FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Free-agent WRs, TEs: In recent years, coach Bill Belichick has sometimes described the end of Patriots seasons as a “crash landing” because of its suddenness in the playoffs, which makes this one a bit different. Call it a slow descent, and the result is it allows more time to focus on two positions high on the team’s offseason priority list — wide receiver and tight end.
While quarterback will likely generate the biggest headlines, a strong case could be made that it won’t matter who is taking snaps from center if the Patriots don’t decisively upgrade around him.
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While the possibility of the franchise tag exists to take some players off the market (starting Feb. 23), the wide receivers who could reach unrestricted free agency are headlined by projected big-ticket items Chris Godwin (Buccaneers), Allen Robinson (Bears), Kenny Golladay (Lions), Will Fuller (Texans), JuJu Smith-Schuster (Steelers) and Corey Davis (Titans).
But it hardly ends there.
T.Y. Hilton (Colts), Curtis Samuel (Panthers), Marvin Jones (Lions), Nelson Agholor (Raiders), Sammy Watkins (Chiefs), A.J. Green (Bengals), Breshad Perriman (Jets), John Ross (Bengals), Alex Erickson (Bengals), Josh Reynolds (Rams) and Keelan Cole (Jaguars) could also be available.
Speed and dynamic playmaking ability have been lacking in New England, and so a player like Samuel, 24, would be an ideal target. At tight end, it’s a similar picture to last offseason, with Hunter Henry (Chargers) the top target after playing on the franchise tag.
Henry would be an upgrade for the Patriots, as he’s a true tight end in the sense he’s a factor as a blocker and pass-catcher. He could command close to a top-of-the-market deal, which is in the per-year-range of $14 million to 15 million.
Lesser expensive possibilities include Jonnu Smith (Titans), Gerald Everett (Rams), Jared Cook (Saints) and Jacob Hollister (Seahawks), among others.
A Samuel-Henry combination, while expensive, would address arguably the Patriots’ top needs.
Carolina’s Curtis Samuel had a career-best 77 catches and scored five TDs this season. David Eulitt/Getty Images
2. Ziegler for Caserio: Nick Caserio was a valuable member of the Patriots organization for 20 years, and while some might view his departure to become Houston’s general manager as the latest example of New England’s decline, the view here is different. It was time — for him and the organization. Caserio had reached his ceiling in New England, and his assistant, Dave Ziegler, is highly regarded with the possibility to breathe new life and potentially some more alternative thinking to Belichick’s. The key is keeping Ziegler from the Denver Broncos, who are interviewing him for their general manager job.
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3. QB or no QB in first round: The Patriots own the No. 15 pick in the 2021 NFL draft, which would be their fourth-highest in Belichick’s tenure (since 2000), and the plan is to relay weekly nuggets leading up to April’s draft.
On ESPN’s “First Draft” podcast with Mel Kiper Jr., Todd McShay and Field Yates, McShay called it the “hardest year of evaluation” he’s had in nearly 20 years as an analyst because of the variation in total games played between prospects. McShay, who added “wide receiver is so deep in this class,” slotted Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields to the Patriots at No. 15 in his first mock draft (no trades). The conversation with Fields highlighted subpar performances against Northwestern and Indiana balanced against his stellar effort against Clemson in the playoff semifinals, and how his stock has been a bit volatile as a result of it.
One draft thought from here: Consider how the perception of quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert is different today than it was at this time last year; thus, it will be fascinating to see how it shakes out with this year’s consensus top three — Trevor Lawrence, Fields and Zach Wilson.
4. Cam’s thoughts: It’s always interesting to hear what players new to the Patriots say they learn about the franchise, especially after spending an extended period of time with a different organization. Here’s Cam Newton from his final weekly interview on WEEI last week: “The competitive stamina, without a doubt. I would walk into the door at 5:15 and I would not leave until 10 p.m., on the regular. And every ounce was accounted for, and the mental focus you need in that building is heightened by one thing and one thing only. Understanding that, over the time that I was here, is something that I’ll never shy away from for the rest of my life. It was the expectations of not doing something to get it right. It more or less was doing something until you cannot get it wrong. … For me, it wasn’t training the body. It was training my mind.”
Stephen A. Smith wants to see Cam Newton move on from the Patriots because he thinks Cam doesn’t fit with the offense.
5. Virtual limits: Belichick’s season-ending news conference provided closure to the Patriots’ 2020 season, and one of top takeaways was the team’s virtual meetings weren’t viewed as overly productive. “What you think you’re getting done in a virtual meeting and what’s actually accomplished are two very different things because it’s so hard to measure and gauge the feedback,” he said. “Virtual meetings are fine for dissemination of basic information, general information. But in terms of the team working together, especially a team that doesn’t have a lot of experience together — and that was true in certain positions — I don’t think there’s a great benefit to it.”
6. Silver lining: Of all the things Belichick learned in 2020, he said “probably at the top” was how valuable it was for the team to devote time to get to “know each other and appreciate each other’s background, story and thoughts,” which was an extension of their conversations on social justice in the spring. Belichick called it “very educational” and noted it will help the franchise in the future.
Captain Matthew Slater described it this way: “We all come from different backgrounds and have gone through different things. It was great for us to learn about that. For me to hear about Coach Belichick’s experience growing up, for him to hear about mine, and so on and so forth, was powerful.
“Ultimately at the end of the day, you were able to draw a link that, ‘Hey, we spend a lot of time talking about differences in this country, but we really do have a lot more in common than what sets us apart.’ The capacity that we have for love. The need that we have for love. The need that we have for relational connection. Just as people, we’re wired very similarly, all of us — doesn’t matter where you come from, who you are, how old you are.
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“We saw that in a new way this year and it was powerful. I think it grew our team relationally, I think we connected on deeper levels, because we were talking about more than just football … and allowed us an opportunity to grow. I think that harvest is going to show up, not only this year but moving forward.”
7. New regimes: There are six head-coaching openings across the NFL, and the Patriots will face five of those teams in 2021 — Chargers, Falcons, Jaguars, Jets and the Texans. The Lions are the only team seeking a new coach not on the Patriots’ 2021 schedule.
8. McDaniels’ head-coaching stock: Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels hasn’t had his name connected to any of the NFL’s head coach openings, which is likely a combination of the team’s shaky offensive season and residuals from three years ago when he backed out on the Indianapolis Colts job at the last minute. While McDaniels said two weeks ago that he absolutely would like the opportunity to be a head coach again, some familiar with his thinking sense he isn’t in any rush. For McDaniels, 44, there’s a lot of time left in his career, and he’s motivated to rebuild the Patriots’ offense and help identify young quarterbacks in the draft who might best fit for the future.
9. Holiday bonus for Ross: On the day before their season finale, the Patriots elevated practice-squad cornerback D’Angelo Ross to the 53-man roster, and then come game day, they made him a healthy scratch. So why would they elevate him in the first place? First, it provided insurance in case an injured player who was a game-time decision wouldn’t play (e.g. Justin Bethel). Second, it allowed the team to pay him at the rate of a player on the 53-man roster for the week — a reward for hard work behind the scenes, first in rehabbing from a serious Achilles injury and then this year on the practice squad. A decision that amounted to a difference of $27,482 from what Ross would have earned that week.
10. Did You Know: Patriots Pro Bowl punter Jake Bailey finished the season with a 45.6 net average, which is the second-best in NFL history. Only Saints punter Thomas Morstead, whom Bailey has said is someone he admired while learning the finer points of punting at Stanford, has posted a higher net average in a season (46.0, 2016).