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Which QB does best job spreading ball around in passing game?

02.18.14 at 6:00 am ET
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Piggybacking on a column we did last year about Tom Brady‘€™s ability to work in new receivers and spread the ball around — and with another full season in the books — we figured we should take another look at some of the league wide numbers when it comes to ball distribution in the passing game.

Using the 250-catch barometer as the mark for involvement, three over-30 veterans continue to set the standard when it comes to getting everyone involved in the passing game, as Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees have managed to make stars out a variety of pass catchers on the way to record-setting seasons.

Using numbers culled from Pro Football Reference — which utilizes stats dating back to 1999 — the three are head and shoulders above the rest of the quarterbacking field when it comes to finding equilibrium in the passing game:

– Since 2001, Brady has completed at least 250 passes in the regular season to four different pass catchers over the course of his 13-year career as a starter: Wes Welker (563), Deion Branch (328), Troy Brown (323) and Kevin Faulk (310). Providing they stay healthy — and, in the case of Julian Edelman, return for 2013 — two more receivers could be added to the mix: Rob Gronkowski had 39 catches in an injury-shortened 2013 season, bringing his total of receptions via Brady to 223. And his 105 catches in 2013 boosted Edelman to 166 career receptions from Brady.

For those of you asking about guys who just missed out on the 250-catch mark with Brady, two jump off the page: one, Randy Moss caught 192 passes from Brady while the two were together in New England, including 98 catches in 2007 and 83 in 2009. And two, Aaron Hernandez finished with 166.

– In that same span, Manning has completed at least 250 passes to three different receivers: Reggie Wayne (779), Marvin Harrison (677) and Dallas Clark (387). Depending on how long he plays, Denver’€™s Demaryius Thomas could also be part of that group as well — he has 185 catches from Manning over the last two seasons, and could reach 250 in 2014 if he and the quarterback can both stay healthy.

To be fair to Manning, that time frame of 2001-2013 does cut off the first three seasons — from 1998 through 2000 — of his career. As a result, some of his early numbers aren’€™t included, particularly the formative years with Harrison, who had 276 regular-season catches with the Colts in that span. Our cutoff also means the work of an excellent pass-catching back like Edgerrin James goes unrewarded. He caught 230 passes from Manning from 2001-2005 before he departed Indy for the Cardinals. In all, James ended up catching a total of 355 passes from Manning while the two were together from 1999-2005.

– While Brady and Manning have impressive totals, when it comes to finding a variety of targets, they’€™re nowhere near Brees. When you combine his work in San Diego and New Orleans, the 35-year-old has complied at least 250 passes to six different receivers: Marques Colston (605), Lance Moore (346), Jimmy Graham (298 over the last four seasons), Reggie Bush (294), Pierre Thomas (284) and LaDainian Tomlinson (254). And a seventh — Darren Sproles — can hit 250 receptions from Brees in 2014. He’€™s already at 235 catches and counting.

When it comes to the next generation, it appears unlikely that anyone will be able to connect with six different pass catchers for at least 250 receptions. Among the quarterbacks who have been in the league for 7-10 seasons, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers has Greg Jennings (324) and Jordy Nelson (252), but just missed out when Donald Driver (241) called it a career. However, his two wild cards are free agents James Jones (216) and Jermichael Finley (214) — if they both return and are healthy, Rodgers is seemingly a lock to get four pass-catchers to 250-plus receptions.

Ben Roethlisberger also has a good chance of getting to four — he’€™s completed at least 250 passes to three different receivers: Hines Ward (513), Heath Miller (420) and Antonio Brown (250), and could make it four if free agent Emmanuel Sanders (146) ends up sticking around Pittsburgh. Meanwhile Atlanta’€™s Matt Ryan has three, having connected for 250-plus with Roddy White (520), Tony Gonzalez (383) and Harry Douglas (205). And New York‘€™s Eli Manning has Hakeem Nicks (306) and Victor Cruz (241) — he appears to have just missed with Plaxico Burress (244) and Steve Smith (213).

As for the quarterbacks who have between two and five full years in the league, Detroit’€™s Matthew Stafford has found tremendous success with Calvin Johnson (353 catches from Stafford), but Brandon Pettigrew (215) and Nate Burleson (154) are also within hailing distance of the 250-catch mark, providing Burleson somehow makes it back to Detroit. In addition, Indy’€™s Andrew Luck has Wayne (145), T.Y. Hilton (133) and Coby Fleener (78), while Cincinnati’€™s Andy Dalton has benefitted from working with AJ Green (256), Jermaine Gresham (165) and Andrew Hawkins (85).

