Patriots

What we learned at NFL meetings: Don't hold your breath on Malcolm Butler

What we learned at NFL meetings: Don't hold your breath on Malcolm Butler

With the NFL's annual meetings all wrapped up, here are some of the things we learned while hanging around the Arizona Biltmore . . . 

* If you're holding your breath waiting for something to pop on the Malcolm Butler front, don't. Sean Payton isn't. While the Saints head coach acknowledged on Wednesday that his team's interest in Butler is "ongoing," he also readily admitted that there are dominos that need to fall before they can begin to seriously entertain a deal that would land the 27-year-old corner in New Orleans. "I think it might take a bit of time," Payton said. Why? Because the Saints don't plan on giving Butler an offer sheet, which would require them giving up their No. 11 overall pick. That means if Butler is going to end up in the bayou, he will have to sign his first-round tender with the Patriots and then be traded. 

Butler could wait until April 21 comes and goes before scribbling on the first-round tender he's been given by the Patriots. That's the deadline for restricted free agents to receive and sign offer sheets. Though it seems unlikely that Butler will be presented any offer sheets, there's no real disadvantage to him biding his time these next three weeks to see if something changes and another club floats him a lifeline. Once the offer-sheet deadline has expired then it would make sense for him to sign his tender as soon as possible if he wants out of New England. That would give the Patriots about a week to work out some kind of trade in which they'd receive 2017 draft-pick compensation. If Butler would rather increase his chances of sticking with the Patriots, playing out the season in a good secondary, then taking a crack at unrestricted free agency, he could wait until after the draft to sign his $3.91 million tender. As long as he signs before June 15, at which point the Patriots can slash his salary, his wallet won't be impacted.

* The No. 32 overall pick could be in play to come back to the Patriots in a trade. I asked Payton if the last pick of the first round -- the pick the Saints received from the Patriots in the Brandin Cooks deal -- might be on the table if the right trade came up. He wasn't turned off by the idea. New Orleans has five picks in the top 103, giving them all kinds of flexibility if they want to move up or down the draft board . . . or trade for a ready-made Pro Bowl corner. "It would be hard to say, 'Well, we're just going to sit at 32.' You do have some flexibility," Payton said.

* The Saints defense might not be all that far off from being just . . . good . . . enough. They ranked 31st in the league last year with 28.4 points allowed per game, but there are some who believe they have a chance to give Payton's offense the support it needs with the right additions. They already have one of the most underrated pass-rushers in football in Cameron Jordan, and corner Delvin Breaux was arguably one of the best at his position in 2015 before he suffered injuries that set him back last season. Should they dip into what looks like a loaded draft class of defensive ends at No. 11 overall and swing a deal for a big-name corner? They could be stout enough defensively to help 38-year-old quarterback Drew Brees make a legitimate playoff push. 

* Familiarity breeds transactions. If the Saints and Patriots be able to eventually execute a trade for Butler, it would be the ninth deal done between the teams with Payton and Bill Belichick leading their respective clubs. Belichick has stated in the past that sometimes it can be hard to find willing trade partners, but that hasn't been the case when New Orleans has been on the other end of the phone. "There’s just that comfort level [with Belichick] of discussing a topic and maybe talking about it again the next day and giving some thought to it," Payton said. "Easy isn't the right word, but there is a level of comfort zone and a level of trust when you’re beginning to talk for a player or draft picks that I think makes the process go a little easier." Since before the 2014 season, the Patriots have completed multiple trades with the Saints, Texans, Bears, Browns and Lions. They've also agreed to deals with the Panthers, Eagles, Broncos, Redskins, Cardinals, Titans and Cowboys. 

* The Cooks deal was the source of some buzz -- and head-shaking -- at the Biltmore. Plenty of coaches, particularly those tasked with playing the Patriots in 2017, weren't thrilled to hear about the trade that landed Tom Brady another dynamic weapon in the passing game. Panthers coach Ron Rivera didn't hesitate when he said he thought the New England roster has improved since winning a Super Bowl. Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said he's cringed at the moves the Patriots have made, especially the Cooks exchange. And first-year Bills coach Sean McDermott said the Patriots' wheeling and dealing is one of the reasons he's often up until 3 a.m. trying to figure out a way to win in the division. 

* Does Darrelle Revis have enough to be a serviceable NFL corner in 2017? The man who last coached him isn't so sure.

