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Sunday NFL Notes: With deadline looming Monday, could this turn out to be a slow year for franchise tags?

03.02.14 at 6:00 am ET
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1. With the franchise tag deadline set for Monday, even though there’s plenty of talk about players getting tagged between now and then, we could be in for one of the slowest years ever when it comes to the tag. At this point, three players have been tagged: Jets kicker Nick Folk, Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (which could turn into quite a fight) and Panthers defensive lineman Greg Hardy. By way of comparison, eight players were tagged last year, an NFL-record 21 players were tagged in 2012, 13 players in 2011 and six in 2010. Locally, if the Patriots elect not to use the franchise tag on anyone between now and Monday afternoon, it would mark the first time since the turn of the century they have gone back-to-back years without using the tag. Overall, New England has used the tag eight times since 2002, with Wes Welker being the last player tagged in 2012. For more on the Patriots tag history, check out our past story here.

2. Much was made Saturday about a report saying the Patriots had floated Danny Amendola‘s name in trade talks, and that the team had even considered cutting him if they couldn’t find a taker for the wide receiver. From this viewpoint, it’s likely the idea was simply a trial balloon, a hypothetical proposed by the Patriots as a way of trying to gauge the market for the receiver. In the short-term, the Patriots would lose money against the cap if they did release Amendola. (In this context, it’s important to note that Amendola is due a $2 million payout if he’s on the roster on the first day of the new league year, March 11. If they were going to cut him, they would make the move before then.) Two reasons: one, when you consider the financial implications — detailed here by capologist Miguel Benzan of Patsfans.com — it doesn’t appear to make much financial sense. And two, if the Patriots do release him, they wouldn’t have any veteran receivers on the roster with the exception of Julian Edelman, and Edelman is no slam-dunk to return as he heads into free agency. After signing a five-year, $28.5 million contract last offseason, there was no denying that Amendola cleared struggled at times over the course of the 2014 season, and disappeared for large chunks of the season as he dealt with concussion and groin issues. But it would seem to be a bit premature to cut ties with the receiver relatively early in his career with New England.

3. In the wake of the Patriots’ decision Friday to release safety Steve Gregory, I tweeted out the idea that with Gregory’s departure, this should open the door for more work for linebacker Jamie Collins going forward. By the tone of many of my responses, it turns out I did a bad job of explaining why I felt that way. (In my defense, a 140-character limit doesn’t allow much room for a nuanced discussion. That, and I hadn’t had any coffee at that point.) Collins played a ton of snaps down the stretch and into the postseason, so it’s clear he can’t play much more than he did late in the year. (He played roughly half the snaps over the last two weeks of the regular season and almost all the snaps in the two playoff games.) What I should have said was that if the roster stays relatively the same, there will likely be a change in the way Collins is utilized. A lot of it depends on what the Patriots do at the strong safety spot going forward, but as a rookie, Collins had a versatile skill set that allowed him to stay on the field in running and passing downs, and he showed a nice ability to run with tight ends and backs on passing routes out of the backfield. According to the analytical website Pro Football Focus, Collins played 302 snaps last season, and was in coverage on 156 occasions. Collins, who spent a year of his college football career as a safety, will get more snaps in 2014, but he could be called on to work more in coverage this coming season than he did as a rookie. Again, a lot of it will depend on how the Patriots approach the strong safety spot going forward, but expect Collins to be a key part of New England’s pass defense in 2014.

4. Going back over some of the notes from the combine, one guy who really stuck out to me for a number of reasons was Minnesota safety Brock Vereen, and not just because he’s the brother of Patriots running back Shane. The defensive back was extremely impressive in his session with the media, enduring several questions from New England reporters about his brother. (He was asked about possibly playing alongside his brother, and he joked, “€œI think the biggest part of me wants to hit him.”) And while it’s important to remember that every case is different, that usually translates to a good session in his meeting with teams. The 6-foot, 199-pounder then also had a terrific on-field session — he led all defensive backs and safeties with 25 reps on the bench press, and his 40-yard dash time of 4.47 was the second-fastest time among safeties. His all important 3-cone drill time was a 6.9, good enough to likely garner the attention of the Patriots. He’s played more free safety over the course of his college career at Minnesota, and if he can display some positional versatility (as well as special teams value), he would almost certainly be in the mix as a possible pick either late on Day 2 or early on Day 3 for New England.

