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Sunday NFL Notes: For Patriots, it’s a roster-building tradition unlike any other

04.13.14 at 12:48 am ET

1. Roughly one month into free agency, the Patriots are still reportedly in the mix for veteran defensive end Will Smith. Cut loose in the great New Orleans salary purge of 2014, the 32-year-old veteran isn’€™t the overwhelming defensive presence he used to be — he’€™s coming off a torn ACL that sidelined him for the bulk of the 2013 season. But with 67.5 career sacks, he still has an impressive resume, and if he’€™s healthy, he could be the latest in a long line of veteran defensive linemen who have found their way to Foxboro at the end of their careers in hopes of finding some gold at the end of the rainbow. Over the last decade-plus, the Patriots have made an offseason habit of identifying a veteran defensive linemen and hoping to squeeze another year or two out them at the end of their careers. In the past, that’€™s a group that’€™s included Keith Traylor, Ted Washington and Anthony Pleasant, and over the last five years, Tommy Kelly (2013), Albert Haynesworth, Andre Carter, Mark Anderson and Shaun Ellis (2011), Gerard Warren (2010) and Derrick Burgess (2009) have all been veteran additions to the defensive line. As for Smith, he presents himself as an intriguing prospect for New England on a number of levels, including the fact that he passes the Rosevelt Colvin test — Bill Belichick has been effusive of his praise of Smith in the past with relatively no provocation. “€œI think Will Smith could fit any defense,”€ Belichick said of Smith in 2009 when asked about what he thought about Smith coming out of college. “€œI can’€™t imagine there being a defense that he wouldn’€™t be able to help. He’€™s certainly a guy that we had a lot of interest in. (He’€™s) a big guy that can run, rush the passer, pursue well, strong play at the point of attack, athletic, plays on his feet. He’€™s got a good group of skills. (He) plays hard. He’€™s been productive. I think he’€™s been about the player, where he was drafted, and what people thought he would be, including us.”

2. By this time last offseason, tight end Rob Gronkowski had undergone three surgeries on his left forearm in the span of five months — two in the immediate aftermath of breaks in November and January and another to clear up an infection that had developed in the wake of the surgery. (Eventually, he would undergo another surgery in May on the arm, as well as a procedure on his back in the spring.) However, this offseason had been much better for the big fella — there’€™s only been rehab from one injury, a season-ending knee injury he suffered in a Week 14 win against the Browns. That surgery took place Jan. 9, and while we’€™ve heard from Gronk (and seen him) occasionally over the course of the offseason, our pal Albert Breer of NFL Media reported Friday that Gronkowski is “€œright where he should be”€ when it comes to his rehab, which means he’€™ll start running soon. It remains to be seen where that would put him when it comes to a timetable for a return to action, but would almost certainly rule him out when it comes to the offseason conditioning program this spring. Regardless, he’s certainly in a better spot than he was at this time last year, which should be good news for Patriots fans.

3. With the release of the 2014 NFL preseason schedule this past week, several folks asked about the state of the 2014 regular season schedule. While some notable info has already been unveiled — the defending champion Seahawks will open at home on Sept. 4, while the dates and teams for the three International games have also been revealed — there is no firm date yet for the announcement of the regular-season slate. By way of comparison, here’€™s a look at the dates of the schedule announcements for the last four years.

2013: Thursday, April 18
2012: Tuesday, April 17
2011: Tuesday, April 19
2010: Tuesday, April 20

One thing that could ultimately push the schedule release back is the fact that the league has always been mindful of doling out offseason news on a steady basis, and with the fact that the draft has been pushed back from mid April to early May this year, the league could be interested in drawing out the news cycle just so to keep the steady stream flowing from the league offices. From this viewpoint, our guess is that we’€™ll see it released some time in the next two weeks — either April 22 or April 24, or April 29 or May 1.

