Patriots

With Folk back at kicker, Patriots release DT Huggins

With Folk back at kicker, Patriots release DT Huggins

Albert Huggins' stay in New England, which he chronicled on Instagram earlier this week, will apparently be a short one.

Maybe.

To make room on the roster after the re-signing of kicker Nick Folk, Huggins, the defensive tackle claimed off waivers earlier this week from the Philadelphia Eagles was released.

 

However, Mike Reiss of ESPN reports that there may be a practice-squad spot available for Huggins, so perhaps his Instagram video wasn't for naught. 

Folk is one of four kickers the Patriots have employed this season, three of them after the season-ending injury to Stephen Gostkowski. Folk was released after having an emergency appendectomy that kept him out of the game last week in Houston. Kai Forbath was signed, becoming kicker No. 4 in 2019, then released after that game.

Folk worked out Friday and was deemed healthy enough to return. He's 7-for-9 on field-goal attempts and 3-for-3 on extra points in three games for New England. 

CLICK HERE OR LISTEN BELOW THE LATEST PATRIOTS TALK PODCAST:

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

A decade later, are the Patriots poised to refuel and reload for another run?

A decade later, are the Patriots poised to refuel and reload for another run?

The 2007 Patriots were among the greatest NFL teams ever assembled.

A machine. Nearly perfect.

So how, in just two seasons, did the Patriots go from the precipice of perfection to getting run off the field by the Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs?

For some franchises, the 10-6 record the ’09 Patriots posted would spark a parade. Not here. Not after five AFC Championship Game appearances, four Super Bowl appearances and three Super Bowl wins in the previous eight years. The Patriots’ first decade of dominance ended with them limping to a 1-6 road record and that 33-14 loss to Baltimore in which it took the Ravens 13 minutes to build a 24-0 lead. At Gillette.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

That happened with an in-his-prime Tom Brady at the controls of an offense that still had Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Kevin Faulk, Matt Light, Logan Mankins and Dan Koppen. On defense, there was Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren and Jerod Mayo and, of course, Bill Belichick was overseeing all of it.

What led to the rapid decline? How did the Patriots pull themselves so quickly from the morass so that, in 2010, they were the No. 1 seed in the AFC and in 2011 were back in the Super Bowl?

What does ’09 have in common with ’19? What’s different? Are the elements in place for a start-of-decade reboot in 2020 similar to the one in 2010? Can the Patriots embark on a third consecutive decade of dominance?  

LOST SOULS

It was November 30, 2009, in the Louisiana Superdome. Belichick and Brady stood side-by-side on the Patriots sideline watching the Saints put the finishing touches on a 38-17 Sunday Night Football bludgeoning of the Patriots that dropped them to 7-4.

“Boy, I tell ya, we got a long way to go,” Belichick said to Brady with a resigned sigh. “We got a long way to go. We just have no mental toughness. We go on the road, no mental toughness.

“We can’t play the game the way we need to play it,” Belichick continued as Brady nodded agreement. “I just can’t get this team to play the way we need to play. I just can’t do it. So frustrating.”

Were it not for Belichick agreeing to let NFL Films go behind-the-scenes with him in 2009 for the incredible two-part “A Football Life” documentary, we’d be left to guess at the agitations Belichick was experiencing that season.

Thankfully, he did agree. And as a result, we see Belichick’s season-long effort to get that team to have the same kind of focus, resilience and maturity his teams had been known for.

Looking back, it’s easy to see why those Patriots were so drastically different than their predecessors. Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison retired after the 2008 season. Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour were traded. Those four players weren’t just the brains and brawn of the defense for a decade; they were in many ways the soul and conscience of the team.

With Scott Pioli leaving the personnel department to become the Chiefs’ GM, the yin to Belichick’s team-building yang was gone. Established veterans who’d done well with teams that didn’t run their business with the same authoritarian bent the Patriots did — Shawn Springs and Derrick Burgess — were brought aboard.

They joined a defense that — with Bruschi, Vrabel, Harrison and Seymour gone — suddenly had Adalius Thomas as its de facto alpha dog. Thomas, the team’s most highly-paid defender. had no qualms rolling his eyes at the way Belichick did things and younger players like Brandon McGowan, Darius Butler and Jonathan Wilhite seemed to follow his lead.

