Quick-hit thoughts around NFL, Patriots

October, 6, 2013
10/06/13
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Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:

1. The Patriots currently have the maximum number of prime-time games for the 2013 season (5), although the possibility exists that one more game could be moved when the league’s flexible scheduling period goes into effect in late November. The sweet spot for this possibility looks like it’s in the early December range, and while the picture changes on a week, here’s how we view it:

Dec. 1 – at Texans (4:25 p.m.)
Currently in prime-time: Giants (0-4) at Redskins (1-3)
Top contender: Broncos at Chiefs

Dec. 8 – vs. Browns (1 p.m.)
Currently in prime-time: Falcons (1-3) at Packers (1-2)
Top contender: Falcons/Packers or a repeat of Week 2’s Seahawks at 49ers

Dec. 15 – at Dolphins (1 p.m.)
Currently in prime-time: Bengals (2-2) at Steelers (0-4)
Top contender: Texans at Colts; Patriots at Dolphins

One consideration that could keep Patriots-Dolphins out of prime time is that the Patriots have the Sunday night game the next week as well -- at Baltimore.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaPractice reps for star TE Rob Gronkowski could prove valuable for the Patriots later this season.
2. With tight end Rob Gronkowski not playing today in Cincinnati, it pushes his potential return to next Sunday’s Week 6 matchup against the New Orleans Saints at home. Because of this, some might ask the question: Did the Patriots err by not putting Gronkowski on the reserve/physically unable to perform list, which would have sidelined Gronkowski for the first six weeks but opened up a roster spot for someone else? The answer is a decisive no and the reason is that if Gronkowski was on PUP, he wouldn’t have been eligible to practice. For Gronkowski to reach his desired comfort level after undergoing five surgeries since last November, he simply had to practice. That alone is more than worth the roster spot.

3. Only one team, the Jets, put in a waiver claim on former Patriots tight end Zach Sudfeld and had they not done so, it seemed obvious that the Patriots would have been happy to sign Sudfeld to their practice squad. One thing Bill Belichick has stressed for more than a decade is the importance of consistency, and how some players flash early and then fade; other players start slow and then pick it up; and others just have a gradual steady progression. Sudfeld, from this view, was a not-often-seen player in the first category. He was so impressive early that it seemed like he was a revelation. But then it tailed off pretty quickly, starting in the third preseason game (fumble at Detroit, blocking issues). So just as 2006 second-round draft choice Chad Jackson is often cited as a good media-based example of not getting overly excited about a player in spring camps, Sudfeld now falls in a similar category. He’s a good reminder that with any rookie, as promising as it looks early on, a player at that stage is still in a more volatile situation than veterans based on his lack of experience.

4. Three trades in one week? Fun stuff, almost baseball-like when looking back on the Jaguars shipping left tackle Eugene Monroe to the Ravens for draft picks; the Cardinals sending offensive tackle Levi Brown to the Steelers for a late-rounder; and the Panthers swapping linebacker Jon Beason for a pick. I might be off, but thinking that has to be one of the first times in the salary-cap era where three deals like that went down in the same regular-season week, well past the initial roster cutdown and well in advance of the trading deadline. One common thread that stood out to me: The teams trading the players all had first-year general managers in charge.

5. Football can be a cruel game. That was the first thought I had after watching Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer tear his ACL on Thursday night. Hoyer finally had his opportunity to start and was playing with such confidence. The ball was out quickly, he was making good decisions and it was clear Browns players, and the team’s fan base, were rallying behind him. What a bummer for one of our favorite guys to come through the Patriots locker room in recent years. Hoyer signed a two-year contract with the Browns so he’ll be back in Cleveland in 2014 with a more-than-reasonable $1 million salary. But if Cleveland drafts a quarterback with a top pick, it could affect Hoyer’s chances to start again.

6. Some say “follow the money” and the answer can usually be found. But in the case of Patriots rookie defensive tackle Joe Vellano, who is the projected starter in place of injured Vince Wilfork today, that isn’t the case. The Patriots signed 19 undrafted free agents in the days following the draft and of the group, Vellano was one of just two to receive no bonuses or guaranteed money as part of his deal. The Patriots went as high as $30,000 in guaranteed money to secure undrafted free agents this year (WR T.J. Moe), and recently waived tight end Zach Sudfeld had a $17,000 guarantee. Why no bonuses or guarantees for Vellano? It likely reflects he had few other options to create negotiating leverage. But no matter, Vellano has been one of the few to stick around and most recently delivered a big third-quarter sack in the team’s 30-23 win over the Falcons on Sept. 29. While he didn’t get the bonuses and guarantees of most other undrafted rookies, he’s cashing in on a base salary of $405,000 in a feel-good beat-the-odds story.

7. Without the 6-foot-2, 325-pound Wilfork, one question is what changes the Patriots might make on defense to account for the absence in today’s game against the Bengals. Coaches always try to adjust to the strength of their personnel, and with smaller linemen like Vellano (6-2, 300) and Chris Jones (6-1, 309) who have to win more with technique than power potentially teaming up in Wilfork’s place, look for more movement from Patriots defensive linemen in the game.

8. Did You Know: If the Patriots win today, history tells us they are a near-lock for a playoff berth. Consider that since 1990, when the postseason expanded to 12 teams, 90 percent of clubs that start a season 5-0 have qualified. Over that same span, only 13.4 percent of teams with a losing record through five games have made the playoffs (credit: ESPN Stats & Information).

9. It’s a timely week to highlight one of the second-level themes from the Patriots’ 2013 season: The return of the pure fullback, which sparks memories of Sam Gash (1992-97), Marc Edwards (2001-2002) and Heath Evans (2005-2008). Former Cincinnati Bengals practice squad player James Develin is averaging 21 offensive snaps per game for the Patriots this season, as the team has leaned more toward two-back sets than multiple tight end packages. Develin was a defensive end at Brown University and first started playing fullback in the United Football League. He credits his time with the Bengals, and learning from Chris Pressley (currently on the PUP list), as a key in teaching him the position. Earlier this week, Bill Belichick was complimentary of Develin, calling him one of the team’s hardest working players and someone who has earned the trust of the coaching staff (last question/answer of this transcript).

10. Lead Patriots running back Stevan Ridley won’t play today because of a knee injury, marking the first game in his three-year career that he will miss. But even before Ridley was sidelined, his declining playing time has been a hot topic of discussion. Ridley was averaging 25 snaps per game through the first four games of the 2013 season, numbers that were affected, in part, by his second-quarter benching in the season opener. But even without the opener, Ridley’s snaps have been considerably down compared to the first four games last year when he averaged 36 snaps per game. The presence of four-year veteran LeGarrette Blount, who has averaged 19 offensive snaps per game through the first four weeks of the season, has been part of Ridley’s decline. The Patriots seem to like the idea of having a 250-pound bruiser in the backfield, which we should see plenty of today.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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