The Patriots and Ravens might end up going to the mattresses this week over the concept of unbalanced lines. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
1. From this viewpoint, the talk from the competition committee this week about potentially outlawing the unbalanced line that flummoxed the Ravens in the divisional playoff contest tastes distinctly like sour grapes. But then again, it’s really nothing new: Almost a dozen years after Bill Polian and the Colts griped to the league about New England’s defensive tactics in the 2003 AFC postseason, the rest of the NFL is again trying to squeeze New England. This time, it’s a proposed rules change that would state, in part, if a player declares ineligible and lines up outside the tackle, he will be penalized 5 yards for illegal formation. Rams coach Jeff Fisher, a member of the competition committee, said this week when asked about the tactic, “Unless we had some guidelines in place, this thing may get out of hand.” But it’s no coincidence the Ravens web site took great relish in pointing out that the competition committee would be looking at the “ineligible receiver trick” performed by the Patriots this week at the league meetings. Baltimore clearly has its fingerprints all over this proposal, and as a result, it will be interesting to see if there’s any fallout between the two teams from what happened in the playoffs. Despite some occasional asides between players, the two franchises have always maintained a healthy respect for each other, with Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh professing their admiration for each other on several occasions. That wasn’t always the case between the Colts and Patriots, particularly when Polian was in charge in Indy. (It’s no coincidence that since he’s been in charge of the Patriots, the Colts are one of the few teams Belichick has never made a trade with.) Regardless of who might get their feelings hurt. if you’re a Patriots fan, it’s important to note that the year after the new rules were in place, New England ended up finishing off the second-half of back-to-back championships. We’ve said several times over the last six months that the 2014 Patriots were very reminiscent of the 2003 team, right down to the Super Bowl title. Now, the current edition has its own opportunity to overcome a rules-based roadblock instituted by a deposed conference rival. Only time will tell how New England responds.
2. Speaking of rules changes, the Patriots pushed for a few last year, and appear to be interested in doing the same thing again this week. There’s the idea of having cameras on the goal line — something Bill Belichick has been an advocate for (at least publicly) for nearly 10 years. (Asked last year how the league would pay for the additional technology, Belichick shrugged. “Maybe we could have a bake sale. Raise some money for the cameras. Do a car wash.”) And then, there’s the idea that every play should be reviewable. Belichick talked about his reasoning for the idea at last year’s meetings Orlando. “I’m not proposing more challenges. All I’m saying is, as a coach, if you want to challenge a play, I think you should be able to challenge it,” he said flatly. “And why does it have to be limited to, I don’t know, there’s four or five pages in the rules book of plays that can be challenged, and now this year there are more proposals to amend that probably because of one or two plays that happened in the league last year. I think eventually, each year, there’s going to be some other circumstance, situation that comes up and we’re going to want to add that. I mean it’s four to five pages of plays that challenge procedure. Every year it gets amended and it’s hard to keep it straight.”
3. In addition to the proposed rules changes, some other interesting league matters are also on the docket at the league meetings this week, including the annual announcement of compensatory picks. The league uses an abstract formula to determine compensatory picks, one that includes total free agents gained and lost the previous offseason, as well as how those players performed with their new teams. A team can receive a maximum of four picks, and they could fall anywhere between the end of the third round and the end of the seventh round. Last year, the Patriots received one compensatory pick, a fourth-rounder. Going forward, New England might be in line for at least one more pick: Last offseason, New England lost a host of players in free agency, including running back LeGarrette Blount, linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher and cornerback Aqib Talib. However, the Patriots also gained cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. (For those of you who might think compensatory picks are relatively small potatoes, it’s worth reminding folks that quarterback Tom Brady was selected with a compensatory pick in the 2000 draft.)
4. While there’s been a ton of movement when it comes to the names at the top of the Patriots’ own free-agent board, it’s been relatively quiet for three of their remaining free agents. While New England has retained Devin McCourty, but lost Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Vince Wilfork and Shane Vereen (among others), offensive lineman Dan Connolly, running back Stevan Ridley and long snapper Danny Aiken are all in holding patterns, at least at this point. According to our pal Ian Rapoport, Connolly has had some suitors, but nothing has developed. In addition, other than an occasional Twitter or Instagram post here and there, things are quiet around Ridley, who continues to work his way back from an October knee injury. (His name has been mentioned in connection with a running back opening in Dallas — it would certainly make sense for a Cowboys team that wouldn’t likely pay him more than a one-year “show-me” deal because of the knee problem. He’d also likely get plenty of chances to win the job of No. 1 back with DeMarco Murray now out of the picture.) And while league sources say Aiken would like to return to Foxboro, he could see how the market develops for specialists as the spring continues.
