Here are some notes picked up from last week's trip to Indianapolis for the annual NFL Scouting Combine ...
J.C. Jackson seems headed for top-five money
The top Patriots corner made some waves last week telling me, "It's time to get Mr. INT paid," and adding that he didn't feel as though the Patriots were showing him that he was important to their future. He's still waiting for them to show him the kind of love he expected.
The Patriots offered him a new deal during the 2021 season, which was not within the range for Jackson to consider signing. Though for a time Jackson had heard nothing but silence from the Patriots since season's end, that likely ended in Indy. My guess? His agent Neil Schwartz had an offer on the table from the Patriots that was once again turned down. That's typically how you get to where the Patriots were mid-week last week, with headlines emerging that Jackson would likely be hitting the open market.
Curran: If J.C. Jackson wants Jalen Ramsey money the Pats can easily walk away
Things can change quickly. Joe Thuney was tagged at the last minute in 2020, but the Patriots' financial situation seems to make that less likely. The tag for a corner this offseason will exceed $17 million. I was told that a new deal that comes in around $18 million per year -- which would get Jackson past Buffalo's Tre'Davious White in terms of average annual value but keep him behind LA's Jalen Ramsey, New Orleans' Marshon Lattimore and Baltimore's Marlon Humphrey -- was a reasonable expectation for Jackson. Not bad for a guy who made about $5 million in salary through his first four seasons.
It can be hard to shake first impressions
Not everyone in Indy is sky-high on Jackson's promise as a franchise cornerstone. Fair or not, as we've seen many times over the years, first impressions can stay with you in this league. How many times has a first-round pick been given multiple "fresh starts" before they run out? Those impressions can stick with you in another way, too, apparently. If you're an undrafted player who entered the league with off-the-field baggage, as Jackson did, it can be hard to separate oneself from that image. But just because not every decision-maker out there will be tripping over themselves to make Jackson one of the highest-paid corners in the game doesn't mean that big-money deal will not be out there for him.
Don't chalk it all up to the cap
While the Patriots are near the bottom of the NFL in available cap space -- they're at under $10 million at the moment -- it's certainly not impossible for them to find a way to squeeze Jackson under by the start of the new league year. Franchise tag. No franchise tag. They could figure it out. If Jackson ends up moving on it's because his asking price and their valuation of his fit on the roster don't match up.
Patriots facing defensive dilemma
When I asked league personnel to assess their offseason priorities, keeping Jackson ranked right at the top. It was described more as a necessity than a priority. The thinking went this way: Bill Belichick wants to play a certain (man-to-man heavy) style of defense; in order to play that style he needs a certain kind of corner; without at least one true lock-down press-man defender, it gets extremely difficult to execute that preferred scheme.
The reason Jackson's presence was so critical, I was told, was because of a dearth of talent at corner -- particularly those who excel in man -- in this year's free-agent class. Tampa's Carlton Davis and Kansas City's Charvarius Ward have some intriguing traits to play in Belichick's defense, but they aren't considered to be in Jackson's class. There are corners in this year's draft class who appear to fit the scheme -- Cincinnati's Sauce Gardner, Florida's Kaiir Elam, Washington's Kyler Gordon and Clemson's Andrew Booth -- but asking a rookie to be matched up with No. 1 receivers on a regular basis is asking a lot.
The Patriots could do what they did mid-season in 2021, becoming more of a zone-oriented defense, which may be beneficial because of the athletic scrambling quarterbacks in their division they'll have to keep track of. (Zone means more eyes in the backfield and more attention on quarterbacks willing to break the pocket.) But if Belichick wants to play the defense he's played for years now, he may have to find a corner or two who can excel in that style of coverage.
Best bet to call offensive plays is ...
There are two clear schools of thought on how the Patriots coaching staff has shaped up. We spoke to Charlie Weis, Nick Caserio and Dante Scarnecchia recently who expressed confidence in how Belichick and Jones would handle things in light of Josh McDaniels' departure. And there are others who are stunned at how things have come together. No matter your perspective, it's still unclear which coach will be directing the offense on Sundays.
It was reported by ESPN on Monday that Belichick could end up calling plays for the offense. While it is almost universally accepted that Belichick could call plays if he decided to, the expectation of those I've spoken to who've worked with him in the past is that he will not take on that responsibility.
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After speaking to NFL personnel who have worked with Nick Caley, Joe Judge and Matt Patricia -- the three who seem poised to lead the offense in 2022 -- Caley's name is the one that comes up most as the most logical fit to call plays. We'll see how Belichick divvies up the responsibilities, but his long-time offensive play-caller Charlie Weis explained to me last week on Next Pats that it's possible to take on play-calling responsibilities for the first time -- which would be the case for all three potential Patriots play-callers -- and thrive right away.
"You're always asked (how will you handle the role) until you actually do it," Weis said. "My first time calling plays, my first year with the Jets, when I left with (Bill) Parcells to go down to the Jets, everyone thought Ron Earhardt was calling the plays, but I was calling the plays. Parcells kind of wanted to buffer you some in case it didn't work out so well.
"But you never really know how a play-caller is going to work out until you have to do it because you have to think fast now. You have to react fast, you have to think fast. It's a different world when you're a play-caller. Designing them is one thing, but calling play after play is something totally different."
