With the selection of Damien Harris and N’Keal Harry, a big receiver who (at least in college) is a willing run blocker, do you think the Patriots will be as physical (if not more so) as they were last season, using plenty of James Develin, rotating the running backs for a punishing ground game? Harris and Sony Michel are both big backs, with James White and Rex Burkhead more adept in the past catching role. It worked well last season because of the great work done by the offensive line, Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, and Develin as a fullback. We don't appear to have a proven blocking tight end but, with Dante Scarnecchia's coaching, could Yodny Cajuste become an extra tackle in run formations? Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse are both about 255lbs and neither look like the sort of dominating run blockers that Rob Gronkowski or Dwayne Allen were last season, so who could do that job?
I would expect the Patriots to continue doing whatever it takes to score points, which is what they have done more effectively than anyone else over the last decade-plus. Since Tom Brady became the focal point of the offense – let’s call it 2006 – the Patriots offense has been as productive as any in the league. It has largely been a pass-first group and that remains the case today. There was a slight uptick in rushing attempts in 2018 over 2017, mostly due to the lack of weapons in the passing game with Julian Edelman suspended for the first month and Danny Amendola off to Miami. In 2017 the Patriots rushed 448 times for 16 touchdowns. Last year those numbers rose to 478 attempts for 18 touchdowns. Not really much of a difference. In 2017 the team averaged 4.2 yards per carry while last year it was 4.3. Meanwhile, Brady attempted 581 passes in 2017 and 570 last year. So while Michel and Burkhead did a great job in the running game, providing balance to the offense, there really wasn’t much of an increase in the ground production from year to year. I agree the loss of Gronkowski and left tackle Trent Brown could have an impact in that area. Ryan Izzo, who missed his rookie season on IR, could emerge as a potential blocking tight end. We’ll have to wait to see how that unfolds this summer. But until proven otherwise, I’m going to assume Brady will once again lead the offense and the patriots will score plenty of points along the way.
So the draft is done. Do you think Austin Seferian-Jenkins has enough left in tank and the mentality to absorb The Patriot Way and be 50 percent as productive as Gronkowski was from day one in both phases of receiving and blocking? Considering that there was no one deemed good enough available in the draft and the fact that we saw fit to trade away a rarely used TE, what do you see as the production and blocking level of the TE position. Is there anyone left thru either free agency or trade to explore?
Seferian-Jenkins’ problem has been staying healthy and obviously there’s no way to know for sure whether he’ll be able to do that in New England. When he’s been on the field, he’s generally contributed. As for replacing Gronk, the question is one of expectations. Last season Gronk caught 47 passes for 682 yards and three touchdowns. Assuming he can stay on the field, I would think those are numbers Seferian-Jenkins should be able to at least approach. In terms of Gronk’s best, I would think your 50 percent theory would certainly be within reason. The blocking is a little tougher to project. Few tight ends were as effective as Gronk in the running game and it remains to be seen how Seferian-Jenkins fares in that role. I already mentioned the possibility Izzo perhaps working in that capacity. But Gronkowski was special as a blocker as well as a receiver, so his best is impossible to replace. As for potential additions, don’t assume the Patriots didn’t like anyone in the draft just because they didn’t take one. Perhaps the timing wasn’t right and it just didn’t work out. Rumors continue to circulate that Benjamin Watson could be making a return, which would add a veteran to the mix. But certainly tight end remains a bit of an uncertainty at this point.
The Pats can now sign free agents without affecting their haul of compensation picks in the 2020 draft. Do you have any suggestions as to any players the Pats might be targeting?
As I mentioned, Watson would be a candidate for one of these post-May 7 signings. The Patriots also had Allen Bailey in for a visit several weeks ago and the former Chiefs defensive tackle is still available. Overall, there usually isn’t much in the way of impact players still on the market at this stage, but there are some names like Ndamukong Suh, Ziggy Ansah and Eric Berry are still looking for work.