4. There are several teams in this year’€™s draft that have a colossal decision to make when it comes to whether or not they should take a chance on one of the several quarterbacks who will be available, and it’€™s not a stretch to say that the success of the franchise for the next decade can depend on which signal caller a team settles on. The correlation between successful, steady and consistent quarterback play and the success of a franchise is an easy one to make, but it was really hammered home this week when a graphic popped up on Reddit that showed the total number of starting quarterbacks each team had since 1999 through last year. The Patriots topped the list with three different starters (Drew Bledsoe, Tom Brady, Matt Cassel), while the Colts, Giants and Packers were all second with five different starters. In addition, the Chargers (seven) and Steelers and Saints (eight each) rounded out the list of the top seven teams. That group accounts for 10 of the 15 Super Bowl titles in that stretch. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the bottom five teams were the Vikings (16), Raiders and Bears (17), Dolphins (18) and Browns (20). Among that group, there are exactly 13 playoff wins between them since 1999, with Minnesota and Oakland accounting for four each.

5. While the Patriots could end up picking up a Florida product or two in this year’€™s draft (defensive lineman Dominique Easley is a name that has come up time and again when it comes to potential Patriots), at least for now, they have moved on from the Gainesville-to-Foxboro pipeline. However, it’€™s clear the relationship between Belichick and former Florida coach Urban Meyer still resonates. Meyer, who is set to enter his third year in charge at Ohio State, was profiled this week by, and passed on a few things in relation to Belichick and his coaching style we found interesting. First, Meyer references “€œThe Process,”€ a behavioral culture passed down from Belichick to friends Meyer and Nick Saban. In addition, Meyer references a quote from Belichick when it comes to the practical nature of defense. “€œMeyer worries his coaches committed too many resources to stopping the run and not enough to stopping the pass,”€ writes Andy Staples of “€œMeyer recalled a conversation with New England Patriots coach Belichick in which Belichick said he was willing to give up a little in the run game if it meant being more sound in the pass game.”€ Later, Meyer provides some of Belichick’€™s insight when it comes to hiring coaches, specifically as it relates to Meyer’€™s decision to hire Chris Ash away from Arkansas to coordinate the Buckeyes’€™ pass defense. “To hire Ash — who worked for Bret Bielema at Wisconsin and Arkansas — Meyer had to extend a branch into another coaching tree. In his early years as a head coach, Meyer tried to hire mostly coaches who, like him, had come from the Lou Holtz, Bob Davie or Earle Bruce trees. This is another trait Meyer picked up from Belichick. ‘€˜When coaches leave, you don’€™t want to adapt to their culture,’€™ Meyer said. ‘€˜They have to adapt to yours. That’€™s why (Belichick) is very particular about who he invites into the family.’€™ ”

6. Roughly one month into free agency, of their own 12 free agents, the Patriots have retained four and lost five, while three remain on the market. Wide receiver Austin Collie, tackle Will Svitek and defensive end Andre Carter are the three free agents who ended 2013 with the Patriots, but have yet to find a landing spot for the upcoming season. Collie reportedly had a tryout with the Redskins this past week, but now, with the draft now three weeks away, the trio (as well as the rest of the mid-level veteran free agents on the market) could be in limbo between now and the start of OTA’€™s as teams will likely want to see who could be available in the draft (as well as possible undrafted free agents). Then, with the draft done, they’€™d be able to address their remaining needs with some of the available veteran free agents. For what it’€™s worth, all three certainly have value in New England. Collie didn’€™t play a lot of snaps, but was on the field in key moments during the season (including the majority of the game-winning drive against the Saints) and won Brady’€™s trust. Meanwhile, Svitek played significant snaps as a backup swing tackle, while Carter was a durable and steady backup at defensive end after returning roughly midway through the 2013 season. (Some of Carter’€™s future in Foxboro could be tied to what happens with Smith, but that’€™s a story for another day.)

