives.  Their saving grace had been their secondary, that is until New England lured cornerback Stephon Gilmore away.

With all of the speed Buffalo has in their receiving corps, they just don't make enough plays in the passing game to keep opposing defenses honest, averaging a mere 190 passing yards per game in 2016.  But a new regime is taking over in Buffalo and, of course, when it comes to playing the champs, every team has a little more motivation.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

New England Patriots 2017 Schedule


Thursday, August 10 (7:30pm)
Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

Saturday, August 19 (8:00pm)
New England Patriots at Houston Texans
NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas

Friday, August 25 (7:00pm)
New England Patriots at Detroit Lions
Ford Field, Detroit, Michigan

Thursday, August 31 (7:30pm)
New York Giants at New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

Regular Season

Thursday, September 7 (8:30pm)
Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

Sunday, September 17 (1:00pm)
New England Patriots at New Orleans Saints
The Superdome, New Orleans. Louisiana

Sunday, September 24 (1:00pm)
Houston Texans at New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

Sunday, October 1 (1:00pm)
Carolina Panthers at New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

Thursday, October 5 (8:25pm)
New England Patriots at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida

Sunday, October 15 (1:00pm)
New England Patriots at New York Jets
MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey

Sunday, October 22 (8:30pm)
Atlanta Falcons at New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

Sunday, October 29 (1:00pm)
Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

Bye Week

Sunday, November 12 (8:30pm)
New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, Colorado

Sunday, November 19 (4:25pm)
New England Patriots vs. Oakland Raiders
Azteca Stadium, Mexico City, Mexico

Sunday, November 26 (1:00pm)
Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

Sunday, December 3 (1:00pm)
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills
Ralph Wilson Stadium, Orchard Park, New York

Monday, December 11 (8:30pm)
New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins
Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida

Sunday, December 17 (4:25pm)
New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Sunday, December 24 (1:00pm)
Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

Sunday, December 31 (1:00pm)
New York Jets at New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Moves on White, Gillislee Show Patriots Learned Lesson From Super Bowl

News is usually slow in the dog days of free agency, what with most teams settled on their veteran rosters and settling into draft mode - but there are days where the news wire takes on a life of it's own.

For the New England Patriots, Tuesday was one of those days.

Lulled to sleep by weeks of inactivity, Patriots' fans and beat writers were jolted awake with news that the team had signed Buffalo Bills' restricted free agent running back Mike Gillislee to an offer sheet, the two year $6.4 million offer a significant number for both the Bills to match and a bitter pill for incumbent power back LeGarrette Blount to swallow...

...bitter, because the 30 year old Blount has now watched in horror as Belichick has signed former Bengals' running back Rex Burkhead and Gillislee - both 26 years old - to the dollar amounts that Blount was seeking - and if that wasn't depressing enough for him, the Patriots also announced that they had come to terms with Super Bowl hero James White on a three-year contract extension.

Terms of White's extension have not been made public, but one can be certain that the NFL's most improved running back in 2016 was given a raise right around the offers that Burkhead and Gillislee received, and in line with what former-Patriots' passing back Shane Vereen banked with the Giants on the open market in 2015 - so one can expect to see White's extension in the neighborhood of $4 to $5 million per season.

And for good reason, as White ranked the third-most efficient passing back in the NFL last season, behind only Arizona's David Johnson and Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell, and was second on the Patriots with 60 receptions, giving him the best passing back numbers in the Dynasty era, surpassing even the great Kevin Faulk.

What's more, there has never been a back more dependable with the ball in team history, having never put the ball on the ground in 213 career touches.  In fact, one has to go all the way back to 2011 - his sophomore season at Wisconsin - for the last time he fumbled a football, giving him 629 competitive touches without giving the ball away, something that head ball coach Bill Belichick values more than just about anything else.

So is it any wonder that Belichick was so comfortable giving White the ball during crunch time in the Super Bowl?

"He's just everything you want in a teammate" quarterback Tom Brady said of White in the immediate aftermath of the title tilt, "Dependable, consistent and durable, brings it every day and we just kept going to him - So I think that speaks for itself."

