Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Patriots open spot to add rookie QB in draft: The Patriots’ lone transaction of last week, in which they released No. 3 quarterback Cody Kessler, wasn’t a headline-grabbing move. But it was notable because it did something the club generally tries to avoid — telegraphing intentions in the NFL draft.
They will cast a wide net, as usual. One example: League sources say Florida International quarterback James Morgan had a videoconference meeting with the team. Morgan, who grew up in Green Bay and naturally modeled his game after Pro Football Hall of Fame QB Brett Favre, is an intriguing prospect who scouts say performed well in the East-West Shrine Game.
The Patriots have a notable recent history with quarterbacks who fall into that category, as Jimmy Garoppolo began to solidify his draft stock in 2014 with an exemplary performance in the game. Garoppolo, like Morgan, was a small-school prospect and ultimately came off the board late in the second round (No. 62).
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay doesn’t rate Morgan among his top 10 QB prospects, so if the Patriots decide he’s worthy of a pick, they might be able to wait until the middle portion of the draft.
But surely, Morgan isn’t the only quarterback the Patriots devote their videoconferencing resources to, and therein lies some of the greater intrigue in the team’s plans.
In past years, when they knew Tom Brady was atop their depth chart and moving into the top part of the draft wasn’t a realistic option, the Patriots didn’t do extensive work on top-ranked quarterbacks. Andrew Luck is one who comes to mind, as coach Bill Belichick has publicly acknowledged it made little sense to devote significant time to Luck on the scouting trail in 2011-12.
It’s possible the Patriots, with their top draft choice at No. 23, already have the answer in Stidham, who earned widespread respect from many in the organization behind the scenes during a consistent rookie season.
But like every other position on the roster, Belichick isn’t going to just hand him the job. Stidham will have to earn it, and he can expect a rookie joining the ranks to challenge him.
2. Jonathan Kraft’s finest moment: In these challenging times, the emotion of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker stood out to me late Thursday when he held a news briefing in front of the Patriots’ team plane at Logan Airport. The plane had returned from a humanitarian mission in China to deliver more than a million N95 masks to Boston hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic, and Baker became choked up as he mentioned how it started with his friend of more than 30 years, Patriots president Jonathan Kraft. The emotion was raw and knocked Baker briefly off script. With owner Robert Kraft usually serving as the face of the franchise, the role of Jonathan — who has seemed to make a concerted effort to avoid any spotlight in recent years — can often be overlooked. The Massachusetts governor made sure it wasn’t in this case.
NEW: Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker becomes emotional while thanking the Kraft family for helping to pay for and transport more than a million N95 masks from China to the U.S.#WBZ #coronavirus #PPE pic.twitter.com/D4aFp70zc9
— Liam Martin (@LiamWBZ) April 2, 2020
3. Expectations shift in Buffalo and New England: ESPN’s most recent NFL power rankings unveiled in late March had the Bills at No. 9 and Patriots at No. 13, which highlights a shift that New England captain Devin McCourty noted he was hearing about on Twitter — many think the Patriots’ AFC East run is over now that Brady is playing for Tampa Bay.
Bills receiver/returner Isaiah McKenzie echoed those remarks, telling WROC-TV in Rochester, New York: “The Brady situation, I cheered. He’s a great player. Our team is stacked. The last two years we’ve been giving him a run for his money, but now that he’s gone, it’s going to kind of be the Bills’ time to take over.”
Perhaps sensing that such a decisive shift in public perception doesn’t benefit his team, Bills general manager Brandon Beane pushed back on it Thursday, telling reporters the Patriots are still the team to beat. Something tells me McKenzie’s remarks, and not Beane’s, will find their way to the “bulletin board” in the Patriots’ offices.
4. One ranking of Belichick’s drafts: No team hits on all of its draft picks, and the Patriots have had a couple less-than-ideal classes in recent years, but one metric rates Belichick and New England as the second-best drafting team of the past 20 years. According to Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value (AV) metric, which places a single value on each player’s career, the Patriots are behind the Packers in drafting success from 2000 to 2020. The teams are ranked in terms of the cumulative value of their draft picks since 2000, and the Ravens, Seahawks and Bengals round out the top five, with the Redskins in the No. 32 spot.
5. Steve Belichick a bright light of coaching staff: Twin brothers Devin and Jason McCourty have entertained the past two Sunday nights with their “Double Coverage” podcast, connecting with Patriots fans and former teammates Duron Harmon and Kyle Van Noy while sharing behind-the-scenes stories and insight. One example was Devin on defensive backs coach Steve Belichick: “I would say he’s probably the most positive coach in our building. Always fun. The silver lining in all situations. In a stressful environment, he’s always upbeat. I love seeing him progress as a coach and taking on new roles.”
6. Preseason opponents coming this week? Last year, the NFL announced each team’s preseason opponents on April 9, so if things stay on schedule in 2020, that might be something that surfaces this week. The announcement was notable last year because it set the table for Bill Belichick to schedule joint practices with the Detroit Lions and Tennessee Titans. Of course, with the coronavirus pandemic, there’s still an element of uncertainty. And just in case you’re wondering with Brady in mind, the Patriots and Buccaneers have met seven times in the preseason in Belichick’s 20 years as coach, with the last time in 2013. The NFL schedule-makers wouldn’t do that to the Patriots, would they?
7. Inside the pass-rush meeting room with Andrews: Patriots starting center David Andrews, who spent the 2019 season on injured reserve with blood clots in his lungs, relayed to 247 Sports in recent weeks what he has been saying since January: “I’m ready to get back.” He also pulled the curtain back on his role in helping the team in a coaching-type role last season by leading a pass-rush meeting. According to those in the meeting, Andrews analyzed the defensive linemen of the team’s opponent that week, and then was given the floor by position coach Dante Scarnecchia to talk to his teammates about their style of play. Offensive linemen credited Andrews for helping them be more prepared each week.
8. Patriots’ playoff streak under new format: NFL owners agreed last week to expand the playoffs to seven teams per conference, which alters the format that has been in place since 2002. How would that have changed things in the past? Consider that the 2008 Patriots team that went 11-5 (playing without the injured Brady) would have qualified as the AFC’s seventh seed, giving New England 17 straight seasons of qualifying for the postseason.
9. Did You Know: The last time the Buccaneers won a playoff game was in 2002. That is also the last year that Brady, as a starting quarterback, did not make the playoffs.
10. Bethel adjusts with shoulder rehab: Core special-teamer Justin Bethel is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and he shared insight on how his rehabilitation has been affected by the pandemic during an interview on Sirius XM NFL’s “The End Zone” program with Alex Marvez and Vic Carucci.
“It’s definitely a tough situation. This is a time where you’re trying to get back full strength and you’re trying to get prepared for the season with all this social distancing, stay-at-home quarantine stuff going on,” Bethel said. “When I first left, they gave me a sheet of stuff to do — exercise, stretches. Pretty much you have to do it on your own. If you can find a clinic that’s open that will help you out, you can do it. But even with that, you have to be very careful. Really, you just have to get it done however you can, and pray for the best.”