Patriots

Belichick disappointed for Hightower, but it opens opportunities for others

Belichick disappointed for Hightower, but it opens opportunities for others

FOXBORO -- The Patriots move through the stages of grieving pretty quickly when a player gets injured. Even one as important as Dont'a Hightower. You feel bad for the player, of course. Bill Belichick acknowledged that on Friday. But then comes the question of what's next? Who steps in?

That's the silver lining in a situation like the one the Patriots are facing now. Someone will have a real chance to show what they can do. 

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"Obviously we're all disappointed for High," Belichick said. "He's one of the leaders on our defense and one of our captains. He gives us a lot. But it gives somebody else opportunities, and we'll see how that goes."

We've written extensively in this space about who that could be -- whether it's someone already on the roster or someone coming in from the outside. Regardless, the Patriots will take a game-by-game approach to the replacement process. Belichick explained that just because the Patriots played Weeks 2 and 3 without Hightower earlier this year, that doesn't necessarily mean they have a good idea of what things will look like without him. 

"We haven't played the Chargers," he said. "Each week's a different challenge. This is a good football team . . . We'll have to deal with the Chragers problems. I don't really care about someone else. What difference does it make?"

What makes Hightower's loss especially difficult is two-fold. There's what he does on the field, which is unique. Then there's what he gives the team off the field in terms of his leadership. Belichick said he doesn't hope or expect that other players will shoulder more in that regard in Hightower's absence.

"I don't think I'd use those words," he said. 

But he did explain that everyone on the team -- rookie or vet, captain or not -- has their oar to pull.

"Every player on the team has leadership," he said. "We're not talking about playing time here. Although that's a factor. I'm not saying that's not a factor. But every player on the team comes to work every day and puts in their time in the meeting room puts in their time in the walkthroughs, and the weight room. Puts their time in on the field. That creates different levels of leadership, positive leadership. And that gets recognized by the players . . .

"Every player on the team has leadership. Every player comes in with an opportunity every day to work hard, bring a positive attitude. Some guys excel at that. Some guys are good at it. Some guys excel and are outstanding. I think those players gain more respect from their teammates and oftentimes are recognized for it. There's no limit to working hard or being a team player really having a great attitude. There's no cap on that. Whatever a player wants that to be for himself. That's his choice."

Prototypical Patriots: Daniels, Wynn would build on interior strength

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Prototypical Patriots: Daniels, Wynn would build on interior strength

The outlook for the Patriots on the interior of their offensive line is good. They have three young players who have played a lot of football together all set to return in 2018: guard Joe Thuney, guard Shaq Mason and center David Andrews. Their depth looks solid as well. Ted Karras has two years in the system under his belt, and Cole Croston -- who has some versatility to play tackle or guard -- enters his second year in the program after spending all of his rookie season protected on the active roster.

So why even look at the incoming class of centers and guards?

ESPN's Mike Reiss reported that the Patriots were interested in drafting an interior offensive lineman -- almost a Logan Mankins clone from a size and athleticism perspective -- at pick No. 72 in last year's draft: Dan Feeney of Indiana. Instead, he was drafted at No. 71 by the Chargers. The Patriots ended up trading out of the pick when Feeney was gone.

Even with three young starters set to return last spring, Bill Belichick and his staff weren't afraid to add depth on the inside. The same has to be assumed once again this year, especially with Mason scheduled to hit free agency after the season.

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For this exercise, we'll assume Quenton Nelson is out of New England's reach. He'd be a clear fit at guard, and he's one of the cleanest prospects in the class regardless of position. He should be gone inside the top 10 picks. We also won't include Oregon's Tyrell Crosby, Texas' Connor Williams or Auburn's Braden Smith, who some have projected to make the move inside. We included that trio in our tackles edition, but the Patriots could take any of them with the idea in mind that they should shift to guard. 

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JAMES DANIELS, IOWA, 6-3, 306 POUNDS
There may not be a better offensive line fit for New England in this draft. He's big enough, and his athleticism is eye-opening (30.5-inch vertical, 108-inch broad jump). He also happened to play under Kirk Ferentz in college so Daniels' transition to New England's scheme and style of play should be a relatively smooth one. Factor in the play Daniels showed on tape, and the Patriots will be interested. Unfortunately for them, there's a good chance another club is just as interested and willing to spend an early pick on the player widely considered the top center in the draft. Daniels' college teammate Sean Welsh could be a late-round (or undrafted) choice if he's deemed athletic enough. 

ISAIAH WYNN, GEORGIA, 6-3, 313 POUNDS

Wynn's hand size might be an issue since it's a full inch smaller (8 1/2 inches) than what the Patriots have typically sought in their interior line draft picks. But his arm length is 33 1/2 inches, which is more than good enough. And most importantly, his tape his tremendous. To do what he did in the SEC, small hands or not, should get him drafted in the first round. Some even believe he could stick at his last college position (he played guard and, most recently, tackle for the Bulldogs) and stick on the outside at his size. He was that good. 

