1. Via a league source, WEEI.com can confirm an initial report Saturday from MassLive.com that the Texans have “expressed an interest” in Ryan Mallett. It’s not known what the Patriots would be interested in in return and if the two sides could reach an accord on a deal, but the Patriots backup quarterback — who is entering the final year of his rookie deal — was selected in the third round (74th overall) in the 2011 draft. It’s long been maintained that New England would like a positive return on its investment, which could mean a second-rounder, or something in the upper stages of the third round. (There’s also the possibility of multiple picks.) The Texans currently hold the first, 33rd and 65th overall picks in the draft, and while Mallett hasn’t seen any significant snaps in the course of his three seasons with the Patriots, it would make sense for Bill O’Brien — the former Patriots offensive coordinator who worked with Mallett on a regular basis while in New England — to go after a quarterback he knows would be a good fit for his system. The league source indicated that it’s nothing more that interest at this point, but it’s a situation that certainly bears monitoring going forward.
2. When it comes to Mallett, it’s almost hard to remember now, but when he arrived in Foxboro, there were questions about his background and character stemming from his time as a collegian. However, by all accounts, he’s been a very good teammate and hard worker while in New England, fundamentally erasing any of the character questions that had surrounded him when he came out of Arkansas in 2011. As was previously stated, Mallett hasn’t played any significant snaps while with the Patriots, but his relatively low cost (he’s in the final year of a deal that pays him $776,976 in base salary), his willingness to work with Tom Brady (as well as the scout team) and his impressive college numbers (he threw for 8.385 yards in three college seasons) make him an attractive option. “Ryan comes to work every week with a great attitude and a great approach — he prepares as if he is playing,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said when asked about Mallett late in the 2013 season. “I think he has continued to try to work at what it means to be a quarterback in this league; prepare hard, go through you daily preparation of segment of the game plan. He has really done a nice job of trying to give our defense a good look each week, which I think is an underrated part of a backup quarterback’s preparation, but it is important nonetheless because it is an opportunity to go back there, make reads, and throw the ball accurately and work on your fundamentals, get better and lead that team.”
3. For clarifications sake, the “legal tampering window” opened at noon on Saturday afternoon, and runs through Tuesday at 4 p.m. That means teams can contact the agents of pending unrestricted free agents of other teams, but they cannot execute a contract with a pending free agent in that period. (That has to wait until after 4 p.m. on Tuesday, the start of the new league year.) In truth, it’s a getting-to-know you process that allows teams to gauge the market when it comes to how interested a player could be in signing with their franchise, as well as vice versa.
Here are the specific rules, straight from the NFL, as to what is and isn’t permitted in the window.
“During this negotiation period, a prospective unrestricted free agent cannot visit a club (other than the player’s current club) at its permanent facility or at any other location, and no direct contact is permitted between the player and any employee or representative of a club (other than the player’s current club). If a player is self-represented, clubs are prohibited from discussions with the player during the negotiating period.
“Clubs (other than the player’s current club) may not discuss or make any travel arrangements with prospective unrestricted free agent players, their certified agents, or anyone else associated with the player until the expiration of those players’ 2013 Player Contracts at 4:00 p.m. ET on March 11.
“The three-day negotiating period applies only to potential unrestricted free agents; it does not apply to players who are potential Exclusive Rights Players or Restricted Free Agents, or to players who have been designated as Franchise Players or Transition Players.”
4. Here’s a look at free agency needs as it relates to the rest of the AFC East:
a) Jets: As is the case in the draft, the Jets figure to be on the lookout for as much offensive help as possible. They re-signed tight end Jeff Cumberland (a good start locking up an underrated part of their offense), and even though they have former Patriot Zach Sudfeld in the fold, they could add to the position with someone like Brandon Pettigrew, Scott Chandler or Jermichael Finley. There’s also the possibility of them making moves at quarterback. The Jets have roughly $20 million in cap space, which could balloon upwards toward the $30 million-plus range if they jettison Mark Sanchez, Santonio Holmes or Antonio Cromartie.
b) Dolphins: Miami made a strong move in re-signing free agent corner Brent Grimes, but much like the Jets and their quest to find help on the offensive side of the ball, the Dolphins will be looking to upgrade its offensive line both in the draft and in free agency this offseason. Free-agent tackles like Branden Albert and Eugene Monroe are possibilities for the Dolphins, who have $33 million in cap space.
c) Bills: By most estimates, Buffalo has roughly $20 million in cap space, the Bills could use some more offensive options in the passing game for EJ Manuel (particularly at tight end if they lose Chandler). If he leaves in free agency, they could be looking for a replacement for Jairius Byrd, and could also use some more depth at linebacker. Based on his connection with former Patriots coach Pepper Johnson, it wouldn’t be a shock to see linebacker Brandon Spikes pop up in Buffalo as well.
