September 29, 2016

Quick Answer

picby Scott Benson
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The Patriots waited but 36 hours into the new league year before closing the book on the biggest question of this – maybe any – off-season.

Matt Cassel, the stand-in who like Kramer won a Tony, is gone, off to Kansas City with Scott Pioli, who got a starting quarterback and 3-4 linebacker with a single draft pick.

The Patriots, with nearly a quarter of their total payroll invested in two players who play the same position, suddenly find themselves flush with cash (at least fourteen million I’d guess, plus Vrabel’s reported four million cap figure) and in possession of a 2009 draft pick just outside of what is said to be an unusually strong first round. They turned the 230th selection of the 2005 draft into the 34th pick in this one, after just fifteen career starts. 

They also move toward the days ahead having made their most public acknowledgement yet that times have to – and will – change on the New England defense. They traded one of the most versatile, enduring, popular Patriots ever, a veritable Mt. Rushmore figure when it comes to New England championships. And they did it because they wouldn’t win another by relying on him, and others like him, for too long.

I for one take hope in this affirmation that shared glories, long held confidences, deeply rooted trusts and alliances still count in New England….but only to a point.

Naturally, the public dialogue will focus on a perceived meager return for a beloved team icon and a developing quarterback who could conceivably compete for a third of the starting jobs in the league. 

That will be primarily because we oversimplified and overestimated Cassel’s marketplace appeal from the beginning, just as we now oversimplify and overdramatize the forthcoming absence of the 2009 Mike Vrabel, and frankly, we don’t know who else but the Patriots to blame for it.  

Lost in the maelstrom, at least for now, is the significance of all this on the matter of Tom Brady.  Cassel’s departure leaves only Brady and Kevin O’Connell between New England and another year without the playoffs.

Now, I know they had to think a lot of O’Connell to spend a third round pick on him, but somehow I don’t think today’s trade was a proclamation of his readiness. So that’s kind of a story too, isn’t it? 

The final analysis won’t come until we see whether Cassel and Vrabel (and Pioli) take hold in the Midwest, and what the Patriots will make of the 34th pick in this April’s draft.

And in the here and now, with a newly found salary surplus that could swing the public back to the Patriots side. If this deal today nets not only an early second round draft pick (an outside linebacker, a corner or safety…even an offensive lineman) but also enables early action on long-term deals with players like Vince Wilfork and Logan Mankins, could you really kick?

Now Hold On A Minute

logoby Scott Benson
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The possibility has dawned on me that we have been kidding ourselves about what the Patriots can get for Matt Cassel in a trade.

Cassel’s surprising success as fill-in for Tom Brady last season, and his expiring contract, had most of us assuming the Patriots would franchise and flip the former 7th round pick for a smashing return, including at minimum a first round choice in this April’s draft.

I’m starting to wonder if we might have overestimated a tad.

Here’s the theory. Rival execs didn’t come away from the 2008 season – even with everything the former benchwarmer did – thinking that Matt Cassel was a special quarterback they could build their team around. They came away thinking they could do the same thing with their as-yet unproven quarterback.

Two things have always been true in the NFL: everybody copies everybody else and everybody thinks they can and will do it better.

So isn’t it possible that they watched Matt Cassel and the Patriots last season and decided not that they had to have him, but they could do ‘that’ too, with their own guy, without giving up invaluable draft picks and a long-term big-money contract?

Some of the teams that have been mentioned as potential trade partners recently made under the radar moves that may lend support to the theory. Tampa Bay signed backup soon-to-be free agent Luke McCown to a contract that will pay him $2.5 million a year over the next two seasons, and that doesn’t seem like something you’d do if you were about to give up your first round pick for Matt Cassel’s guaranteed $14 million.

Elsewhere, the Vikings were poised for the new league year, when they expect to land Houston’s Sage Rosenfels, who they’ll extend for three years at $9 million. In Detroit, Daunte Culpepper reworked his contract to be more favorable to the Lions’ forthcoming teambuilding efforts, a gesture that seems to confirm Culpepper will be back in Motown next fall.

Now, before you tell me that these moves are stupid and that furthermore, Sage Rosenfels is thirty-one years old and he sucks, and that decisions like these are what made them the (recent) Bucs and Vikings and Lions, just allow me to say this: precisely. You were expecting a 180 turn this one time?

I’m not saying there’s no market for Cassel; even though he had top coaching and great receivers like Moss and Welker, he showed skill and makeup in difficult circumstances. He’s 27, has a promising recent track record, good organizational pedigree, he’s of sound mind and in good health…..you’re right. Sage Rosenfels does suck.

