Curran: Injuries to Edelman, Hightower an early dose of adversity for Patriots

Curran: Injuries to Edelman, Hightower an early dose of adversity for Patriots

If we made a list of the non-Brady Patriots that New England could least afford to lose, Dont'a Hightower and Julian Edelman would have been in the top five joined by Devin McCourty, Nate Solder and Malcolm Butler. You could also Gronk here if you want to.

Regardless of the order you’d place them in – or if you’d want to offer someone else – the fact Edelman’s down for the season and Hightower’s MCL is almost guaranteed to keep him out of Sunday’s game in New Orleans (that’s just spitballing on my part given the grotesque way his right knee bent), is an early dose of adversity the team just has to suck down and try to stomach.


The “they did it before, they can do it again” mindset is fine. The Patriots will inevitably figure it out to a degree that keeps them in the league’s upper firmament. But it’s not going to be pretty. It’s worth getting your head around that now. The 2016 team that was downgraded for style points during a 14-2 that ended with a Super Bowl win may not be winning by knockout any time soon.

I’ve already pummeled the Edelman Factor into submission. He’s been the oil in the engine of the Patriots offense. Without him – or anyone to challenge the middle of the field at the linebacker level even when there’s traffic – the ride will be bumpy until Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady arrive at what works best most often.

But the Hightower loss is just as significant because of the new parts on defense and the fact the Patriots are a game-plan team. If New England ran a “do what we do” defense like Pittsburgh or Seattle, losing the most influential member of the front-seven may not be as big a deal. You’d just plug the next man in, deal with the dropoff in talent and go. But Hightower has the most institutional knowledge of anyone in the front-seven. He’s got the most authoritative and trusted voice.

Even before Hightower was forced from the opener in the second half with his injury, the team was having issues getting things communicated with Kyle Van Noy in the middle as the defensive signal-caller and Hightower at left defensive end.

Hightower went out with 7:08 left in the third with Kansas City leading, 21-17. The final was 42-21. Some of the big plays were related to communication issues. Would his mere presence have made a difference in the way things got mapped out before the snap? No guarantee. But Hightower’s exit and the Chiefs’ explosion do dovetail neatly.

Van Noy isn’t incapable of communicating the defense. He’s not a dummy. But he was taking his first stab at it against a Chiefs offense that uses formation and personnel groups as well as any team in the league to mess with a defense’s head. The Saints – Sunday’s opponent – are similar. Alongside Van Noy for a big chunk of the game was safety Jordan Richard who is getting his first extended run in the regular defense. He is on the hook for relaying communication as well because of where he is on the field.

So that’s a problem. What’s the solution? On Quick Slants the Podcast, former Patriots captain, linebacker and lead communicator Jerod Mayo had this to say.

“I’m more concerned with the communication than the personnel. The communication was brutal. The thing about having Hightower at the line of scrimmage – it’s great – but you can’t talk to the entire defense playing defensive end. You’re so far removed. That’s why having a middle linebacker in there who can turn around and say (to safety Devin McCourty), ‘Devin, we’re doing this.’ And can say to (defensive tackle Alan Branch), ‘Alan, we’re doing this.’ That’s the missing piece. You’re not going to have a Jordan Richards making calls. It’s just not gonna happen. This will be interesting, especially going against the Saints, for Matty P (Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia). They’re gonna formation you to death, you have to know what back is in the game at all times. They have three backs with three different skill sets. So how do they trim the fat from the game plan? How do you trim the fat and make the calls easy so a guy like Jordan Richards can make calls with confidence. It’s all about confidence. Jordan Richards went to Stanford. He’s probably one of the smartest kids on the team. But it goes to confidence.

“I remember being benched in 2008 when I was rookie of the year. Bill benched me. We were preparing to play San Francisco and I was calling the pass-rushing schemes on the field and you could legit smell the smoke coming out of my ears trying to process everything he was telling me to do. But doing that, you gain confidence. Now, for Jordan Richards, he’s got to tell Alan Branch to get his ass down in the B-gap? It’s just not gonna happen (because of his experience level). It’s hard for Hightower to do it on the outside. Someone has to say, “Everyone shut up. This is what we’re doing. We’ll get to the sideline and figure it out.”

Mayo, by the way, pointed out that he now weighs 225 and is quite happy doing exactly what he’s doing with his life so he’s not coming back. But his point still carries weight.

Without Hightower in the middle – or even on the field – getting all 11 defensive players on the same page and doing their jobs without having to wonder if everyone else will be doing theirs is going to be a chore. 

And the Saints know that too. So that’s the chess game to watch on Sunday.


Would WWE outbid Patriots for Gronkowski?

Would WWE outbid Patriots for Gronkowski?

If Rob Gronkowski is serious about leaving football to become a wrestler, it probably won't be for the kind of money the Patriots are paying him, Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer tells WEEI.

“I think that is more of a Gronkowski is going to make the call himself and I don’t think it is WWE is trying to — they are not going to outbid him," Meltzer told WEEI "Dale and Holley with Keefe" show on Thursday. "They are not going to spend $10 million a year on him. But, if he’s done with football, are they interested in him? Yeah, it is pretty clear they are."

