Patriots

NFL strength of schedule rankings 2019: Did the Patriots get a gift?

NFL strength of schedule rankings 2019: Did the Patriots get a gift?

The NFL strives for parity. So, there's no way they'd give the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots one of the easiest schedules in the league this season, right?

Well...

The NFL's full 2019 schedule came out Wednesday night, and if you use opponents' 2018 win percentage as your gauge, the Patriots actually have the second-easiest schedule in the league this year.

Here's the full list, ranked from hardest (highest opponent win percentage) to easiest (lowest opponent win percentage) schedule:

1. Oakland Raiders (.539)
2. Denver Broncos (.537)
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (.531)
4. Houston Texans (.527)
T-5. Chicago Bears (.520)
T-5. Kansas City Chiefs (.520)
T-7. Indianapolis Colts (.518)
T-7. Atlanta Falcons (.518)
9. Tennessee Titans (.514)
10. Minnesota Vikings (.512)
11. San Francisco 49ers (.510)
T-12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (.508)
T-12. Arizona Cardinals (.508)
T-14. Green Bay Packers (.504)
T-14. Dallas Cowboys (.504)
T-16. Carolina Panthers (.502)
T-16. Los Angeles Chargers (.502)
18. Miami Dolphins (.500)
T-19. Pittsburgh Steelers (.496)
T-19. Baltimore Ravens (.496)
T-19. Detroit Lions (.496)
22. New Orleans Saints (.488)
23. Cleveland Browns (.484)
24. Buffalo Bills (.480)
25. Seattle Seahawks (.479)
26. Philadelphia Eagles (.477)
T-27. Cincinnati Bengals (.473)
T-27. New York Jets (.473)
T-27. New York Giants (473)
T-27. Los Angeles Rams (.473)
T-27. New England Patriots (.473)
32. Washington Redskins (.469)

Before Patriots haters accuse the NFL of playing favorites, New England's cushy schedule is mostly the product of good fortune. Each NFL division matches up with a full AFC and NFC division every year, and the AFC East drew the AFC North and NFC East this season, meaning the Patriots get to face models of futility like the New York Giants, Washington Redskins and Cincinnati Bengals.

It also helps that New England plays in one of the worst divisions in football; the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills all had sub-.500 records in 2018 and show no real signs of improvement.

Of course, past results don't necessarily predict future performance, as the revamped Cleveland Browns won't be the 7-8-1 club it was last year.

It's still a pretty good barometer, though, so Patriots fans can take extra pleasure in seeing the AFC rival Kansas City Chiefs in the top five of hardest schedules.

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Will N'Keal Harry's contested-catch prowess translate to the NFL?

Will N'Keal Harry's contested-catch prowess translate to the NFL?

Leading up to the start of Patriots training camp, we'll try to answer one question every day as a way of giving you a better idea of where we'll have our focus trained when practices begin. Today we take a look at Patriots first-round pick N'Keal Harry, the skill set that helped him light up the Pac-12, and whether or not that'll translate at the next level.

Tom Brady, for all the superlatives he's earned, isn't the most daring of quarterbacks. He's always cognizant of just how devastating an interception can be to his team's chances of winning, but he's been so careful at times that even he will occasionally admit he needs to take more risks.

“Maybe part of my problem as I’ve gotten older is I want to make so few mistakes,” he told WEEI last season. “Maybe there’s not as much aggressiveness as I would like because with aggressiveness comes more risk. We have, like, a 95 percent chance of winning when we don’t turn the ball over and I think that’s always in the back of my mind, being a little less fearful with the ball and a little more aggressive."

Still, Brady finished last season as one of the most risk-averse quarterbacks in football in 2018. Per NextGen Stats, he was the No. 27 passer (among quarterbacks with at least 150 attempts) when it came to their "aggressiveness" percentage metric, which tracks the number of passing attempts a quarterback makes that are into tight coverage, where there is a defender within one yard or less of the receiver at the time of completion or incompletion. 

Brady has the ability to thrive when he rolls the dice, though. According to Pro Football Focus, he's graded out as among the five best quarterbacks in football over the last three years when attempting "tight-window" throws.

The question now? How often will Brady be willing to gamble, particularly with two of his best tight-window receivers -- Rob Gronkowski and Josh Gordon -- currently out of the mix? 

The answer could depend on how well the rapport between Brady and first-round pick N'Keal Harry develops through training camp.

Harry's calling card at Arizona State was his ability to make contested catches. His highlight reel is littered with jump balls in the end zone and leaping catches -- sometimes one-handed -- deep down the middle of the field. His strength to fight off handsy defensive backs at the catch point (27 bench reps of 225 pounds, 99th percentile) and his eye-popping vertical (38.5-inches, 84th percentile) certainly help him in that regard.

"I would say that one of the things he does well is he plays the ball in the air," Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said after the first night of the draft. 

"I'd say the coverage in this league is tight, regardless of the type of player or receiver that you are. The coverage is tight. You're going to have to make some plays in some tight quarters. Receivers have to do it. Tight ends have to do it. I mean, James White, I know he plays running back, but he's involved in the passing game, [he has to do it]. 