5. Despite the fact that they have every member of their receiving corps slated to return in 2015 — and are expected to get Aaron Dobson back after a season-ending injury — the Patriots attempted courtship of free agent wide receiver Stevie Johnson is an indication they’re still interested in continuing to build depth at the receiver spot and create some competition at the position going into next season. As a result, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them go after one of the veteran receivers still on the market as a way to augment what the Patriots already have. From this viewpoint, there are a handful of names out there who New England might be inclined to kick the tires on, including Hakeem Nicks, Reggie Wayne and Greg Jennings. (We broke down Nicks as a possible addition for the Patriots here, while we’ve also been a supporter of Wayne in the past.) None of this is to suggest that any one of them would be able to be a dominant pass catcher with New England — only that it might be worth considering them as possibilities as depth additions for a team interested in bolstering its depth between now and the start of training camp.
6. One of the biggest takeaways from the Jabaal Sheard conference call with reporters on Friday was the fact that he was familiar with the Patriots as a result of the pre-draft process in 2011. He described his trip to Foxboro as a college prospect, and he touched on the getting-to-know-you process that almost all players of that age go through in that situation. It should serve as a reminder that not all pre-draft visits are about gauging the worth of the player as a prospect who could help out immediately, but also as intel for a possible free-agent scenario. Ultimately, just because a player comes through on a visit doesn’t mean that the Patriots are going to chase after them come draft weekend. Instead, the information gleaned from that sit-down can come in handy down the road when it comes to deciding what sort of talents they could eventually bring to the system if they become available later in their careers as a free agent.
7. On paper, there are a lot of really good young teams who have done well building their roster through the initial stages of free agency, but still have some questions at the quarterback position. From this viewpoint, one of the reasons those teams who are continuing to build through the draft and free agency might be content to sit and wait with a “placeholder” at quarterback for 2015 is that there could be an impressive group of signal-callers on the market next spring. While some have options and some are reportedly continuing to negotiate new deals with their current teams, it’s a staggering list that includes Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers, Eli Manning, San Bradford, Cam Newton, Nick Foles, Ryan Tannehill and Robert Griffin III. (Ben Roethlisberger was also part of this list before he recently re-upped with the Steelers.) Some of them will inevitably be signed to new contracts between now and March — and it will be interesting to see how much each one of them gets from their team as the market continues to set itself. But in a quarterback-driven league, there are plenty of teams who might be content to sit and wait with a journeyman at quarterback this year while banking on making a run at a marquee sign-caller next spring as the final piece of the puzzle.
8. With the offseason in full swing, here’s a look at some key upcoming dates on the calendar, as viewed through a New England prism:
Sunday: The second day of a two-day veterans combine, the first such get-together of its kind, held in Arizona. Several former Patriots received an invite in hopes of landing a new gig, including defensive lineman Marcus Forston and quarterbacks Mike Kafka and Zac Robinson.
Sunday-Wednesday: Annual Meeting, Phoenix, Arizona. One of the first times in the offseason Belichick and owner Robert Kraft address the media. If they do speak with reporters, expect them to be quizzed about a number if topics, including the free agent losses of Revis, Browner and Vince Wilfork.
April 6: Clubs that hired a new head coach after the end of the 2014 regular season may begin offseason workout programs.
April 20: Clubs with returning head coaches may begin offseason workout programs. This is usually around the time when the Patriots have media availability with veterans who might be in the area.
April 30-May 2: 2014 NFL Draft, Chicago. Expect a few Patriots execs to make the trip to Chicago for the draft, but as always, the majority of the front office will stick in Foxboro.
9. The list of notable pro days for the upcoming week — Monday: Iowa, North Carolina State. Tuesday: Iowa State, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas. Wednesday: Duke, Kansas, Nevada, Rice, SMU, South Dakota State, Tennessee. Thursday: Houston, Tulane, Utah. Friday: BYU, LSU, TCU.
10. Two of the nicer guys in the New England locker room received hometown this week, as Malcolm Butler and Jonas Gray received some hometown kudos. Butler, the Super Bowl hero who is continuing a whirlwind offseason, was feted with a “Malcolm Butler Day” at his alma mater, the University of West Alabama. (Butler, who has appeared at the Grammys and Disneyland, also got a hometown parade in Vicksburg, Miss., last month.) Meanwhile, Gray received the key to the city in Pontiac, Mich., this past week. Gray took to Instagram to record his feelings: “Speechless…A young kid who grew up with a single mom in the inner city with big dreams! One of those achievements in my life that truly no one can ever take away from me and my family. The KEY to the City Of #Pontiac. Born and raised here and will continue to put the city on the map! Happy I was able to share it with my two best friends.”