I like the Patriots draft, even with the remaining questions at TE. I’m impressed by the forward planning especially in the O-line where the Pats have brought in strong developmental candidates to serve as backups for a while before stepping up to fill future free agency losses and thus negating the need to spend high draft picks on instant solutions. No doubt Joe Thuney will get paid big after next season and the Pats will have a ready-made replacement in house and a compensatory pick. But my question is this, the Pats model, based on gaining compensatory picks differs from the Seattle and KC approach of using the franchise tag to then trade. Did the Pats miss a trick with Trey Flowers and Trent Brown, who with a tag and trade approach could surely have netted at least seconds even with their contract situations? Or did the pre Gronk salary cap situation make this impossible?
There are always ways to create cap space in order to execute a franchise and trade situation if a team wants to pursue it. Bill Belichick has done that a couple of times during his time here – Matt Cassel and Tebucky Jones – but he opted not to try that approach this time with Flowers. I certainly believe the Patriots could have received better than a third-round compensatory pick, which is actually like a fourth-rounder, had they chosen to do so. But it’s not an easy formula and it does require some patience and cap space. Like I said, there are some accounting maneuvers that can provide enough space, but you also need to execute a trade and have to be prepared to pay the tag rate should a deal not be consummated. I don’t have all the details as to why the Patriots didn’t try to get more for Flowers by franchising him but it’s not something I feel is cut dried. There is some nuance to situations like these and the bottom line is the Patriots have been able to stockpile a lot of picks for the future.
With the CBA due to expire, is there any possibility that we will see an expansion to either the current 53-man roster and/or an expanded number of allowable practice squad players? I believe it was Bill Belichick who once said that the longer a player sees playing time in the NFL, the chance of injury is 100 percent. With that sentiment in mind, I would think that every NFL team would welcome an expanded roster AND additional practice squad players. Any chance of this being negotiated into a reality with a new CBA?
There are always changes made when anytime the CBA needs to be updated and it’s certainly possible that expanded rosters would be among those. Recently the practice squads were expanded from eight to 10 players, so that’s already happened. As for the 53-man roster, I honestly don’t see it as a problem with each team being required to make seven players inactive each game so each side has 46. It’s not common for teams to have more than seven players unavailable to play – although we did see that last season with the Colts when they came to town to play in Foxborough – so I don’t see the roster size as a huge problem. I don’t ever remember Belichick making the statement about injuries, but I have heard him say many times that if the rules allowed for 53 players to be active on game day that they would likely play them all in the game. So, perhaps the coaches would like to see rosters expanded so they have more players available in the game. My guess is the owners wouldn’t like that since it would mean more money spent on salaries. But it is something worth watching as the next negotiations take place.
Do you think Danny Etling could potentially beat out Brian Hoyer for backup QB while Jarrett Stidham grabs a No. 3 spot? I saw a lot of Stidham in college and think it'll take him a year or so before the Patriots could rely on him in case of injury, and Etling just feels like he offers miss upside than Hoyer, although Hoyer's experience is a huge plus. Just any sort of way too early prediction you could throw in there?
Thank you for acknowledging that this will be a way-too-early prediction since we haven’t seen the players on the field at all yet this spring. My guess is Belichick would rather not keep three quarterbacks on the active roster and that could mean Hoyer’s spot would be in jeopardy. If the Patriots keep just two, it might be hard to get Stidham through to the practice squad. I would think Belichick would prefer to have Hoyer remain as the backup given Stidham’s lack of experience and I haven’t seen anything from Etling to indicate that he would be ready to assume the No. 2 job. Etling could head back to the practice squad with Stidham on the active roster, and if Hoyer is released I could envision a scenario in which he would be brought back in case of emergency. But like you said, this is all way too early to speculate at this time.
Could it be that Patriots quarterback strategy was to try their luck in the seventh round, then in the fourth and finally in the first round when the time is right to have Brady’s heir? Meanwhile the Pats find a quality backup in Stidham and save money on Hoyer. From a timing perspective and money-roster management it all makes sense, does it?