Read More: aaron rodgers, Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton, Ben Roethlisberger

History of Patriots and franchise tag

02.17.14 at 10:56 am ET
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We’ve written about this a couple of times to this point in the offseason, but with the franchise tag window open Monday, it’s worth taking another look at how the Patriots have used the tag in the past and what happened as a result:

2002: Adam Vinatieri, contract extension
2003: Tebucky Jones, traded
2005: Adam Vinatieri, played it out and later departed as a free agent
2007: Asante Samuel, played it out and later departed as a free agent
2009: Matt Cassel, traded
2010: Vince Wilfork, contract extension
2011: Logan Mankins, contract extension
2012: Wes Welker, played it out and later departed as a free agent

To be clear, there are two types of franchise tags:

The non-exclusive franchise tag: The most common designation. Under this agreement, the player must be offered a one-year deal based on the average of the non-exclusive franchise numbers at his position over the last five seasons and their percentage of that year’€™€™s salary cap or 120 percent of his prior year’€™€™s base salary, whichever is greater. If a player does get a non-exclusive franchise tag, they can talk with other teams, but if he signs an offer sheet with another club, his team has five days to match the offer. If the offer is not matched, his team will receive two first-round picks as compensation from the signing team.

The exclusive franchise tag: With this designation, the player receivers a one-year offer from his own team that’€™€™s the greater of the average of the top five salaries at his position once the restricted free-agent signing period has ended or 120 percent of his prior year’€™€™s salary. A player cannot negotiate with other teams with the exclusive franchise tag.

Teams have a two-week window, starting Monday, to tag their players.

Read More: Adam Vinatieri, Asante Samuel, Logan Mankins, Matt Cassel

NFL Mock Draft, Take 1: Texans need QB, but they can’t pass on Jadeveon Clowney

02.17.14 at 6:00 am ET
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You know the offseason truly has begun with the arrival of the first mock drafts.

This year’€™s draft has some intriguing quarterback options in Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater, as well as some potential defensive game-changers in players like Jadeveon Clowney and some potential game-changing skill position players in Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans. It’€™s important to remember that this is just the first of what will be several mocks between now and the first weekend of May — we’€™re still in the infant stages of the team-building process for the 2014 season, and with the combine and free agency looming between now and the draft, the needs of each one of the 32 team will no doubt change between now and when Roger Goodell takes to the podium the night of May 8 and announces that the Texans are officially on the clock. So, with that in mind, here’€™s a pre-combine, pre-free agency look at how we see things shaking out:

1. Texans — Jadeveon Clowney, DL, South Carolina: My prevailing attitude toward mock drafts is “franchise quarterback above all,” but Clowney is a transformative defensive presence. Teamed with J.J. Watt up front, he’€™ll provide an instant impact for the Houston defensive front. And given Bill O’€™Brien‘€™s offensive background, he’ll be able to take a quarterback in the second or third round and still turn him into a quality starter in rapid fashion.

2. Rams — Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn: Good, safe bet for St. Louis here — Robinson gives the Rams a chance to provide bookend tackles (Robinson and Jake Long) to protect Sam Bradford.

3. Jaguars — Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: Johnny Football heads to Jacksonville, where his mere presence will breathe life into an occasionally mundane franchise,

4. Browns — Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida: Even though folks at UCF don’€™t sound all that enthused about the possibility of Bortles being able to step in and become a franchise quarterback, the feeling is that he sits for a year or so behind Brian Hoyer before taking over the full-time gig.

5. Raiders — Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville: Oakland is in need of a quarterback, and Bridgewater’s skill set is a good fit for Dennis Allen‘s passing game. If Bridgewater isn’t available, look for the Raiders to go after another signal-caller at this spot, as the top three quarterbacks all come off the board in rapid fashion.

6. Falcons — Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA: Atlanta needs an edge rusher, and Barr certainly fits the bill. (For what it’s worth, if there’s a team in the top 10 that might push all its chips to the middle of the table and go after Clowney, history tells us it’s going to be Thomas Dimitroff and the Falcons. If they end up trading down as a result, they could target a tight end later in the first to replace Tony Gonzalez.)

7. Buccaneers — Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo: Tampa goes one of two directions here. One, it follows a likely directive from new coach Lovie Smith, who made his bones as a defensive coordinator and would love to build that side of the ball. Or two, the Bucs try to find another offensive option for young quarterback Mike Glennon to join Vincent Jackson. Pre-combine and free agency, the pick here is Mack, but much of that depends on how the Bucs approach the team-building process over the next three months.