But in Kansas City, there’s Tyler Thigpen, a 24 year old who may seem like a Cassel in waiting to even Scott Pioli, at a fraction of the price. In San Francisco, 29 year old Shaun Hill, getting almost four and a half million a year, is said to be the favorite after leading two consecutive late season mini-surges by the Bay.

Both of these teams – and for that matter the Chicago Bears, who recently pledged themselves again to Kyle Orton – could very well have an interest in Cassel. Their recent public statements could be nothing but posturing for an expected negotiation with both Cassel and New England.

Or maybe they really think that Matt Cassel’s success proves only that they don’t need him.

Combine Day Four

by Chris Warner  
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DEFENSIVE BACKS

I Owe Iowa: After a solid East-West Shrine game performance, Bradley Fletcher of Iowa continued to impress with an unofficial combine 40 in the 4.4’s. Fletcher remains desirable for the Pats due to his low-risk Day Two draft status and his familiarity with Coach Kirk Ferentz, who is Coach Belichick’s blood brother (not true, but that would be more entertaining than another “they coached together before” story).

Ellison, The Invisible Man: Disappointing day for USC safety Kevin Ellison, timed in the 4.8s in his 40, nearly glacial by NFL standards.

Hodge Podge: At six feet and 234 pounds, Stephen Hodge’s 4.49 (unofficial) 40 turned some heads in Indy. Couple that with his solid performance in the bench press, and New England could consider him. Important to remember that, in terms of big safeties, last July the Pats had Tank Williams in a hybrid run-stopper position, though they ended that experiment once Williams got injured.

Webb Of Intrigue: Lardarius Webb of Nicholls State turned heads with his top 40 time of 4.46. The 5-10, 179-pounder transferred from Mississippi State after getting dismissed from the team two years ago. Also returns kicks. Intrigue, indeed.

Washington Monumental: The best vertical jump came from Donald Washington of Ohio State, who hurled his six-foot, 197-pound frame 45 inches off the ground.

Just thinking: While Vontae Davis and Alphonso Smith maintained their status as top DB picks, others stepped up their game to ensure that, should New England refrain from selecting a corner or safety in the first two rounds, they could still find help on Day Two.

Combine Day Three

picby Chris Warner
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OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

Remember When I Was Kind of Down on Connor Barwin? Yeah. Well, if there’s still room on the bandwagon, I’d like a seat. We can even give it a new name, like “The Connor Barwagon.” Barwin excelled in five categories, including the 40-yard dash (as expected) in 4.66 seconds and the 20-yard shuttle (as hoped) in 4.18. As one of the fastest, quickest OLBs at the combine – and listed as a defensive linemen, lest we forget – let the “Is Barwin worth a first-round pick?” talk resume.

Remember When I Was Kind of Into Clay Matthews? Yeah. Still am. Matthews ran a 4.6 40 and clocked in at 4.18 in the shuttle. At only 240, his weight makes him less than ideal for a 3-4 defense, but for a second-round pick he’s worth looking into. Still.

Paul Kruger’s Nightmare: Maybe not that bad, but the Utah end with the ideal OLB size (6-4, 263) ran a 4.84 40 and failed to show the strength expected of him in the bench press. On the positive side, this makes him a mid-Day Two project rather than a late Day One pick with pressure to produce right away.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS

The Brinkley Report: It looks like Jasper Brinkley has recovered from his 2007 knee injury. The 6-2, 252-pound stopper ran a 4.72 40 and tossed up 26 reps of 225 pounds. Not shabby at all for a guy projected as a late-rounder.

It’s a Shame About Rey: Right before suffering a hamstring injury, USC alum Rey Maualuga was listed with an unimpressive 4.87 time in his 40 and an even less impressive bench of 23 reps. Questions abound: Did the injury affect the 40? Does athleticism or instincts make a football player? Does Maualuga have enough of the former to complement the latter? Maualuga and James Laurinaitis have something in common (besides clusters of vowels in their surnames), as both put off leaving school to play their senior years. Laurinaitis ran his 40 in the 4.8 range and put up only 22 reps in the bench. The ending of these players’ college careers is looking more and more like the ending to Thelma and Louise. Without the hand-holding.

Combine Day Two

picby Chris Warner
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WIDE RECEIVERS

Ogle This: Virginia’s Kevin Ogletree had a respectable 40 time (4.45) and had top numbers in the “burst” categories (broad jump, 3-cone, 20-yard shuttle). At 6-1, 196, he’s no mite either. With the Al Groh connection, Ogletree gets a second look from Foxboro.