5. While the Patriots have been paired up with several tight ends (Jace Amaro, Eric Ebron, C.J. Fiedrorowicz, Austin Seferian-Jenkins) throughout the pre-draft process, one notable tight end who hasn’t been linked much to New England is Oregon’s Colt Lyerla. From a pure football perspective, the 6-foot-5, 246-pound Lyerla has a lot going for him: he played in an NFL-style offense while in college, he developed a rep as a dynamic playmaker who can fit at multiple spots, and had a terrific combine. He posted a 4.61 40, and led all tight ends in the vertical (39 inches) and broad jumps (10-feet 8). “I watched film, what little tape I could get on him from 2012,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “He’s a gifted, gifted kid.” But there are a ton of red flags around Lyerla — he left school last October for “personal reasons,” there was an arrest for cocaine possession, and he was entangled in a bizarre series of Tweets where he insinuated that the Newtown school shootings were somehow the result of a governmental conspiracy. (He later deleted the Tweets.) Prior to last year, New England was seen as the sort of franchise that would take a chance on a player who might have some character issues, but in the wake of what happened to Aaron Hernandez, the landscape has certainly changed. Despite the fact that Lyerla showed contrition when he met with the media at the combine, despite their needs, it now seems unlikely the Patriots would pursue him this spring.

6. For the second consecutive year, it appears that no running backs will be taken in the first round of the NFL draft, another sign that in the modern-era, pass-first NFL, the position continues to go through a slight devaluation process. Of course, this is no surprise, as over the previous three years, only four backs have been taken in the first round: Mark Ingram in 2008, and Trent Richardson, Doug Martin and David Wilson in 2012, and outside of Martin, it’s debatable just how much impact each has had since they arrived in the league. (The first running back selected last spring was Gio Bernard, who went 37th overall to the Bengals.) At the combine in Indy, the more traditional backs like Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde — who, in previous years, would have been a first day lock because of his 2,491 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns the last two years — didn’t seem too worried about the state of the traditional running game in the NFL. “You have two big-time backs in the Super Bowl playing — you can’€™t just pass the ball the whole game,” Hyde said. “At one point, you have to hand the ball off to make the defense play the run. You start passing the whole game, the defense can just play off and interceptions, that’€™s when that happens.” With the pass-first ethos dominating the conversation, teams could be more inclined to go for smaller, shiftier backs who have value in the passing game. Such was the case last year with the 5-foot-9, 208-pound Bernard. This year, top prospects like Arizona’s Ka’Deem Hardy (5-foot-9, 207 pounds), Auburn’s Tre Mason (5-foot-8, 207 pounds) and Washington’s Bishop Sankey (5-foot-9, 209 pounds) are expected to be taken ahead of many of the bigger prospects because of their occasional ability to work in the passing game. (To that point, according to CBS Sports, only three of the top 10 running back prospects were taller than six feet, and only three of them were 230 pounds or more.)

7. In our continuing quest to try and find some sort of distinguishable pattern to the Patriots’ draft approach, we went back and looked at each one of the picks the team has made in the Bill Belichick era. Here are five things that jumped out:

a) Under Belichick, the Patriots have had 22 picks in the top 50. Six were defensive backs (Eugene Wilson, Brandon Meriweather, Patrick Chung, Darius Butler, Devin McCourty and Ras-I Dowling); five were defensive linemen (Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Ron Brace and Chandler Jones); four have been offensive linemen (Adrian Klemm, Matt Light, Logan Mankins and Nate Solder); three were tight ends (Daniel Graham, Ben Watson and Rob Gronkowski); two were wide receivers (Bethel Johnson and Chad Jackson); two were linebackers (Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower); and one was a running back (Laurence Maroney). Ten of them turned out to be long-term starters.