Even Belichick, who wouldn't say crap even if he had a mouth full of it, gave us a hint of how he felt about White down the stretch last season.

"It would take somebody playing pretty good to be better than him" Belichick said when asked if fellow passing back Dion Lewis returning in November would cut into White's touches, adding, "Could someone do it better than him? I don't know, but it would take quite a bit based on where he is and how consistent he's been with what he's done."

White finished the 2016 season first in the NFL among running backs with five receiving touchdowns, and third in receptions and receiving yards - and in three seasons with the Patriots has amassed over 1500 yards and scored 15 touchdowns despite being active for just three games in his rookie season

Assuming that Buffalo doesn't match the offer New England made to Gillislee, the Patriots are set at running back for the foreseeable future, which is a huge departure from just one day ago, when there wasn't a running back on the roster signed past the 2017 season, a fact that made New England a prime candidate for hooking up with a running back in the draft...

...but with Burkhead and Gillislee being redundant talents as far as being downhill slashers who seem to instinctually find cutback lanes against the flow of a zone blocking scheme, and with White and Lewis being top shelf passing backs - and all 26 years old or under - runners should now be of the lowest priority.

All of that aside, these moves do express what it takes to be a running back for the New England Patriots.

In a world where the perception is that backs are being devalued and specialization is all the rage, the Patriots put a premium on runners who have one skill set in common: They are all, despite labels placed on them by the specialization, all purpose backs - willing blockers in pass protection, soft hands and yards-after-the-catch production in the pattern, in addition to running tough between the tackles.

These moves on offense are just another example of the Patriots' "fresh" team philosophy - accountable depth, redundant in nature yet subtly different from each other to present constant, consistent matchup issues for their opponents.  We see this on defense as Belichick rotates in his bigs on the defensive line, pass rushers on the second level and safeties in the Big Nickel - but not so much on offense, not until now.

The philosophy that works on defense by keeping guys fresh for crunch time has leaked into the offense.  We saw what happens to teams that try to defend an offense that is hell-bent on taking seriously the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust mentality - but what happened to Atlanta's defense in the Super Bowl was actually more a product of their defense being on the field for 28 consecutive plays in the second quarter than the Patriots being methodical...

...but the lessons learned in that game are about to introduce a new tactic to the world of professional football, one that having four running backs to cycle in and out on a whim to create mismatches at a pace normally reserved for line changes in hockey - giving the already lethal Patriots' offense what will appear to the gassed defenders as the man advantage...

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Stability On The Sidelines, "No Days Off" Crucial To Patriots' Success

"Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary.  It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things. If it is heeded in time, danger may be averted; if it is suppressed, a fatal distemper may develop." - Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill was, by all accounts, a brutally honest man; transparent in all of his personal dealings and not given to frivolous pandering and patronizing, he told of his own struggles to righteously assess himself each evening before retiring, claiming to hold himself in court martial and hoping to discover that he had used his time wisely and to have been effective in whatever he undertook.

It is this very level of self-assessment that allowed him to be critical of the way Britain was governed, causing him to be viewed as an outcast in his early days of service, then as a revered prognosticator and virtual savior during the darkest days of World War II - and while the sport of American football doesn't have the fate of the free world resting upon it's shoulders, lessons from those truly heroic individuals who stood up to fascism and seemingly certain defeat to persevere can be translated to the gridiron.

Especially the part about heeding the development of the unhealthy state of things, as doing so makes the difference between a great team remaining on top of the football world and a bad team remaining that world's doormat.

Self-assessment is the act of assessing aspects that are important to one's identity, and while this is usually a hellishly introspective staredown with one's psyche in the proverbial mirror, when a person takes it one step further to assess things that are extensions of ones personality, one has the opportunity to either heed the outcome or suppress it...

...and for going on nearly two decades, Bill Belichick has been heeding the painful truths about his teams and his own performance in guiding such, and has been able to avert the dangers inherent in blissful ignorance and passive aggression while many others have fallen to the fatal distemper that arises in team-building.

