Al Davis was a frequent trade partner over the years before he passed away. (AP)
1. One of the easiest bets every year is the fact that the Patriots will make some sort of draft-related deal. But who is Bill Belichick‘s favorite trade partner? We went back and tallied up all of Belichick’s draft-related deals over the years, and while it’s important to note that not all of the draft-related deals took place on draft weekend, there were a few surprises. Oakland leads the list with nine trades, with several deals of note, including Randy Moss (acquired by New England for a fourth-round pick) and Richard Seymour (dealt to Oakland in 2009 for a first-rounder). One interesting thing here is that despite the fact that Belichick has made more draft-related deals with the Raiders than any other club, he hasn’t made a trade with Oakland since Al Davis died in 2011. Denver is second on the list with seven draft-related deals, most of which were relatively low-level swaps between Belichick and his friend Mike Shanahan when he held the reins with the Broncos. Green Bay and Philadelphia have six each, with most of the transactions with the Eagles coming in annual draft weekend swaps between Belichick and another friend, Andy Reid. And Baltimore and Chicago have each made five draft-related swaps, with another Friend of Bill (Ozzie Newsome) willing to work with his old colleague in helping facilitate trades on a fairly regular basis. One other note worth passing along. Since he took over in 2000, Belichick has made draft-related deals with every team in the league except two: the Jets and Colts.
2. Despite the fact that this year’s draft is two weeks later than it’s been in previous years, to this point in the pre-draft process, not much is different this time around — at least from a logistical perspective. Speaking late last month at the owners’ meetings, Belichick said that when it comes to scouting and evaluations, ‘the process is about the same’ as it was in year’s past. Belichick did indicate that the upcoming stretch — “early- to mid-April,” in his words — is a key part in the evaluation process. “Then, all that information will be pulled together and added to what we had going out back in February. We’ll see where all that comes in,” Belichick said. “At some point, it will all get pulled back together. We’ll talk about the players on the board. I’m sure we’ll make some changes and adjustments. And then, we’ll continue the process from there.” While not much is expected to change when it comes to the pre-draft process (if anything, it gives teams more of a chance to evaluate), expect changes on the back end. The seven-week stretch between the draft and the pre-training camp break will now be crammed with events in hopes of getting rookies up to speed as fast as possible. And while the elite level prospects will still rise above and distinguish themselves, the players who could be hurt the most by the smaller window are the undrafted free agents and camp invitees. In previous years, those players were able to get the attention of the coaching staff in the smaller groups that are usually the norm at rookie minicamps and distinguish themselves as a potential prospect that could eventually flourish if given the proper amount of time. Now, with less of an opportunity to make a name for themselves before the rest of the veterans return, they could get squeezed out of the picture sooner rather than later.
3. It’s almost hard to fathom, but two months after the Seahawks crushed the Broncos in the Super Bowl, football players can return to their facilities for the start of offseason workouts this week. Teams that hired a new coach this offseason are allowed to begin offseason workout programs on Monday — that means Cleveland, Houston, Detroit, Minnesota, Tampa, Tennessee and Washington are all allowed to get started on their prep work for 2014. As for teams with returning head coaches like the Patriots, they have to wait until April 21. We covered much of what you’re allowed to do (and not do) during the offseason programs, but it’s worth reiterating here. Phase one covers two weeks, and only rehab and strength and conditioning is allowed. Phase two runs for three weeks, and that’s when individual player instruction and drills are permitted but no live contact or offense vs. defense drills. Phase three covers four weeks, and includes 10 days of organized team activities. Again, no live contact is permitted, but teams can run 7-on-7, 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills.