Jerod Mayo, in his second season, was the player Belichick hoped would grab the leadership reins and he was made captain. But there was a learning curve for him. Meanwhile, the locker room seemed uncharacteristically immature.

“I remember in 2009 during preseason I was the only captain and Bill was talking about leadership, leadership, leadership,” Mayo said on "Quick Slants The Podcast" in 2016. “Then the players brought it up [during the season] and the media was like, ‘Well maybe there is a leadership problem.’ When things aren’t going well, you start to question the leadership.

“But leadership is a funny thing,” he added. “You have the team and that’s 100 percent of the players. You have 10 percent here, who are good leaders. And there’s 10 percent who are bad leaders. And your job as a leader is to grab as many of the 80 percent left as possible.”

Mayo didn’t grab enough of the 80 percent that year.

An example? After a 31-14 win over the Jets in November — the week before the loss to New Orleans — McGowan, a safety from the University of Maine, spotted offensive lineman Mark Levoir passing by in the locker room. During the game, Levoir delivered a devastating block on a Jets defensive back. McGowan, in full voice, began loudly upbraiding Levoir for the block, complaining the Patriots defensive backs would have to deal with retaliation. Butler joined in, laughing.

“Are they yelling at you for blocking?” I asked Levoir.

“I guess so,” he said shaking his head.

Brady, who’d missed almost the entire 2008 season with his torn ACL, was getting back in the swing of things himself. At one point that season, I approached him in the locker room and mentioned to him how different the team seemed. Immature.

“We’re very, very young,” he said diplomatically.

PAPER TIGERS

The 2009 Patriots led the NFL in scoring, putting up 26.3 points per game. Included in there was the 59-0 snow-blown beatdown of the Titans and a pair of 35-7 wins over the Jaguars and Buccaneers (in London).

Their best performance against an objectively “good” team all season was the “Fourth-and-2 Game,” a 35-34 SNF loss to Indy. They could handle the bad teams with ease but up against talented, physical or well-coached teams the fight wasn’t so lopsided. Competency and incompetency came in spurts. Especially on defense.

Meanwhile, the offense was becoming overly reliant on Moss and Welker. The two combined for 2,612 receiving yards and 206 catches. The tight end position, manned by Ben Watson and Chris Baker, contributed 43 catches. Rookie Julian Edelman and Kevin Faulk had 37 catches each.

The Donté Stallworth-Jabar Gaffney complementary pieces of 2007 were absent in 2009. And the running game was tepid behind lead back Laurence Maroney (194 carries, 757 yards and nine touchdowns). Faulk, Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor were also in the mix, but none of them carried more than 73 times.

Click here to listen and subscribe to Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast: 

With Josh McDaniels having departed for the head coaching job in Denver, Bill O’Brien was in charge. The Patriots weren’t “easy” to defend with Brady, Moss and Welker involved, but a defense that could match those two left Brady looking to Faulk but with few other reliable options.

The day after the season ended, Belichick explained the exhaustive process the team would embark on to be better for 2010.

“The first thing we do is try to evaluate our team in all the things that we do — how much motion do we use, how each player played, what type of progress was made or wasn’t made, if there was a direction — whichever way the progress was going, whether going forward or if it was declining, and take a look at the team going forward in terms of what players we have, what players we don’t have and then gradually make determinations on how to improve those things,” Belichick explained.

“We’ll take a look at all of our practices, all of our mini camps, training camp schedules, all those things,” he continued. “We’ve done that a little bit along the way, but then we put all that together and discuss it, whether it’s as a coaching staff, or an organization, or sometimes in consultation with different players, whether it’s a specific situation or a group situation, whatever it happens to be.

“All that is put together, we talk about it and eventually we make decisions on players, on system, on scheme and how we do things. Some things stay the same and some things change. It’s inevitable there will be change next year.”

There was change. Culture change, personnel change and scheme change.

THE REBUILD

Players that would be indispensable in the retooling of the Patriots were in place before and during 2009. They just weren’t in prominent roles yet. Players needed to be cleared out in order for them to find their voices.

When 2010 began, Adalius Thomas was gone. So were Burgess, Springs, McGowan and Maroney. After the Patriots beat the Bengals in the season opener, Moss spent his postgame press conference complaining he hadn’t gotten a new contract. He was gone before Columbus Day.