* Patriots ownership would be OK with paying two quarterbacks starting salaries if that's what Belichick thought was best. Nothing I heard in Phoenix did anything to make me believe that the Patriots were planting a "for sale" sign in the front yard as it relates to backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The logical follow-up: How long will Garoppolo stick in New England? And what will that cost? Since Garoppolo would like the opportunity to start, the Patriots may have to designate him as their franchise player in 2018 if they want him to continue to serve as Brady's backup.  That could cost the team somewhere in the range of $25 million guaranteed. I asked Patriots CEO and chairman Robert Kraft what he thought of potentially paying two starting-quarterback salaries, and he deferred to his coach. "I've assigned him the responsibility of football decisions at all positions," Kraft said. "He's done pretty good at it. We'll continue to do that. That's really a decision for him." When asked about Garoppolo in particular, and if there were any circumstances under which the Patriots might trade him, Kraft replied, "I think I don't have the right demeanor of our coach. I charged him to all football matters. We're priveleged to have the greatest quarterback in the history of the game, and it looks like he's playing pretty solid. He's off the charts in my view. We're lucky to have him. That's the most important position on the team. Needless to say, I don't think anyone would say you've got too much depth at that position. I've charged him to make those decisions, Bill, and I'll leave that with him."

* If the Browns are going to try to trade for Garoppolo, they won't be dangling the No. 1 overall pick. No. 12, though? That seems like a possibility.

* Kraft may have shed some light on why the Patriots would be OK approaching this year's draft without a first or second-round pick. As he explained it, sometimes there is better value in grabbing a relatively young known commodity -- even if it's for fewer years or more dollars -- than there is in making a draft pick. What was particularly interesting about Kraft's comments was his acknowledgment that the Patriots have had some misses near the top of the draft in recent years. "The draft gets you young people that you can basically control your costs for four years -- or five years if it's a first-round draft pick," Kraft said. "But we've gotten some younger players who are known entities. We've made some draft picks high up, and they haven't performed well. Having known value . . . I think Brandin is 23. [Stephon] Gilmore is 26 . . . so it's a risk-reward analysis there." The Patriots are scheduled to make their first pick in this year's draft in the third round at No. 72 overall.  

* For Kraft, the Raiders move was all about the stadium. The Patriots were among the 30 clubs who approved moving the Raiders franchise from Oakland to Las Vegas. Not long after votes were cast, Kraft recalled a point in time when he very nearly moved his team from Foxboro to Hartford. "None of us like to see anyone move," Kraft said. " . . . It's horrible for the fanbase. I went through it myself and came close to moving in the New England region but didn't decide to do it. Walked away from a great financial deal because that was right for me. In the end we're in a very competitive league, and you can't compete at the highest level if you don't have a first-rate stadium. I think that's what really this is all about."

* There were those who lamented that Belichick wasn't more involved in the rules-change process at this year's meetings. For two years now, the Patriots have decided not to propose any rules changes to be considered by the Competition Committee. The reason? Could be that because two of their proposals back in 2015 -- dealing with expanded use of replay and installing fixed cameras on the boundaries -- were stonewalled the way they were. At the time, when it was suggested that money might be an issue as it pertained to his cameras proposal, Belichick sarcastically offered up the idea that the league could hold a bake sale. After Belichick bolted from the Biltmore to hit the scouting trail on Monday, I had multiple people express to me what a shame it was that one of the game's best minds doesn't have more of a say in some of the discussions that would occur there throughout the week. Ironic, isn't it?

* Belichick's fixed-camera idea did have an on-the-record supporter in Payton. The proposal was shot down two years ago and remains dead, but Payton still feels strongly about it. "We have the technology. We all remember John McEnroe. There'd be the ball . . . in or out? We didn't know. Then there'd be this, 'Here it comes!' And it was fairly entertaining, honestly. We enjoyed that. I don't know how his schtick would work today, but the technology we have in tennis is pretty amazing. Hey, there it is, (in or out). I'm not suggesting that same technology for football, but surely we can know when a player is in or out of bounds. We're never going to know whether he made a catch or not, but I'm talking about whether he's in or out of bounds." Payton's passion for the idea may have grown stronger in the last few months, understandably. The Saints lost a game last season when Broncos defensive back Will Parks recovered a blocked extra-point attempt and returned it a game-winning score after it appeared as though he may have stepped out of bounds. 