Sixty Minutes? More Like 4.33 Seconds: Mike Wallace of Ole Miss has been mentioned on this site before, and he must have heard my pleas to make me look half-decent. Wallace ran his 40 in the aforementioned time, making his second for wide receivers (Maryland’s Darrius Heyward-Bey was first with a 4.3). With good hands and a solid return game, Wallace is worth investigating (sorry, sorry).

This Applies To Williams: At under six feet, 194 pounds, Penn State’s Derrick Williams seemed like an ideal quickster, until he ran a 4.64 40. Pretty good for a tight end, not so for a receiver.

McNeese Says McUncle: Quinten Lawrence of McNeese State needed to crush his 40 in order to improve his draft status. Nothing doing, as no reports of Lawrence running the 40 have become available.

RUNNING BACKS

Pop the Andre: A big back at 224 pounds, Andre Brown surprised few onlookers with a notable bench press (24 reps). As a big back, though, he opened eyes with a 40 under 4.5. A banger who catches the ball out of the backfield (29 receptions for 309 yards last year)? Who would want that?

Peerman Peerless: A big day for Cavaliers, as Virginia’s Cedric Peerman had the fastest 40 time (4.45) of all running backs and showed up at or near the top of three other categories. At under 5-10 and 214 pounds, Peerman could be the type of player to spell a starter or run out the clock late.

One knock against Peerless is that his hands measure only eight inches. So, the Patriots could be in the market for another BenJarvus Green-Ellis with hands like a fourth-grader.

Never mind.

Got My 40 On My Mind: Is it me, or did the backs fail to show speed this year? Iowa’s Shonn Greene clocked in at 4.72, .03 faster than Colorado State’s Gartrell Johnson (who had thighs so thick they made Sequoias jealous). Though I’m a big believer that straight-line speed’s importance pales in comparison to quickness for a running back, we were looking at some disappointed backs on Sunday.

Sutton For Nothing: I gave myself praise for Mike Wallace, so I’m calling myself out for Tyrell Sutton. The pride of Northwestern made a mark in my eyes for his performance in the East-West Shrine game, but Sunday he failed to show himself as a quicker, smaller back, running a 4.65 40. Again, the 40 doesn’t mean as much as we tend to think, but at only 5-8, Sutton could use some footspeed to get the hell away from the big guys.

Combine Day One

picby Chris Warner
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TIGHT ENDS

We Want Morrah: Cameron Morrah, Cal. Morrah ranked near the top in four categories, including two drills that measure quickness (3-cone and 20-yard shuttle). Not a huge guy at 6-3, 244, Morrah had a respectable bench press (24 reps) that could help him as a blocker.

On the Gator: Cornelius Ingram, Florida. Ingram ran a solid 40 (4.68) but did little else to establish his status as an athletic end. The Pats could draft him, but only with much prodding from Gators coach Urban Meyer.

Biggest Surprise/Bummer: Brian Mandeville, Northeastern. Mandeville gave hope to smaller school players everywhere, but was sent home after doctors found issues with his heart. The latest reports say that his playing career has ended. Can’t imagine discovering that problem at the combine.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Mr. Smith Goes To Indy: Jason Smith, Baylor. Smith showed good feet in blocking drills and scored at the top of three different categories, including the 3-cone drill.

He’s Probably Heard It Before: Dan Gay, Baylor. Smith’s teammate Gay tested near the bottom in his 40 and in bench press reps. Still, at 6-4, 308, Gay’s got the size to make a roster somewhere.

Beware the X-man: Xavier Fulton, Illinois. The last time we saw Fulton, he was in a Senior Bowl practice with DE Larry English whipping him like fluffy eggs. Fulton ranked near the top in no less than five tests. Went to Illinois as a defensive tackle, meaning he has huge potential.

New Blog from an Old Friend

chrisby Scott Benson
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For the past couple of days I’ve been tracking Pats news on a promising new blog that you may not be aware of yet.

Chris Price, whose contributions we happily and proudly published here during the Patriots historic 2007 season, is now manning the It Is What It Is blog over on the recently renovated weei.com.

As it happens, Chris is at the Scouting Combine in Indy over the next few days, and he’s blogging the action as we speak. I’d say he’s off to a promising start.

As you know, I think Pats blogging begins and ends with Mike Reiss and Reiss’s Pieces, but we can always use another solid hand on the Pats’ cyber beat.