4. The idea of Donald Trump buying the Bills surfaced this week, and at least from this viewpoint, it wasn’t completely coincidental that the news came down during the week of April Fools Day. The word is that the sale of the franchise is on the fast track, but the idea of selling to someone like Trump would be bad news for the Bills, as well as the rest of the league. While he would likely have some support around the league (it’s reasonable to think that he’d have an ally in Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who he counts as a friend), and it’s presumed he would be able to pull together the money, it would be a stretch to see him getting the requisite votes needed to gain ownership. One only needs to look at his track record as an owner in the USFL, where some believe he helped sink the league. While there are occasional exceptions to the rule (see Jerry Jones), it’s also likely that Trump’s occasionally flashy style wouldn’t be a welcome addition. There’s always the chance that Trump could change his ways, but the idea that someone of his ilk would be welcomed with open arms into one of the most exclusive sporting clubs on the planet seems far-fetched.
5. Keeping with the Bills theme, Buffalo’s pickup of wide receiver Mike Williams represents another offensive option for the Patriots consider when they meet their division opponents twice a year. The occasionally erratic Williams — who brings a lot of baggage to the table with arrests, fines for missing meetings and injury — was dealt by the Bucs for a sixth-round pick. If Buffalo can get him to buy into the program, he could bring an intriguing skill set to the Bills passing game. The Syracuse product (who had a contentious relationship with Bills coach Doug Marrone while the two were together at Syracuse) had three straight years of 60-plus catches, including two consecutive seasons of 65 catches in 2010 and 2011. The 6-foot-2, 212-pound Williams joins an offense that already has Stevie Johnson, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, as well as running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Regardless, it’s clear that Williams could benefit from a fresh start somewhere, and could represent a win-win for both sides if it all works out. Williams signed a huge six-year, $40.5 million contract with the Bucs last July, but played in just six games in 2013 because of a hamstring issue. Tampa Bay would have been on the hook for a big cap hit if it kept Williams, but were able to get out from under a bad contract with the move. Conversely, Buffalo only owes Williams $1.8 million in 2014, and a sizable portion of that is tied up in a workout bonus. It also changes things when it comes to the draft — expect the Bucs to be primarily interested in a wide receiver at No. 7, with some of the possibilities being Clemson’s Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans of Texas A&M if they’re still available. Meanwhile, you have to figure that this takes the Bills out of the running for a receiver.
6. The Titans cut running back Chris Johnson on Friday, and while New England has been intrigued enough by some of the available free agent backs to kick the tires of guys like Maurice Jones-Drew and Michael Bush, from this viewpoint, it seems unlikely they’d be interested in Johnson. His yards per carry has dropped from 5.6 yards per carry in 2009 to 3.9 last year, and whether that’s the result of a poor offensive line or overwork (he’s only one of a handful of backs to with more than 250 attempts each year for the last six seasons), it’s a bad sign. In addition, he was never known as one of the best blockers in the league, and the Patriots value blitz pickup skills in their backs. All that, armed with the knowledge that running backs usually hit a wall around the age of 30 (and he’s set to turn 29 in September), means that the Patriots will likely take a pass. As for who might be interested in him, a Pro Football Talk report indicates that the market for Johnson will heat up to a point where he’ll land with a new team soon. The PFT report also indicates that Johnson might decide on a one-year, show-me deal, which might allow him to seek a bigger deal in 2015, a year that should likely prove to be a better marketplace for running backs. (For what it’s worth, at this point, it sounds like the Jets and Falcons are the two teams in the lead for Johnson’s services, at least at this point.)