Suddenly, young, recently-drafted players had a little elbow room — Mayo and Matthew Slater from 2008. Patrick Chung, Butler, Sebastian Vollmer and Edelman from 2009.

In 2010, the Patriots went rogue in the first round with Devin McCourty. They took a gamble in the second round on oft-injured Rob Gronkowski. They then dipped into the University of Florida pool of talent and came out with Aaron Hernandez, Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes who were, respectively, a great player/horrible human, an OK player and a pretty good player who was a bit of a handful.

Suddenly, a team without a tight end had two phenoms. The creeping reliance on vertical routes with Moss was reeled back in when the team brought Deion Branch back aboard. Brady sharing a brain with both Welker and Branch meant the offense was back to getting it out quickly again. Gronkowski and Hernandez became seam, middle-of-the-field and red-zone threats that couldn’t be handled. Maroney was replaced by the steady BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Danny Woodhead became Faulk’s understudy.

The defense was still a bit understaffed, especially on the back end, but offensively, the team was morphing. In 2011, the offense got even better through the draft with Nate Solder, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley and Marcus Cannon. And in 2012, Belichick spent first-round picks on Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower.

Five players from the 2008-2012 draft classes were still Patriots in 2019. Obviously, the draft isn’t the only way to import talent. The best free-agent signing of the Belichick Era, Stephon Gilmore, came aboard in 2017. The team got a lot from Brandin Cooks in 2017, a player they traded for. Malcolm Butler made some plays. So too have Jonathan Jones, David Andrews and J.C. Jackson. All were undrafted.

But the foundational pieces of the team that won Super Bowls 49, 51 and 53 came aboard mainly through the draft. There’s something to be said for hitting on homegrown talent.

A decade ago, the Patriots were in the midst of a harvest even if we didn’t realize it while it was going on. They got younger, better and more professional thanks in part to scraping relative bottom in 2009.

Now, after having been whisked from the postseason in the Wild Card round for the first time since that infamous Ravens loss, they find themselves retooling at the dawn of a decade.
 

Core of the issue: Who makes up young Patriots nucleus for next reboot?

Core of the issue: Who makes up young Patriots nucleus for next reboot?

The football-watching world was bombarded with this particular nugget not long after the Titans scampered off the field at Gillette Stadium having moved onto the Divisional Round: It was the first time the Patriots had been eliminated as early as the Wild Card Round since 2009.

It's a remarkable note, highlighting just how dominant this decade of football has been in New England. It also serves as a window into the franchise's history and therefore could be instructive as we try to determine how exactly the Patriots will try to bounce back as they did a decade ago. 

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

Two seasons after the Patriots lost that Wild Card game to Baltimore, they were back in the Super Bowl. And that Super Bowl run set off a stretch of eight consecutive seasons when Bill Belichick's team made it at least as far as the AFC Championship Game.

Looking back at how the Patriots rebounded from that particular early playoff exit in 2009, though quick, it clearly wasn't easy. Given the way the current roster is constructed, this particular bounce-back could be even more challenging.

WHY THE PRESSURE'S ON

There is no precise formula, of course, when it comes to building a consistent championship contender. But there is no doubt that for many years, each spring, the Patriots were able to replenish their team with key pieces brought aboard from the college ranks who helped set up the team for long-term success.

That 2009 iteration of the Patriots featured a roster in transition. Pillars of the organization — Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison — had moved on prior to the season. But there were young players, acquired in the draft, starting to assert themselves as serious contributors and leaders in their own right. And with each draft, the number of those young core players grew.

By the time the Patriots were back in the Super Bowl in 2011, they had young talents who'd been developed at One Patriot Place serving as foundational pieces, including 2008 picks Jerod Mayo and Matthew Slater, 2009 selections Sebastian Vollmer, Patrick Chung and Julian Edelman, and 2010 home-run picks Devin McCourty and Rob Gronkowski. Even the rookie class of 2011 had a say in the team getting to Super Bowl XLIV with first-round pick Nate Solder starting 13 games on the offensive line.

Despite going on an unprecedented run of AFC Championship Games and Super Bowl appearances — meaning Bill Belichick was generally picking near the bottom of the first round — the Patriots continued to draft well to keep their annual championship aspirations alive. Shane Vereen and Marcus Cannon, from Solder's class, ended up playing important roles in championships. Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones were bullseyes in the 2012 first round. Without a first-rounder in 2013, the Patriots still landed Jamie Collins, Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan, who all contributed to title runs. In 2014, taken in the fourth round, James White ended up a key piece to the team's future.

