With the start of the regular season just days away it's time to start looking not just at the Patriots but around the league as well. Each week we'll offer some thoughts on various developments and how things stand in the NFL, including our weekly power rankings.
No preseason, no problem
When it was decided that the league would not be able to conduct preseason games due to the complications caused by the current coronavirus pandemic, many felt it would be a death knell to young players who wouldn't get an opportunity to showcase their skills. Turns out the opposite has taken place, with expanded practice squads and the ability to put veterans in those spots has caused many teams to keep their younger players in one form or another. The Patriots brought back 16 of their own players for their opening practice squad and only Nick Folk qualifies as a veteran. Bill Belichick explained that the modified roster rules seemed to have many teams moving in that direction, and as a result there were only 17 waiver claims made over the weekend. Clearly teams preferred to continue working with their own players. It seems many coaches want to see how they respond to game conditions before letting them go. So, instead of making life tough on rookies, the odd circumstances actually improved some of their chances.
As if there weren't enough real-life negatives surrounding the coronavirus, its effects on college football could be felt for years to come. Obviously we've already seen what the uncertainty has done to the season with the Big Ten and Pac-12 deciding against playing this fall while other major conferences are dealing with modified schedules and many other logistical dilemmas. But looking at it even closer we see some of the top-rated players are deciding against playing altogether – and some not just for safety reasons. Oregon tackle Penei Sewell is the latest potential first-round pick (some say top 5) to say no thanks to a possible season down the road. LSU wideout Ja'Marr Chase is another. Those opt-outs could continue in the future, even if the pandemic ends. In fact, Chase's decision had nothing to do with COVID-19 but rather his desire to best prepare for the 2021 draft. Players need to be three years removed from their high school graduation in order to be draft eligible, and few believe the top players will be negatively impacted by foregoing their third season. If players like Sewell and Chase maintain their draft status, it's easy to envision others following suit in the years to come, and that will be bad news for anyone who enjoys the college game.
Keeping it on the ground
Several years ago we were sitting around our offices at Gillette Stadium and we were treated to a visit from Pro Football Hall of Famer John Hannah. Hannah often did community work for the team in those days and was in town periodically, and from time to time he'd regale us with some stories from his playing days. As the NFL began transitioning to more of a passing league back in the mid-2000s, Hannah assured us the trend would be cyclical. Defenses will not be able to get away with playing so many small guys and at some point teams will power up and play smash-mouth football in order to get those extra DBs off the field he said. In full disclosure we were quite skeptical, especially given Hannah's reputation as an old-school guard who excelled at creating holes to run through. But it seems some of his thoughts are starting to come to fruition. The Titans and 49ers certainly relied on power rushing attacks last season, and the Patriots might be following suit in 2020. After being nearly extinct, the fullback position has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence lately, and teams have indeed tried to match those smaller personnel packages with some added bulk. I'm still not convinced teams can win big consistently by relying heavily on the run, but Hannah's comments were prescient.
Bill Belichick is more than willing to be unconventional when it comes to personnel moves and in particular the draft. He'll dip into the Division II and III ranks for a player and he's not afraid to take any position – including the specialists. Since becoming head coach in 2000, Belichick has selected seven specialists and so far it appears only three worked out – Stephen Gostkowski (fourth round, 2006), Joe Cardona (fifth round, 2015) and Jake Bailey (fifth round, 2019). The others failed to make much of an impact before being let go. Kicker Owen Pochman (seventh round, 2001), punter Zoltan Mesko (fifth round, 2010) and long snapper Jake Ingram (sixth round, 2009) didn't last long. Rookie Justin Rohrwasser still has a chance, but the initial indications were not good. He struggled with his health and consistency during camp and was placed on the practice squad. He could still make that pick look good, but based on history it's likely a 50-50 shot at best. Meanwhile, Belichick enjoyed great success with punter Ryan Allen and long snapper Lonie Paxton, who both went undrafted. There's no disputing the importance of a strong kicking game but it seems the vast majority of them are undrafted. Obviously these are generally late-round picks so the resources aren't huge, but selecting them in the draft doesn't seem to increase the odds of finding quality.
As mentioned earlier the Patriots were one of many teams that decided to hold onto many of their young players. Based on a very limited viewing period of less than three weeks, there were a few that caught my eye as players to watch down the road. One is Myles Bryant, an undrafted corner out of Washington. Bryant gave up his share of plays during camp but he also made a ton of his own. And what impressed me the most was his willingness to compete every day regardless of the results of the previous play. I wouldn't be surprised to see him earn a spot on special teams before the year is through. And he will compete for a role at corner in 2021, especially if there's some turnover at an absolutely loaded position. Running back J.J. Taylor is another player who flashed, and like Bryant not always in a good way. Taylor had some trouble holding onto the ball at times, but his exceptional lateral quickness was tough to miss. Given the expanded role that backup runners often see in the preseason, he's one guy that actually made me miss those exhibitions. It would have been fun to see the diminutive back trying to elude tacklers this summer. Ivan Fears compared him favorably to Dion Lewis so with some development perhaps he has future as well, and with Damien Harris on the shelf he got promoted immediately. The last guy I'll mention is Cassh Maluia, a sixth-round pick out of Wyoming. Maluia was constantly around the ball and his promotion to the active roster on Monday was no surprise. He'll provide help in the kicking game and depth at inside linebacker with his mobility. On the flip side, I came away disappointed with the young receivers. None of the undrafted rookies really flashed, and aside from an occasional play from first-year wideout Devin Ross there really were no wow moments among the group. Ross and Isaiah Zuber did enough to stick around, though, so perhaps the coaches saw something promising.
Since the season has yet to start, and the fact that power rankings are an often fruitless endeavor to begin with, please take my top 5 for what it is – a total guess. For now anyway...
- Baltimore – Will the Ravens be haunted by their divisional round collapse or use it as extra motivation?
- Kansas City – The defending champs had a strong offseason taking care of their own. Now they get to live the Patriots life of being the hunted.
- New Orleans – I'd like to put the Saints lower due to their perennial underachievement in the playoffs, but this is the regular season.
- San Francisco – If Jimmy Garoppolo improves to the point where the Niners aren't so reliant on the running game few teams can match their balance.
- Tampa Bay – You knew it was coming … just too many weapons to envision Tom Brady struggling with his new team.
Surprise team: Denver – I was impressed with the late-season work of Drew Lock.
Overrated team: Green Bay – I still can't figure out how they went 13-3 last year.
Most intriguing team: Indianapolis – If Philip Rivers has anything left the Colts could contend.