Team building is more than just identifying talent on the open market and in the draft, it is identifying the shortcomings of a team - both in the short term and in the long term - and addressing those issues so as to not fall into the trap of resting on successes, knowing that the abbreviation for the the National Football League, the NFL, also stands for "Not For Long".

Essential to the team building process is stability in the front office and tenure on the sidelines, and the teams that know this are the teams that enjoy protracted success and, yes, even win championships - while the teams that don't follow those guidelines are the teams that consistently suck.

No?  Take a look at the list of teams that have the longest tenured coaching staffs, and you will see a who's who of success in the National Football League.

Green Bay's Mike McCarthy and New Orleans' Sean Payton are both entering their 11th seasons, the Steelers' Mike Tomlin is entering his 10th, Baltimore's John Harbaugh his ninth and Seattle's Pete Carroll his eighth - all have world championships on their resumes and all but Payton have taken their teams to the playoffs in at least half of their seasons calling the shots.

Coaches such as Jason Garrett in Dallas and Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati haven't won titles yet, but certainly have had stretches of success -  though the Bengals have certainly given Lewis more than enough time to produce a consistent winner (13 seasons), and while they have made the playoffs in seven of his seasons at the helm, his evaluation of talent that exists on his team isn't up to par with the other coaches on this list.

Belichick is, of course, the gold standard

The longest-tenured coach in the league, going into his 18th season - in 14 of those seasons he has led the Patriots to AFC East division championships, also winning seven conference titles and five Super Bowls in that span.

From out of all of this it is reasonable to ascertain stability on the sidelines and in the front offices are a key factor in success of an NFL franchise, but it is not the linchpin that finalizes that statement - that moniker goes to the ability of a coach to self-assess, and to not only scout the talent available to him, but to scout his own team to determine if Churchill's little ditty regarding criticism applies to his team.

Of course, it always does in Belichick's eyes, as he reminded the entire world when on the grandstand immediately after his Patriots completed the most epic comeback in the history of professional sports, starting the new personal axiom of "No Days Off" as a manner of backing up his claim that because of playing in the Super Bowl, he and his staff were six weeks behind in their preparation for the 2017 season... if being in the Super Bowl was somehow a negative thing.  After all, playing in the Super Bowl is the goal of all 32 teams at the start of each season, and the majority of the teams, their coaches and fans would kill to be in the Patriots position year after year.

Predictably, his whining elicited zero sympathy from anyone, but if did raise the fear and loathing among just about every football executive, coach, player and fan outside of New England that took his statement as a hint that he was going to go on a team-building rampage that would ultimately find the Patriots again atop the football universe.

But anyone who thinks Belichick was actually six weeks behind in his preparation for the 2017 season either has road apples for brains or simply hasn't been paying attention.

New England's scouting department is a conglomerate of ordinary football minds being instructed by the most extraordinary of football minds, tasked with finding players - both on the professional and college levels - whose distinctive skill sets Belichick can integrate in an effort to open up his playbook wider than most, in direct contrast to traditional team building, where scouts are instructed to find players that fit their playbook.

The difference is not subtle, and it allows the Dark Master to employ players who have been busts in other programs and to thrive in his, as he brings them in not to fill a requirement to the philosophy, but to morph the philosophy to fit his players skill.  It is this constant evolution that makes the Patriots so tough to defend, and it gives them the ability to transform into whatever it is they need to win games week after week, season after season.

It's a full-time job to be sure, and it causes one to realize that Belichick's seemingly new mantra of "No Days Off" has actually been his philosophy since day one of his tenure.

Just two days after his Patriots scored 31 unanswered points to defeat the Atlanta Falcons in the first overtime game in Super Bowl history, Belichick signed 12 players to futures contracts, then started finalizing deals that brought tight end Dwayne Allen, defensive end Kony Ealy and wide receiver Brandin Cooks to Foxborough to address what Churchill called the "unhealthy state of things", as New England lost tight end Martellus Bennett and defensive ends Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard to free agency...

