Before the combine, Pats might have some help already here

Before the combine, Pats might have some help already here

The NFL Scouting Combine begins later this week, which means it's time for people to look to Indianapolis for their team's next wave of young contributors.

Don't be like those people. Not yet, at least. 

Before we head out to Indy, which we'll do later this week, first take a look at the young players already on the Patriots roster - ones you may have forgotten about. 

We've already taken a brief glimpse at some of them, but here's a little more on potential under-the-radar contributors for 2018. All of them have one advantage on anyone participating in the combine later this week: Experience in the Patriots system. 

Derek Rivers, EDGE, 6-foot-5, 250 pounds

Rivers, 23, missed his entire rookie season after tearing his ACL during joint practices with the Texans in West Virginia last summer. It was a brutal blow not only for the team -- which was in dire need of edge help -- but also a player who had impressive physical tools coming out of Youngstown State but needed seasoning against NFL-caliber talent. Just before his injury, Rivers was starting to show some progress as an athletic pass-rusher, and he was hellbent on learning anything he could, particularly from more experienced teammates like Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich (before Ninkovich's retirement). If Rivers can get back to that form next summer and continue to show improvement, he could quickly find himself in the rotation on the outside with Flowers, Deatrich Wise and others. Is Rivers the answer to all New England's pass-rushing needs? Probably not. But the team may not need a complete overhaul here if he's good to go. 

Jonathan Jones, CB, 5-10, 190

How might the conversation surrounding the corner position for the Patriots be different had Jones remained healthy for the duration of the playoffs. He suffered a lower-body injury against the Titans in the Divisional Round that landed him on season-ending IR, sapping the Patriots of one of their top-four options at that spot. If Jones was healthy, would the Patriots have felt comfortable using him in the slot -- his best role defensively -- and keeping Patrick Chung in his usual role as the tight end matchup? Even if Malcolm Butler remained benched, would Jones' presence then provide the Patriots with the flexibility to keep Jordan Richards and Johnson Bademosi's contributions limited to the kicking game? The general consensus is that the Patriots could add a corner to help replace Butler's role, but Jones was arguably the team's best corner at the start of 2017, and if he's healthy enough to start the season, he could play a key role inside for Bill Belichick's defense. 

Cole Croston, OL, 6-5, 315

There's a reason the Patriots held onto the Iowa product for the entirety of the season. Croston didn't play a meaningful snap all year, but Belichick was willing to utilize a roster spot to allow Croston to further develop in the system under line coach Dante Scarnecchia. (The Patriots were also able to protect Croston from being scooped up by other clubs by having him make the team out of training camp and never releasing him.) Is he a candidate to take over the left tackle spot for Nate Solder should Solder depart this offseason? That would be asking a lot. But with both LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming hitting free-agency (along with Solder), the Patriots may need a backup tackle and Croston could fit the bill. Here's what Scarnecchia had to say about Croston before the Super Bowl: "We covet three things when we look for offensive linemen: They have to be smart; they have to be tough; and they have to be athletic enough. I think he fits the bill on all three of those things. We know he fits the bill on all three of those things. Just how fast he'll develop will determine how well he does going forward in this league. We're glad we got him." Antonio Garcia and Andrew Jelks -- two tackles who spent their rookie seasons on reserve lists -- will also have shot to carve out larger roles for themselves in their sophomore years. 

Harvey Langi, EDGE, 6-2, 252

Langi's unbridled joy for playing special teams stood out during training camp. He knew that as an undrafted free agent -- albeit a highly-paid one -- he would have to find a role in the kicking game in order to earn a jersey on game days. And he relished that opportunity. What may have come more quickly than anticipated was the number of reps he received on the edge in training camp. But with a need on the outside, Belichick and his staff looked to put Langi's relentlessness to the test on defense. He earned six defensive snaps in Week 2 against the Saints before he was injured in a car accident, ending his season. Should Langi return ready to play in 2018, he could provide the Patriots with another body to handle some of the edge workload. He could also provide some relief to kick-coverage units that could be without a handful of contributors from last season. 

Practice squad returnees
After the Super Bowl, the Patriots re-signed all 10 of the practice squad players who finished the 2017 season with the team. That list included tight end Will Tye, slot receiver Riley McCarron and safeties David Jones and Damarius Travis. Over the next few weeks, plenty of space on the internet will be dedicated to the future of the tight end position in New England. Tye isn't it. But if the Patriots choose to part ways with both Martellus Bennett and Dwayne Allen in 2018, he could be in the mix as a No. 2. He's started 18 games for the Giants and Jets over the last three seasons. McCarron, meanwhile, impressed as a member of the Texans during training camp, and Houston coach Bill O'Brien dubbed the former Hawkeye "the Iowa Flash." The Texans released him from their practice squad in September, and the Patriots picked him up four days later. It'll be interesting to see how McCarron develops after a full offseason in the program. The undrafted rookie safety pair of Jones and Travis have good size and look like developmental box-safety types who could be special teams fits. 