Since then, the steady stream of cornerstone pieces arriving in the draft has slowed.

The Patriots hit on both Trey Flowers and Shaq Mason in the fourth round of the 2015 draft, but only Mason remains on the team. The 2016 class, which saw a first-rounder wiped away due to Deflategate, is no longer represented on the Patriots roster as Joe Thuney and others are set to hit free agency. The 2017 draft class featured just four players and didn't produce a consistent starter. 

Using a draft-in-bulk approach in 2018, with nine players selected, the Patriots landed Isaiah Wynn in the first round. He looks like a quality left tackle, but he's missed three-quarters of his first two seasons due to injury. Sony Michel and Ja'Whaun Bentley are the other contributors remaining from that class. The effectiveness of the 2019 draft class is largely to be determined.

Compare that young nucleus built to help the Patriots rebound after 2009 to this one. The 2008-11 draft classes accounted for four Pro Bowls, three first-team All-Pros and two second-team All-Pros through the 2011 season. The 2015-2018 classes did not account for any such honors through the 2018 season. Thuney was named a second-team All-Pro for his 2019 performance.

Even just looking at the roster without tallying up awards, the number of recently-drafted Patriots who've become core pieces and stuck is eye-opening. The team has a greater number of starting-caliber players under contract from the 2009 draft class (Chung and Edelman) than they do from the 2015 (Mason), 2016 and 2017 classes combined.

Belichick and his front-office staff have seemingly willingly gone with an older roster in recent years, perhaps in an effort to capitalize on their championship window as Brady neared the end of his career. Still, that approach — unafraid to trade picks or execute pick-swap deals for proven veterans — meant a smaller investment in rookie contracts than most other teams.

Click here to listen and subscribe to Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast: 

In 2018, according to OverTheCap.com, only one team had fewer cap dollars committed to players on rookie contracts than the Patriots. That year, only two teams had a lower percentage of their active roster devoted to players on rookie deals (33 players). It worked out, clearly. They won a Super Bowl.

Last year, it was more of the same in terms of their rookie-contract investment. They entered the regular season with the oldest 53-man roster in football and got out to a record-setting pace with the oldest starting defense in the NFL. No team in the league had fewer players on rookie contracts (24) and no team committed fewer dollars to rookie deals.

Even with veterans such as Tom Brady, Devin McCourty, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins not currently counting against the 2020 roster, the Patriots are still slated to be a decidedly veteran team next season. No team has fewer players on rookie contracts at the moment (28), and no roster has a smaller percentage of players on rookie contracts making up their roster (52.8 percent). The next closest team in terms of the percentage of rostered players on rookie deals is the Saints (60.4 percent). 

The draft has breathed life into the Patriots dynasty for the better part of the past two decades. Building successful teams without drafted-and-developed contributors is possible — that 2018 roster is a good example of how a couple of low-yield draft classes doesn't have to extinguish a team's title hopes — and college players may be more difficult to successfully evaluate than ever before. But without a greater number of cost-effective impact additions from the drafted ranks, the next Patriots reboot could be Belichick's toughest yet. 

As one NFL executive familiar with the situation put it last offseason, leaning on free-agent signings and pick-for-player trades isn't the most sustainable plan of attack. If the Patriots don't start to make more of their draft-day dice rolls, they could find themselves in a real roster-building quagmire relatively quickly.

WHY THERE'S REASON FOR REBOOT OPTIMISM

Some of those roster-composition figures for the 2020 season can change. And fast.

The Patriots traded this year's second-round pick to the Falcons for Mohamed Sanu, but they still have one first-rounder, three thirds (including two projected compensatory picks), a fourth, four sixths (two compensatory picks) and three sevenths. That's a dozen selections to try to add to the nine players remaining on the roster from the 2019 draft class to try to jump-start a youth movement.

And it's not as though they need each of those picks to hit in order for a wave of young talent to land this fall. In 2010, the Patriots had more established talent on the offensive side of the ball than they do at the moment — Brady was at an MVP level, Wes Welker was one of the best receivers in the league, and the offensive line was loaded with Pro Bowl-caliber players — but adding Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at tight end took them to another level. 