FRANK RAGNOW, ARKANSAS, 6-5, 312 POUNDS

Former Arkansas coach Brett Bielema has been spotted wearing Patriots gear during the pre-draft process as he's been helping Belichick's staff with their scouting. One player he already knows very well would be Ragnow, who is considered by some to be one of the most underrated players in the draft. He's in the conversation with Daniels and Price as the best center in the class, and Pro Football Focus would argue that he is the best. His three-cone was oddly slow, but otherwise he's a good athlete who's had a lot of experience against top-notch competition in the SEC.

BILLY PRICE, OHIO STATE, 6-4, 305 POUNDS
Another very good center here. Another coaching connection for the Patriots. Price might've had a shot at being the first pivot off the board in this draft, but he injured his pec doing the bench press at this year's combine. If that injury forces him to slide to the Patriots in the second round, he could be deemed a value pick there.



AUSTIN CORBETT, NEVADA, 6-4, 306 POUNDS
Good length, big mitts, very solid athlete. Corbett is one of the best fits for the Patriots on the interior if they want to go in that direction. His 5.15-second 40 and 28-inch vertical will more than meet the mark for the Patriots, as will his 106-inch broad jump. His three-cone time (7.87 seconds) won't blow Belichick away, but it won't be enough to take him off of the board, either. 

WILL HERNANDEZ, UTEP, 6-2, 327 POUNDS
Hernandez is a little undersized, but he's a mauler in an age where linemen are generally more experienced in the pass game than the run game. When it comes to the measurables, his height (an inch shorter than what the Patriots usually like) and his vertical (24 inches) are less than ideal, but he's considered by many experts to be a first-round talent.

WYATT TELLER, VIRGINIA TECH, 6-4, 314 POUNDS

Teller is another fit from an athletic standpoint since his 40 time (5.24 seconds), vertical (29 inches), broad (114 inches) and three-cone (7.45 seconds) were all good. His play dipped in 2017, according to some experts, but if the Patriots believe he's a good option late on Day 2 or early on Day 3, he could be available. 

SCOTT QUESSENBERRY, UCLA, 6-4, 310 POUNDS

Everyone is talking about UCLA tackle Kolton Miller as the draft approaches, but Quessenberry deserves a little pub himself. He checks all the athletic markers the Patriots look for, and he started for almost four full years in a Power 5 conference. His experience, his versatility to play guard or center, and his movement skills could have the Patriots interested on Day 3. 

MASON COLE, MICHIGAN, 6-4, 305 POUNDS

Cole may not be as explosive as some others in this draft class (23.5-inch vertical), but he's coming from a pro style offense where he was a starter for four years at both left tackle and center. He's not the kind of specimen that will be drafted in the top-100, in all likelihood, but he's an interesting Day 3 option. 

ROD TAYLOR, OLE MISS, 6-3, 320 POUNDS

Taylor is on the heavy side compared to interior linemen the Patriots have drafted in the past, but he's an explosive athlete for his size (30.5-inch vertical, 99-inch broad), and he has experience at tackle. If the Patriots feel like Taylor can play multiple spots, or if they feel like he'd be an even better athlete if he loses some weight, they may be intrigued enough to spend a pick on the SEC product late.  

KJ MALONE, LSU, 6-4, 303 POUNDS

No surprise that NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone's son would meet the athletic testing numbers to compete at the next level. He was by no means a dominant tackle for the Tigers, but he could be a late-round interior option for the Patriots if they like his potential. Malone's teammate at LSU, Will Clapp, might be an even better fit given his size (6-5, 314), his position flexibility, and his reputation as a player with very strong intangibles.  Q1

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Gronkowski says 'no' to optional workouts in strange press conference

Gronkowski says 'no' to optional workouts in strange press conference

FOXBORO -- Rob Gronkowski held a strange press conference on Saturday, which he attended in full Supercross gear. Even for the goofy Patriots tight end, that's a little odd.

But what made it even more head-scratching is that the presser occurred inside Gillette Stadium, about a 15-second walk away from the Patriots weight room, which Gronkowski steered clear of last week during the team's first few voluntary workouts of the offseason. 

Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran described Tom Brady and Gronkowski's absence from the workouts as part of an "open revolt" earlier this week. Gronkowski's presence in the building Saturday didn't have the feel of a peace offering. 

Told that fans would wonder why Gronkowski was able to make it to One Patriot Place for a Supercross event and not for workouts -- workouts which are traditionally extremely well-attended in Foxboro -- he cracked, "Training for this dirt-biking."

Asked if he planned on attending optional workouts that are upcoming, he answered, "No." He then added, "I've got dirt-biking skills to work on."

After avoiding a few questions on the topic of whether or not he would return to the Patriots in 2018, Gronkowski did seem to hint that he planned to play football next season, drawing laughter from a crowd that included Gronkowski's father, one of his brothers and multiple friends, including former Patriots Stevan Ridley and Rob Ninkovich.

How much weight should be put into comments made by Gronkowski during a press conference that was, essentially, one long promotional joke? Debatable. But the fact that he was willing to show up to the place he avoided during the week, then have a good laugh about his future with the team that he's captained the last two seasons? That might not sit very well with those who are looking ahead to the upcoming season and wondering about the All-Pro tight end's plans.

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