Change to pass-interference rule is WAY overdue

AP Photo

Change to pass-interference rule is WAY overdue

Yes, please, on the proposed adjustment to defensive pass interference. No, thank you on the revised catch rule.

And I know I'm going to have my dreams crushed on both counts.

Despite all the arm-flapping and breath wasted that "NOBODY KNOWS WHAT A CATCH IS ANYMORE!!!!", long-distance pass interference has been a bigger bugaboo for the league for a much longer time.

In 2017, there were 129 pass interference calls longer than 15 yards. The proposed rule change that will be debated at next week's NFL Annual Meeting will make pass interference a 15-yard penalty unless it's egregious and intentional. In those cases, it will continue to be a spot foul

So overdue. For too long offenses have been rewarded by officials on 50-50 balls where DBs and receivers engage in subtle handfighting. It's absolutely illogical to expect middle-aged officials in okay (or worse) shape to keep pace with Gronk-sized receivers and whippet-quick defenders, then make calls on plays 40 yards downfield.

If you're going to throw a flag that gives the offense 40 yards, there should be an extreme degree of certainty accompanies that flag. And too often, the officials are forced to make educated guesses. Next thing you know, Joe Flacco and Rex Grossman are in the Super Bowl.

It's probably the most difficult penalty to call in football, yet it carries the greatest punishment for a defense? What sense does that make? 

I actually think the NFL should go a step beyond and make pass interference reviewable. I'll even make this concession -- it's reviewable only for DPI that puts the ball inside the 10 and is longer than 15 yards. How's that?

"More reviews?!?!? We don't need more reviews?!?!?!"

Okay, but you'll accept them when a dimwit coach argues a spot on a three-yard run that may or may not mean a first down, but not on a play that hands the offense half the field? Come on. Forward thinking.

As for the contention corners are going to begin bludgeoning receivers once they realize they're being beaten deep -- BAM! -- that's where you get the aggravated pass interference (API . . . trademarked 2018) that can be dropped on their heads.

A DB that doesn't turn to face the ball and runs through a receiver? An arm bar all the way downfield preventing a receiver from getting his hands up? A way-too-early arrival? That's API and it's a spot foul. What are the possible negative consequences?

It will now spawn debate as to what's aggravated PI and just garden variety PI. And it asks officials to make another judgment call.

But the truth is, it already is -- in many cases -- a judgment call. And if I were an official reaching for my flag on a Hail Mary from the 43 at the end of the game where there was jostling, I'd sure as hell be happy that I have the option to call garden variety PI and put the ball at the 28 rather than put the ball at the 1.

It's a rule change that makes the game better. That way you don't have calls like this or this. This 55-yarder would be an API (defender hugs Crabtree).

Tellingly, there's no outcry about the need to reform pass interference NOW like there is about the catch rule. You know what needs to happen? A few more plays like this where the Patriots profit. Then you'll see a damn MOVEMENT!


Pro day circuit shows Belichick in his element

Pro day circuit shows Belichick in his element

Bill Belichick is a teacher. His father was a teacher. His mother was a teacher. He is very much their son in that regard. 

The glimpses into Belichick's essence aren't as rare as you might think, but they still generate an inordinate amount of interest because he's arguably the best to ever execute the kind of teaching he's made his life's work.

Every time he takes several minutes to answer a conference call or press conference question thoughtfully, the hundreds of words found in the text of the transcribed answer typically create a stir on Twitter. NFL Films productions that show Belichick operating behind the scenes are devoured. Exclusive interviews, where he shares his insight on individual games and matchups, NFL Films productions that show Belichick operating behind the scenes are devoured. Exclusive interviews, where he shares his insight on individual games and matchups, make every installment of the β€˜Do Your Job’ series a must-watch.

Clips of Belichick on the practice field aren't necessarily hard to find, there just aren't many of them considering how many practices he's run over the course of his decades-long career. But thanks to more lax media policies at the college programs he visits for pro days, video of his on-the-field work pops up on a regular basis this time of year. They are mini-clinics dotting the internet. 

This is Belichick in his element. Even in the middle of a random university campus. Even with scouts, coaches and front-office people from around the league watching his every move. Whether he's coaching players one-on-one or three or four at a time, Belichick is imparting his wisdom on eager close-to-blank slates. All the while he's trying to evaluate how they're absorbing what he's giving them. Do they pay attention? How do they process information? Are they error-repeaters? 

It's a fascinating give-and-take between the 60-something coach trying to build a roster and the 20-something players trying to make one, some of whom hadn't yet hit kindergarten when Belichick won his first ring in New England. And he seems to enjoy it. 

Here's a quick look at some of what Belichick has been up to the last few days at Georgia, South Carolina and NC State.