FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Impact additions: With last week’s annual NFL league meeting in the rear view, we can set the table for the upcoming year and provide a “state of the team” snapshot based on changes over the previous two months. Here are some of the main things learned about the Patriots:
The team’s contingent included owners Robert and Jonathan Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick, director of player personnel Matt Groh, assistant coach Joe Judge and director of football/head coach administration Berj Najarian. The presence of Judge had a similar feel to Matt Patricia the year prior, when Patricia was in a senior advisor role.
Barring an unexpected change, the Patriots’ QB plans don’t include Lamar Jackson.
Belichick backed the return of special teams coordinator Cam Achord despite an up-and-down 2022 season, pointing out the unit’s No. 1 ranking from 2020 and saying: “Good coach. I don’t think that’s the problem.” Meanwhile, Judge’s more wide-ranging coaching role in 2023 (he was QBs coach in 2022) opens the door for him to help Achord and fellow assistant Joe Houston on special teams.
Free agent signings of offensive tackles Riley Reiff and Calvin Anderson might not have generated headlines, but they were viewed as critical, in part because they should put more pressure on Trent Brown (nine penalties in 2022), who is at his best when pushed. Belichick on Reiff: “Very experienced guy, played multiple positions. Smart, tough guy. Glad we have him.”
Asked if Patricia will work for the Patriots this year, Belichick answered, “Not sure,” which could mean the ball is in Patricia’s court if he would be interested in returning in an advisory-based role. Robert Kraft expressed empathy toward Patricia: “He’s a very good guy. Very smart. I think he got put in a difficult position and it was sort of an experiment. … I feel bad for him because he’s such a hard worker.”
Belichick referred to free agent signee Mike Gesicki as “hard to cover” and “kind of a unique player,” adding “hopefully we’ll be able to use him productively.” Belichick made it sound like the team views Gesicki more as a receiver than a traditional tight end, putting him in the category with receivers DeVante Parker, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Tyquan Thornton and Kendrick Bourne instead of with tight end Hunter Henry.
Re-signing defensive back Jonathan Jones “was a big one,” according to Belichick. “Especially with Devin [McCourty retiring], he gives us a lot of leadership and presence back there. He epitomizes what we want in a Patriot player.” Tying Jones in with McCourty sparks the possibility that Jones could potentially be part of the plans to replace McCourty’s role as a deep-field safety.
Expectations for free agent signee James Robinson are modest. “He’ll give us some depth in the backfield,” Belichick said. Robinson’s two-year contract includes no signing bonus, minimum salaries and injury waivers, which indicates how the team’s medical evaluation played a factor in crafting a deal that will reward Robinson only if he’s healthy and performs.
2. Titan up: The NFL doesn’t plan to release the full 2023 schedule until early May, according to NFL executive vice president Peter O’Reilly, but teams are already working behind the scenes on preseason plans. Word from the NFL annual league meeting is that Belichick and Titans coach Mike Vrabel have been talking about the possibility of joint practices in Nashville, similar to what the teams did in 2019.
3. Patriots Hall: The Patriots Hall of Fame committee is scheduled to meet Thursday to narrow a large list of worthy candidates to three, which would then go to a fan vote to choose one inductee. Vrabel, a three-time Super Bowl champion who played for the team from 2001 to 2008, has been a finalist six times but keeps missing the cut. Logan Mankins and Wes Welker were other top vote-getters last year from that era. Meanwhile, in conversations with those whose history with the franchise goes back to the 1970s, there was hope that tight end Russ Francis — who was back in town a few weeks ago for Pete Brock’s retirement party as director of the team’s alumni group — will generate more momentum as a candidate among the committee.
4. Stevenson stops in: The Patriots don’t officially start their voluntary offseason program until April 17, but running back Rhamondre Stevenson was back in town for a few days last week. His presence was a reminder, of sorts, of how the torch has officially been passed to him as the team’s decisive No. 1 option after the Patriots weren’t aggressive in attempting to retain Damien Harris (who signed a one-year deal with the Buffalo Bills).
5. Mayo’s role: Kraft spoke highly of assistant coach Mayo, saying, “There is no ceiling on his ability to grow,” while creating the perception he could someday become Belichick’s successor. Kraft, who had negotiated an extension to retain Mayo and took the uncharacteristic step of previously announcing it publicly, deflected when asked if Mayo will have an elevated title and increased responsibilities in 2023. But one of my takeaways from discussions at the NFL’s annual meeting is that Mayo himself doesn’t seem to be focused on those things; he’s comfortable with the arrangement regardless.
6. Feeling a draft: The Patriots have 11 picks in the NFL draft (April 27-29, ESPN/ABC) and Kraft expressed optimism with the team’s recent work in that area: “We had a little period where we didn’t draft as well a few years ago. We were able to get that changed, and I think we’re doing much better,” he said. “I look for the addition of the draft choices to make a difference.” The Patriots’ top picks are 14th, 46th and 76th, and areas the team could use a boost — cornerback, offensive tackle, tight end and edge defender — are considered some of the stronger positions in this class. Receiver and safety, however, are generally viewed as lighter on talent than the norm.
7. They said it: “Two years ago I think we spent more cash than any team [in free agency], one of the top two [or] three teams in the history of spending, and it didn’t get the value that we hoped it would. So I think having a solid draft is the foundation to building a team and sustaining it,” said Kraft.
8. CB fit?: ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reid projected Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon as a strong option for the Patriots at No. 14, and this week could be key for New England in how realistic that might be. Weatherspoon didn’t participate at the NFL combine or Illinois’ pro day because of a hamstring injury, so he has scheduled his own workout on Wednesday for scouts to gauge his progress. It’s hard to imagine the Patriots not being represented that day.
9. Kraft and Brady: Tom Brady had many of his former teammates in attendance for a party in the Bahamas last weekend, and one of them noted that Kraft was also there. Plenty of reminiscing from his 20 years with the Patriots, with one player saying Brady’s humility among teammates was a prevalent theme shared in the stories told.
10. Did you know: In the Super Bowl era, there have been 54 instances of a team playing multiple Thursday games in a season; four ended up making the Super Bowl that season, but none have won (1978 Cowboys, 2013 Broncos, 2014 Seahawks and 2017 Patriots).