...and also signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore in anticipation of losing at least on of his own corners to free agency - then started adding weapons by Bringing the speedy human joystick Cooks onboard, strengthening what was already the biggest offensive juggernaut since the allies closed in on Berlin, effectively bringing to fruition Churchill's resolve.

The notion of self-assessment - or in coach-speak, self-scouting - is obviously not new when it comes to success on the field of battle, be it in war or sport, and the best of the best throughout history knew that when change had to be made, the first change came by looking in the mirror.

That's how Churchill did it and that's how Belichick does it - and both were loathed, yet begrudgingly respected, by their opponents - which prompted Churchill to utter another timeless axiom that holds true not just in war or football, but in every day life for ordinary folk.

"To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often."

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Patriots Way Alive And Well Despite Crazy Offseason

The New England Patriots give the appearance of going "All In" to bring another trophy or two to Foxborough before Tom Brady and Bill Belichick decide to hang up their respective cleats and whistles - but is it at the expense of what has come to be known as the Patriots' Way?

The Patriots' Way is, in a manner of speaking, the template for success in the National Football League during the salary-capped era - an efficient business plan that combines fiscal responsibility with an unmatched feel for the open market, complete with a vibrant moral compass that factors heavily into personnel decisions.

But this offseason, the Patriots seem to have strayed from their team building methods, eliciting euphoria from the aesthetic crowd and genuine concern from the hard liners.

Euphoria for the folks who crave the big name elitists, but also concern in that the Patriots are willingly departing from a tried and true system that has brought unprecedented success to the franchise since Robert Kraft purchased the team back in the mid-90's and particularly since he hired Bill Belichick to run things for him at the turn of the century - because as the old axiom goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

To be fair, Belichick has pulled off his standard fleecing of other organizations in obtaining wide receiver Brandin Cooks, tight end Dwayne Allen and defensive end Kony Ealy, using their top draft capital to what in essence was "drafting" young players with NFL game experience on their resumes, perhaps acknowledging that players coming out of college in positions of need for New England are too far off from contributing on a team already loaded to the gills.

Which is as "Belichickian" as you can get, as is the Dark Master's obsession with defensive backs, so to hear that he had re-signed centerfielder Duron Harmon to neat little four-year deal in order to keep his favored Big Nickel package in play at all times was not in the least bit shocking or unwarranted, nor was the news that he had inquired as to the availability of Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman before free agency opened for business.

Belichick has historically been criticized for his seemingly odd behavior when it comes to signing defensive backs - Adrian Wilson, Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis come to mind in free agency and selecting names like Tavon Wilson, Ras-I Dowling and Jordan Richards early in the draft - so it wasn't out of character for him to show interest in Sherman...

...but more recently the team has been in the news for their highly controversial  cup of coffee and physical with disgraced running back Adrian Peterson - and now for their rumored renewed interest in the abrasive and loquacious (not to mention expensive) cornerback Sherman.

Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald went a step beyond reason when reporting on both, suggesting that he wouldn't have a problem if the Patriots' front office were to toss aside their track record of avoiding players with domestic violence incidents, either past or present, and sign Peterson despite his well-publicized legal difficulties involving violence towards his then four-year-old son.

Howe's remarks sparked a heated debate with some other prominent Boston sportscasters and even fueled a dissenting and brutal response from the New York Times, who claimed that the Patriots were two-faced for even considering a deal with Peterson.

Needless to say, Howe is riding a very thin line with just about everyone who counts with the Patriots and their beat media, managing to look goofier than even Ben Volin in the process, and his response to the criticism making him appear even crustier than Ron Borges - something that is going to be tough for him to live down anytime soon.

Howe aside, Belichick did open up a can of worms when he opened up the vault in free agency to lure cornerback Stephon Gilmore away from Buffalo.