8. Vikings — Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State: This feels too high for Carr, but Minnesota is setting the reset button across the board, and so it makes sense for them to go after a guy who has the potential to be a starting quarterback in Carr. A tall, strong-armed QB who could handle the schemes presented by new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, Carr makes the most sense if Minnesota sticks at No. 7.

9. Bills — Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M: Buffalo needs some help in a few areas — some more depth at linebacker, as well as a tight end. (Jace Amaro and Eric Ebron probably are a reach here.) But Matthews is a safe pick at this spot.

10. Lions — Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson: A complementary piece in the passing game to take some of the pressure off Calvin Johnson. (Maybe it’€™s just me, but the idea of Detroit drafting a receiver in the first round just sparks Matt Millenesque memories.) The Lions also could go for a linebacker or corner.
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Read More: 2014 NFL Draft, Blake Bortles, Greg Robinson, Jadeveon Clowney

Sunday NFL Notes: When it comes to franchise tag and Patriots, timing isn’t everything

02.16.14 at 12:32 am ET
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1. The two-week window to apply the franchise tag opens on Monday and runs for two weeks, and while the Patriots have a dozen free agents, it’€™s believed the two prime candidates are cornerback Aqib Talib and wide receiver Julian Edelman. When trying to figure out how New England utilizes the tag, we were hoping to try and find some clues in exactly when they tagged the player — trying to discern not just who was tagged and why, but if it mattered when they were tagged. Here’€™s a look at the last five players who were tagged by the Patriots, when they were tagged in relation to the window, and what ultimately happened.

2007 — Asante Samuel was tagged on Feb. 16, very early in the process. He held out for most of the offseason and into the summer, eventually signing his tender on Aug, 27. He left as a free agent the following offseason — he was in Philly at a press conference announcing his signing with the Eagles less than 18 hours following the start of free agency the next year.
2009 — Matt Cassel was franchised on Feb. 5, the first day of the window. He quickly acquiesced, signing the tender and opening the door for a trade with the Chiefs soon after that.
2010 — Vince Wilfork was hit with the tag on Monday, Feb. 22, three days before the end of the franchise tag window that year. The two sides then continued to talk about a new deal, one that was reached in March.
2011 — Logan Mankins was tagged on Feb. 14 — the Patriots were the first team to announce they had franchised a player, four days after the window opened. He signed his tender in July.
2012 — Wes Welker was tagged at the last possible moment, just hours before window closed on March 5 that year. He signed his tender that spring, played out his deal and left as a free agent the following spring.

Two things seem to emerge: one, in the case of Samuel and Cassel, they were out of there sooner rather than later, and so it wasn’€™t a surprise they were tagged so early in the process. And two, in 2010, the team and Wilfork were continuing to talk through the process, and they utilized the tag as a way to continue the dialogue between the two teams. When it comes to Talib and Edelman, it’€™s tough to try and draw comparisons between their respective situations and how the Patriots have operated in previous years in regards to the franchise tag. Bottom line? The Patriots have always been tough team to read, and their use of the tag is no exception.

2. As for the rest of the league, here’€™s our take on best candidates for the franchise tag:

Arizona: Kicker Jay Feely could get the call, given the level of his performance and the (expected) low numbers for kickers and punters.
Baltimore: We explored the topic a little regarding the Ravens and tight end Dennis Pitta here — he might be the only case with Baltimore.
Cleveland: The Browns could go with either center Alex Mack or safety T.J. Ward.
Denver: As was the case with Pitta, we looked briefly at the idea of the Broncos tagging wide receiver Eric Decker here. A very tough call for Denver.
Indianapolis: Cornerback Vontae Davis and kicker Adam Vinatieri are both candidates.
Miami: We believe cornerback Brent Grimes would look good in New England, but he could be a candidate to be tagged by the Dolphins.
New Orleans: Jimmy Graham is likely to get the tag; the only question is whether or not he’€™s labeled a tight end or receiver. That could set a precedent for hybrid pass catchers for years to come.
New York Jets: Like Feely, Nick Folk is a good kicker who could come relatively cheaply if he’€™s tagged.
San Diego: The Chargers would love to find a way to keep linebacker Donald Butler, and tagging him while continuing to talk about a new deal might make the most sense.
Seattle: A few candidates for a team looking to save some money before a ton of big contracts come due. Defensive lineman Michael Bennett is one of them.
St. Louis: Offensive tackle Roger Saffold could be in line for the designation.