In other news, speaking of the Combine, our own Chris Warner e-mailed this link to Gil Brandt’s NFL.com piece on what teams are looking for this week’s drills. There’s video too.

One Man’s Take

picby Scott Benson
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The Combine begins today in Indianapolis, and on his can’t miss draft blog, Matt Bitonti of draftdaddy.com has dug up an interesting post on the quality of this year’s prospect class.

An anonymous NFL college scouting director breaks down the prospects by position with Tom Dienhart of rivals.com.

Some pretty good background if you’re looking to get up to speed on the players available to the Pats this spring, particularly in the first couple of rounds.

Chipper Brady Bullish On Return

picby Scott Benson
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Erstwhile Patriots quarterback Tom Brady emerged at a charity event near Boston today and gave the assembled press his most expansive comments yet regarding his rehabilitation from a catastrophic left knee injury suffered last fall.

The gang was all over it:

Reiss’s Pieces  – Part One, Part Two, Part Three
Projo Sports Blog
Tom Curran on nbcsports.com

So Brady seems pretty sure he’s on target in his rehab and that he’ll be able to resume his career next fall with no further interruption. Reassuring words for a distant fall season, even as another winter storm approaches New England.

But you know, they’re just words.  Just like the words written last month, the ones that said Brady may miss part, or all, of the 2009 season. Until August, or September, when Brady finally steps behind center and runs the Patriots offense again, or doesn’t, it’s just speculation. Just words.   

Whichever ones you prefer to believe depends on how you’d like to spend the next five months, I guess. I’m happy to take the quarterback at his word today – that he’s feeling on track and in reasonably good position to play this fall – and at the very least give it equal weight to the statements of those who’ve claimed he isn’t.

But there’s still that matter of the next five months. Because it will be at least that long before we really have any idea about Tom Brady.

Top Heavy

by Scott Benson
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picLong-time fans of the annual NFL Draft know that Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News traditionally leads the media pack when it comes to accurate top prospect lists and mock drafts.

So it’s always noteworthy when he turns his attention to the last weekend in April, even when it’s only February 15th.

This morning in the DMN, Gosselin looks at what the Cowboys passed up when they traded the 20th pick of the 09 Draft to Detroit in the Roy Williams deal. Gosselin says they would have had plenty to choose from:

One NFL talent evaluator put his calculator to the combine list last week and provided a guess on the potential numbers at each position in the first round. He said there could be three quarterbacks, four running backs, five wide receivers, one tight end, seven offensive linemen, seven defensive ends, two defensive tackles, five linebackers and three cornerbacks.

Add it up and it comes to 37 players. There are only 32 picks in the first round. So at the top of this draft, the talent runs deep.

This is of interest to you and I, of course, because the Patriots currently hold the 23rd pick of the first round, and could have another if they’re able to trade Matt Cassel before the league starts the draft clock on April 26th.

Most of us think secondary tops the list of team needs in New England, and that is unquestionably so, but Gosselin says the most desirable first round prospects may play closer to the ball:

The strength of this draft will be the offensive and defensive lines. If seven offensive linemen, seven defensive ends and two defensive tackles do go in the first round, that’s half of the 32 selections.

Don’t be surprised if another lineman or two on each side of the ball squeeze into the first round. Players at those positions are too few and too expensive in free agency.

Some early food for thought from the guy who might be the preeminent football writer in the country. Naturally, the Patriots march to the beat of their own drummer with these things (thank God), but with only three cornerbacks in Gosselin’s top thirty-seven, we may end up waiting a little bit for those secondary reinforcements.

Mixed-Up Combine

picby Chris Warner
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By next Wednesday, February 18, hundreds of college-age hopefuls will venture to Indianapolis for that Bizarro-World Spring Break known as the NFL Combine. Below are a few invitations I would have extended, some players I’d like to see and a couple I’d never heard of.

Snubs

RB Benjamin Williams, South Florida. There’s something about this 5-7, 200-pound dynamo I really enjoy. Actually, many things. He plays special teams (had two tackles in the Magicjack St. Petersburg Bowl, which really does exist. He catches the ball out of the backfield and blocks well. I’d like to see him at the combine because he reportedly benches over 400 pounds. 

Who decides the combine invites, anyway? For sheer entertainment value, I protest the exclusion of Frank “The Tank” Summers. How fun would it be to watch a 5-9, 245-pounder run the 40? And what’s the deal with leaving out Bernard Scott? Apparently an MVP performance in the Texas vs. the Nation game doesn’t count toward a combine invite. Do we dare mess with Texas, people?

