Patriots

Texans' controversial pursuit of Patriots' Nick Caserio remains source of intrigue

Texans' controversial pursuit of Patriots' Nick Caserio remains source of intrigue

Last June — for the second time in 18 months — the Houston Texans tried to pry longtime Patriots personnel man Nick Caserio from New England.

Unlike the first time when the Patriots merely blocked Caserio from interviewing, the Patriots leveled a tampering charge at the Texans the second time around.

So who tampered?

It was widely reported that Jack Easterby, the Patriots former team chaplain who jumped to the Texans in the offseason, was the presumed tamperer. Easterby attended the Patriots ring ceremony just days before the Texans unexpectedly fired their GM Brian Gaine and took up pursuit of Caserio. Those dots were connected and away we went.

It was an interesting bit of intrigue dropped into the NFL dead period, especially since the relationship between the Patriots' and Texans' personnel under former Patriots coach Bill O’Brien appeared friendly enough until the tampering charges came down.

Nobody likes getting tampered with.

And, truth be told, not a lot of people like getting blocked from interviewing for an opportunity that could pay more money and afford greater responsibility.

The Texans pulled their pursuit of Caserio a couple of days after the Patriots filed their charge with CEO Cal McNair releasing a statement that said, “We have now been made aware of certain terms in Nick’s contract with the Patriots. Once we were made aware of these contract terms, I informed Mr. Kraft that we would stop pursuing Nick.”

So did that settle that?

Bill Belichick would like to think so. On Wednesday, asked about “residual” irritation with Houston and Easterby’s involvement ahead of this weekend’s game against Houston, Belichick said, “That didn’t have anything to do with Jack Easterby. All that’s in the past.”

Similarly, O’Brien was in “nothing to see here…” mode.

“Whatever happened, happened,” he told the Houston media. “There are no hard feelings. I mean, we have a lot of respect for the Patriots. I have a lot of respect for Bill (Belichick). I'm very grateful to Bill for the opportunities he gave me. And then obviously I have a lot of close friends on the staff over there that I worked with. So, there's no, none of that, not on our end."

No player or coach on either side is going to prepare, scheme, block, tackle or run harder on Sunday night because the Texans tried to hire Nick Caserio in June.

But it isn’t “all in the past” either. Caserio’s contract is up at the end of the season. The Texans still haven’t filled their GM position. It will likely take a lot of persuading for the Patriots to retain Caserio, who’s been one of the team’s most valuable employees for two decades.

It’s hard to get a read on who was more pissed at the Texans: ownership or football.

Robert Kraft has shown practically since the moment he took over the team that he’s going to bareknuckles fight for what he believes is contractually his. The notion — disputed by Belichick but, again, widely reported — that the Patriots' suspicion arose from Easterby cozying up to Caserio at Kraft’s home didn’t pop from someone’s imagination.

Throw another log on the fire for suspecting it was Robert Kraft who was most irked? It was reported after Easterby left that part of his motivation was disappointment in Kraft’s West Palm Beach peccadilloes.

Greg Bedard of the Boston Sports Journal reported the team was “livid” when Easterby went to the Texans.

Meanwhile, if you’re Bill Belichick, you are also saying, “WTF!?” when news comes your top personnel guy is being poached with training camp 40 days away.

And not just a top personnel guy. A personnel guy/contract negotiator/coach/coordinator/practice arm with an impeccable work ethic and scruples who can be relied upon to know what the head coach wants before the head coach knows he wants it.

O’Brien knows how important Caserio is to the Patriots. So why would his team fire Gaine and begin pursuit of Caserio — basically their only target — unless it had been somehow communicated to Houston that Caserio was ready, willing and able to report to duty in Houston?

Someone told somebody something.

Last week, in Belichick delivered his latest ode to Caserio.

“Nick has a vast amount of experience and talent in a number of different areas,” Belichick began. “…(He) can do so many different things and do them well that we can utilize him in the areas we feel will have the biggest impact and the most effect on positive results for our team. We’ve always done that. We’ll continue to do it. He’s coached multiple positions, had multiple responsibilities in the personnel department, continues to have a strong role in both areas.

"It’s a pretty full plate,” Belichick added. “Sometimes it gets divided differently, but it is usually full and sometimes spilling over the edge a little bit. He does a great job in all those areas and has been extremely valuable to me on so many levels for such a long time. When things pop up that need to be done, it’s hard to find maybe a younger person, a less experienced person on your staff or in your organization to do those things, you look at him and say he can do them and that maybe allows you to shuffle some things in other areas.”

For his part, Caserio addressed the issue during training camp. He said the right things about being happy and focused but nothing about what his future plans may be after the year.

So while the tampering imbroglio may be in the past and have zero effect on Sunday night, the Texans’ interest in Caserio is just hibernating for now. And what Caserio winds up doing will impact the Patriots in the future.

LISTEN AND SUBSCRIBE TO TOM E. CURRAN'S 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.

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

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. 

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 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."

Listen and subscribe to Tom E. Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast here:

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?

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.

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.”

Listen and subscribe to Tom E. Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast here:

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.