Gilmore is a luxury that came to pass after the Patriots reportedly approached and was subsequently rebuffed by the Seattle Seahawks in regard to their interest in obtaining the abrasive and loquacious Sherman - which in and of itself would have cost New England enough in future draft capital to effectively mortgage the franchise's future - so Belichick signed Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million contract that guarantees $40 million, $18 million of that in a signing bonus.

When is the last time the Patriots shelled out that kind of long-term scratch?

A better question may be, why give Gilmore that kind of money when you have one of the game's top corners already on your team who is up for a raise?  Losing Logan Ryan in free agency justifies bringing in another player, but to lay out starter's money to a guy not versed in the system over one that is - and who was rated higher to boot - goes against conventional wisdom.

But what people feel is wrong with Belichick in these situations is actually what is so right about him.  He has never been one to care what Howe or Volin or Borges has to say, and usually he laughs off criticism like most people brush snow off of their windshields - but being accused of broaching the Patriots Way for one thing brought up by the media has to have him fuming.

Belichick knew he was going to lose Ryan in free agency, and he figured he may lose Butler as well, which is most likely the reason why he tagged Butler with a first-round tender as a restricted free agent, protecting himself from everything except another team's desperation, and so to inquire about Sherman and signing Gilmore when he knew that Butler had interest from the Saints is called covering your butt.

Many felt that he could have avoided the whole fiasco with Butler by signing him to a long-term contract, but Belichick isn't about to let a player dictate his market, particularly one who was trying to broach protocol after just three seasons in the league, while everyone else in football has to wait until they've accrued four.

History tells us that the Patriots willingly wrap up their extraordinary players to contract extensions that are true extensions - meaning that they leave the remainder of the current contract be, the extension activated upon the expiration of the current deal.  One has only to look at tight end Rob Gronkowski's deal in 2012, Nate Solder's in 2015 and Marcus Cannon's last season to figure that out...

...and while we don't know the circumstances surrounding any offer made to Butler, nor why he has yet to sign his tender, all anyone can do is speculate - which is what gets people like beat writers into hot water.

As far as Sherman goes, most of the information coming out on him has been generated by the Seahawks themselves, who have been busy patting themseleves on the back by claiming to be transparent in their dealings with players and in the media in an attempt to deflect responsibility for the Sherman rumors, which have ramped up again with a report from the Miami Herald that it is going to take "a player and a high draft pick" to pique the Seahawks' interest in moving on from the three-time All Pro corner.

The Seahawks claim that "several teams" have initiated not just fact-finding discussions, but actual trade talks, which makes their claim about transparency look more like a tactic to drum up interest in Sherman throughout the league.

While the Patriots were interested in Sherman initially, there are reasons to believe that they have closed the book on their dealings with the Seahawks.

The Gilmore contract which, when added to what the team would have to absorb to acquire Sherman and the salaries of the rest of the starting defensive backfield, would take up a full one-quarter of the Patriots' salary cap this season, and almost a third of it next season - and that is without Butler in the mix, who would likely be the one headed to Seattle as part of the compensation for a Sherman deal.

That would make them the most expensive secondary in the league by a large margin, but also the most talented, in theory - but it just doesn't make sense when the Patriots could use that cap space on expiring contracts for next season, with names like Solder, White, Lewis, Burkhead, Edelman and Garoppolo up for extensions, as well as having to pick up a fifth-year option on Cooks.

The Patriots Way would not allow for the Sherman thing to happen.  It rubs against everything that the Patriots have stood for, against their philosophies on both sides of the ball and, again, against conventional wisdom.  Let the teams always chasing the Patriots have at him - after all, it's what makes those teams the one's perpetually chasing them in the first place.

The bottom line is, the Patriots' Way is alive and well, despite appearances to the contrary.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Patriots Cup Of Coffee With Peterson About Leverage, Not Contract

The New England Patriots are taking the first step in assuring former-Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson will have a job this fall.

Just don't be surprised if the place that he works isn't Foxborough.

The market for Peterson has been non-existant despite the casual fan's infatuation with the name, simply because his past three seasons have been an absolute horror show of injury and litigation that alienated many and reduced his market to teams desperate for a quality running back, and further alienated his market with lofty salary demands.

