Patriots

In replacing Dion Lewis, rookie Sony Michel could bring a different dimension

In replacing Dion Lewis, rookie Sony Michel could bring a different dimension

Previously in the series:

THE SITUATION
Dion Lewis out. Sony Michel in. That's not the extent of the changes the Patriots made to their backfield this offseason, but it's the headliner. Lewis had what was far and away his best season as a pro in 2017, and it earned him a nice deal down in Tennessee: 896 yards rushing on 5.0 yards per attempt, and another 214 yards receiving on 32 receptions, with nine total scores. He had trouble getting on the field early in the year, if you remember, something that irked him, but when he took over lead back duties he made the most of his opportunity, establishing himself as one of the most elusive backs in the league. His 42 missed tackles forced as a runner were just two fewer than Le'Veon Bell, according to Pro Football Focus . . . and Bell took 141 more handoffs. The upshot? The 5-foot-8 water bug back leaves some big shoes to fill. Michel is a very different player. He checked in at 5-foot-11, 214 pounds at the combine in February, and at Georgia he looked more like a slashing, aggressive runner who's more likely to run through arm tackles rather than side-step them. But the way he could help make up for Lewis' loss is by serving as a true all-purpose player. He may have been the best pass-protector in this year's draft class, and he's a very capable receiver. The element of unpredictability Lewis provided the Patriots offense when he lurked in the backfield will still exist with Michel back there. Same goes for Rex Burkhead, who's back after re-upping on the one-year deal he in New England last offseason. He played in just 10 games due to injury but earned Tom Brady's trust quickly, and when he was healthy the Patriots weren't afraid to heave the football upon him as both a runner and a receiver. Burkhead ended up being targeted in the passing game or taking a handoff on 100 of the 195 snaps he played in the regular season. James White, headed into his fifth year with the Patriots, has become the leader of the group and should have his third-down role locked down. There are few players Brady trusts more in the passing game, and there's a reason. White was less likely to drop a pass than any other back in the league last year, coughing up just one out of 57 catchable targets in 2017, per PFF. Also back is Mike Gillislee, who may be vying for a big-back role with former Bengal Jeremy Hill. Special-teamer Brandon Bolden returns after re-signing this offseason, and undrafted rookie Ralph Webb out of Vanderbilt gives running backs coach Ivan Fears another accomplished SEC player in the room for depth. James Develin -- we'll include him here even though he actually meets more with the tight ends -- is back as well and just signed a new deal. 

SPOTS CLAIMED
As the 31st overall pick this year, Michel's spot on the roster is locked in. White and Burkhead are sure things as well. And, of course, let's put Develin in this category. The Patriots carried six backs (including Develin) heading into the Super Bowl in February, which was the number they held onto for most of last season. (Bolden didn't make the team out of training camp but was added later and reclaimed his role as a core special-teamer.) So with three running backs and one fullback considered safe bets for the roster, that leaves four players potentially competing for two spots. And that's only if the Patriots want to set aside a running back spot for someone who's going to contribute mostly on special teams. Bolden could be competing with other kicking-game specialists for a job, leaving Gillislee and Hill to battle for big-back duties. Webb seems like insurance for the team should they have an need a back with some sub capabilities. He had 68 catches during his career at Vanderbilt.

WHO'S DOING WHAT
It's too easy to look at Lewis' departure and Michel's arrival and assume that will be a one-for-one swap this season. How Michel adapts to the pro game and the Patriots offense will dictate how much time he gets. So will injuries. If Burkhead can stay healthy, he could see a huge uptick in work in 2018 -- particularly if the team taps into his abilities as a receiver with Julian Edelman currently facing a four-game suspension to start the season. Odds are Michel, Burkhead and White (the favorite to take on third-down and hurry-up work) will split the majority of the workload by some unpredictable percentage that is sure to infuriate fantasy owners everywhere. Then there's Gillislee and Hill. Both players are looking for bounce-back seasons. Hill (6-1, 230) played in seven games and carried just 37 times for Cincinnati last year. Gillislee (5-11, 215) played in nine games, averaged 3.7 yards per carry, and spent a good chunk of 2017 as a healthy scratch. The Patriots have been steadfast in their belief of the importance of having a traditional big back on the roster, whether it was Gillislee, LeGarrette Blount or BenJarvus Green-Ellis. But might Gillislee's season last year convince them that they can get by without one? Michel runs hard and is about the same size as Gillislee. Burkhead isn't tiny (5-10, 210) and was trusted with goal-line responsibilities at different points last season. How the Patriots choose to fill out the back-end of the depth chart here will be interesting, but not quite as interesting as trying to track how players like Michel, Burkhead and White will be deployed when healthy. Josh McDaniels isn't afraid to get creative, and if he feels like it would create mismatches, it wouldn't be totally unexpected to see the Patriots use more two-back packages than ever before. It's a talented group, and if all three of their top players are healthy, it'd be difficult to keep any of them off the field for long stretches. 