* The Patriots voted in favor of banning players from leaping the line of scrimmage during field-goals or extra-points. The rule change -- designed to keep players from being flipped by guards or centers who've become more and more aware of the possibility someone might try to jump over them -- passed unanimously. Even if there were teams that hoped those types of plays would remain legal, once it was clear the ban would pass, any vote against the ban probably would have done little more than draw negative attention for being viewed as anti-player safety.

* Dean Blandino has been handed a great deal of responsibility. The league's vice president of officiating is the one who keeps the lines of communication open with coaches and players to ensure that all parties involved are up the rules. For instance, Belichick has said many times that he and Blandino speak whenever there is any kind of confusion. He's also often tasked with explaining to fans why certain calls are made the way they are. Now, though, with the passage of a rule change that will centralize the league's replay system, Blandino will be making the calls. When plays are reviewed around the league, he'll have final say from a room at 345 Park Avenue called Art McNally GameDay Central. This raises a couple of issues. One, teams with less-than-stellar relationships with the league may be wondering who's pulling the strings when a ruling doesn't go their way. Another? What happens when there are multiple reviews that need to be looked at across the league simultaneously? Blandino explained that the NFL will have a person monitoring each game as it plays out, and then when a review is initiated, that person will call over either Blandino, director of officiating Al Riveron or another officiating supervisor to consult with officials on the field. "We had a real good year last year with three people in the room, feeling out that early window on Sunday," Blandino said on Tuesday night. "And so if there are up to three challenges going on at once, we can manage that. It would be a very rare instance where they would all be initiated at the same moment and then have a fourth that you really couldn't get to. The way it flows, you can get to the replay station, and we feel comfortable with that early window of games." Here's a look, courtesy of the NFL, at what the room looks like and how things will operate. The only difference this upcoming season will be that Blandino is doing more than conferring with officials on the field. He'll be making the decisions for them. 

* Dan Quinn isn't too keen on re-living Super Bowl LI. Wonder why? When asked if he believed he should have overruled former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in the fourth quarter, when run plays would have helped them bleed the clock, Quinn deflected. "I think when you go down that road, the hindsight stuff, that's so easy to say right now," he said. "Of course I want the outcome to be different. Most plays, when we have a play designed to our best player, they usually end up pretty good . . . We had over 150 plays in the game, and you could go back through all of them. And we do. But past that, man, I can't keep looking back. I've learned my lessons. You gain from those scars. Then you say, how do you get better?"

* The Bills are working on their public image. Per ESPN's Mike Rodak, the team has hired talent consultant Gerry Matalon to advise coach Sean McDermott. Matalon watched intently during McDermott's meeting with reporters at the AFC coaches breakfast, and from this vantage point the first-year coach handled the back-and-forth smoothly. When asked what his nickname should be since his former boss Ron Rivera was known as "Riverboat Ron," McDermott smiled. "I'll let you guys figure that out," he said. Positively Belichickian. The Bills are looking to ameliorate their handling of public appearances after both interim coach Anthony Lynn and general manager Doug Whaley held baffling pressers late last season. Earlier this offseason, the team hired Derek Boyko to be its new public relations chief.

* Up next? The Patriots will continue to hit the scouting trail leading up to the draft, determining where they stand on the prospects available to them. We'll have an opportunity to figure out how the team thinks of this year's crop when director of player personnel Nick Caserio holds his annual pre-draft press conference. That's expected to fall in the next three weeks or so before the team travels to the White House on April 19.

Gronk -- the horse -- will not run in the Kentucky Derby

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USA TODAY Sports Photo

Gronk -- the horse -- will not run in the Kentucky Derby

There was more breaking Patriots news this afternoon.

This time it was related to Gronkowski, and a health scare.

But it wasn't the Gronkowski that plays for the New England Patriots.

So it is unfortunately confirmed that Rob Gronkowski's horse will not be competing in the Kentucky Derby.

The 3-year-old colt named after Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski had a “minor setback,’’ according to trainer Jeremy Noseda when he spoke to The Racing Post.

Gronkowski was unbeaten in starts, earning his place in the Kentucky Derby field.

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Prototypical Patriots: Hubbard, Ejiofor look like Belichick's type on the edge

Prototypical Patriots: Hubbard, Ejiofor look like Belichick's type on the edge

Breaking down the edge defender spot is one of the reasons the Prototypical Patriots series is such an interesting one to put together.