We’ll stick with the backup quarterback situation, but I’m not exactly sure where we’re going here. I get that the Patriots took Etling in the seventh last year and Stidham in the fourth this year. I assume the first you referenced would come next year? If that’s the case, how could we know now that a quarterback that Belichick likes will be available when the Patriots pick, likely late in round 1? I also don’t understand the money aspect. I assume you’re getting rid of Hoyer based on your saving money comment. Stidham hasn’t taken a single snap and we’re now comfortable enough to refer to him as a quality backup? Like I said in my previous answer, it’s way too early to know how Belichick views this situation and we’ll need to wait to see how Etling has developed, how Stidham fares and if the coach is comfortable enough with the kids to move on from Hoyer. At this point, I’d be surprised if Hoyer goes.
My question for the Patriots is why we didn’t trade up in the draft to get one of the two tight ends that came out of Iowa, Noah Fant or T.J. Hockenson?
Trading up into the top 10 to select Hockenson (he went No. 8 to Detroit) would have required a significant loss of draft capital. Moving from No. 32, while not impossible given the multitude of picks the Patriots had, would have been tough. That likely would have cost No. 32, both second-rounders and more. Like I said, not impossible but clearly more than Belichick was willing to spend. He told us during his pre-draft press conference that moving up to No. 8 would be unrealistic so I don’t think it was ever really even contemplated. The price would have been lower to get Fant (he went 20th) but still costly. That was about the range where I felt the Patriots might realistically be able to move up to in order to grab someone they liked. But that’s the key phrase – someone they liked. I’m not sure how the Patriots felt about both of those tight ends, so it’s possible they wouldn’t have been interested in either one, especially when the price to move up was added on.
With Damien Harris being drafted, I have read that Rex Burkhead may be the odd man out. But even though it is widely considered the Pats had a great draft, they didn’t really address the tight end position at all, even trading one of their tight ends away after the draft. Is it possible instead of letting Burkhead go, he could be moved to a hybrid tight end position, as he is a solid blocker.
First, I don’t expect Burkhead will be the odd man out and I expect him to once again be part of the Patriots backfield committee. I also don’t expect him to move to a tight end hybrid position at 215 pounds. He’s a valuable, versatile player at running back because he can catch the ball and run effectively at times as well. But I’m not sure you’d get the same type of production from him as a physical in-line blocker with his size. I’ve seen and read the same reports as you about Burkhead being gone, but I’m not expecting that to happen. He was a key performer last year in the postseason, and I expect him to have a role again in 2019.
Have you guys gotten an update of the Josh Gordon situation?
There haven’t been any updates on Gordon’s status and he remains suspended. Commissioner Roger Goodell said he wouldn’t be addressing Gordon’s situation until the next round of league meetings, which will take place May 20-22 in Florida. It’s not known at this time if Gordon’s status will be reevaluated at that time but it is a date to keep in mind. At this point it’s tough to rely on anything from Gordon, whether or not he eventually gets reinstated. He’s been suspended so many times in the past that it would be impossible to become dependent on him as part of the offense. But if his suspension gets lifted this season, the Patriots have him under contract on his restricted free agent tender. So, if he plays in 2019 it would almost certainly be in New England.
As we cannot trust Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas, Phillip Dorsett is what he is, I am worried about talent beyond Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry. Do you think the Pats should sign Kelvin Benjamin as a reclamation project? Gregorio Ladeira
I’m not a huge Benjamin fan, especially after injuries have really derailed his career. He’s a huge target and seems to have lost a lot of his speed and mobility over the years. Some have even suggested he be used as a tight end based on his size and lack of agility. As for the receiver corps, I agree that Gordon and Thomas are far from sure things, but with Edelman, Harry and Dorsett at least there is a basis for optimism to start. The Patriots also added Maurice Harris and Bruce Ellington through free agency, and keep an eye on Jakobi Meyers, an undrafted free agent out of NC State. Harris is a big target at 6-3 and has shown ability when healthy, so he may factor into the mix. The receiver spot is by no means set, and Harry will need to be an important piece to the puzzle, but there are some options to provide depth.