Patriots

Are issues in Patriots secondary popping up again?

Are issues in Patriots secondary popping up again?

FOXBORO -- Every Friday, Phil Perry and Mike Giardi will take your Patriots questions on Twitter and answer them as a joint mailbag -- or Friday Bag, as they call it.

Got questions? Tweet the guys using the hashtag #FridayBag. But for now, give the latest edition of the Bag a read.

TC: I thought the Steelers and Todd Haley did an excellent job of game-planning and stressing the Patriots secondary. Jerod Mayo explained on Quick Slants and our Quick Slants pod how the Steelers were able to get Jesse James so open on the goal line for the TD that wasn’t. It had to do with understanding what the Patriots defensive rules were, based on formation, then exploiting it. To sum it up, the Steelers put Darrius Heyward-Bey in the backfield knowing Malcolm Butler had been sticking with him. Then they ran DHB to the right where there were already had three receivers covered by three Patriots. Pittsburgh knew Butler would have to pass off DHB during the play and stay home in the middle but he didn’t. Hence, James was open. So there are fails that come as a result of the other team scheming. There are also fails -- like 5-foot-6 Jakeem Grant of the Dolphins -- going up and beating Butler on a great catch-and-throw. Hard as it is to acknowledge, a lot of that play was Miami’s guys beating the Patriots guys. Same -- to a degree -- with Juju Smith-Schuster’s 69-yard catch-and-run. Good play design, but should have been a 20-yard gain if better angles were taken by Devin McCourty and Butler. When it comes to Gilmore, though, he doesn’t seem to play with the urgency and physicality that players who come up with the Patriots seem to. The intensity of Butler, Jonathan Jones -- or even former Patriot Logan Ryan -- compared to Gilmore both in the running game and finishing contested catches doesn’t look the same. When Butler gets beat, he’s fighting. These plays bugged me . . . 

But I don’t think the level of confusion and disarray is anything like what we were seeing at the start of the year.

TC: Worst in the AFC? Has to be Pittsburgh. They can put up numbers. Their sheer offensive talent is better than the Patriots. It’s better than everyone’s, really, but the mismatches they can get at the second level when they get into the Patriots linebacker crew or safety depth playing in the box is daunting. After that, the Chiefs would be a bother. The mobility of Alex Smith, their prior success this year, the fact they’ve played the Patriots as often as they have and have a grasp on what the Patriots want to do on both sides of the ball is a concern. Blake Bortles isn’t winning a playoff game in Foxboro. So despite the Jags very good year defensively, one cannot get worked up about that being a threat.

TC: I haven’t delved too deeply into each guy yet. What attributes does he HAVE to have beyond being of standard height, weight and arm strength? Outstanding leader. Really smart. Works. Works. Works. After that, it’s accuracy, big-game performances against very good competition and the ability to take tough coaching where every completion and correct read isn’t cause to break out the sheet cake and have an office party.

TC: Absolutely. And if the Jets are going to be getting Christian Hackenberg reps -- and he took some this week -- that’s an excellent invitation for the Patriots to take advantage of the Jets turning this into an audition Sunday. Which they should. But don’t give the Jets the inkling that this can be a season-saving, face-saving game. It will be minus-31 or so and it’s New Year’s Eve. Get the Jets on their jet with no drama.
 

TC: Good question Dave. Twenty-nine touches for Dion Lewis -- despite his great production last week -- was not ideal. Bolden definitely should expect to get some run in this one -- again -- after the Patriots have gotten separation. The 2015 mistake of trying to prove a point and establish a running game in Miami that led to a costly loss should still be fresh enough that the Patriots make sure this thing is locked down before going to the reserves.

MG: It was very nice to meet you a handful of weeks back. I’m still mad you stole my sign! There are a lot of folks who seem to be fearing the Baltimore Ravens, but I’ve got no faith or love for Jump Ball Joe Flacco so despite their history of playing the Pats tough, I’m not buying. The Chiefs would be interesting because they throttled you on opening night (this have some confidence) and seem to have rediscovered their game of late. With guys like Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt, they have players who can take it to the house in one play. We know the Steelers and what they’re all about. Supreme talent on the offensive side of the ball but that scheme defensively still can’t solve Brady and Gronk. Lastly, the Jags. I know, I know, Blake Bortles is their quarterback and he’s proven nothing, But that defense is beastly. Reminds me of the Houston Texans last year and they gave the Pats all they could handle but eventually were undone by an incompetent quarterback. I think we have a chance to see that all over again. As for the NFC, sign me up for the New Orleans Saints. They’re built to travel, they have an elite QB and two playmaking running backs and a defense that isn’t even remotely what we saw in week 2. Pats vs Saints. It’s happening.