7. While the Patriots aren’€™t officially set to start their 2014 offseason workout program until April 21, after speaking with defensive end Rob Ninkovich this week, it’€™s clear that a sizable portion of players are already in the area working out, either on their own or at the stadium. According to sources, Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty and Chandler Jones have been fairly regular visitors to the stadium in recent weeks, while others have been working out in the area. “It’€™s great to say hello to your buddies and hang out a little bit and enjoy your time together,”€ Ninkovich said when asked about the guys working together at Gillette. “Once the season is over, guys spread out, go their separate ways. It’€™s nice to see everybody back.”€ All of the players who went on season-ending IR in 2013 will bear close scrutiny as the offseason work truly begins, but it was interesting to hear Ninkovich almost offhandedly talk about the progress made by Mayo (who went down with a season-ending pectoral injury just six games into the 2013 season), saying Mayo is “a pretty explosive guy, so I try to keep up with (him). He’€™s looking good right now. I’€™ve been training with him for a long time, and it’€™s always good to have somebody to push you and make you better than what you are.”€ While the defensive additions of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner will certainly have an impact on the roster in 2014, a healthy Mayo would certainly go a long way toward improvements across the board in the upcoming season.

8. One guy who is working out on his own back in his home state of Pennsylvania is James Develin. The veteran fullback made his bones this past season as an important part of the New England offense — according to Pro Football Focus, he played 373 offensive snaps in 2013, and in many ways, became one of the symbols of the Patriots’€™ physical ground attack. (His touchdown run against the Texans was something that would have brought tears to the eyes of the likes of Larry Csonka.) But despite the successes he achieved in 2013, Develin is cognizant of the fact that 2014 will bring a new set of challenges, and for that, he says he’€™s ready. He’€™s been working out at the Lightning Fast Sports Performance Center in Spring City, Pa., with Johnny Carlisle putting him through routines that last upwards of two hours. “I can’€™t really rest on any laurels that I accrued from last year,”€ Develin said. “I just have to pretty much start over, and make a name for myself again. I have to try and grow, every single day.”€ For more on Develin’€™s offseason, check out this story from Sam Stewart. And check out the impressive video package of Develin getting after it in the weight room:

9. It was revealed this week that Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has begun working out with quarterbacking guru Tom House. House has worked with several noted signal-callers over the years, including Brady after the passing of the New England quarterbacks’€™ own guru Tom Martinez a few years ago. Brady swears by him — last spring, praised the “very scientific approach”€ favored by House when it comes to breaking down quarterbacking play, and was seen working with Brady and the rest of the New England signal callers during camp in the summer of in 2012. Dalton ventured west to work out with House in March, and it sounds like both sides came away happy with the results. “He’€™s bright, he gets it, he’€™s motivated,”€ House said of Dalton. “I see the same thing with elite athletes. We were work with golfers and they have the same characteristics. The way they handle failure, the way they handle adversity, they have a tendency to look at adversity in a positive way.”€ Entering a contract year — and coming off three consecutive playoff losses as a starter — it’€™s a key stretch for Dalton, who needs to get a postseason win under his belt if he and the Bengals want to be able to move to the next level. “We tweaked a few things just to make sure all of your momentum, all your force, everything you have is going toward the target of where you’€™re trying to throw,”€ Dalton said. “€œWe tweaked it a little bit. It happens so quickly, I don’€™t think the average person will notice it.” (For what it’€™s worth, this week marked a huge milestone in House’€™s career. The former Braves reliever was the guy who caught Hank Aaron‘€™s 715th home run, a shot that landed in the Atlanta bullpen.) We’€™ll see if the results are visible come September.

10. Our last update on former Patriots wide receiver Chad Johnson noted that the Canadian Football League had been mildly interested in his services, but it appeared to be something of a long shot at the time. Now, it looks like it’€™s becoming closer to a reality. The Montreal Alouettes, who put Johnson on their “negotiation list”€ earlier this winter (fundamentally retaining his rights if he ever chose to play in the CFL), are scheduled to work out Johnson at a minicamp Tuesday in Vero Beach, Fla. “We do expect to meet with Chad Johnson and work him out in Vero Beach, FL this week,”€ Alouettes GM Jim Popp said in a statement. “€œTalks did take place and have escalated over the last week.” Remarkably, the now 36-year-old Johnson hasn’€™t played in a professional football game since he suited up for New England against the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI. He had a brief stint in camp the Dolphins in 2012, but was cut following a domestic assault case that involved his former wife. Over the course of his career, The Artist Formerly Known As Ochocinco has caught 766 passes for 11,059 yards and 67 touchdowns.



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