5. While there was some talk about the Patriots making a move to pick up defensive tackle Red Bryant, one of the least surprising moves at the start of free agency on Saturday happened when Bryant signed with his old defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who is now in charge in Jacksonville. Bryant credited Pete Carroll and Bradley for helping jump start his professional career, and so it wasn’t a surprise to see him jump to join the Jags, even at what was probably a relatively reduced rate. However, the idea of free agents flocking to locales where former coordinators are now installed as head coaches isn’t exactly new. (Bill Belichick was able to pluck a few former Browns and Jets in free agency soon after he became head coach of the Patriots.) It wouldn’t be a surprise to see some former Bills defensive players join new Browns head coach Mike Pettine in Cleveland. (Jairius Byrd?) But one team to watch could be Minnesota, where new head coach Mike Zimmer inspired a devoted following among the defensive players when he was DC with the Bengals. Defensive end Michael Johnson is certainly one candidate to follow Zimmer from Cincy to Minnesota. Asked about the possibility of bringing some of his guys along with him, Zimmer said the familiarity is nice, but it’s not imperative. “It always helps because of the communication, but it’s not relative,” Zimmer said this week. “I had no one in Cincinnati (his first year). Matter of fact, I was the only new coach I think when I went there on defense. I had no players that came with me at that time. It’d be nice, but it’s not imperative.”
6. If you’re ranking all of Brady’s backups, Kliff Kingsbury has had arguably the best post-playing career stretch out of anyone. Kingsbury, who has achieved success as a coach at Texas Tech, recently had the chance to sit down for an extended interview that touched on several aspects of his career, including his relatively brief stint in New England backing up Brady. “If you’re a quarterback who’s drafted by the Patriots, you’re kind of watching. You’re not playing too much,” he said with a smile. “They’ve got a pretty good player there. But it was fun. I got to learn from him and watch his work ethic and find out what it’s all about. I wish I could say something bad about him, because I swear to God he made a deal with the Devil for his life. But he’s just the best guy — the hardest worker you’ve ever seen in your life. The best guy — he knows everybody’s name at the facility, shakes everybody’s hand and treats everybody with respect. I guess that’s why God gave him Gisele.” Kingsbury, who was part of the Super Bowl XXXVIII team as a third-string quarterback, recalls the week before the Super Bowl, which took place in his home state of Texas. “It was actually in Houston, so it was incredible,” he recalled. “It was parties and … I wasn’t playing, so I could partake a little bit. It was a fun week. I was a third-string quarterback, but I the way I was calling my agent and trying to get into parties, you would have thought I was Tom Brady. I was working it, trying to get in.” Check out the entire interview here.
7. Talking about Brady’s old backups, Minnesota decision to retain ex-New England quarterback Matt Cassel could have some sizable draft ramifications. While they could still go after a quarterback, they would be under considerably less pressure to anoint a rookie as a starter right out of the gate, and instead give them time to develop while Cassel is at the controls. As a result, they could take more time on someone who could be a longer-term project. It also pretty much neutralizes any talk of Michael Vick ending up in Minnesota, at least for now.
8. In an era where teams are constantly looking for specialized backs, the release of Darren Sproles caught our attention this week. The 5-foot-6, 190-pounder was let go by the Saints after three seasons in New Orleans as part of an offensive housecleaning, but in this pass-first era the third-down, pass-catching backs have become as important as ever. Sproles has carved out a terrific niche as one of the best third-down backs of the modern era — over the course of his career, he has 2,221 rushing yards and 3,381 receiving yards, which put him on the outer reaches our list of the best third-down backs of all-time. It’s not known if the Patriots would be interested in Sproles — with Shane Vereen, there would appear to be some offensive redundancy at the position — but his unique skill set likely means the 30-year-old won’t be out of work for soon.
9. Former Patriots tight end Fred Baxter has been named the men’s golf coach at Widener University. Baxter, who is also an assistant coach on the football team, played for New England at the tail end of his career, and won a ring with the 2003 Patriots after he appeared in 12 games with New England in his final season in the league. Baxter, who spent 2006 with the Patriots as part of the NFL’s Coaching Internship Program, sounded excited about the new challenge. “It is an opportunity I feel I can help the University attract student-athletes and enjoy the disciplines golf brings in life,” Baxter said in a statement released by the University. “We want a team that will compete and use the tools of the game that will help us be successful.” Baxter is one of several former Patriots who have gotten into coaching through the NFL’s Coaching Internship Program — it’s group that includes former New England players David Patten, Billy Yates and Otis Smith.