What is almost shocking about the Patriots reaching out to Peterson this past weekend and bringing him in for a reported physical and consequential cup of coffee, is his off field issues involving over-the-top discipline of his young son, as Patriots' owner Robert Kraft has a well-documented history of avoiding players with domestic violence issues... the point that he has forced general manager and head coach Bill Belichick to cut players with such behavior on their rap sheet, and have already stated that another talented Oklahoma running back, Joe Mixon, has been taken off of their big board for punching a woman three years ago.

It is this history that suggests that Belichick bringing in Peterson for a confab is a leverage move on his part, and one that could ultimately benefit both Peterson and the Patriots.

It benefits Peterson simply by the Patriots showing interest, sparking anxiety with clubs who may have been on the cusp of wanting to host him but not willing to be the ones to break the substantial ice, and also pushing a panic button of any team that just can not fathom New England adding yet another elite talent to their already loaded offensive juggernaut.

But that won't happen, so no one on the Patriots' schedule needs to worry.

It seems that Belichick is doing a favor for an old friend - namely Peterson's agent, Ben Dogra - bringing Peterson in to help kick start interest in the certain Hall of Fame running back on the open market, with Dogra doing his part in the propaganda department by claiming through the rumor mill that Peterson has interest from two-to-four other teams.

Dogra and the Vikings had what can only be classified as a contentious relationship when it came to Peterson, which also went for his relationship with Creative Artists Agency - an agency that he headed with Tom Condon until rumors of him splitting off to form his own agency caused his dismissal in 2014.  He butted heads with the NFLPA as well, and had his licence suspended for three years early in 2016, which was reduced to six months upon his appeal.

While the genesis of the suspension remains unclear, many believe it had something to do with a skiff he got into with the Vikings Vice President of football operations at the 2015 combine during the running backs portion of the workout.  Obviously, Dogra's had it rough for the past couple of years, but leave to Belichick and Kraft to throw him a bone as a good will gesture in hopes that will win them leverage in future contract negotiations between them and the agent.

A simple visit by Peterson with New England breaks the ice not only with Peterson, but may generate interest for other free agent backs, most notably former Patriots power back LeGarrette Blount.

Blount has been linked only to the Patriots and the New York Giants since free agency opened for business in early March and it has been reported that he is looking to cash in on his career year with New England last season when he topped 1,000 yards and found the end zone 18 times, but at 30 years old and with a history of attitude in every stop besides Foxborough, Blount's market has been predictably docile...

...adding to the speculation that the Patriots used Peterson to try and entice Blount to return, demonstrating the lengths that they would go to project a level of resolve to replace Blount were he to not play nice in contract negotiations.

The Patriots know what they have in Blount, but the rest of the league has no idea what they would get if they signed the 30-year-old, as he pouted his way out of Tampa when Doug Martin took the lion's share of snaps away from Blount in 2012 after two successful seasons of hauling the mail for the Bucs, and simply walked away from Pittsburgh midway through 2014 after having his role reduced by the Steelers.

The only place where he has been successful and respected - in his eyes, anyway - is in Foxborough, though he may view the signing of Rex Burkhead to a $3 million+ deal as a sign of disrespect since Blount played his career year in 2016 for a third of that total.  But as Belichick always says, he formulates a player's value on the market to what he projects their future production to be, with little latitude reserved for sentiment.

That said, Blount outperformed his contract last season and was one of the better values at any position in the National Football League, while Burkhead is a virtual neophyte in comparison and Peterson missed most of last season with a bum knee.

So if Belichick was simply sending a message to Blount by hosting Peterson - that message being "We'll replace you with a guy that has alienated himself from NFL teams far more than you have" - is shaming him into signing the best course of action?

As usual, it doesn't matter.  Belichick doesn't care about perception, but probably gets a kick out of the media speculation in regard to his often cryptic moves - so in that respect, it's probably been a fun couple of days for the Dark Master during these dog days of free agency.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

With An Eye To 2018, Patriots Should Look At Running Backs In Draft

Every running back on the New England Patriots' roster has a contract that expires at the end of the 2017 season - and while there is every possibility that one or all three of them are extended or otherwise re-signed, there really isn't a bell cow among them.