MG: Will, Happy New Year. If that were to happen, the only people who will be happier will be members of the Brady and Garoppolo families. San Fran has a ways to go, and we’ll have to see how Garoppolo operates with heightened pressure and the entire franchise on his back, but there isn’t a player/staffer/coach/front office guy I’ve talked to that doesn’t think he won’t thrive. Can you imagine the buildup to that game? Brady would be 41. My goodness. Sign me up!

MG: Pete, right back at you my friend. It’s been an uneven year for Malcolm. I think he’s a better player than this but the contract and the offseason and Gilmore’s presence has screwed him up some. There have been plenty of Malcolm of old moments, but I don’t think he’s earned himself as much money as he thought. Of course, if he turns it on for the playoffs, that will all be forgotten and someone will knock his socks off. The cap is going up. Someone will invest in him, and I’m fairly certain it won’t be the Pats.

PP: Cheech! The sheer number of jobs rumored to be available, to me, makes it seem pretty likely that at least one Patriots coordinator is gone after the season. A lot will depend on which jobs actually open up, and which jobs would be paired with like-minded front offices, but the more likely option of the two would seem to be McDaniels. If Indianapolis comes calling and McDaniels feels good about Andrew Luck's arm and GM Chris Ballard, that could be a tough gig to pass on. Detroit, where former Patriots director of pro scouting Bob Quinn is in the front office, could be another attractive landing spot. If the Titans job opens up, where another former Patriots front-office man Jon Robinson resides, that could be intriguing. Plus, if there's a team that would be willing to take on Nick Caserio as general manager (or former Bill Belichick pupils Scott Pioli or Louis Riddick) then the attractive openings could be fairly widespread. Feels like the timing makes sense for McDaniels. Same goes for Patricia, who may not have to be as picky since he's still looking at his first foray into being a head coach. I'd expect at least one to go, and it wouldn't shock me if both did.

PP: Good question, K. We've taken a deep dive into Rob Gronkowski's incentive-laden contract for 2017 on multiple occasions. He can earn an additional $2.5 million with 11 catches or 116 receiving yards (or six touchdowns, which seems . . . unlikely). He can also get there if he's named First Team All-Pro. But he's not the only one with reported incentives that will be impacted by what happens on New Year's Eve. Our buddy Miguel Benzan did a great job laying out all the incentives up for grabs here for Boston Sports Journal. Lawrence Guy can earn $500,000 if he ends up playing 55 percent of the defensive snaps for the season. He's currently at 55.4 percent, per Pro Football Focus. Matthew Slater would make $50,000 if the Patriots hit 13 wins for the season. A win would earn Patrick Chung $300,000. He reportedly needs 13 wins and 80 percent playing time to hit his incentive, and he's already sitting at 88.3 percent of the snaps. If he ends with 85 percent playing time, he'll make a cool $500,000. James Develin could be in line for a pay day as well. He'll need to play enough to push him to the 30 percent playing-time threshold, and he's sitting at 29.8 percent at the moment.

PP: First, it's important to ask her if she's doing OK. If she says she's "fine," you're good. Continue about your day as if everything is on the up-and-up because she said it was and you have a relationship rooted in honesty. Really not that hard.

PP: Occasionally electric.

PP: I give you Bill Belichick, last week: "I don’t believe . . . in living in the past. So, we can go back and look at a million things that have happened in every game. That’s not really important."

PP: They're still well above average in terms of points, Mr. Q, checking in at seventh in the NFL with 19.3 allowed per game. They're also still well below average in terms of yards, checking in at 29th with 373.9 allowed per game. If it's the yards you're talking about -- or DVOA (Patriots are 22nd) -- Kyle Van Noy and James Harrison probably won't be enough to bring them back to the middle of the pack. But they should certainly make the Patriots better. Depth in the front-seven, particularly on the edge, has been an issue for months. And against potential playoff opponents like Pittsburgh or Kansas City -- which can run the ball effectively to the outside -- any help there would be welcomed.

Patriots get Edelman back, but what about Amendola?

Patriots get Edelman back, but what about Amendola?

