Patriots

CAMP BATTLE: Christian Sam vs. The Bubble

CAMP BATTLE: Christian Sam vs. The Bubble

Phil did his first roster projection of training camp over the weekend. ('Preciate ya, Phil!). When I got to the linebackers, I noticed Christian Sam wasn't on the final 53. Now, I trust my guy but I gotta be his extra set of eyes, too, his safety net.

So I texted, "No Christian Sam, right?"

The phrasing showed I didn't doubt him, just confirming. Important.

Phil said I got it right. No Christian Sam.

There were a few other eye-openers on the outside looking in with this projection (and it's a "projection" from now on, not a "prediction for the end of camp" . . .  stuff changes) among them, Brandon Bolden, Vincent Valentine, Geneo Grissom, Cole Crosston, Ryan Lewis, Eric Decker and Eddie Pleasant.

Personally, I think Phil should do a slide of the "Last Seven Out" but he probably thinks I should do my own slide show if I have such great ideas.

Anyway, back to Sam. The kid is a fifth-round linebacker from Arizona State who's landed with a team that needs linebackers. He's 6-foot-2, 240 pounds and, while he's not a freak in terms of timed speed (4.75 40-yard dash) he did come billed as a possible three-down linebacker with coverage skills. The Patriots need that. Badly. They don't do well covering at the linebacker level unless it's Patrick Chung on a tight end.

But despite that purported skill, Sam being close to the bubble shows just how competitive the linebacker position is going to be.

Which brings us now to the reason for this post -- highlighting the camp battle between Sam and The Bubble. As Phil sees it, Nicholas Grigsby, Marquis Flowers and Brandon King are core special teamers who have an inside track because of that. Rookie Ja'Whaun Bentley, who had an impressive night in the middle of the defense in the preseason opener, is also in a good spot. Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy are locks. Elandon Roberts less so, but still on. If he's going to remain a Patriot, Sam is going to have to boot one of those core special teamers or Roberts. Or, if he gets cut, maybe he'll go unclaimed and be signed back to the practice squad. We'll be watching Sam closely this week to see if he's able to make some progress against the Eagles in game two of the preseason.

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Bills coming due for Patriots dynasty after this season

Bills coming due for Patriots dynasty after this season

The 2.0 version of the Patriots dynasty is coming to an end.

In little more than two months, we’ll see whether it ends with a head-down walk off the field or fluttering confetti and a trophy presentation.

Either way, it’s coming. Because this is the offseason when the bills come due and decisions they’ve dodged must be faced.

Six regular-season games, presumably the playoffs, then the deluge. Wade into the facts.

Tom Brady is in the “walk year” of his contract for the first time with a 2019 cap hit of $27 million looming and no successor in sight. Do the Patriots extend him past the age of 42? At what amount? For how long?

And does Brady even want to extend because … look around …

Rob Gronkowski’s entering the walk year of his deal, when he’ll be carrying a $12 million cap hit.

The team tried to trade him in April, in part because of the fat cap hits he had looming ($23.7 million between 2018 and 2019).

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Gronk won in April when he said, “Hell, no, I won’t go anywhere without Tom . . . ” but after what they’ve gotten from him this year -- 29 catches, 448 yards and a TD through 10 games while devoting $11.7 million in cap space -- the team isn’t likely to say, “You win, Rob, here’s an extension.”

There’s a restructure/paycut, a release or a retirement for Gronk dead ahead.

And if Gronk goes, what’s Brady’s commit level?

Julian Edelman has a year left on his deal but -- for better or worse -- Josh Gordon, Cordarelle Patterson, Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett all have expiring deals.

So Brady will be either tethered for another year to that middling tribe if the team decides to bring them back (and Patterson doesn’t even count as a wideout) or charged with breaking in a new crop of receivers alongside the 33-year-old Edelman (insert obligatory reminder here that Brady will be 42).

I get it, there are six games left and there’s football to be played.  But this stuff isn’t just hitting the fans this coming offseason. It’s hitting it now. And it was a year in the making.  

When the Patriots traded Jimmy Garoppolo last October the team decided -- however reluctantly -- to ride the Brady train until it derailed. Chips were pushed to the middle of the table, they went all-in, they were riding or dying, all that.

It was a departure from the forward-thinking, long-term philosophy of the previous 18 years but, once made, it required the rest of the roster decisions to follow that same short-term model.

It didn’t.

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The Patriots -- operating under their value philosophy -- got out from under Brandin Cooks' $8 million salary in 2018 and got a first-round pick in return. They turned the pick into offensive lineman Isiah Wynn who, even if he were healthy right now, wouldn’t be moving the needle for the offense the way Cooks would have.

They didn’t replace Danny Amendola. They signed Cordarelle Patterson who -- it’s become obvious -- is a special teams player/novelty act the team has made useful by any means necessary.

After Edelman got pinched for a PED violation, the team -- with a straight face -- went into the season with Dorsett and Hogan as its only two wide receivers. When they saw what they’d wrought, they traded for Josh Gordon.