And it's not like the Patriots require a bell cow type in their offense, but it's nice to have a big, burly power back that can get you those tough two yards on third down or down near the goal line, and who can do a little clock killing in the four-minute offense.  For the past three seasons, that guy has been LeGarrette Blount, and he has been plenty serviceable in that role, limited as it was by the overall scheme...
Oklahoma's Samaje Perine

...and don't think for a minute that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick doesn't have Blount's cell phone number on his speed dial, as that has been the off-season relationship that he's had with Blount in the past, and didn't sign the 6' 0", 250 pound load until the middle of April last year - and as Blount has expressed a desire to return to Foxborough, not to mention that he hasn't gotten a sniff in free agency, his best bet to land a job is to sit and wait out the draft.

Belichick did pluck a back off the open market when he signed former Cincinnati Bengal Rex Burkhead to a one-year deal in mid-March, but there are two schools of thought on the Nebraska product.  Some see him as another passing back to go along with Dion Lewis and James White, while others see him as a bell cow, with the ability to bruise opposing defenses with his slashing. yet powerful running style.

Certainly, Burkhead will have the opportunity to take over the lead back spot in New England, such as it is, given the fact that Belichick gave him a whopping $3.15 million for the 2017 season, suggesting by the numbers that the Dark Master expects the 5' 10", 210 pound power back to produce as like he did down the stretch for the Bengals last season, carrying the ball 68 times for 305 yards (4.5 yards per carry) and catching 16 balls for 135 yards in the final seven games.

That translates to 155 carries for 700 yards on the ground and 37 catches for 310 yards, which would be pedestrian numbers for the amount of money being paid - and also considering that Blount hammered out 299 carries for the year in a role limited by the pass-first scheme.

Lewis was obviously not 100% when he came off the PUP list in the middle of last season, his video game like moves lost to either his surgically repaired ACL or the paranoia that results from such an injury. Probably, it was little bit of both, but Lewis was used primarily on the ground between the tackles, while White took over as the primary passing back...

...a role previously known as the "Vereen" role, but is now all White's as the Super Bowl hero tightened his grip on the position with a 60 catch season and an astonishing 14 catch Super Bowl for 110 yards - the 14 catches setting a record for the most in a championship game, as did his 20 total points on three touchdowns and a two-point conversion.

Of course, his two-yard, walk-off touchdown run to cap a 31-0 run is now the stuff of Patriots' lore, and probably just a hint of things to come from the Wisconsin product - so one could reasonably expect word of a contract extension coming White's way at some point between now and the end of the season.

Lewis?  That all depends on his mindset coming into the season, and if he regains a measure of his trademark elusiveness - as right now, White is the trusted battery mate of Brady's and Lewis is little more than a very entertaining sideshow that owns the slightly unconscionable "statistic" that the Patriots have won every game that Lewis has played part in, which has added up to 17 games in two seasons, including the playoffs.

And that's the rub on Lewis.  Out of a possible 37 games, Lewis has appeared in only 17 for New England as the ACL tear in the middle of the 2016 season cost him over a full season's worth of games - but a healthy Lewis is indeed a major asset to an offense that is already so loaded that defensive coordinators are reduced to rolling the dice and covering their eyes with each play call.

Everything is in play for the Patriots offense.  Two tight end sets are prevalent no matter the down and distance, and rare is the play when there is not at least one running back on the field as White and Lewis frequently line up split wide in a spread formation, the threat of them being single covered on the outside enough to cause a defense to tip their hand as to coverages when Brady brings one back in motion to the slot or back into the backfield...

...which is why it isn't a huge surprise that Belichick brought in Burkhead, who is a combination back. Burkhead possesses the soft hands, subtle elusiveness and finisher's mentality that has been a staple of the New England offense for years, but has reached a point of refinement with White and Lewis, to the point that the elusive split-back "pony" set can be used, even in a spread.

