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Sunday NFL Notes: Compared to last year, Patriots will be frequent fliers in 2014

04.27.14 at 5:00 am ET
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Bill Belichick and the Patriots will be spending more time on planes this year than in 2013. (AP)

Bill Belichick and the Patriots will be spending more time on planes this year than in 2013. (AP)

1. According to Pro Football Reference — using mileage from Gillette Stadium to the stadium in the opposing team’€™s city and assuming the team returns home following each road game — the round-trip distance for the Patriots in the 2014 regular-season will be 16,722 miles, including four games outside the Eastern Time zone. That’€™s a sizable increase from 2013, when New England was held to 12,124 round-trip miles, and just one regular-season game outside the Eastern Time zone (Houston).

Lots of mileage isn’€™t new for the Patriots. The most round-trip mileage in recent memory came in 2009 when they traveled 21,122 miles in the regular season, a slate of games that included a contest in London against the Bucs. In all, there were five trips that season that could be described as extensive — London, Denver, New Orleans, Miami and Houston.

By way of comparison, in 2012, the Patriots went 19,648 round-trip miles, including games in London, Seattle and Miami. In 2011, it was 14,630 round-trip miles, with three extended trips (Miami, Oakland and Denver). And in 2010, the Patriots regular-season odometer read 13,610 round-trip miles at the end of the year, with the longest trips to Miami and San Diego.

While it’€™s easy to dismiss the impact of travel in the NFL — especially when judged against the other major professional sports — it can still come into play, especially when it’€™s a distance of 1,000 miles or more in one direction. (For more on that, check out this story from 2012 by Bill Barnwell of Grantland.) In addition, road night games can occasionally make for a difficult turnaround — traveling back the same evening after a Sunday or Monday night game pretty much wipes out most of the following day. (While there’€™s no practice the day after a game, getting players back to the facility on a short night can be a challenge.) At least from a logistical perspective, it can impact the schedule for the following week. This year, it’€™ll be interesting to see how the Patriots react the following week after prime-time games against Kansas City, Indy and San Diego, all teams that involve a lengthy road trip where travel will take a chunk out of the start of the following week. (New England follows those games with contests against Cincinnati, Detroit and Miami, respectively.)

In the past, the Patriots have cut down on travel through various methods. In 2008, instead of criss-crossing the country on back-to-back weeks in October for road dates against San Francisco and San Diego, the Patriots stayed in California following their game against the Niners. They practiced for the week at San Jose State before heading to San Diego and playing the Chargers that Sunday. (Because New England has back-to-back road games in late November and early December against Green Bay and then San Diego, one tweeter wondered if the Patriots would be inclined to head west for San Diego following their game against the Packers at Lambeau. From this viewpoint, that appears unlikely, as New England-to-Green Bay is a relatively manageable commute. That being said, if the Packers were any further west, or if the game was on a Monday night, the Patriots might be inclined to head west for the week.)

As it relates to the rest of the league, the Patriots are slated to be 15th in overall mileage traveled over the course of the 2014 regular season at 16,722. By way of comparison, Oakland is set to travel 36,106 miles in the regular season — more than any other team in the league — while Seattle is No. 2 at 26,144. Pittsburgh will travel the fewest miles of anyone in the league at 5,896, one of six teams slated to travel less than 10,000 miles.

Ultimately, lots of miles on the odometer aren’€™t always an indicator of how successful a team can be — mired in the Great Northwest, the Seahawks are forced to travel more than almost any team in football every year, and they were the ones hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the 2013 season. While the added mileage, longer flights and red-eye journeys can wear on the most mentally tough teams, in the end, it’€™s all in how a team handles that challenge that ends up defining how they do when they’€™re away from home.

2. Despite the fact that the first wave of free agency is in the books — and the bulk of the team building process has now turned to the draft — there are still a handful of free agents still on the market. Based on their expected price and New England’€™s areas of need, here are four possible veteran pickups who could still be on the Patriots radar:

Jermichael Finley: The 27-year-old veteran tight end failed his physical when he worked out for the Seahawks, and would likely be a long-term possibility more than anything else. But New England has never been shy about keeping a guy around who might ultimately be able to contribute sometime down the road, particularly at tight end. (See Jake Ballard.)

Dustin Keller: Another veteran tight end still on the market, he suffered a nasty knee injury in the 2013 preseason. However, his name has been linked to the Patriots by a number of publications as a possible addition for New England. For what it’€™s worth, the 29-year-old consistently hammered the Patriots over the course of his career — in 10 games against New England over the course of his career, he has 40 catches for 509 yards, his best numbers against any opponent.

Austin Collie: A late-arriving pass catcher in 2013, he became a reliable presence when he did get into games, and showed up with some important receptions. Has drawn some interest around the league, but could return to New England if one of the younger receivers isn’€™t able to make the leap in year two.

Will Smith: The 32-year-old defensive end has already reportedly drawn the interest of the Patriots. If New England does end up bringing him in, it would continue a local tradition of signing a veteran defensive lineman at the end of his career.

