LeGarrette Blount had 772 rushing yards over the course of the 2013 regular season, second-best on the team. (AP)
1. With the first wave of free agency now complete, look for the Patriots to start addressing some of their own next level free agents, a group that includes running back LeGarrette Blount. Blount finished 2013 with 153 carries for 772 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season, and added 166 yards and four touchdowns in the divisional playoff victory over the Colts. Despite those numbers, it’s been a slow market for Blount and the rest of the free agent running backs. However, now that the first week-plus has been completed, Blount has started to draw some interest around the league — he had a weekend visit with the Steelers lined up, and has reportedly also caught the eye of the Ravens. It’s not hard to see why Baltimore might be coveting Blount, as Ravens coach John Harbaugh professed a desire to remake the Ravens’ running attack in the mold of the Patriots, and looking for more diverse backs in hopes of improving their rushing numbers. “I think we need to diversify as much as we can what guys can do,” Harbaugh said when asked at his season-ending press conference about signing a bigger back. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with Ozzie [Newsome] and with Eric [DeCosta] and our different scouts about that, and our coaches, too. Yes, we want to have as many weapons as we can at our disposal. Big backs, fast backs, quick backs, route-running backs that you see around the league — we want to chase all those guys.” As it relates to the Patriots, if Blount decided to sign elsewhere, it would leave New England without one of its key cogs down the stretch and into the playoffs, but the fact that the Patriots already have three different types of backs in Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden still leave them ahead of most of the rest of the field in terms of being able to provide different looks for the opposition. If they weren’t able to retain Blount and went looking for a replacement, there are a few intriguing names still on the market in veterans Maurice Jones-Drew and Knowshon Moreno, but they might not be financial fits with New England at this stage of the team-building process. Then, there’s always the draft — while running back isn’t an overwhelming need for the Patriots at this point (figure on New England targeting defensive line, tight end and offensive line, at least in the first two days), they could still grab a bigger back in the middle rounds.
2. In that same vein, one area that will continue to shake out over the course of the rest of free agency is the market for situational pass rushers. The Patriots could likely call on the services of veteran Andre Carter if needed — the defensive end hinted as much in this interview with ESPN — but with the highly-respected Carter set to turn 35 in May, that seems like a bit of a long shot. The possibility of Jared Allen still exists, however remotely, but at this stage of the process, he might be out of New England’s price range. One name that might fit, both from a financial and personnel perspective, is Robert Ayers. The 28-year-old, a 6-foot-3, 274-pounder, started his career as an outside linebacker, but was switched to defensive end for the 2011 season. He’s established himself as a pretty fair pass rusher — he had a career-best 5.5 sacks last season, and according to Pro Football Focus, had seven quarterback hits and 31 quarterback hurries (both good for second on the team). Josh McDaniels took Ayers in the first round of the 2009 draft when he was running the show in Denver. While Ayers is not an All-Pro, at this stage of free agency, he could represent a high-value signing, and be the sort of quality backup who could be called upon to play significant snaps with the Patriots.