A hit or two, combined with better health throughout the course of the season, could have the Patriots looking like a different offense after 2019 was one of their least-efficient seasons on that side of the ball in years. 

Plus, there's the "redshirt" factor. Belichick has openly discussed how players coming off of quiet rookie seasons can turn into critical parts. There's no shortage of those types on the roster who — either because of injury or because they were blocked by veterans ahead of them on the depth chart — have untapped potential. 

Outside of rookie punter Jake Bailey, who quickly established himself as one of the best at his position in 2019, most of that class has a chance to take the Year 2 leap in 2020.

N'Keal Harry, Joejuan Williams, Damien Harris, Chase Winovich and Byron Cowart all got their feet wet with some game action and plenty of practice reps. Harry, who missed half the season due to injury, could benefit immensely from more time on the fields behind Gillette Stadium. Likewise, offensive linemen Yodny Cajuste and Hjalte Froholdt — both of whom missed the season with injuries — will have a chance to earn roles this offseason.

Another point in New England's favor as it searches to reload on young talent: It has seen some of its best players come from the undrafted free agent ranks.

They've found gems in David Andrews (2015), Jonathan Jones (2016), Adam Butler (2017) and J.C. Jackson (2018) to provide the team with some of its best young talent. By their nature, undrafted rookies are gambles. But they're low-cost gambles, and another double-digit undrafted free agent class could yield a player or two upon whom the Patriots could rely. That's been their history. 

WHY THE QUARTERBACK DOMINO DETERMINES THE COURSE

How the Patriots handle 2020 could end up looking like 2010: Add a handful of capable young draft picks to a roster with established talent and a few promising young pros, and continue to build around Tom Brady. 

But is there any chance that the reboot Belichick directed in 2000 and 2001 ends up being the closer comparison? Might he make a change at the game's most important position, roll with a more cost-effective option there, and rely on a veteran-laden defense while reshaping the team to his liking?

The current iteration of the roster is unique. It's a different team and a different time. Neither 2001 nor 2010 provides perfect blueprints on how to approach this offseason. The quarterback decision, though, could dictate which way Belichick proceeds. 

If Brady ends up back in New England at a dollar figure that pays him near the top-third of quarterbacks in the NFL, then that could make it difficult to surround him with the veteran talent that would likely best accentuate his skill set. Would surrounding Brady with young players for a second consecutive season get the best out of the 43-year-old? And would that be in line with Belichick's credo of "what's best for the football team?"

If Brady ends up back in New England at a lower dollar figure that would allow him to be surrounded by a free-agent signing or two who'd make him more comfortable — perhaps trading picks for established veterans as well — that might be "what's best for the football team" in 2020.

But what about the seasons beyond? If there is an inevitable reboot afoot, would signing Brady to that type of deal simply postpone an inevitable roster reconstruction? And might it complicate the process with cap hits pushed down the road to be dealt with in later years?

If Brady ends up elsewhere, giving way to either second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham or a low-cost veteran, there will be growing pains. Still, in theory, it would provide the team with more roster and salary-cap flexibility. As it stands right now, thanks in part to pacts signed with Antonio Brown and Michael Bennett, only three teams have more dead money on their 2020 books than the Patriots, per OverTheCap.com.

Should Brady find himself in a different uniform next season, that dead-money number will jump another $13.5 million. Re-signing Brady prior to the start of the league year will avoid that kind of cap-hit acceleration — only $6.75M hits the cap — but depending on a new deal's structure, that decision may simply postpone the inevitable.

Even Belichick would acknowledge, whatever happens with Brady isn't entirely up to him. Any contract negotiation is a two-way street, as he put it in his year-end press conference. But it'd behoove the Patriots to have an idea of how they'd like to proceed with Brady as soon as possible. That way, they could use the legal tampering period in mid-March to surround Brady with veteran pieces if he's going to be back. If not, they could sit tight, save — they're in the middle of the pack of the NFL in terms of cap space — and hope they can thrive despite undergoing a roster renaissance.

Either way, the contributions they receive from their most recent draft classes will matter. The Patriots couldn't reboot when Belichick arrived in the early aughts without quality drafts. The same was true 10 years ago after an unceremonious Wild Card Round exit. 

Compared to other seasons this decade — when they've made it at least as far as the AFC Championship Game — they have a few weeks more time to prepare for draft weekend. They have ammo. They just need to hit.