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 at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a position where the Patriots have numbers but could see two key veterans depart via free agency: Receiver. 

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED:


Danny Amendola was a machine in the postseason. Chris Hogan was dynamite in the Super Bowl after a midseason shoulder injury that limited him to nine regular-season games. Brandin Cooks was very good throughout the majority of the regular season, putting up numbers that made him one of the league's most productive deep threats - and that's without the penalty yardage he drew. It wasn't a dominant season from this unit, but the group lost its most consistent performer when Julian Edelman tore his ACL in the preseason. Malcolm Mitchell's year-long knee injury also sapped this group of some depth. Despite some regular-season hiccups - it was a forgettable final month of the before the Wild-Card Round bye -- what Chad O'Shea's group did in the playoffs showed just how valuable it was for Tom Brady to have a handful of trustworthy receivers at his disposal. They checked in with a "B" in our final grades for 2017.

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Kenny Britt, Malcolm Mitchell, Cody Hollister, Riley McCarron

WHO ISN'T?
Danny Amendola, Bernard Reedy, Matthew Slater

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


Brady should have his top three options back for 2018 so the need here can't be considered more than a 5 out of 10 on the Gary Tanguay Memorial "How Concerned Are You?!?" Meter. That said, the group needs some trustworthy depth. Especially if Amendola, 32, who has been willing to take less to remain in New England, decides he'd like to max out his value elsewhere. He's right there with Edelman, who turns 32 in May, as the most clutch postseason receiver Brady's had since Troy Brown. Dorsett and Britt are physically-gifted options who could benefit from a full offseason in the offense, but are they strong enough candidates to serve as the No. 4? And what about Mitchell? What does his future hold after missing his entire sophomore season? Moreover, and this wouldn't impact the offense so much as it would the kicking game and the level of leadership in the locker room, but Slater's loss would be monumental. If both Slater and Amendola return, the need here can't be considered close to dire. But a young option in the draft - either a burner who could provide insurance if Cooks opts for free agency next offseason, or someone who profiles as a true slot - would be a wise investment. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


There's a potpourri of pass-catching talent available on the market this offseason. The biggest names available are receivers the Patriots know well from their time in the AFC East: Jarvis Landry and Sammy Watkins. One's a slot. The other's a jack-of-all-trades but master of none, who struggled to put up numbers in a highly-productive Rams offense in 2017. Then there's Jacksonville's physical outside-the-numbers option Allen Robinson (coming off an ACL tear) and Arizona speedster John Brown. Other field-stretchers who could be had include Seattle's Paul Richardson, Atlanta's Taylor Gabriel and Arizona's Jaron Brown. Buffalo's Jordan Matthews (25 years old) is a bigger slot, sort of a younger version of Eric Decker (31), who also happens to be a free agent this offseason. Keep an eye on Denver's Emmanuel Sanders, who could become available as a cap casualty. The Patriots tried to bring him aboard as a restricted free agent years ago and it would make sense if they were still interested. He caught six passes for 137 yards in a Week 10 loss to New England last season. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


After Alabama's Calvin Ridley, there seems to be some confusion as to which draft-eligible receivers deserve to take their place at the top of the class. Clemson's Deon Cain (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) has the size and speed to be a starter at the next level, but he was plagued by lapses in concentration that led to drops and false-start penalties. Courtland Sutton of SMU has an NFL-ready frame (6-4, 218), but probably doesn't have the athleticism to threaten defenses deep down the field as a pro. For teams interested in slot options, Texas A&M's Christian Kirk and Maryland's DJ Moore look like two of the best available. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


There may be little to address here if Amendola is back in the fold. If the Patriots are looking for young depth, though, there are plenty of options. Miami's Braxton Berrios could probably be had on Day 3, and he's already drawing comparisons to Amendola for his work in the slot, his toughness, and his ability to contribute as a returner. The Patriots could also dip into the Texas Tech pool after missing on both Amendola and Wes Welker in the draft in years past by taking Keke Coutee. He's slight (5-11, 180) but can play inside and out, has speed to burn, and could return kicks. If Belichick and Nick Caserio want to go with a bigger slot who will be a good character guy, Penn State's four-year starter Daesean Hamilton (6-1, 205) would make sense in the middle rounds. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE


 

The Gronk dilemma is a sticky one for Patriots

The Gronk dilemma is a sticky one for Patriots

The quote’s been credited to a whole lot of coaches. It doesn’t matter who actually said it. What matters is how much truth there is in the saying, “Once an NFL player starts considering retirement, he’s already gone.”