3. In an eventful offseason to this point, one guy we haven’t heard a lot from is tight end Rob Gronkowski. We know the big fella underwent surgery on his right ACL on Jan. 9, and was up and around at Whole Foods shortly after that. (For the record, it was the eighth surgery for Gronkowski that we know of, with seven of them coming within the last two years — the knee procedure, to go along with four on his forearm, two on his back and one on his ankle.) In the months since, he’s popped up occasionally here and there, but made his first extended appearance this past week in a video from TMZ. Shot while apparently hiking (?!) in Southern California, he proclaimed himself as being, “jacked central, baby,” and adding that he was “improving every day” when it came to his health. Asked about where he is percentage-wise, he responded: “I don’t do percentages. I’m just working hard every day and doing better every day. I’m working hard every day, doing the best I can every day.” Check out the full video below:
4. Gronkowski, Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Stevan Ridley and some of the rest of the Patriots have showed up fairly regularly out on the West Coast over the last few months, according to various reports and league sources. (In the case of the quarterback, he’s been seen at multiple locations over the last month-plus, mostly looking to get some vacation time in with his family.) While a few of them have been drawn to California by the “Entourage” movie, there have been others who have headed to California for various reasons, including a desire to work out with teammates in warmer conditions. Ridley has been seen working out with the likes of Edelman, Gronkowski and Danny Amendola. While there has never been any formal news of a “Patriots/Brady West” camp like the Jets and Mark Sanchez conducted in recent years, Brady has regularly thrown to receivers who make the pilgrimage to Southern California — last year, he held a workout at USC with Danny Amendola. (Terrell Owens also stopped by to get some work in.) As for playing a role in the “Entourage” movie, Gronkowski apparently has a cameo, and Edelman had the chance to visit the set. “It was surreal to go out there and meet all the fellas and all the people that are in it and the people that are producing it and directing it. It was an awesome experience,” he said. “It was definitely a fun experience to go out and watch these people go out there and do their work and compare it to how we do our work.” However, Edelman was coy when he was asked if he was going to appear in the film. “You’d have to ask Coach [Bill] Belichick on that,” he said with a laugh. Perhaps Belichick doesn’t want anyone on the roster potentially one-upping him when it comes to his own acting work.
5. One thing we’ll be watching for this week at the league meetings in Orlando is the potential rule changes, particularly the four that have apparently been proposed by the Patriots: raising the goal posts by five yards; moving the extra-point line of scrimmage to the 25-yard line; adding six cameras to all boundary lines to supplement TV camera angles; and allowing any officials decision to be challengeable. The one that has drawn the most notice was the extension of the goal posts — likely because of the end-of-game furor in the Patriots-Ravens contest a few years back — but the one that appears to have the most history as far as Belichick is concerned is the idea of camera on the goal line. At least publicly, Belichick started calling for the inclusion of cameras near the end zone to better determine whether or not a ball has crossed the plain in 2005. Following a tough loss to the Panthers that season (one that included a disputed touchdown from Carolina running back Stephen Davis), the Patriots coach wondered aloud as to why the league hadn’t adopted the idea of cameras on the goal line. “It’s been brought up many times, but the league refuses to do it,” Belichick said back then. If implemented, “if you do challenge that play, then there’s absolutely one look at it and that will tell you did the ball cross [the goal line] or didn’t it cross it.” As for the rest of the proposed rules changes, it would seem to be a slam dunk that the league would approve goal-line cameras and extended goal posts. However, it would be a surprise if the league approved the idea of allowing all officials decisions (other than scoring plays and turnovers) to be challenged, as well as the idea of extending the line of scrimmage for extra points. From this viewpoint, the latter has more of a chance than the former, but we’ll see this week.
6. The Jets said farewell to the Sanchez era on Friday night, releasing the quarterback while adding Michael Vick. We’ll always have the buttfumble to remember Sanchez, but the move can impact New York in a couple of immediate ways. First, from a financial perspective, they don’t have to pay Sanchez a $2 million bonus (that would have been due if he was on the roster on March 25), and while they do have to absorb $4.8 million in dead money against the cap, there’s still $8.3 million in savings in space. Two, they could be in prime position to land a playmaker like DeSean Jackson without dumping more personnel and cash in hopes of clearing some space. It appears Jackson’s time in Philly is nearing an end, as reports continue to persist that he’ll be gone before the start of the 2014 season. Vick and Jackson have a history together in Philly, and the occasionally combustible receiver could provide an instant jolt for the offensively challenged Jets. In a situation that has some similarities to the recently concluded Darrelle Revis drama (Will the Eagles cut Jackson? Will they try and trade him?) it’s a situation that could have long-term effects on the AFC East.
