A quick look at a few obvious and a couple of not-so-obvious things the Patriots need to check off between now and the start of September. . .
1. Since 2001, the 199th overall pick in the 2000 draft has had his backside protected primarily by two men – Matt Light and Nate Solder. Now, after 251 regular-season starts, Tom Brady’s going to have his ass covered by the 244th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft? That seems to be the working plan going into training camp. Trent Brown, acquired from the 49ers during the draft, started 10 games at right tackle last year for the Niners. That’s a lot to have on the plate for a guy who was originally a seventh-round pick out of Florida. Speaking of which, Brown has clearly never had a problem cleaning his plate. He’s 6-8 and was listed at 355 pounds last year with San Fran. Seemed low. He’s a massive, massive human who – while moving well for a guy his size – doesn’t appear to have limitless endurance. Thursday is a big day for the big man. If he looks as big (or bigger) than he did at minicamp, he’s going to have a miserable August with Dante Scarnecchia crawling on him like an ant on a popsicle stick as he thunders around like a Stegosaurus trying to prove the team was right in not locking up Solder before he got to the open market. If Brown doesn’t work out, it’s either rookie first-rounder Isiah Wynn at LT or L’Adrian Waddle. Wynn will be a very good NFL player but that’s a lot to ask of him if it comes to pass. Waddle is firmly entrenched as an OK NFL player and that’s about as good as it will get.
2. Matt Patricia was a convenient piñata for the past few years as Patriots defensive coordinator. He took his slings. He took his arrows. And somehow, he still wound up a coveted head coaching candidate. Now that the Lions locked up the architect of a defense that allowed 538 yards of offense to the Eagles in the Super Bowl and 16-of-31 third-down conversions in the AFCCG and Super Bowl combined, we get to see a different set of hands on the defensive wheel. Brian Flores’ hands. Bill Belichick is always seen as the de facto defensive coordinator providing perfect cover for whoever calls the defensive shots but there is a high level of autonomy given once it’s earned. And it’s imperative Flores grab the reins and start marching the Patriots defense in a direction opposite the way Patricia’s had it going at the end of 2017.
3. It’s time to figure out precisely what it is that Jordan Richards does around here. A second-round pick in 2015, he’s a rocked-up safety who’s a little too robotic to be effective in coverage (witness the critical wheel route late in the second quarter of the Super Bowl when Richards turned a third-and-3 wheel route into a 55-yard Corey Clements catch-and-run and a little too rocked up to handle even a little bit of shimmy. While the Patriots are at it, might as well figure out whether Cyrus Jones – who unlike Richards does have all the physical tools – is going to put it all together in Year 3. He was the team’s second round pick in 2016. His enigmatic rookie year in which he showed flashes that were overshadowed by gaffes left him feeling less than. Last summer, he had an up-and-down preseason before tearing his ACL. At a loaded cornerback position, Jones is going to have to make his fourth-down ability as a punt returner the clincher in keeping him around.
4. The labor pains that were supposed to produce Rob Gronkowski’s newly-tweaked contract began months ago. With training camp dawning and the new deal still not completed, it’s worth wondering when and if Gronk will get to chew on the carrot the Patriots dangled in front of him and his agent Drew Rosenhaus after Gronk’s motocross press conference. (I write these things, re-read them and shake my head that they all happened this offseason). While we in the media happily pummel agents we believe to be overmatched or in the bag, it’s interesting that Rosenhaus has come in for exactly zero criticism when it comes to Gronk’s deal which was terrific in 2012 but has long been outdated. Even with the injury history Gronk had back then and the outlook at that time, Gronk’s been a bargain since 2015. And he still has two seasons left on the deal. Rosenhaus doesn’t get blasted because he’s got most of the national media on a string. But this deal’s been a massive win for the Patriots and – if it doesn’t get some resolution soon – it’s not unfair to wonder whether Gronk would withhold services.
5. The NFL keeps trying to make the kickoff go the way of the dodo. And the Patriots will keep looking for ways to keep it alive. This training camp and preseason will be fascinating as all the kickoff tweaks the league made will usher in a mess of new strategies. “Spacing’s gonna be very different,” said special teams ace Matt Slater. “You’re gonna have eight men up front, only three in the back so there’s gonna be a lot of space. We’ll see how that plays itself out. It could be advantageous for the return team, it could be advantageous for the kicking team. We’ll see how that plays out in preseason. There’s been a lot of dialogue with (special teams coach) Joe Judge … Nate Ebner, guys like myself, (Cordarelle Patterson) and other guys talking about the timing of the play and how it’s going to look.”
Stephen Gostkowski, who became adept at dropping lofted kickoffs inside the 10 that led to poor field position for the opposing offense and the kind of collisions the NFL wants gone, is looking forward to the Patriots building a better kickoff mousetrap.
“I really will be impossible to tell until we get into preseason games how it changes,” he said. “The speed of the kickoff and kickoff return in practice is nothing like it, so it’ll be interesting to see how other teams do it. Do they want to bring them out or keep them in as touchbacks? We had the same approach with the last kickoff change and I’m sure we’ll have plenty of different options that we’ll try.”