For instance, last year, Deatrich Wise was an easy fit. His height, arm length, production (when healthy), and the conference he played in made him a perfect fit. He was Chandler Jonesian.

But Derek Rivers, who was taken one round ahead of Wise? He didn't make the "Prototypical" list. At 6-foot-4 and 248 pounds at last year's combine, Rivers was nearly a full 20 pounds lighter than what Bill Belichick has typically looked for in his top-101 edge defender draft picks in New England. Not exactly the "prototype."

Jermaine Cunningham (second round, 2010) was 6-3, 266 pounds. Jones (first, 2012) was 6-5, 266. Jake Bequette (third, 2012) was 6-5, 274. Geneo Grissom (third, 2015) was 6-3, 262. Trey Flowers (fourth, 2015) was 6-2, 266. All powerfully built. All from Power-5 conferences.

Rivers, who went to Youngstown State, was a bit of an anomaly. What did it mean? Did the Patriots see him as a player who could pack on pounds and look like his edge predecessors? Did they see him as a more versatile weapon who could play both on the line and off? Did they simply look at his outstanding athletic testing numbers (6.94-second three-cone, 35-inch vertical, 4.61-second 40 time), and say to themselves that they could work with him?

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Because Rivers suffered a season-ending injury in training camp last year, it's hard to know exactly what their plan was for him. In camp we saw him both rush the passer and play in coverage. He aligned in both two-point and three-point stances, on the ball and off.

The Rivers pick may show that the Patriots prototype is adjusting. And it may continue to adjust if the team is going to shift back to more 3-4 looks now that Matt Patricia -- who favored a 4-3 and helped change the Patriots' front in 2011, one year before he was given the coordinator's title -- is in Detroit.

Still, we generally know what a Patriots defensive end looks like. He stands between 6-2 and 6-5. He's in the 260-pound range. His arms are between 33 and 36 inches. His hands are about 10 inches. He runs the three-cone in less than 7.3 seconds. His vertical is at least 33 inches. His broad jump is about 120 inches. His 40 time is under 4.9 seconds, usually.

There's obviously much more than a list of physical benchmarks a prospect has to possess in order to be considered by the Patriots -- skill set, college production, durability and character all play a role -- but it's not a bad place to start.

Who fits that bill in this year's class? Let's take a look. They one player who likely isn't within range for the Patriots, unless he slides, would be NC State's Bradley Chubb. He's expected to go in the top-five picks and could hear his name called as early as No. 2 overall to the Giants. 

PROTOTYPES IN RANGE

MARCUS DAVENPORT, UTSA, 6-6, 264 POUNDS

There are plenty of knocks on Davenport. He's raw. He played against lower-level competition and was able dominate because of his superior physical gifts. His hands are small (9 1/8 inches). But he checks just about every other marker from a size and athletic testing perspective, and he's thought to be a hard worker with a high ceiling as a 4-3 defensive end. He may go as early as the teens. My hunch is that, while gifted, he isn't so off-the-charts special (4.58 40, 7.2-second three-cone, 124-inch broad, 33.5-inch vertical) that he'd be worth the Patriots trading up for. 

SAM HUBBARD, OHIO STATE, 6-5, 270 POUNDS

Again, let's go ahead and start with the negatives. He ran a 4.95-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, which was a full tenth of a second slower than what Trey Flowers ran in 2015. Not good. But his 10-yard time was 1.69 seconds, which was much more in range for the Patriots. Jones ran the same 10-yard time in 2012. Wise ran a 1.68. Otherwise, Hubbard is what the Patriots want. He was productive in Urban Meyer's defense, recording 13.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and two forced fumbles. A high school safety -- who was headed to Notre Dame on a lacrosse scholarship! -- Hubbard is quick and explosive for his size. He jumped 35 inches in the vertical and clocked a ridiculous 6.84-second three-cone drill. On paper, Hubbard is one of the best fits for the Patriots in this class, and he could be had at the top of the second round. If his 40 time drops him into the bottom of the second or top of the third round, he'd be a steal. 

RASHEEM GREEN, USC, 6-4, 275 POUNDS

Another physically-impressive defensive end, Green offers some versatility. He looks like a base end on first and second downs who could kick inside to generate pressure in obvious passing situations. He has nearly 34-inch arms and 10-inch hands, and if the Patriots do shift to more 3-4 looks, he could potentially play as an end in those formations -- particularly if he improves his functional strength. He's a little raw and a little less athletic than the parameters set above, but he's also heavier than many Patriots ends. His 4.73-second 40 time, 32.5-inch vertical, 118-inch broad and 7.24-second three-cone are impressive for his frame, and he could be a boom-or-bust second-rounder for New England. 