There are myriad variations but they all arrive at the same spot. Once a player talks about hanging ‘em up, he’s given mental traction to feelings of football ambivalence. Employer beware.

Immediately after the Super Bowl, Gronk was asked about possible retirement.

He did nothing to spike the idea.

“I don’t know how you heard that but I’m definitely going to look at my future for sure,” he said. "I’m going to sit down the next couple weeks and see where I’m at.”

MORE GRONK:

Rob Gronkowski’s gone past idle musing about retirement. The “that” is the smoking gun there, obviously referring to something that had been ongoing.

In the two weeks since the Super Bowl, we’ve learned Gronk’s  gotten advice from Sly Stallone and The Rock about how much dough he can make in action movies  and that folks in the WWE would offer Gronk a deal similar to Ronda Rousey’s.

Is this an orchestrated attempt to create some urgency with the Patriots so they give Gronk a bump that makes it more worth his while (he’s on the books for salaries of $8 million and $9 million the next two seasons)?

Is this an effort to dip a toe in the entertainment pool while his NFL marketability remains near its apex? A Brady-esque effort to set up a post-football career while still continuing in the main vocation?

Or is it simply what it is – a 28-year-old whose body’s been through the wringer since college using common sense to realize that his position and style of play are going to exact a physical cost on him for the rest of his life?

Yes. Yes. And yes. It’s all of the above.

MORE PATRIOTS:

And that’s why the Patriots have to take this very seriously.

Gronk and his family have had an eye on his football mortality since he was 19. Because of an insurance policy taken out by his father, Gordie, while Gronk was at Arizona, Gronk could have retired from football and received $4 million tax-free. He considered it as his recuperation from back surgery left him concerned he wouldn’t be able to walk correctly again.

He declared for the draft in 2010 to maximize his earning potential. And he bought in. Then 2012 happened. 

He broke his arm during the regular season and had a plate inserted in his forearm. When he rebroke the arm just above the plate in his first game back, it was described as a fluke. Worst-case scenario. But that was small consolation. And when an infection developed in the arm in early 2013, another surgery was necessary. And the convalescence from that ensued. Then came a back surgery in June of 2013. Then came a longer-than-expected recovery that stretched well into the 2013 regular season and a blown ACL when he did return.

The 2014 season was injury-free, but when Gronk was hit in the knee against Denver in 2015, you could sense his panic as he writhed on the field that something was terribly wrong. There wasn’t. But the team and the Gronkowski Camp released a joint statement about his timetable for return then Gronk underscored his intention of not returning until he was “100 percent.”

The 2016 season ended prematurely with another back injury suffered against the Jets and another surgery. That injury followed soon after a thunderous hit was laid on him by Seattle’s Earl Thomas. And his 2017 playoff run was marred by a concussion suffered in the AFC Championship Game.

So it’s best to remember all that context when eye-rolling about how the Patriots have had to bend over backwards to accommodate Gronk. His care and feeding are a lot different because A) he came to the NFL with injuries that gave him perspective; B) he got burned when he came back quickly from the broken arm; C) the 2013 whisper campaign painting him as a malingerer left a dent and D) his family is uniquely attuned to NFL reality that it’s a business and you best protect your only asset – your body.

The branding and the marketing has felt hamhanded at times but that’s the nature of the business these days and - in hindsight – it’s been a boon for a player who signed a “safe” six-year, $54M contract in 2011 that’s now severely outdated.

So what are the Patriots to do with a 28-year-old who’s suffered multiple knee, head and back injuries and is openly talking about wrapping it up?

They can’t just sit with their hands folded in their laps and wait until Gronk gets around to deciding. They need to know is he in or is he out? Or if he’s completely ambivalent, at which point, would trading him be a horrific idea?

MORE BOSTON SPORTS NEWS:

The irony is, Gronk told me in December that he’s never felt better. “I’m having fun playing football again,” he told me. His body held him hostage until he changed the way he trained and now the results from increased flexibility are obvious in his statistics, his quickness and the types of catches he was able to make last year.

He’s a Hall of Famer if he never plays another down. It’s not hard to make a persuasive argument that he’s the best tight end to ever play.

But how do the Patriots proceed with a legend that – for all the right reasons – isn’t sure he wants to keep playing? It’s a lot to wrestle with.