7. Life in the NFL is transitory, but even with that in mind, it was shocking to see the tweet from Albert Breer of NFL Network Friday night, who indicated that with the release of Sanchez on Friday, just two of the top eight picks from the 2009 draft (Detroit’s Matt Stafford and Cincy’s Andre Smith) remain with their original teams. In fact, there’s no one left on the Jets roster left from that year’s draft, while the Bills and Dolphins both have just one player from that year’s draft under contract for the 2014 season — offensive lineman Eric Wood, taken in the first round by Buffalo, and wide receiver Brian Hartline, taken in the fourth round that year by Miami. (Defensive back Chris Clemons, a fifth-round pick of the Dolphins that year, is an unrestricted free agent who is unlikely to re-sign with Miami.) When stacked against their AFC East counterparts, it appears that we can now say the Patriots enjoyed the greatest long-term yield from that draft of anyone in the division: Second-round pick Sebastian Vollmer has managed to become one of the better right tackles in the NFL, and signed his second deal with New England last offseason. Meanwhile, seventh-rounder Edelman signed the third contract of his professional career this past week with the Patriots, a four-year deal with New England.
8. When it comes to brother combinations in New England, we’ve written about the Vereens, the Gronkowskis and the McDonalds. Now comes the news out of Florida that Kendal Thompkins, the brother of Patriots receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, is making is mark in the Arena League. In his first two games with the Orlando Predators — including a 69-63 win over the Los Angeles Kiss Friday night in Florida — Thompkins has 10 catches for 86 yards and four touchdowns. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Kendal, who had 14 receptions for 152 yards and three touchdowns as a collegian at the University of Miami, has a “commitment to excellence,” according to Orlando coach Rob Keefe, and is described as a dynamic offensive presence for the Predators. As you can imagine, the brothers talk on a regular basis, and both say their combined achievements serve as inspiration for the other. “Seeing him get that scholarship, that set me up and put me in the position I am today,” said Kenbrell, who took a year off after high school before heading to junior college and then ultimately landing at Cincinnati. “I was confused. I had a lot of loose screws at the time and didn’t understand my purpose in life. He motivated me to put my cleats back on.” For a great story about the duo, check out the story from Alicia Del Gallo of the Orlando Sentinel here.
9. From this viewpoint, the announcement from Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III that he won’t be wearing a knee brace for 2014 made us recall the back and forth that Brady has done on the knee brace over the course of his career. The Patriots quarterback started wearing a brace in the wake of his 2008 season-ending knee injury, but wasn’t wearing it last summer when Tampa Bay’s Adrian Clayborn collided with him in a training camp session with the Bucs. (That caused Brady to go back to the brace, at the apparent urging of team owner Robert Kraft.) While it goes without saying that the two are wildly different quarterbacks when it comes to speed and playing style, it is worth pointing out that many quarterbacks wear them as a precautionary measure — protection from getting their knees blown out. Brady remains an advocate for the brace, and given his experiences, it will be interesting to see if Griffin decides to go back to the brace at some time this year.
10. By the looks of his Twitter feed, it appears that wide receiver Chad Johnson is enjoying his time away from the football field. Sure, there have been occasional football-related updates — including this Vine of him working in what appears to be a flag-football game — but for the most part, he appears to be at least semi-retired. That didn’t stop the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL from inquiring about his services recently. While it’s highly questionable if it will actually lead to Johnson actually returning to the field, he was added to the Aloutettes’ “negotiation list” this week, a way for a CFL team to put in an exclusive right claim on a player if he ever decides to go north of the border. Montreal GM Jim Popp is apparently notorious for this sort of thing, as he’s placed just about every notable from Tim Tebow to Lawrence Phillips to Quincy Carter on the Alouettes’ “negotiation list.” For his part, The Artist Formerly Known As Ochocinco did nothing to quash the idea, tweeting “Nothing to negotiate, I’ll be fast as hell and in shape.” Later, someone asked him what are the chances of him suiting up and signing, Johnson tweeted: “85% yes 15% probation.” Johnson did say recently he’d be interested in reviving his career in British Columbia, but the Lions’ GM Wally Buono roundly dismissed the talk. “I felt I would disrespect the individual if I didn’t even sit down and talk about it,” said Buono, adding he did not talk with Johnson or his representatives. “But when you start measuring all the obstacles and you start to evaluate as an organization what you’ve supported, what you stand for and what you have expounded on, it just doesn’t even come close to working.”