We know Tom Brady will be out for the first four games. Will J.J. Watt be another AFC star on the sidelines to start the season? (Elsa/Getty Images)
1. There’s always a danger in reading too much into early-season action, but this year, it’ll be an especially dicey proposition, particularly in the AFC. We already knew that Tom Brady was going to be missing the first four games of the regular-season. But this week, we found out that Pittsburgh will be without one of its primary offensive options for the first quarter of the season, as running beck Le’Veon Bell is facing a four-game suspension of his own. (Interesting to see that news, especially in the wake of DeAngelo Williams’ comments.) In addition, the news that J.J. Watt underwent back surgery this week throws his availability for the first few games of the regular season into doubt. (At this point it’s believed Watt will be OK for the opener, but back surgery can be an especially tricky animal.) Indy will be missing defensive lineman Arthur Jones for the first four games because of a PED infraction, while Buffalo will be without running back Karlos Williams the first four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and Cincy linebacker Vontaze Burfict will be sidelined the first three games for repeated violations of the league policy on player safety. There are others across the NFL who will be missing for a variety of reasons over the first month or so, but the sheer volume of injuries and suspensions (even before camps open) means using the first four games of the 2016 season as a barometer for how the AFC might ultimately turn out might not be a good idea.
2. Of course, the flip side of the argument is that a mid-level team with a relatively easy schedule over the first four games and is at full strength will be able to take advantage of some of these suspensions and injuries. Subsequently, a fast start could help set them up for an eventual playoff berth. In that vein, this is a great story from Chase Stuart that looks at some teams that could be well positioned for success over the first quarter of the season (the Ravens) and as a result, could be in playoff contention all season. And then, there are teams that could struggle out of the gate because of their tough slate in the early going (the Jets).
3. Got a lot of great feedback on our “Most Important Patriots” series, which wrapped up this week. First, some folks wanted to know about our near misses, a group that included Logan Ryan, Patrick Chung and Jimmy Garoppolo. (In hindsight, we should have found a spot on the list for Ryan, who made sizable gains last year and will be asked to do more in 2016.) Garoppolo was an interesting case; as we explained in Tom Brady’s entry, when we started the series, the veteran was still fighting the Deflategate ban. If he had won, there would have been no talk about having Garoppolo on the list. But Brady dropped his appeal, which increased Garoppolo’s expected importance to the team exponentially. While we thought about tinkering with the rankings and trying to figure out a way to get Garoppolo on the list because of his anticipated importance over the first four games of the season, we decided to acknowledge his early-season importance, but leave him off the list altogether. It also struck us as interesting that none of the top four players on our list (Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Malcolm Butler) were first-round picks. In the end, the great back-and-forth debate that it sparked pretty much means that the “Most Important” list will be a summer staple going forward. Check out the final list here.
4. The Patriots will open their 14th training camp at Gillette Stadium this week. Players are set to report on Wednesday, and the first day of practice is set for Thursday. Here’s a quick look at what lies ahead for the rest of the week.
Thursday, July 28: Practice, 9:15 a.m.
Friday, July 29: Practice, 9:15 a.m.
Saturday, July 30: Practice, 9:15 a.m.
Sunday, July 31: Practice, 9:15 a.m.
Monday, Aug. 1: Patriots Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Kevin Faulk on NRG Plaza outside Patriot Place, 5 p.m. (The ceremony is open to the public.) That’s followed by an in-stadium ticketed practice for season-ticket members and Foxboro residents, 7 p.m.
5. Across the league, the Packers, who will take on the Colts in the Hall of Fame Game (Aug. 7), will be the first team with a full squad in camp when their rookies and veterans report on Monday. By Saturday, July 30, every team will be in camp. More and more teams are staying home for camp. This year, more than half the league (19 of 32, 59 percent) will be on their home turf. In 2000, only five of 31 (16 percent) teams stayed close to home. (That represents a dip from last year, when a record 20 teams, or 63 percent, were at home for the summer.) New England has been holding camp in Foxboro since 2003, but the Patriots still have a long way to go to match Green Bay, Minnesota or Pittsburgh when it comes to consecutive years in one location: The Packers have been training at Saint Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin for the last 58 years, while the Vikings (Mankato, Minnesota) and Steelers (Latrobe, Pennsylvania) have been at their locations for the last 51 years.