Tom Brady buzz dominates combine: Vrabel says 'there's a time frame to have those discussions'

Tom Brady buzz dominates combine: Vrabel says 'there's a time frame to have those discussions'

INDIANAPOLIS -- It was a topic that no one wanted to touch. Well, almost no one. 

Chris Ballard laughed it off. Mike Mayock was terse. Brian Flores repeated what felt like a well-rehearsed company line. Even the ever-confident Mike Vrabel fidgeted a bit, but in the end, he couldn't help himself. 

So, guys, Tom Brady...any interest?

Right alongside the topic of the new multi-billion dollar collective bargaining agreement being discussed by union leaders and NFL owners, Brady's future whereabouts have dominated early-week conversations here in Indy. The league and anyone associated with it may be in town for the scouting combine, but draftable players and their futures took a backseat to the Brady buzz Tuesday. 

The Patriots are still in play for Brady. Whether or not the Patriots make an effort to retain Brady will be coach Bill Belichick's call, from what I've been told. Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft wants nothing more than to see Brady remain in New England, as he's stated, and if the difference between Brady staying and going is a manageable amount of money then the owner would happily step in. But Belichick has yet to show his hand, and so the football world continues to wait and see what's next for the 42-year-old quarterback. 

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That means other front-office chiefs and head coaches around the league, those with quarterback questions of their own, will be peppered with Brady-related questions this week.

Even questions that didn't invoke Brady's name -- coaches and general managers are wary of publicly discussing players who are still technically on other rosters, as Brady is, until the new league year begins -- were dodged. 

Joe Judge, former Patriots special teams and receivers coach, was the first up. He was asked if Daniel Jones is his team's "franchise quarterback." 

"It's not going to be fair for me," Judge said, "to go ahead and set expectations for anyone on our roster at this point."

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Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but consistent with Judge's policy of leaving individual evaluations out of his public comments at this point in his coaching tenure. 

So what about Brady? He's owned property in New York City. Maybe he'd like the idea of playing in New York? 

I asked Judge about that hypothetical without mentioning Brady specifically. 

"Could you envision," I asked him, "a scenario in which the best way to teach Daniel might be to sit a year or two and allow him to grow that way?"

"We're going to let our players compete," he said. "Whoever our best player is going to be is going to be on the field. I don't have any scenario of letting anybody sit down if they're the best player for the job at the time. I'm not trying to create a hypothetical scenario where I think there's a timetable for any of our guys to contribute. I don't care how old or young you are. I really don't. I don't care about what your experience is before you get in our building. All I care about is can you help our team improve? That's it."

Raiders general manager Mike Mayock was quicker with his dismissal. After acknowledging that any and every position will be evaluated, including quarterback, he noted that one of the things that's critical to playing that position in Vegas is being able to grasp Jon Gruden's offense. 

What if, though, there was a quarterback who'd run another offense better than Gruden's? It stands to reason that any team Brady would join would end up running some variation of Brady's offense. 

So...? 

"We've got a quarterback," Mayock said, "who runs Jon's offense at a very high level." 

OK then. 

Brian Flores said essentially what Miami general manager Chris Grier and owner Stephen Ross have said of late, which is, why would Brady want to join a rebuilding team like Miami? 

Curiously consistent in that response have been the Dolphins, but with Chad O'Shea's departure -- the former Patriots receivers coach who was relieved of his offensive coordinator duties in Miami after the season -- and Chan Gailey's hiring as coordinator, the Dolphins make less sense for Brady than they did two months ago.

Up next: Chris Ballard, Colts GM.

Indy is flush with cap space. They've been reluctant to commit to Jacoby Brissett as their quarterback of the present or the future. They have a roster, though, that looks talented enough to compete if they had consistent quarterback play. 

Ballard said multiple times that he wouldn't comment on impending free agents potentially joining his team; Philip Rivers has been linked to Indy multiple times already this offseason because of his connection to certain members of the coaching staff there. 

Still, I asked him about Brady. As a longtime competitor, could Ballard envision Brady in another uniform? 

"So," he laughed, "you're going to ask me a question now? You don't want me to comment but you're going to ask me?" 

"I'm not going to talk about that," he said, eventually. "Great career, though."

As the day wore on, a couple of coaches were a bit more loose-lipped. Bruce Arians of the Bucs flat out named Brady as a potential target for Tampa Bay when asked for examples of quarterbacks he'd consider next month. 

"Tom Brady," he said. "Philip is another guy. We'll see."

Tell us how you really feel, Bruce. 

Seriously. And why not? Maybe Arians is an NBC Sports Boston reader. Maybe he knows there's really nothing to worry about when it comes to tampering with Brady because the Patriots probably aren't going to pursue tampering charges involving their quarterback. Tampering might actually help Brady gauge his market more quickly and allow the Patriots to act one way or the other as they construct their team. 