It didn't take long for Weis.
"We did well that first game so that first game was fortunate for me," Weis said of a 41-3 Jets win over Seattle. "It was a very productive game that first game ... I think that play-callers can be developed to a certain level but just like everything else, you can do it or you really can't do it."
Weis had not coached quarterbacks prior to becoming Jets offensive coordinator in 1997. He coached running backs (Giants in 1991-92, Patriots in 1995), tight ends (Patriots in 1993-1994) and receivers (Patriots in 1996) before moving to the Jets and beginning his career as a play-caller.
Caley has been a Patriots offensive assistant for seven years. Judge coached Patriots receivers in 2019 for his lone season of experience focused on that side of the ball before becoming Giants head coach. Patricia assisted on the offensive side, including working alongside Scarnecchia, in 2004 and 2005.
Judge, according to SI's Albert Breer, will work with Patriots quarterbacks. The quarterbacks coach in New England often doubles as a play-caller. McDaniels was quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for years. Bill O'Brien was quarterbacks coach and play-caller for two years before being given the title of coordinator.
Don't anticipate a splashy free-agent period
Fitting one of their own under the cap and moving money around to make it work is one thing. To spend anywhere near the kind of dough they handed out last year is a different story.
After a spending spree last spring, I wouldn't expect the Patriots to be big-game hunting this offseason. The top-end free agents (like Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper, for instance, who could be released), even if Jackson is out of the picture, aren't expected to find their way to Foxboro. That type of player is likely to be out of New England's price range this offseason.
The way it was described to me is that this free-agency period is a bit like when the Patriots pick near the bottom of the draft. When you're picking in the 30s, you're not going to do all that much investigating on the players going in the top five. Similar situation now for the biggest-name free agents. That doesn't mean that if someone's price tag craters the Patriots couldn't be in the mix. But if expectations hold, they could be sitting out the initial wave of the free-agent period.
Patriots like the idea of a big-bodied X
Last year, of course, the Patriots were in on any and every big name available. They were ready to spend. One name I was told they did plenty of work on was Chicago's Allen Robinson (6-foot-2, 220 pounds), but he was tagged by Chicago and kept off the market. Robinson will be a free agent again this offseason and is expected to be highly-paid despite coming off career lows with rookie Justin Fields and Andy Dalton splitting Bears quarterback duties.
Perry: Maximizing Mac means landing a legit 'X' option in 2022
The Patriots settled on Nelson Agholor to fill their "X" receiver spot last year and now appear to be on the lookout for an upgrade. The team could save over $4 million in cap space by releasing Agholor (eating $10 million in dead money) or save over $9 million if they can trade him (eating $5 million in dead money).
NFL expects the Patriots to get Mac help
They have to get Mac Jones "a stud," is the common refrain from NFL folks looking at the Patriots' offseason. The league is fairly open about the fact that the Patriots simply did not threaten certain portions of the field last season. Polling folks on both the coaching and personnel sides, finding Jones a go-to option who can draw coverage is assumed to be at the top of New England's to-do list -- maybe only behind finding a corner if Jackson is gone.
Maybe that comes via trade. Maybe it comes via the draft. It's all on the table at the moment. Pairing Jones with an Alabama teammate -- like John Metchie on Day 2 or slot Slade Bolden (who I'm told has the personality of a mini Rob Gronkowski) on Day 3 -- would be interesting. We've seen quarterbacks paired with college teammates in Miami (Tua Tagovailoa and Jaylen Waddle), Philly (Jalen Hurts and Devonta Smith) and Cincinnati (Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase) with positive results. The same could work for Jones, though Metchie -- coming off ACL surgery, said he planned to be cleared in June -- is not viewed as the same type of talent as those listed above. There's something to be said for chemistry, though. Jones became extremely tight with Kendrick Bourne last season, and Bourne ended up proving himself to be one of the most dynamic players on the Patriots offense.
Burks has a curious combine workout
One player who looked like a prototypical "X" wideout for the Patriots to consider adding to Jones' arsenal was Arkansas' Treylon Burks. He lit up the Alabama secondary last season and had received high praise from Belichick pal Nick Saban. He had rare size (6-2, 225 pounds) and speed. At least he appeared to have rare speed. Scouts anticipated that he would blaze in his 40-yard dash. He didn't, running a 4.55-second 40. That's not bad considering the weight he was hauling -- AJ Brown ran a 4.49-second 40 at 226 pounds a few years ago -- but it's certainly not next-level burst, either. It's my understanding Burks played even heavier than his listed 225 pounds at times last season, and if his focus has been to cut weight, that might've limited how much track-and-field training he did in preparation for his time in Indy.
That workout could leave the Patriots in an interesting spot where someone considered to be a top-15 player not too long ago (he was No. 14 on Daniel Jeremiah's most recent top-50 list) ends up falling to No. 21 overall. The question then is do you want to take a big body with good play speed even if the testing didn't match up? Do you want to take a big body that may get even bigger after he's drafted? How Burks' stock moves after last week -- and what the Patriots do if they're faced with the possibility of drafting a player with on-paper traits similar to N'Keal Harry -- will be fascinating.