Meltzer reported last week that World Wrestling Entertainment was interested in signing Gronk to a "similar style" deal to that of Ronda Rousey, who left UFC to join WWE for a reported $5 million a year. Gronkowski is scheduled to make $8.6 million from the Patriots in 2018. 

Meltzer cited NFL-turned-wrestling examples of James Laurinaitis, Kevin Greene and Brock Lesnar as the footsteps Gronk could follow. 

"Now, can you do it on a Brock Lesnar schedule of 10 matches a year? Yeah, probably. Lesnar was a unique type of character. He made probably $5 million-plus a year in wrestling the last couple of years.

Gronkowski is also said to be contemplating a career as an action movie star. 

Here's more on Gronk from NBC Sports Boston Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran. 


Not many needs for young interior offensive line of Patriots

Not many needs for young interior offensive line of Patriots

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent to that area, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today we're looking at a spot where the Patriots are completely set . . . we think: interior offensive line. 


HOW THEY PERFORMED: It wasn't always pretty, particularly at the outset of the season when Tom Brady was being hit at a rate that rivaled years when he was most battered. And the way the season ended for this group -- with Shaq Mason allowing a sack to Philly's Brandon Graham that helped end the Super Bowl -- was obviously less than ideal. But that shouldn't overshadow how this group performed, particularly in the second half. Mason was a borderline Pro Bowl talent (Pro Football Focus' fourth-best grade at right tackle for 2017), pairing his devastating run-blocking with a vastly-improved ability to protect. David Andrews continued to play solidly and effectively make calls from his place as the line's pivot, getting through the season as PFF's No. 4-graded center. And while Joe Thuney had occasional issues with power rushers, he graded out as PFF's seventh-best left guard. Three top-10 players at their respective spots? And a reliable all-around backup in Ted Karras (three total pressures and one bad snap in two starts at center)? Plenty of teams around the league would love to be as solid up front. 


WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018: Thuney, Mason, Andrews, Karras, James Ferentz, Jason King

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED: Not dire. At all, really. It's a 1 out of 10. They have three young, relatively healthy, improving players who will come back in 2018 and should slot in as immediate starters. The No. 1 backup at all three interior spots, Karras, is back as well. Ferentz is veteran depth piece who spent last season on the team's practice squad and was given a future contract by the team soon after the Super Bowl. Jason King (and Cole Croston who can play both guard and tackle) will also be back with the team when offseason training begins. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY: The best guard on the market was one of the best guards in the league in 2017: Carolina's Andrew Norwell. Other veterans who will garner interest on the market? Colts 2014 second-round pick Jack Mewhort and former Patriots starter Josh Kline. Jonathan Cooper, briefly a Patriot, will also be back on the market this offseason. Will the Patriots be interested in any of them? My guess is no, unless the team is put in an impossible situation at left tackle and they want to try Thuney on the outside, freeing up their left guard spot . . . but that's a pretty far-fetched scenario at this point. Even though Thuney played tackle in college, the Patriots drafted him to play on the inside. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT: Notre Dame's Quenton Nelson will be fascinating to track on draft day. The 330-pound guard is considered by some to be one of the two or three best football players in the draft. He's touted by experts as a surefire longtime starter with All-Pro potential. But he's a guard. Are teams going to be willing to spend a top-10 or top-15 pick on a position that is ably filled by late-round picks and undrafted players all over the league? Nelson's an interesting case study in that regard. It's a pretty strong draft class at the top, it seems. Georgia's Isaiah Wynn and Texas-El Paso's Will Hernandez have received first-round buzz, as have a few centers: Iowa's James Daniels, Arkansas' Frank Ragnow and Ohio State's Billy Price. Then there are the tackles-who-may-be-guards-at-the-next-level. Texas' Connor Williams, who we mentioned in our tackle assessment, is the biggest name who could end up getting kicked inside. 

HOW THE PATRIOTS CAN ADDRESS IT: There really isn't much to address, in my opinion. However, there's a little wrinkle here that's worth keeping in mind. The Patriots were reportedly interested in drafting Indiana's center/guard prospect Dan Feeney in the third round last year. They had the 72nd pick. He ended up going to the Chargers at No. 71. The Patriots traded down for a pair of picks when Feeney was gone. One was used to get defensive end Derek Rivers. The other helped them snag tackle Tony Garcia. Why the interest in Feeney? His size (6-foot-4, 305 pounds) and athletic profile (7.52-second three-cone, 101-inch broad jump) actually compared somewhat favorably to those of Logan Mankins (6-4, 307, 7.52-second three-cone, 95-inch broad jump). The idea of having him at center, between Thuney and Mason, could've been enticing. So will the Patriots jump at the chance to add a similarly-gifted player to play in the middle if the opportunity presents itself? Never say never, but I don't think so. Andrews received an extension after the draft, keeping him in New England through 2020, and he was named a captain before the 2017 season.