3. We’€™ve written about the possibility of the Patriots making another run at wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders again this offseason, but in the wake of a recent chat involving Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the stars could be aligning for New England to take another shot at Sanders this offseason. Dulac said he doesn’€™t believe that the Steelers will re-sign Sanders, who was inked to an offer sheet by the Patriots when he was a restricted free agent last offseason. Sanders eventually returned to Pittsburgh, but the die was certainly cast at that point for the Patriots to make a move when Sanders became an unrestricted free agent. Some of New England’€™s interest will likely be dictated by what happens with Edelman, as there’€™s some offensive redundancy when comparing the two receivers. But don’€™t be shocked if the Patriots make some sort of play for the SMU product when free agency begins next month.

4. Lots of movement out there this week as teams began slicing payroll in hopes of finding some financial integrity before the start of free agency, set to kick off next month. In Detroit, that meant cutting veterans Louis Delmas and Nate Burleson, while in New Orleans, the Saints released a ton of veterans, including Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer and Will Smith. Some of those players are likely to return to their old teams with reduced salaries, as teams work to create more financial flexibility before the start of free agency. The Patriots have done this in the past with veterans who have re-done their deals, with most of the most notable coming in 2005 when the team cut wide receiver Troy Brown on March 1, less than a month after Super Bowl XXXIX. He was re-signed on May 23.

5. The NFL released the stats regarding the 2014 strength of schedule this past week, and according to the numbers from the 2013 schedule, the Patriots will face the 10th toughest slate in the league — New England’€™s 2014 opponents had a .516 winning percentage last year. By way of comparison, the Raiders will have the toughest schedule with an opponents winning percentage of .578, while the Colts will face the easiest slate, as their 2014 opponents had a winning percentage of .430 in 2013. However, prior to the start of the team-building process for the 2014 season, it’€™s premature to read too much into the strength of schedule, as just about every team will go through changes between now and the start of the new year. (In truth, it’€™s important to note there will also be plenty of changes over the course of the regular season.) It makes for a fun stat at this time of the year, but because there are so many changes still to be made, it’€™s not a great way to gauge how difficult a schedule will be the following season.
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Read More: Aqib Talib, Julian Edelman,

Greg Bedard on D&C: ‘I would be completely shocked if the Patriots took Michael Sam’

02.14.14 at 9:53 am ET
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Sports Illustrated’s Greg Bedard joined Dennis & Callahan to discuss his analytical piece on Michael Sam that indicates the Missouri star should be a late-round draft pick — if he’s drafted at all. To hear the interview, go to the Dennis & Callahan audio on demand page.

Bedard watched tape from 12 Missouri games and came to the following conclusion:

Sam was a good player for one season in college. He was productive, so the accolades he received were earned. But being a good college player and becoming a good NFL player are two different things (see Tim Tebow). Sam did well for Missouri with a lot of talent around him. A majority of his production came in three games against inferior competition without a need to show much of a pass-rushing repertoire. He doesn’€™t show much of what the NFL looks for on special teams, and it’€™s difficult to project a position for him on the next level. For those reasons, Sam would project to be no better than a mid- to late-round pick. He could go undrafted. To my eyes Sam is decidedly average, with nothing exceptional about his game.

Bedard — who told D&C that he has gotten some negative feedback since the article went up, but less than he expected — explained that he had not formed any opinions about Sam before examining the video.

“I went into it, I had no preconceived notions about him,” Bedard said. “I figured, given his credentials, that I would be impressed at least with some aspect of his game. When you talk about watching college players and projecting them at the NFL level, you’re looking for two things, really, in my experience. You’re looking for things they do extraordinarily well, that you say, ‘OK, that’s a real strength and that can be used on the NFL level.’ Or you might find guys who maybe don’t wow you but really show the type of instincts, the kind of inherent ability to play football that it’s hard to measure but it will show up in the NFL game. And I just didn’t see enough to wow me, to impress me with Sam. I was a little bit surprised at that.

“That’s not to say he’s not a good football player on the college level, that he didn’t deserve the accolades. He produced his senior year. I think the production can be taken apart. I’m blown away that he was SEC Defensive Player of the Year over a guy like C.J. Mosley from Alabama, a terrific prospect. But yeah, I was surprised when I went through 12 games. He’s a good college football player, but I think he’s going to have a hard time being able to translate to the next level.”

Bedard noted that Sam’s high sack numbers largely came against inferior competition, and he did not prove he could succeed against NFL-caliber competition.

“I would say that he has above-average ability to get to the quarterback,” Bedard said. “Now, he doesn’t do it in a variety of ways like you need to on the NFL level to do that. And he doesn’t really show the athletic ability to be able to develop that in the NFL. I think when the NFL teams sit down and really debate him, that’s going to be the thing about Sam.”