Here's what our Tom E. Curran wrote earlier this month: "My understanding is that the Patriots aren’t worried about other team’s financial pitches. Their business with Brady revolves around the direction of the 2020 offensive personnel, Brady getting some input on that, and Brady’s role in the team’s future. They aren’t going to be super-vigilant about tampering."

That brings us to Vrabel, the Titans head coach, a friend of Brady's, who straddled the tampering fence as well as anyone Tuesday. It looked uncomfortable for him at first, though. Vrabel looked down when asked about Brady potentially playing elsewhere during a podium session at the Indianapolis Convention Center. At one point he fidgeted with the recorders in front of him.

"Tom's a teammate, former teammate," Vrabel said. "He's a friend. He'll always be a friend. He'll do what's best for him and his family. Wherever that may be, I'm not sure."

Vrabel was quick to compliment Brady as an opponent. Though his defense beat up on the Patriots offense in the Wild Card Round in January, he clearly still holds Brady's game in high regard. 

"Very accurate passer," Vrabel said. "A player that's got great command of the pocket . . . Tom did a great job of staying in the pocket when we mixed some of those three-man rushes in. Great command of the offense. Great leader."

Pressed further on Brady, and told that the Titans look like a good fit for Brady if he was to leave New England, Vrabel interrupted. 

"Why would you see it would be a great fit," Vrabel asked? "I'm just curious."

The Titans have shown they can win now, I told him. Good weapons. Good offensive line. Brady knows the coach.

"We were 9-7," Vrabel interrupted. "We played a couple of good games. I know a lot of players. I played in the league 14 years. Friends with some. Tom's under contract. I was just curious why you thought he'd be a great fit."

Do you agree, I asked?

"Do I agree that I know Tom, or that I'm friends with Tom," he replied?

No. Is Tennessee a good fit? 

"I think when you look at players that are still under contract," Vrabel said, "it's important for us to evaluate each and every position but understand that there's a time frame to have those conversations."

Outside of Arians spelling out his Brady interest, that was as close as we came to another organization acknowledging it'll make a play for the six-time Lombardi-winner. "There's a time frame to have those conversations..." 

Technically that's the legal tampering period, starting on Mar. 16 and running right up to the start of the new league year on Mar. 18. But the reality is those conversations begin now, this week, in Indianapolis, where agents, coaches and executives mingle to discuss their options. 

No one wants to admit it, but if those conversations haven't started already, they will soon. 

Vrabel, while complimentary of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is coming off of what was far and away the best season of his career, didn't necessarily commit to Tannehill as the team's quarterback of the future. That might simply be a leverage play; Tannehill is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. But it might also mean the team is leaving its options open. 

Vrabel and Brady remain close. When asked about his relationship with Brady, Vrabel said Tuesday, "undefeated," referencing Tennessee wins over New England in 2018 and in the playoffs last season. 

"I asked him for a bigger trophy this year," Vrabel said. "Still waiting for it."

In just a matter of weeks, Brady and Vrabel can legally discuss any kind of trophy they'd like, and how Brady might be able to bring a big one to Tennessee.

Patriots ask QB prospect at NFL Combine how he'd feel about replacing Tom Brady

Patriots ask QB prospect at NFL Combine how he'd feel about replacing Tom Brady

The Patriots staffers who questioned Oregon State quarterback Jake Luton at the NFL Scouting Combine just came right out and asked it.

How would he feel about replacing a legend at QB?

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Luton, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound QB projected as a late-round pick, told USA TODAY he was a bit taken aback to get the Tom Brady question right off the bat. 

“I think that was a great question," he told Patriots Wire's Henry McKenna. "It was a fair question for them to ask.”

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Luton said his demeanor would be an asset if he was indeed that next guy for the Patriots.

“Those are big shoes to fill. But for me, I’m a pretty even-keeled guy. I kind of reiterated that,” he said. "I’ve never let any of the outside noise distract me, so I don’t think that would be an issue. I’d bring it every day and prove that I’m a leader, no matter if it’s a high or a low. Keep doing it every day, however that works out. I’m not going to worry about filling anyone’s shoes. Just doing the best that I can do.”

Injury concerns have dropped Luton down most draft boards. He spent six years playing in college between Idaho and Oregon State and a forearm injury kept him out of what would've been his final college game against Oregon.

Luton was one of four QB prospects the Pats have met with at the combine in Indianapolis. Jake Fromm of Georgia, Jordan Love of Utah State (projected as New England's first-round pick in Phil Perry's latest mock draft) and James Morgan of Florida International, who met with them at the East-West Shrine Game, are the others.

It stands to reason that the others were asked the Brady question, too. And it was probably put to current backup Jarett Stidham before he was selected last year in the fourth round.