Graham could provide Gronk insurance for Pats

Graham could provide Gronk insurance for Pats

Before free-agency kicks off with the start of the new league year on March 14, we're answering a series of questions the Patriots could be asking themselves. First up: Can the Patriots protect themselves at tight end by going after Jimmy Graham?

This could be one of the toughest spots for Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio to come up with a free-agency plan. Everything hinges on Rob Gronkowski's desire to play football in 2018. 

If the team believes Gronkowski will be back, the job of the Patriots front office is simplified. He's the No. 1. Martellus Bennett is gone and Dwayne Allen could end up as a cap casualty -their releases combined would save the Patriots more than $11 million on the salary cap - meaning the search would then be on for a No. 2. (The Patriots have Jacob Hollister and Will Tye under contract, though it remains to be seen if the team would ask either to be Gronkowski's primary backup.) Luke Willson of the Seahawks, Trey Burton of the Eagles and Ben Watson of the Ravens, a Patriots first-round pick in 2004, would all make some sense as Gronkowski sidekicks with some receiving skills. If it's a blocker the Patriots want, they could turn to Virgil Green of the Broncos of Anthony Fasano of the Dolphins. Or they could figure out a way to make things work with Allen or Bennett on cheaper deals. 

If Gronkowski can't be counted on for next season, then things get complicated. Obviously. Perhaps Cincinnati's Tyler Eifert would make some sense given he has the skill set to be a legitimate top option at the position. And he shouldn't break the bank. But the reason he won't break the bank -- his extensive injury history -- might be enough to keep the Patriots away. Austin Seferian-Jenkins certainly gave the Patriots some issues in Week 6 of last season -- he would've had two scores had it not been ruled he fumbled out of the end zone -- but he's been consistently inconsistent in his first four seasons. If Eric Ebron of the Lions or Vance McDonald of the Steelers aren't released for salary-cap purposes, then there's really only one other tight end with a history of NFL production who's available and resembles anything close to a No. 1 . . . Graham. 

In 16 games last season, Graham caught 57 passes on 92 targets for 520 yards and 10 scores. Though the double-digit touchdown number is a reminder of what Graham was able to do in his prime, his yards per catch (9.1) were a career-low, and his receiving yardage total was the lowest he's accumulated since his rookie season. Headed into his ninth season, projects the 31-year-old could earn a deal that pays him $6.7 million annually. That would put him right in the range of what Bennett and Delanie Walker received on their latest deals, which they signed when they were 30 and 31, respectively. 

Is that a number the Patriots would be willing to offer up to Graham if Gronkowski was out of the picture? Understanding that's one of the largest "ifs" the Patriots have faced in franchise history, it still doesn't feel like an investment they would make. Graham, though he showed improvement as a blocker during his time in Seattle, falls under the category of "big receiver" rather than "dual-threat tight end." Even if the Graham-for-Gronkowski swap was made, the Patriots offense would be significantly altered because their skill sets are so disparate. 

So, what's left in terms of options? The Patriots could start over at the position through the draft. (Given Gronkowski's recent waffling, they could see the value in spending a top pick for insurance at that spot whether Gronkowski's back or not.) They could also adjust their offense based on the personnel already on the roster. The Patriots were as effective in two-back and two-tight end sets as any team in football last season, but perhaps they'd lean more heavily on their 11-personnel groups if Gronkowski isn't available. They could even go with more four-wide sets to take advantage of their depth at receiver. Frequently going four-wide feels like a long shot, but if Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, pending free agent Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell, Phillip Dorsett and Kenny Britt (who is reportedly expected to do "big things...") are back and healthy, perhaps it's an option?

The bottom line is that if Gronkowski is out, the offense is going to look very different regardless of who comes in to take his place. Starting fresh in the draft with a player whose style Belichick likes - someone who can impact both the running and passing games - is probably the wisest move. A hefty investment in a big receiver like Graham, one who's closer to the end of his career than the beginning, doesn't seem like it would be worth the cost.


Ex-Patriot Ricky Jean-Francois signing with Lions

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Ex-Patriot Ricky Jean-Francois signing with Lions

Former Patriots defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois is signing with the Lions, according to Jordan Schultz of Yahoo Sports.

The 31-year-old had six tackles in six games for the Patriots in 2017. He'll reunite with ex-Patriots defensive coordinator and now Lions head coach Matt Patricia in Detroit.


What Bill Belichick's pro day tour tells us about Patriots draft strategy

What Bill Belichick's pro day tour tells us about Patriots draft strategy

It’s one of the rites of spring. This is the time of year NFL fans across America overemphasize the importance of their team’s coach or general manager popping up at a particular program’s pro day. You can set your watch to it. 

Coach X showed up at University Y so you KNOW he wants Player Z!

The pro day circuit is just one aspect of the pre-draft preparation process for NFL clubs, though. The information gleaned from stops on college campuses through March and early April is, as Bill Belichick might say, just part of the evaluation mosaic. 

The tape matters. The combine matters. Private workouts matter. Official visits matter. Claiming a meeting or an interview between a player and a club at any one of these spots will dictate a draft-day match is foolhardy. 

Still . . . it's interesting to track teams’ whereabouts in order to see if any trends develop.

Here we'll lay out where the two primary players in the Patriots front office, Belichick and Nick Caserio, have been spotted over the last couple weeks since pro days kicked off. Their itinerary may be nothing but a sliver of a view into where the team's interests lay, but we’ll take that sliver with the understanding that it is what it is.


