Covering the NFL for almost 20 years allows you to make relationships with a bunch of people. So I thought I'd tap into some of those people for a series of topics we've been kicking around.
The panel consists of one former Pats player still in the game, two scouts of AFC teams, one front-office member in the AFC, and one NFC scout. They all requested anonymity for obvious reasons (as the player said, "Hey, I might want to end up back there!"). I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I had talking to these guys.
Today's topic: Who is the most underrated Patriot?
Scout 1: "Duron Harmon. Curious draft pick at the time and I didn’t think all that much of him his first year in the league, but he’s really developed into a Steady Eddie type. Very few mistakes, good range backing up the off corner or playing center field, and he appears to be a calming presence. I figured he’d be as good as gone once he got to free agency. Getting him back was a nice feather in the Pats cap. Not a re-signing that blows you away, but he’s one of your own guys worth keeping.”
Scout 2: "Our team wouldn’t go near Alan Branch, but I campaigned for him. That dude is unblockable. Not in a JJ Watt or Aaron Donald kind of way, but he’s just such a massive human, you hardly ever see someone get into his chest plate and drive him backwards. There’s so much value in that. He’s also surprisingly good moving laterally. I know some people might laugh at that, but he’s got efficient feet."
Scout 3: Worst game I saw Tom Brady play over the last couple years was that AFC Championship game in Denver (2015-16 season). He was under siege the entire day. The Pats win that game if Nate Solder was healthy and playing. No one ever talks about him as an elite left tackle but I’d put him on the short list of the next best guys after [Trent] Williams, [Joe] Thomas, David [Bakhtiari] and [Jason] Peters. Solder’s just good at everything. Kick and slide, excellent hand placement, good punch. Like anybody, he’ll occasionally be a waist bender and get beaten by a counter move, but you rarely see him get overpowered and it seems like he’s quick to correct. I know it took him a half [to get going] in the Super Bowl, but again, he kept at it and got another ring."
Former Patriot/current player: "Give me James [White] all day, every day. You want to talk about a player who has come a long way over the last couple years. I know you talk to [Jerod] Mayo. When he said we all thought he sucked, he wasn’t lying. You wondered how [White] did what he did in the Big 10. But 28 works at it, all the time. Practice field. Weight room. Film room. He’d have been my Super Bowl MVP if they gave me a vote -- don’t tell Tom [Brady]."
Current NFL exec: "I’m not sure you’ll find too many guards in this league that are as athletic as Shaq Mason. I thought he had a Pro Bowl-type season last year. I can only imagine what he’ll look like this year, with another season in the league and under [offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and coach Bill Belichick]. He’ll always have some limitations as a pass blocker because of his height and arm length, but with better technique he can mask some of that. I think he’s as good a run blocker as there is at that position and I expect he’ll be a big part of that offensive line for a long time. [Logan] Mankins was the gold standard for Bill, but when all is said and done, it could be this kid."