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Read More: Greg Bedard, Michael Sam,

Four thoughts on potential reunion between Bill Belichick and Mike Lombardi

02.13.14 at 9:19 pm ET
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It sounds more and more like Bill Belichick and Mike Lombardi are going to be working together again. Here are four thoughts on what that reunion would mean for both sides:

1. Belichick and Lombardi are like-minded individuals when it comes to running a football team — Lombardi has a deep and abiding relationship with Belichick that goes back to 1991, when Lombardi was working with Belichick in Cleveland. And while there have been several stops for Lombardi in the last 20-plus years, if there’€™s anyone left in the organization who could serve as a true counterpoint to Belichick on personnel matters, it would be Lombardi.

The Patriots coach has spoken glowingly of Lombardi in the past, including this statement in December:

‘€œHe’€™s thorough, he’€™s smart, he’€™s thorough, he understands football,’€ Belichick said of Lombardi last December in the days leading up to the Browns-Patriots game. ‘€œHe understands not just personnel, but schemes and how certain players fit into certain schemes better than others because of the responsibilities in those schemes; the type of plays or the type of system that coaches run, different coaches run.

‘€œThere are obviously a lot of different coaches in this league, different coaches in college, so that affects the performance of the players — some good, some bad, depending on how they fit into that particular system. I think he has a very good understanding of that, which is important for personnel people to understand, just like it is for coaches to understand personnel.

‘€œMike is a hard working guy that won’€™t leave a stone unturned. He’€™ll find players, the Tony Joneses of the world, the Wally Williams of the world, the guys like that that played very well for us at Cleveland that nobody ever heard of that came out of nowhere that were good football players. He has a way of finding those guys.’€

The relationship between Belichick and Lombardi was so close, in fact, that after Lombardi left the Raiders (he was there in various capacities from 1998 until 2007), then-owner Al Davis accused Lombardi of helping New England to the detriment of Oakland, pointing to the 2007 deal that brought Randy Moss to the Patriots. ‘€œWhat’€™s his name knew he could run, he’€™s a friend of Belichick’€™s. Mike Lombardi. Mike sold what’€™s his name, Belichick, on the idea that [Moss] could run. They tampered with him. I remember Bob Kraft saying that he had to look him in the eye and all that. They went down and worked him out, he could run.’€ Lombardi later denied the charges. ‘€œI was trying to do the best thing for the Raiders, always have,’€ he said. ‘€œIn this situation, Bill Belichick is not going to always rely on my opinion for information. He is going to look at what he sees on the tape.’€

2. Lombardi would serve as what might best be termed ‘€œNick Caserio Insurance.’€ The Patriots current personnel chief suddenly became a man in demand this offseason, as he took two interviews for the vacant Miami GM job, and while it’€™s debatable how open Caserio would be to leaving Foxboro, the fact that he put himself out there is a sign he could be interested in moving on sooner rather than later, and if/when he did, Lombardi would offer another personnel voice. As it stands right now, it’€™s unclear what sort of role or title Lombardi would have in the organization, but he’€™d likely be part of an inner circle of personnel men, a group that includes Belichick, Caserio and college scouting director Jon Robinson.

3. Belichick has had veteran voices in his corner on several occasions, with the latest being Floyd Reese, who served as ‘€œsenior football advisor’€ in New England from 200 through 2012. (According to several people close to the organization, Reese was the one who negotiated contracts.) It’€™s unlikely that Lombardi would fill that role, as he’€™s more of a personnel man, but it’€™s not out of the realm that he could have multiple responsibilities if needed.

4. It’€™s also worth mentioning that despite the fact he was never officially on the Patriots payroll, he continued to keep an interest in New England. His son Mick worked for the Patriots in 2012 before moving on to take a job with the Niners, and then, last year, with the Browns. In addition, Shalise Manza-Young of the Boston Globe reports that Lombardi served as an unofficial advisor/consultant with the Patriots when it came to the 2010 and 2012 drafts.

Read More: Al Davis, Bill Belichick, Floyd Reese, Jon Robinson

Reports: Mike Lombardi set to rejoin Bill Belichick with Patriots

02.13.14 at 4:08 pm ET
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The Patriots and Michael Lombardi are close on a deal that would reunite Lombardi with Bill Belichick, according to multiple reports.

Lombardi, who was let go by the Browns earlier this week, has a deep and abiding relationship with the Patriots coach — it’s a connection that goes back more than 20 years when Lombardi was part of the personnel department in Cleveland and Belichick was head coach of the Browns.

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