6. Want to try and pull off an AFC East camp road trip? While a drive to South Florida might be too much, if you’re a Patriots fan who wants to do some scouting and have a few extra bucks in gas money, a road trip to see the Bills and Jets between appearances in Foxboro is certainly manageable for anyone interested in checking out the rest of the division. The Bills are at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, N.Y. (their rookies report on July 28, and veterans the next day), while the Jets are at their own training center in Florham Park, N.J. (rookies and vets both report on July 27). It’s just over 300 miles between the two camps, and 250 miles from Florham Park to Foxboro.
7. While the 2016 regular-season looms in just over a month, we now know about a sizable portion of the 2017 slate of opponents. The AFC East will face AFC West and NFC South teams, with highlighted road trips expected to be Denver and New Orleans. Meanwhile, Cam Newton and the Panthers will be among the high-profile out-of-division opponents at Gillette next year. First reported by Mike Reiss of ESPN, here’s a look at what 2017 holds for New England:
Home: New York Jets, Buffalo, Miami, Kansas City, San Diego, Atlanta, Carolina, AFC South team that finishes in same spot in ‘16 standings.
Away: New York Jets, Buffalo, Miami, Denver, Oakland, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, AFC North team that finishes in same spot in ‘16 standings.
8. If you’re into these sorts of things, Bovada released its odds for this year’s NFL MVP, and despite the fact that he’s going to miss the first four games of the 2016 season, Brady is still in pretty elite company. The Patriots quarterback is fifth on the list when it comes to MVP odds at 9-1. He trails only Aaron Rodgers (4-1), Ben Roethlisberger (7-1), Cam Newton (15-2) and Russell Wilson (8-1). The only other New England player on Bovada’s list is Rob Gronkowski at 66-1, about one-third of the way down the list. The longest of long shots, per Bovada? Ten different players are at 300-1, including Jared Goff, Jimmy Graham, Larry Fitzgerald, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Carson Wentz.
9. Looking to kick the tires on a veteran player with an excellent pedigree who still might be able to contribute? This might be your year. While there are plenty of cases of older players waiting for jobs to develop every summer, as camps open, there are still several established players with an NFL resume who are looking for a job. On offense, it’s a group that includes Wes Welker, Anquan Boldin, Reggie Bush, Dwayne Bowe and Ryan Fitzpatrick. On defense, Dwight Freeney, Antonio Cromartie, Donte Whitner, Brandon Spikes and Greg Hardy are all still on the market. (Although Hardy is clearly available for different reasons, given his history.) It makes sense for veterans to wait things out at this time of year (who wants to go through camp if you don’t necessarily have to?) and see what develops, particularly once practices start and injuries start to crop up. One exception to the rule figures to be Fitzpatrick; from this viewpoint, it’s his destiny that he ends up back with the Jets.
10. Former Vikings and Cardinals coach Dennis Green died this week at the age of 67. While “The Bears are who we thought they were!” is a fun sound byte to remember Green, it should also be noted that he was a good coach, especially with Minnesota back in the 1990s. He averaged almost 10 wins a season over the course of a decade with the Vikings, including a 15-1 regular-season mark in 1998, a year that saw the Vikes lose the NFC title game in dramatic fashion to the Falcons. From a New England perspective, he went 2-2 in his coaching career against the Patriots: His first coaching game against New England came in a memorable overtime 1994 contest where Drew Bledsoe found Kevin Turner to beat the powerful Vikings at old Foxboro Stadium. He came out on the winning end of games against the Patriots (1997 and 2000), but lost to New England in 2004 with Arizona. He was a favorite of Randy Moss, and the former Viking and Patriot receiver lauded Green this week as the guy who “gave him a chance” when Moss fell to the 21st overall spot in the 1998 draft.
11. One of the single coolest aspects of my job is the opportunity to take part in the Top 10 series on NFL Network. This week, I was lucky enough to be able to spend almost two hours talking with NFL Films about the Patriots for a series that is expected to air sometime next year. Lots of good debate about the history of New England football — here’s hoping they include my rant about Logan Mankins being criminally underrated when it comes to his spot in franchise history. For what it’s worth, I was also part of a series that was taped in February at the combine, and was also chock full of good Patriots talk. I was told that group of shows will likely start running sometime next year. Worth looking out for.