"The windows are smaller, the catches are going to be more contested. If a player has the ability to do that, that's maybe one of his strengths. It was one of Rob's strengths. He can make contested catches. Everybody has something that they do well . . . They have to maximize the attributes that they have."

According to Pro Football Focus, Harry reeled in 53.2 percent of his contested targets at Arizona State, which was the second-highest percentage among receivers in this year's draft class. (West Virginia's Gary Jennings was first at 54 percent.) Harry's 17 contested catches last season tied him for second (along with Patriots undrafted free-agent addition Jakobi Meyers) among draft-eligible receivers last year.

How often Brady gives Harry the opportunity to make those types of plays will be fascinating over the course of the next month or so. Brady traditionally hasn't leaned on rookie wideouts as one of his go-to options, but the Patriots have never taken a receiver in the first round during Brady's career. And one would think that camp is the perfect time for Brady to figure out when he can trust Harry to make a play on a 50-50 ball and when it might be best to lob one out of bounds. 

Harry's not thought of as a burner; he ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at the combine. But if recent history is any indication, wideouts with contested-catch ability, even if they don't have track-star speed, can succeed in the NFL. 

DeAndre Hopkins is probably the league's best example of that phenomenon. He's not in the conversation for fastest wideout (4.57 40 in 2013), but he is in the conversation as one of the best receivers in the game because of his ability to use his body and play the ball in the air. He caught 58.1 percent of his contested targets last season, good enough for fifth in the league. 

Michael Thomas of the Saints (4.57 40 in 2016) showed "the ability to go up and win the ball" at Ohio State, according to Pro Football Focus' scouting report from three years ago. It's served him well as he's developed into one of the top pass-catchers in the game. He ranked eighth in the league last season by catching 56.7 percent of his contested targets.

Mike Williams of the Chargers (ninth, 56.5 percent) and Chris Godwin of the Bucs (10th, 52.0 percent) are among the best in the NFL at making plays in tight windows as well, and their scouting reports coming out of college were similar to those written up on Harry. 

NFL.com on Harry: "Wins jump balls with well-timed leaps and frame to shield the finish...Downhill speed fails to threaten most cornerbacks."

PFF on Williams: "May not create enough separation to fit with every quarterback style. Needs aggressive passer to allow him to win at the catch point in contested situations."

PFF on Godwin: "Catches the ball in traffic, using his frame to box out defensive backs...Does not consistently separate against man coverage."

Does that mean that as a rookie Harry will match the production of players like Williams, Godwin or any other established NFL wideout? Not at all. He acknowledged he has a long way to go saying back in May, "I haven't done anything in the NFL yet. It's my job to put in the work and perform and live up to expectations."

But it's clear with Gronkowski retired (for now) and Gordon's availability up in the air that the Patriots went after tight-window artists to help Brady, picking up Harry, Meyers and Demaryius Thomas (third among receivers at converting contested catches in 2017).

Harry, of course, will draw more attention on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium next week than any of the new acquisitions in Bill Belichick's receiver room. Can he get off of press coverage when the pads come on? Can he win jump balls against bigger and more athletic defenders than the ones he saw in college? 

What happens in camp will be far from the final word on Harry's evaluation, but how well his skills translate this summer may give us a window into just how involved he'll be come the fall.  

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Jacoby Brissett tells story of awkward meeting with Bill Belichick after trade to Colts

Jacoby Brissett tells story of awkward meeting with Bill Belichick after trade to Colts

Getting traded can be an uncomfortable experience for players. That especially can be the case when the head coach isn't a man of many words.

Former Patriots quarterback Jacoby Brissett had that experience in 2017 when he was traded to the Colts for wide receiver Phillip Dorsett. In Wednesday's episode of Barstool Sports' "Pardon My Take" podcast, Brissett detailed the awkward meeting in which Bill Belichick informed him of the deal.

“At the time Julian [Edelman] had got hurt, and we were looking for a receiver,” Brissett said. “That was pretty much it. I just froze sitting in front of him. I wasn’t talking, he wasn’t talking after he told me why, so I just got up and left. … Saw him at the [Kentucky] Derby and it was all good. But he was just like, ‘Yeah, good luck’ and I was like, ‘Alright, I guess. I don’t know what the hell is going on right now’ and then I had to get on a flight to go to Indy.”

Despite the awkwardness of his departure from New England, Brissett makes it clear he's still on good terms with Belichick along with several other former and current members of the Patriots, including Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo.

"We all meet each other there," he said. "The first year we did, my rookie year. Then last year because I was in Indy, and there were in Boston, I drove up because it was like a two-hour drive for me, so I drove up. It’s a great trip. You don’t remember it. You just go back and look through your text messages and see what the hell everyone was saying. It’s a great trip.”

With Colts QB Andrew Luck healthy, Brissett could find himself having another awkward conversation in the near future as the 26-year-old signal-caller is a valuable trade chip with the 2019 season approaching.

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