DUKE EJIOFOR, WAKE FOREST, 6-3, 265 POUNDS

Making comparisons this time of year can be a little dangerous, but when it comes to Ejiofor, it's hard not to be reminded of Flowers (6-2, 265 at the combine in 2015). Ejiofor has 35-inch arms and 10-inch hands, while Flowers had 34-inch arms and 10-inch hands. NFL.com's scouting report for Flowers three years ago? "Consistent with hand placement and is technically sound." NFL.com on Ejiofor? "Possesses a mature approach as a pass rusher." Neither player would be described as incredibly "quick-twitch," but Flowers has had great success as an interior rusher and Ejiofor projects similarly because of his length and power. One question mark about Ejiofor is his motor, but he dealt with an injury last season, and late in the second round he'd be worth a roll of the dice. The Patriots reportedly hosted Ejiofor on a pre-draft visit. 

ADE ARUNA, TULANE, 6-5, 262 POUNDS

It'll require some time, but if a team can find a roster spot for Aruna on special teams, and if he takes to the coaching he receivers, he could end up being a late-round find. Classic height/weight/speed prospect since he ran a 4.6-second 40 and has 34-inch arms and 10 5/8-inch hands. His three-cone was lacking (7.53 seconds), but he's explosive as all get out (38.5-inch vertical, 128-inch broad) and worth a shot some time on Day 3 since he's relatively new to the sport. From Nigeria, Aruna only found his way onto a football field as a senior in high school.

IMPERFECT BUT INTRIGUING

HAROLD LANDRY, BOSTON COLLEGE, 6-2, 252 POUNDS

Landry is one of the best pass-rush prospects in this draft class. He might be the best, which could compel a team to call his name inside the top 10. He's undersized by Patriots standards, but an exception could be made if Belichick believes Landry is athletic enough to play a variety of different roles. The question is, would the Patriots be willing to trade way up in the first round to make an exception?

JOSH SWEAT, FLORIDA STATE, 6-5, 251 POUNDS

Sweat is a little light compared to other top-100 edge picks for Belichick, but he's not all that far off from Rivers. Undersized. Great athlete. Sweat ran a 4.53-second 40 and jumped 39.5 inches in the vertical. His broad was 124 inches. There are reportedly some concerns about Sweat's durability, but he could be a second-round gamble.  

UCHENNA NWOSU, USC, 6-2, 251 POUNDS

One evaluator told me that Nwosu looks like a Patriot because he offers the kind of on-the-ball, off-the-ball versatility that Belichick appreciates. Athletically, he tested in the same range as bigger players the Patriots have taken in the past (32-inch vertical, 119-inch broad). That may not help his chances. But he's long (almost 34-inch arms) and a smooth athlete. Would the Patriots view Nwosu's instincts in the passing game -- he flashed an ability to cover on tape, and he's a good enough athlete to do it -- and make him an off-the-line type? Some may see "tweener." The Patriots may see "hybrid." And if they move to more of a 3-4 defense, he'd be an ideal outside linebacker. 

KEMEKO TURAY, RUTGERS, 6-5, 253 POUNDS

Another great athlete (4.65-second 40) with long enough arms (33 3/8 inches) and big enough hands (9 5/8 inches), Turay shows good explosiveness on tape. The Rutgers connection doesn't mean what it once did for the Patriots now that Greg Schiano has moved on, but the school fit doesn't matter much in this instance. This is a relatively rare athlete who needs some polish, but if he's athletic enough to rush and cover on the outside, he could be an outside 'backer for Belichick. 

DORANCE ARMSTRONG, KANSAS, 6-4, 257 POUNDS

Size-wise, Armstrong is right there. He has almost 35-inch arms and 10-inch hands, and his height-weight combination is within the desirable range for the Patriots. Armstrong would be even more of a fit if he was just a bit more powerful and a bit more athletic. His 40 time was fine (4.87 seconds), but his explosiveness (30-inch vertical, 118-inch broad) left a little to be desired. And he plays more like a 3-4 outside linebacker than a true end (like the majority of the players listed as "Prototypes in Range"). But on Day 3? He could be worthy of a choice and given an opportunity to make the roster this summer. 

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