Quick-hit thoughts on NFL, Pats

July, 7, 2013
7/07/13
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Quick-hit thoughts on the NFL and the Patriots:

[+] EnlargeNate Solder
AP Photo/Paul JasienskiNate Solder has the potential to become an All-Pro on an excellent Patriots offensive line.
1. The Patriots have questions at both the tight end and wide receiver positions as training camp draws near, but one group that we know to be sturdy is the offensive line. In fact, the Patriots return all five starters from last year's squad, while also possessing critical depth pieces such as Marcus Cannon, veteran Will Svitek and the versatile Nick McDonald. Nate Solder also has potential to ascend into a Pro Bowl player in 2013 with his rare physical build. A successful offense starts with a good quarterback and 11 pieces working in sync, but it's possible that we've overlooked the importance of returning the offensive line fully intact for 2013. The case can be made that it's the best in the NFL.

2. A question we've asked ourselves before and look forward to finding an answer to is: What's in store for second-year running back Brandon Bolden? The 2012 undrafted rookie was blossoming prior to a Week 6 injury last season, looking very much like a reliable between-the-tackles runner with good contact strength and burst. An injury coupled with a four-game suspension relegated Bolden to a special-teams role upon his return, but, based on ability alone, he has what it takes to resume an offensive job. Both he and Shane Vereen are among the running backs who may be called upon for bigger duties in 2013.

3. Here's a name that we haven't discussed much in this space this offseason (though he was the subject of colleague Mike Rodak's Saturday Bubble watch entry), but might be worth keeping an eye on: Marcus Benard, an edge player who is hopeful to resume his career after being out of the NFL for the entire 2012 regular season. Benard, 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds, was once considered a promising pass-rusher following a 7.5-sack campaign in 2010, but a motorcycle accident in 2011 caused him to miss significant time and he was eventually waived by the Browns at the conclusion of last training camp. He's the type of low-risk veteran investment the Patriots have had success with in previous years, and he could contribute for the team in 2013 with a base salary of just $630,000.

4. Current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was a guest at Patriots organized team activities this spring, and Bill Belichick indicated that the two have a friendship that stems, at least in part, from Kelly's being a local guy (he's from Everett, Mass.). While the Patriots don't have any current Notre Dame players on their roster (they recently released kicker David Ruffer), they did sign a pair of undrafted rookie free agents out of the University of Cincinnati, where Kelly coached prior to his time in South Bend. Belichick has relationships with other college coaches, and we've seen that previously coincide with the Patriots' investing in players from their respective programs (Alabama, LSU, Florida, Rutgers, etc.). We'll keep an eye on whether the team ends up adding more Fighting Irish players going forward.

5. The question likely won't go away until training camp, but our stance on the matter won't change: Don't count on Tim Tebow to work as a tight end, or any other position besides quarterback. While Tebow has a burly, 6-foot-3, 245-pound frame, position switches are not simple in the NFL. But perhaps more importantly, there's enough for Tebow to learn and master as it relates to his quarterback duties with the Patriots. That's plenty for any newcomer to absorb.

New England Patriots
Courtesy of NFL.comThe Patriots' new end zone logo, right, features block lettering.
6. News arose on Wednesday that the Patriots had unveiled a new end zone logo, shifting from cursive lettering to a more modern, boxy font. Some have wondered, what, if anything, the new logo means for the team's uniforms, though the Patriots' public relations staff said that the logo has no bearing on the team's jersey, which can be modified only once every five years. Other teams have undergone some uniform alterations this offseason; the Chargers made subtle changes, while the Jaguars overhauled their look. The Patriots last made major uniform changes in 2000, adopting their current look.

7. The future and success of new Bills general manager Doug Whaley won't be decided this offseason, but there's one move that would seem to go a long way toward fortifying his defense: agreeing to terms on a long-term extension with safety Jairus Byrd, the team's franchise player this offseason. ESPN.com's James Walker reported on Saturday that no progress toward a new deal has taken place, with a July 15 deadline looming. At just 26, Byrd is the type of secondary player worth constructing the back end of a defense around.

8. A sign of the times: To this point, there's been little buzz surrounding contract negotiations between the Chiefs and top overall draft pick Eric Fisher, an offensive tackle out of Central Michigan. Under the terms of the previous collective bargaining agreement, this would be a daily storyline, as training camp is just three or so weeks away. But the new CBA dictates a far more moderate rookie pay scale, and the contracts have become easier to negotiate. The Chiefs and Fisher should be able to come to terms on a deal in time for the start of training camp. The Raiders will reportedly soon settle a dispute with former quarterback JaMarcus Russell that will pay him $3 million, relating to the deal he inked as the top overall choice in 2007. His contract was among the deals cited as a motivation for the rookie pay scale to be changed.

9. Both Jay Cutler and Josh Freeman enter the 2013 season as the undisputed starters for their teams, but each also will play for a new contract, as both of their deals are set to expire following the season. Both players have immense talent, but each needs to be more consistent to take his team to the next level. The Bucs opted to invest in a backup for Freeman in this year's draft, selecting strong-armed NC State quarterback Mike Glennon. If Freeman doesn't perform well in 2013, Glennon could compete for the starting job in 2014 (if Tampa Bay opts not to re-sign Freeman). The Bears, meanwhile, don't appear to have a ready-made option on the roster to replace Cutler if they move in a different direction. If GM Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman don't believe Cutler to be the long-term answer, Chicago seems likely to be a buyer on the quarterback market next offseason.

10. We admire the direction of the Jaguars franchise, which underwent a difficult 2-14 season in 2012. New general manager David Caldwell has assembled a solid personnel department, and the infectious energy of coach Gus Bradley should resonate with his players. There's an infusion of youth on the roster, too, as the Jaguars currently have 21 players on the 90-man roster who are 22 years old or younger. The Patriots, for comparison, have just nine. Wins don't always come overnight in the NFL, but after years of struggles and middling near the bottom of the AFC South, the Jaguars look be headed decidedly in the right direction. Finding a quarterback will be pivotal.
Field Yates has previous experience interning with the New England Patriots on both their coaching and scouting staffs. A graduate of Wesleyan University (CT), he is a regular contributor to ESPN Boston's Patriots coverage and ESPN Insider.

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