Based on the aforementioned money involved to bring in Burkhead, Belichick has got to be thinking that he will be heavily in the mix in whatever formation or concept is run, and that given his violent running style will be in line for workhorse duties in the four minute offense - but he is signed for just one season, leading one to believe that this is a one-year "prove it" deal for a guy who hasn't had much of a role during his four seasons in the NFL.

Does that mean that Belichick will be looking to the draft to snag a young power back, or even a passing back, knowing that all three backs on his roster have contracts expiring after this season?

If so, he can forget about the so-called "elite" backs that spot the first two rounds of the draft, names like LSU's Leonard Fournette, Stanford's Christian McCaffrey and Florida's Dalvin Cook - and they've reportedly already taken Oklahoma's talented-yet-troubled Joe Mixon of their draft board.  They can probably forget about Tennessee's Alvin Kamara as well.

But when the bell rings for the third round, there are a few backs that would fit right into the concept based attack that makes the Patriots' offense such a nightmare to defend.

When Belichick looks at a running back, he does so seeking to satisfy three different criteria, namely, pass protection, versatility and ball security - which narrows the field down considerably when dealing from the middle of the pack.

In fact, that criteria set eliminates such names as Texas' D'Onta Foreman, Boise State's Jeremy McNichols, South Florida's Marlon Mack, Clemson's Wayne Gallman, and North Carolina's T.J. Logan due to coming up short on one or more in the set, leaving just three backs in the middle rounds and a couple in the late rounds that satisfy Belichick's desirable traits, with the top name being Wyoming's Brian Hill.

A slashing downhill runner perfect for a zone blocking scheme, Hill is a 6' 1", 220 pound load with terrific vision to find the cutback lanes and with a strong lower body to push a pile for the extra couple of yards - also a willing pass blocker, he is adept at curling out into the pattern and has soft hands and a subtle elusiveness that wastes no movement...

...while Oklahoma's Samaje Perine is a no-nonsense north-south back with next-to-no subtlety or elusiveness nor an extra gear once he reaches the second level, and doesn't pretend to possess any.  A 5' 11", 235 pound bulldozer who loves to mix it up, Perine also has a softer side - as in, he has soft hands to contribute in the passing game, though his value is as a runner and as an accomplished pick up artist on the blitz.

The same can be said for Pitt's James Conner, who at 6' 1" and 235 pounds is the quintessential battering ram who loves creating contact between the tackles, but is also an excellent lead blocker and is sturdy at blitz pick up, as well as adding a dimension in the short passing game.  Conner has been beset by illness (Lymphoma) and injury (MCL, hip), but came back strong from both to become a second-team all-American, showing the kind of resiliency and mental toughness that makes the Patriots champions.

Toledo's Kareem Hunt checks all of the boxes, but is not superb in any area - just an all-around good player who has excellent vision to find the crease, has a staggering chip block to rag doll blitzers and is capable in the passing game, particularly on the jailbreak screens.

North Carolina A&T's Tarik Cohen can only be described as a Dion Lewis clone, who has a little James White in him as well.  Pigeon-holed as a passing back by pro scouts, Cohen has electric feet, a ballet dancer's pirouette and an incapacitating stutter step that leaves tacklers grasping at air.  The only problem is he is just 5' 6" tall and weighs in at 190 pounds, most of it in his legs.

Cohen can do a Claude Raines in the tall timber and come shooting out like a jack-in-the-box and take the ball the distance, but really isn't built to take on a heavy load in the running game on the pro level.

Despite being a pass-first offense, the Patriots rely on their running backs just as much - if not more - than any other team in the league, as their touch ratio favors their running backs by a large margin (56%-44%) and their backs are targeted in the running game nearly a quarter of the time despite all of the pass catching talent New England possesses in their receiver and tight end corps...

...which is obviously a recipe for success, winning two of the last three Super Bowls, and making it to at least the AFC Championship game for the past six seasons and counting...