7. The Patriots decision to cut loose Adrian Wilson on Friday marked the end of the veterans’ time in New England, one that was marked by unfulfilled promise. When he was acquired last spring, it was believed he could be the heir to Rodney Harrison‘s throne, a hard-hitting, high-character defensive back who made his bones on the West Coast, but in a last-ditch attempt to win a ring, signed with the Patriots at the tail end of his career. Wilson never saw the field during the regular season — he was placed on injured reserve prior to the opener — but by all accounts, was a positive locker room presence in his time with the Patriots. From this viewpoint, it was easy to see why Wilson was so well-regarded around the league. He was quiet and understated with the media, but players regarded him with the utmost respect. (This Friday afternoon tweet from Devin McCourty should give you some idea of what his fellow players thought of him.) While his reps tweeted out Friday that they anticipated him playing somewhere this year, if this is the end of the road for Wilson, the 34-year-old has generated the stats needed to at least be a part of the Hall of Fame conversation. A three-time All-Pro (one first-team appearance and two second-team appearances), he’s only one of six players in NFL history to compile at least 25 sacks and 25 interceptions. He’s a high character guy who distinguished himself as one of the pillars of the Arizona franchise, both on and off the field. (When the Cards released him, the franchise issued a press release hailing Wilson’s “iconic status” and adding that he will always have an important spot in team history.) He was tremendous against the run and underrated against the pass, and according to Football Outsiders editor Aaron Schatz, one of the FO’s favorites over the years, but simply didn’t get the respect he deserved because he played on some pretty bad Cardinals teams over the years. (One more note — from a marketing standpoint, it now appears to be an inevitability that Darrelle Revis is set to take over the No. 24. The number went from Kyle Arrington to Wilson last offseason, a switch that was jumpstarted by a diaper donation from Wilson to Arrington, a new father. As a result, Arrington switched from No. 24 to 25 to accommodate Wilson.)
8. After serving 35 days of his 60-day sentence, Alfonzo Dennard was released on Friday on good behavior. With the jail term now behind him, it marks the start of a key offseason for the cornerback, who is expected to face a serious challenge for playing time with the addition of Brandon Browner. While Dennard certainly has a leg up on Browner because he’s been in the system for two years and has played well in that time frame — as well as the fact that Browner faces a suspension for the first four games — there’s still the possibility that Dennard will face a suspension for his off-field transgressions. What Dennard does have going for him is the fact that he’s been with the franchise for two years — from a continuity standpoint, the Patriots have seen a lot of turnover to this point in the offseason in the secondary, and any familiar faces figure to help with the transition going forward.
9. When it comes to what’s going to happen with the first pick in this year’s draft, only Texans coach Bill O’Brien really knows for sure what will go down. There’s been a lot of talk as to which way O’Brien and Houston will lean — whether they’ll chase after defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney, a quarterback (likely Blake Bortles, based on the connection between the quarterback and his coaching staff), or deal out of the top spot altogether and go after someone else. (There’s one school of thought that says O’Brien and the Texans would be interested in selecting Clowney and going after a quarterback with the first pick of the second round, the 33rd selection overall.) Despite his background in the New England offense, if he does try and go after a quarterback, he’s smart enough to know that he won’t be trying to find the next Tom Brady. “The one thing for us in Houston, especially like myself and (quarterback coach) George Godsey, we have to guard against looking for the next Tom Brady,” he said. “Those guys are few and far between. You think about how many Hall of Fame quarterbacks there are, and he’s going to be one, there just aren’t that many of them in the whole spectrum of quarterbacks in the history of this league, as you know. I think what we’re looking for is a guy that has some of Tom’s qualities: like a great teammate, an accountable guy, a hard-working guy, a competitive guy, a good leader. But to go out there and say, ‘This guy is going to be like Tom Brady.’ I mean, that’s ridiculous.”
10. With the news that the Patriots hosted quarterbacks Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater on a pre-draft visit this week, it’s important to clarify just what happens when a player comes in for a visit. It’s different for different prospects — some engage in some film study and work on the white board, and some are asked about what they would do in certain on-field situations. In the end, it really comes down to the fact that you’re not interested in giving a guy a physical workout, but a mental one, and in many cases, build on some of the things they learned in the 15-minute interview at the combine. “You only get 15 minutes at the combine, so it’s very difficult to be engaged in a one-on-one conversation,” Mike Lombardi told me a few years ago prior to taking a personnel gig with the Patriots this past offseason. “You don’t have all your tape with you. You don’t have every asset you need to utilize to the best of your ability to determine the intelligence level, the commitment, all the things you want to do. You can sit them in a room — you have all day. You want to sit down and make sure you watch tape, go over some things, walk through some situations. It gives you a great chance to spend a lot of quality time — uninterrupted – with the player.”