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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Quiet at combine: The NFL scouting combine takes place March 1-7 in Indianapolis, and true to form, Bill Belichick plans to keep a lower media profile.
The Patriots are the only NFL team not scheduled to have either their head coach or a personnel executive answer questions from non-team-based reporters from media headquarters.
The league doesn’t require teams to conduct such interviews, but encourages them to do so. Belichick’s Patriots and Sean Payton’s New Orleans Saints have been the usual holdouts in recent years. But Payton has stepped away from coaching this year, and in turn the Saints are scheduled to have his replacement, Dennis Allen, answer questions from non-team-based reporters.
Belichick as this year’s lone outlier is hardly a surprise. He isn’t one to feed the hype, especially in 2022 with Brian Flores’ lawsuit against the NFL — which includes texts from Belichick — a potential hot topic.
However, there have been times he has played along.
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In 2014, Belichick made a surprise appearance inside media headquarters, shared a detailed perspective on how the combine has evolved over his 30-plus years attending, then answered questions about his coaching staff, personnel decisions, and big-picture topics such as the value of the three-cone drill and nuances of player evaluation.
His answers that day provide a roadmap of sorts for where things stand today.
The coaching staff has most of the pieces in place (the current staff has held meetings over the past two weeks), and, as Belichick said in ’14: “We’ll see how it all comes together.”
Specific to personnel decisions, as Belichick said in ’14: “I talked about that at the end of the season, the process that involved, [and] I would say we’re in that process.”
Belichick, who has instead made pop-up appearances on NFL Network’s live combine broadcast in recent years, has traditionally seen little value in answering those types of questions before he has to.
One could make a case it would be a solid gesture for him do so — specifically for a segment of the fan base concerned with the departure of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and three other offensive assistants, with no defined/announced plan to replace them.
Others might simply say Belichick’s Q&A sessions generally don’t provide that type of detailed insight, so what’s the point anyway?
2. Cap cleanup: The next phase of the Patriots’ offseason to monitor closely is salary-cap management, and moves to clear space to best position the team for the start of the 2022 league year March 16. Salary-cap wizard Miguel Benzan (@patscap) produced an easy-to-read snapshot of areas Belichick & Co. might look to trim and outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy is one example I’d highlight as to the types of decisions ahead: How does Belichick balance potential savings ($4.1 million) vs. Van Noy’s place on the roster at a cap number of $7.3 million (ninth highest on the team)? There is often a surprise or two along the way.
Cornerback J.C. Jackson could be headed for unrestricted free agency. AP Photo/John Bazemore
3. J.C. prediction: The window for teams to assign the franchise tag on players has opened and extends to March 8, with cornerback J.C. Jackson the likely only candidate to strongly consider in New England. A tag would be a projected $17.3 million for the 2022 season. Unless the Patriots believe they have a strong tag-and-trade possibility, I rate the odds of them tagging Jackson as low.
4. Vegas coaches: McDaniels has three of his former assistants on staff with him in Las Vegas — Mick Lombardi (OC), Carmen Bricillo (OL) and Bo Hardegree (QBs) — and I’m told there’s no “bad blood” between him and Belichick on that front. Sometimes when a coach leaves one team and takes assistants with him, it can lead to strained relations. But not in this case, in part because of expiring contracts and Belichick moving pieces around on his offensive staff by welcoming back Joe Judge and adjusting Matt Patricia’s responsibilities.
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5. Clark on radar: I asked ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reid to relay one prospect Patriots fans should monitor at the combine. His answer: LSU linebacker Damone Clark. Much of media-based draft analysis is geared toward the first round, but Clark would likely be more of a second- or third-round consideration at a significant position of need. One reason Reid has him as a possible Patriots fit is his size (listed at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds), which is something Belichick traditionally values at linebacker to play downhill in the running game.
6. Bourne-Asiasi combo: Things haven’t unfolded the way the Patriots hoped with 2020 third-round pick Devin Asiasi, the tight end out of UCLA. He was active for just one game in 2021. While things seem to be trending in the wrong direction, it was more than a passing note to hear that Asiasi has been spending recent weeks working out with Kendrick Bourne in Portland, Oregon. Bourne’s energy and urgency should be something Asiasi will benefit from being around on a daily basis.
7. No ticket-price increase: While some teams across the NFL have announced ticket-price increases in 2022, the Patriots aren’t planning to do so this year, even as renovations for improvements at Gillette Stadium are underway. An increase of some sort seems inevitable in the future — possibly next year when renovations are expected to be complete — but it’s no doubt an appreciated 2022 gesture from Robert and Jonathan Kraft to season-ticket members.
8. Folk’s market: Veteran kicker Nick Folk has been one of the best bargains in the NFL, with base salaries of just more than $1 million each of the past two seasons. Given his success, with a streak of 55 straight regular-season field goals under 50 yards dating to the 2020 season opener, it makes sense that a kicker-needy team might be willing to offer him more in free agency. So how far the Patriots are willing to extend to re-sign him — assuming Folk is open to kicking elsewhere without holder Jake Bailey and snapper Joe Cardona — could be one of the more compelling questions facing the team with developmental kicker Quinn Nordin also on the roster.
Nick Folk has missed just one field goal attempt of less than 50 yards over the past two seasons. Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images
9. Vrabel’s dad: Mike Vrabel was like a coach on the field when he played for the Patriots (2001-08), with Belichick saying he and Vrabel talked about him coaching after his playing days. This year, after Vrabel was named Associated Press Coach of the Year following the Titans’ 12-5 season, he saluted his dad, Chuck, as a primary factor why he got into coaching.
“I grew up as the son of a basketball coach, I was always around a team. I was an only child, but my dad made sure that I worked hard and appreciated how important the team was. As I entered into professional football, in the back of your mind [you’re thinking], ‘Whenever this ends, I think I’d like to do this.’”
10. Did you know? If special teams captain Matthew Slater re-signs with the team in 2022, it would be his 15th season with the team, tying him with Troy Brown and Julius Adams for the third longest tenure of all-time — behind Tom Brady (20) and Steve Grogan (16).
Source: ESPN NFL