Bill Belichick would sooner play 1-on-1 Twister with Charlie Casserly than match the $12 million Miami gave to Amendola over two seasons or pay $8 million to Cooks and then let him walk as a free agent. Out of character, right? But so was committing -- regardless of how reluctantly -- to ride with Brady.

Now they’re betwixt and between, at the start of a semi-teardown with different sub-contractors showing up every day saying, “You really might want to think about replacing this …”

All the stuff up around the bend? That’s what’s daunting.

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Aside from the aforementioned pending free agents at wideout, the team’s best young defensive player -- Trey Flowers -- is up at the end of the year. He’s an $80 million contract waiting to happen. Left tackle Trent Brown is up. Stephen Gostkowski is up. Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton -- despite how disappointing they’ve been -- are going to be free agents and will need replacing. Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones are free agents. So is punter Ryan Allen.

The top three cap hits this year amount to $45 million. Next year, they add up to $55 million.

Then there’s the money already committed. The $27 million to Brady.  The $14.8 million to Gilmore. The $13.4 million to Devin McCourty. The $12 million to Gronk. The $10.3 million to Donta Hightower. The $7.5 million to Marcus Cannon and the $7.4 million to Dwayne Allen. The $7.4 million to Shaq Mason and, finally, the $6 million to Adrian Clayborn.

Nine players, $105.8 million in cap space. Something’s gotta give with some of those players who are by now the backbone of this team.  

Way up the page, 800 words ago, I mentioned this was the 2.0 version of the Patriots dynasty?

That’s because this iteration began in 2010.

Don’t be fooled by the results of the 2010 and 2011 seasons -- a 14-2 record and then a Super Bowl appearance and narrow loss to the Giants. The Patriots tore the house down almost to the studs in 2009.

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Some of the most vital players and leaders of that period retired or were traded away -- Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour, Troy Brown (a 2008 departure). The coaching staff turned over with Josh McDaniels, Dean Pees and Brad Seely going elsewhere. The personnel department changed with Scott Pioli, Thomas Dimitroff and many others moving on.  

But enough was passed down to great young players like Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo and there was enough talent still hanging on (Brady, Kevin Faulk, Dan Koppen, Matt Light, Wes Welker and Randy Moss) that when that infusion of new talent hit (Julian Edelman, Rob Ninkovich, Aaron Hernandez, Gronk, McCourty, Hightower and, for a spell, Chandler Jones), the 2.0 version of this dynasty just needed small accessories (Darrelle Revis, LeGarrette Blount, etc) so that it could make it seem as if they never went away.

I guess they didn’t go away.

They just put up a “Pardon Our Appearance While We Make Improvements To Better Serve You” sign.

I don’t know what happens now, 10 years on. The excellence, the reinventions, the resourcefulness has gone on about 13 years longer than anyone had a right to expect it to.

Through it all, the New England Patriots have rarely been just “good.” A goal to the rest of the league, the “good” years are ones to be atoned for.

I thought of that Sunday while watching a pregame show. Someone said with a knowing smirk, “As long as they have BB and TB they’ll be OK.”

The smirker was right. That’s the truth. They will be OK. Which is a comedown from “good.” Which is a comedown from “great.”

The point of all this is, you should drink in these last six games and the playoffs regardless of the outcome. Because a 3.0 version of this dynasty is not currently being developed.

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Saints use Patriots play from Super Bowl with great success vs. Eagles

Saints use Patriots play from Super Bowl with great success vs. Eagles

The New Orleans Saints have the best offense in the NFL this season, and they aren't afraid to borrow plays from another high-scoring team: the New England Patriots.

Saints coach Sean Payton told NBC Sports' Peter King that his team took a play from the Patriots' loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII and threw it into their gameplan for Sunday's Week 11 showdown with Philly. The Saints ultimately used the play and quarterback Drew Brees found wide receiver Michael Thomas for a 30-yard catch on a drive that ended with a touchdown.

Here's the back story of that play:

"I look at the league a lot,” Payton said, per King. “I look at all the scoring plays every week. I look at [Bill] Belichick and New England. I look at Sean McVay. I found a good one last night. I hadn’t watched all of New England’s offensive plays in the Super Bowl against Philadelphia in a while, and so last night, I put the tape on and I found something. Gronk [tight end Rob Gronkowski] caught a ball inside the 10 and scored, but it’s how he caught it. It was like catching an inbounds pass, using your body to keep the defender off you. That’s perfect for us. I told Mike Thomas, ‘This is a touchdown.’ We practiced it today. I think we’ll use it.”

Here's the play the Saints took from the Patriots (the touchdown at the end of the video):

Here's how the Saints executed it with Thomas (at the 29-second mark of the video):

Taking plays from other teams is commonplace in the NFL, especially if you have the talent on offense to execute them well enough. And the Saints certainly do -- Brees and Thomas are two of the best players at their respective positons. 

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