Belichick made his seemingly annual trip to the University of Alabama to catch up with old friend Nick Saban and see some of the college game's top prospects. The Crimson Tide could have more than a dozen players drafted, and most of their top prospects reside on the defensive side of the ball. Receiver Calvin Ridley, defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and defensive tackle Da'Ron Payne shoild be long gone by the time the Patriots pick at No. 31, but there are plenty of other talented defenders they could have a shot at. Linebacker Rashaan Evans (6-foot-3, 234) would be an interesting fit for a defense that could use an addition to its second level. Defensive end Da'Shawn Hand (6-4, 297) is intriguing because of his versatility as a base end who could rush from the inside in sub situations. Safety Ronnie Harrison (6-3, 214) also seems like a Patriots type. Even punter JK Scott could be on their radar. 


Caserio headed to Wisconsin's pro day, where linebacker Jack Cichy posted a very strong short-shuttle (4.28 seconds) and three-cone times (7.10). He's an off-the-ball type who measured in at 6-foot-2, 234 pounds and is projected by to go on Day 3. The Badgers don't have quite as many pro prospects as Alabama, but they have seven or eight who could hear their names called on draft weekend. Corner Nick Nelson (5-11, 208) and edge defender Leon Jacobs (6-3, 230) were two of Wisconsin's best players, and would’ve been worth a look from the Patriots director of player personnel. 


Belichick kept a close eye on the defensive linemen participating in NC State's pro day Monday. Bradley Chubb is expected to be the first defensive player taken in the draft so the Patriots won't have a shot at him (which Belichick admitted to Chubb following the workout), but defensive tackle BJ Hill (6-4, 315) may have been of interest. He's thought of as a mid-rounder after a very strong showing at the Senior Bowl and a solid combine. Kentavius Street (6-2, 280) is really powerful as a defensive end and could be had toward the end of the draft. Belichick also reportedly spent some time watching backs Nyheim Hines (5-8, 197) and Jaylen Samuels (5-11, 233) run routes. 

Caserio, meanwhile, kept a close eye on the workout put together by Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside (6-2, 201). Our Mike Giardi put together a piece on Woodside, who tested well at the combine and is considered to have a good football IQ, earlier this offseason. Read it. Caserio was joined at Toledo by Patriots scout Patrick Stewart, who was also present for Richmond quarterback Kyle Lauletta's pro day.


Belichick went from NC State to South Carolina where he reportedly met with tight end Hayden Hurst for the second time. Hurst (6-4, 250), a walk-on who played two years of minor-league baseball, may be the first tight end taken in this year's draft. Linebacker Skai Moore (6-2, 221) was extremely productive for the Gamecocks, leading the team in tackles all four years of his career, which Belichick clearly appreciated. Moore told reporters after his pro day work out that he met with Belichick for an hour and that Belichick told him he's a great player. Belichick and Moore also met at the combine, Moore said.

So what can we make of Belichick and Caserio's stops thus far? We’re careful not to make too much of these stops visits, but here are some quick-hitting thoughts . . .

* They appear to want more information on the draft's second (or third) tier of quarterbacks. It should come as no surprise that the Patriots won't be in the running to select passers like USC's Sam Darnold, UCLA's Josh Rosen or Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield. But the group that includes Woodside, Lauletta and others -- perhaps Washington State's Luke Falk, whose pro day will be at Utah State on Mar. 28, Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph, and Western Kentucky's Mike White -- seems to be of interest.

* Are the Patriots looking for their next playmaker at tight end? Even with Rob Gronkowski on the roster (assuming he returns in 2018) the Patriots could use another pass-catcher at this spot. Their interest in Hurst is intriguing. If they pop up at South Dakota State's pro day on Mar. 30 -- home of Dallas Goedert -- then that might be an indication they are considering a running mate and heir apparent for Gronkowski. 

* Outside of offensive tackle, off-the-ball linebacker might be the biggest need the Patriots have not addressed via trade or free agency this offseason. It would come as little surprise if they opted for a rookie (or two) who play that position in this year's draft. Evans is among the draft's most talented at that spot, but there are some questions around the league as to whether or not he'd be the traffic cop that, for instance, Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower have been for the Patriots. Getting a closer look at Cichy and Moore would also seem to indicate that New England is taking a close look at a newer (smaller) breed at that spot. Belichick has long liked bigger linebackers, but as the speed of the game picks up perhaps he’ll be more open to going small(ish) here. The Patriots were represented at Viriginia Tech's pro day on Mar. 14 (home of top linebacker prospect Tremaine Edmunds) and it'll be interesting to see if they show up at Boise State (home of Leighton Vander Esch) on April 3. Belichick is reportedly headed to Georgia's pro day on Wednesday, where he'll have a chance to see athletic off-the-ball 'backer Roquan Smith and athletic edge player Lorenzo Carter. Either would immediately provide the Patriots front-seven with a shot of athleticism. 

* That Belichick has seen a boatload of talented defensive linemen at Alabama and NC State isn't a shocker. While they may not have a glaring need up front for 2018 — especially after trading for Danny Shelton and signing Adrian Clayborn — both Shelton and Malcom Brown could be elsewhere in 2019 if the Patriots don't pick up their fifth-year options. Trey Flowers is also headed into a contract year.