b) In that stretch, the Patriots have had two picks in the top 10: Seymour (sixth overall in 2001) and Mayo (10th overall in 2008). By way of comparison, in that same stretch, the Lions and Jaguars have had the most top 10 picks (nine each), while the Colts, Steelers, Broncos and Giants have had the fewest (one each).

c) Overall, since 2000, the Patriots have used most of their picks at defensive back (25), while defensive line (20) and offensive line (19) round out the top three. They’ve drafted 17 linebackers, 12 wide receivers, 10 tight ends, seven running backs, seven quarterbacks, three fullbacks, two kickers (one, Owen Pochman, also worked sparingly as a punter), one punter and one long snapper.

d) In 2009, the Patriots chose long snapper Jake Ingram (198th overall) 34 spots ahead of wide receiver Julian Edelman (232nd overall). Granted, Edelman was a man without a position, while New England was in need of a long snapper, but in hindsight, that’s remarkable.

8. We’ve listed these before, but now that we’re in the post-combine, pre-free agent period window, it’s worth revisiting some of the key dates on the upcoming NFL schedule through a Patriots’ prism:

Monday – The two-week franchise tag window closes. If the Patriots choose not to tag anyone, it would mark the first time they have gone back-to-back years without using the tag since the turn of the century. (They used the tag every year from 2009 through 2012, but opted not to utilize it last spring.)

March 8-11 – The open window for teams to contact and start contract talks with players who will become free agents when their 2013 deals expire at 4 p.m. on March 11. A contract cannot be executed with a new club until 4 p.m. on March 11. This is an opportunity for teams to begin discussions with players who will become free agents later in the month to start talking about contracts.

March 11 – New league year, free agency begins. Before 4 p.m. ET, clubs must exercise options for 2014 on all players who have option clauses in their 2013 contracts. In addition, teams must submit qualifying offers to their restricted free agents with expiring contracts, and clubs must be under the 2014 salary cap before 4 p.m. ET. The cap is set at $133 million.

March 23-26: Owners meetings, Orlando, Fla. – Usually, one of the handful of times both Belichick and owner Robert Kraft speak with the media in the offseason.

April 7 – Clubs that hired a new head coach after the end of the 2013 regular season may begin off-season workout programs. (April 21 is the date teams with returning head coaches may begin off-season workout programs)

May 2 – Deadline for restricted free agents to sign offer sheets. Long snapper Danny Aiken is a restricted free agent.

May 8-10: NFL draft, New York, Radio City Music Hall – The Patriots currently have single picks in the first, second, third, fourth and seventh rounds, as well as two in the sixth round. (They dealt their fifth-round pick to the Eagles in exchange for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga.)

9. From a New England perspective, Miami’s decision to replace Jim Turner with John Benton as offensive line coach and Jack Bicknell, Jr. as the assistant offensive line coach was a notable one. Turner is a Braintree native who played at Boston College, and later coached at Northeastern (1994-1998), Harvard (2000-2002), and BC before joining the Dolphins. As far as we know, Benton doesn’t have any local ties, but Bicknell has deep roots in New England. Playing for his father at The Heights, Bicknell was a three-year letter winner with Boston College as part of an offensive line that helped protect Doug Flutie while the Heisman winner was at BC. He coached at Boston College, UNH and Louisiana Tech before working as the assistant offensive line coach with the Giants, and the primary offensive line coach in Kansas City and Pittsburgh before he was fired last year.

10. In the wake of the comments from Patriots president Jonathan Kraft on Friday regarding the selection of quarterback Tom Brady, it’s worth going back and revisiting the comments made by Belichick following the selection of Brady. At the end of the second day of the 2000 draft (the draft was only two days at the time), Belichick addressed the media, and made the following statement about Brady: “The value board at that point really just clearly put him as the top value. [Tom] Brady is a guy who has obviously played at a high level of competition in front of a lot of people. He’s been in a lot of pressure situations. We felt that this year his decision-making was improved from his junior year after he took over for [Brian] Griese and cut his interceptions down. [He’s] a good, tough competitive, smart quarterback that is a good value, and how he does and what he’ll be able to — we’ll just put him out there with everybody else and let him compete and see what happens.”

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