Meanwhile, Nebraska’s Cody Glenn got an invite as a running back despite playing linebacker and missing the last four games of the season due to a suspension. Go figure.

LB Michael Tauiliili, Duke. (Or as I like to call him, “Mr. Four I’s.” Get it? Ah, I kill me.) Short at 5-10, Tauiliili nevertheless led Duke in tackles with 140. Because of his relatively diminutive stature and his standout performance at a brainy southern school, he reminds me of Larry Izzo. If Tauiliili’s still in the NFL in 2023, remind me to tell you I told you so.

WR Mike Wallace, Ole Miss. Helped the Rebels win the Cotton Bowl with four catches for 80 yards receiving (with one TD) and 91 yards returning kicks. Caught a touchdown pass in the Senior Bowl. Might seem a bit slender at 6-0, 180, but he runs fast and catches the football. Not sure what more the combine gods would want.

TE Brandon Myers, Iowa. With prototypical size at 6-4, 250, Myers led all Hawkeyes in the Outback Bowl vs. South Carolina with four receptions for 49 yards. For the season, he caught 34 passes for 441 yards (13.0/catch) on a run-oriented team (oh, don’t you worry: Shonn Greene got a combine invite).

OL Clif Ramsey, Boston College. Voted first team All ACC by the media, Ramsey blocked for two freshman running backs and two QBs not named Matt Ryan to help B. C. make their umpteenth bowl game in a row (we’ll overlook that they lost to Vanderbilt in what was probably the worst game of bowl season). At 6-6, 312, Ramsey could fill any gaps along the line of a certain pro team that may not reside too far from his school.

Ones to Watch   

Unknown LB I Will Keep An Eye On: Morris Wooten, Arizona State. Wooten overcame injury and did well for the Sun Devils, although getting notice in the Pac-10 doesn’t guarantee anything (just ask 2007 All Pac-10 linebacker Spencer Larsen, now a backup fullback for the Broncos). Still, at 6-1, 245 and with 72 tackles this past season, Wooten deserves a chance to use the combine for an NFL gig.

Unknown WR I Will Keep An Eye On: Quinten Lawrence, McNeese State. A punt and kick returner with so much speed he’s crazyfast (yes, it’s all one word and you have to say it quickly). Not tiny at 6-0, 178. Two “ifs” here: If the Pats can use a player like him to get starters out of harm’s way, I’m all for it; however, if Lawrence runs anything slower than a 4.4-second 40, they should stay away.

Unknown TE I Will Keep An Eye On: Brian Mandeville, Northeastern. Yes, we’ve heard of him here in the Northeast (hence the school name), but the only Huskies who get national exposure play for UConn (and sometimes Northern Illinois). Mandeville had a decent performance in the East-West Shrine Game, especially during that week’s practices. Lanky at 6-6, 255, he still demonstrated his ability to block down on tackles and protect vs. defensive ends. If he can show off a little bit of speed and quickness, he’s moving up draft boards.

Unknown DT I Will Keep An Eye On: Sammie Lee Hill, Stillman. Hill’s size (6-4, 331) has transformed him into one of the most wide-awake sleepers of the draft. An injury prevented him from participating in the East-West Shrine Game and therefore going against Division I players, so the combine will provide his best chance to showcase his talents. Nothing against Stillman, but if you don’t think Sammie’s come a long way public-relations-wise, try to navigate your way around his team’s website.

Unknown RB I Will Keep An Eye On: David Johnson, Arkansas State. He’s listed at 6-2, 271, 20 pounds heavier than on his college player page. I look forward to watching him try to run a 40-yard dash in less time than it takes to boil an egg. I thought we already had the corpulent running back thing covered with Texas A&M’s Jorvorskie Lane, but for some reason Lane didn’t merit an invitation. Again: who decides these things?

The combine begins next week. Pick your favorites now or forever hold your peace.

Come On, Vince

picby Scott Benson
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It’s an undeniable fact of our sporting lives that even the most dignified athletes will sometimes use the press to leverage themselves quicker/better deals from their employer.

Doesn’t mean it still can’t come off as crass.

Take Vince Wilfork, for example. On field, he might sometimes come off as a personal foul waiting to happen, but otherwise, he seems like a solid chap and someone who has truly appreciated and enjoyed his time in New England. And he’s played just great since he first walked off the campus of the U to join the Pats.

On Wednesday, Vince responded to a query posed by Chris Gasper of the Boston Globe, who was checking in on the status of a contract extension that has long been assumed to be a Patriots priority for the 2009 off-season.

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