3. As noted here earlier this week by Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead, for 11 consecutive seasons, at least one team has gone from worst-to-first in their division. (Last year, the Panthers and Eagles ended up turning the trick.) With the understanding that the Falcons and Bucs tied for last in the NFC South last season, here are the nine teams who were in the basement last year, and their respective chances for pulling off the worst-to-first move in 2014:

Washington: Under new coach Jay Gruden, the Redskins should be better this season, and with the occasionally erratic state of the NFC East, could have an excellent chance at pulling it off with a 9-7 mark.

Minnesota: A new coaching staff and a revitalized Adrian Peterson are certainly positives, but it would take an awful lot of regression from Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit to make it happen.

Atlanta: Despite the talk of them trading up for Jadeveon Clowney, the current state of the roster suggests the Falcons are a couple of years away from contending in the NFC South again.

Tampa Bay: The Bucs have had a very good offseason to this point. This, combined with some offseason regression from New Orleans and Carolina, bodes well. If they hit on their draft, they could be as good a candidate as any for a bounce back year under new coach Lovie Smith.

St. Louis: Getting very close, but trying to break through in the ultracompetitive NFC West might be too much to expect in 2014.

Buffalo: The Bills have made nice strides on defense, but still have some questions at quarterback. If the Patriots were to somehow slip and fall, this might open the door for Buffalo.

Cleveland: Headed in the right direction, but even with an AFC North that’€™s struggled as of late, like St. Louis, it might be too much to expect a breakthrough in 2014.

Houston: You have to feel good about the Texans chances to be competitive in the AFC South, but like Buffalo in the AFC East, it could take a key injury to a franchise quarterback (in this case, Indy’€™s Andrew Luck) to go from worst-to-first in 2014.

Oakland: Not likely, especially in the same division with the Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers, three teams who made the playoffs in 2013.

4. When it comes to the pre-draft process, we have now officially entered the silly season, where each visit, workout and meeting will be repeated breathlessly, on a loop, between now and the night of May 8.

But one Patriots-related pre-draft item caught our attention this week when our friend Adam Caplan of ESPN reported New England had a pre-draft visit for defensive end/outside linebacker Demarcus Lawrence of Boise State lined up, but the team decided to cancel the session. Lawrence is considered a riser on draft boards across the league, and Caplan surmised that Lawrence could go off the board in the top 50 picks.

Lawrence’€™s situation certainly sounded an awful lot like the one that left tackle Nate Solder endured in the days leading up to the 2011 draft when it came to dealing with the Patriots. That spring, Solder had a visit with the Patriots cancelled at the last moment, but was worked out in the days leading up to the draft by former offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.

Not saying that the last-minute change of plans involving Lawrence is anything more than that, but as we saw in the case of Solder, when a team pulls the plug on a workout at the last minute, it doesn’€™t necessarily mean they’€™ve soured on that prospect.

5. In that same vein, it was interesting to read the quotes this week from Bills GM Doug Whaley, who said that he’€™s not a fan of the fact that the NFL pushed the draft back two weeks into May.

“€œI’€™d say, for us, it doesn’€™t help us,”€ Whaley told reporters at the Bills’€™ pre-draft luncheon Friday. “I’€™m a firm believer in the saying, ‘€˜Study long, study wrong.’€™ I like to go with my gut, my gut feeling.”

Whaley gave the front office an extra week off during the Easter holiday. Under the previous pre-draft schedule, such an idea would have been considered crazy.

“€œWe wanted to get away, clear our brains,”€ Whaley explained. “We’€™re tired about thinking about it. So we said, ‘€˜You know what? Instead of sitting here, banging our heads up against the wall, let’€™s go and refresh ourselves, get ready to attack the last two weeks.’€™”

6. One more note on the future of the draft: speaking on Friday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suggested that in the future, the draft could move to a four-day event. In addition, he suggested that it’€™s not clear, at least at this point, as to whether or not the league will permanently move the draft to May. (The commissioner said the reason they pushed back the draft was because Radio City Music Hall had an Easter-related event, one that was apparently canceled due to lack of interest.)

“€œThe reason why we moved it two weeks later is the facility,”€ Goodell told Jeff Darlington of NFL Media. “€œThey just didn’€™t have the dates. We’€™re looking at a lot of options with respect to the draft to create even more excitement around the draft. Maybe even expanding the number of rounds, excuse me the number of days which we have the draft. We also may change the location or combine it so there are a lot of things we have to balance it with.”

For what it’€™s worth, one guy who apparently likes the extra time during the pre-draft process is Tampa Bay’€™s Smith, who told Goodell as a new coach, it’€™s given him an edge.

“€œI was speaking with Coach Smith this morning, and he thinks it’€™s worked very well for him as a first-year head coach,”€ Goodell told Darlington. “€œWhere it gives him a chance to have his minicamp and evaluate his players and make some decisions on what he needs in the draft.”

7. And one other note from Goodell — this week, in a conversation with Associated Press Sports Editors, he indicated that a final decision on “Hard Knocks”€ for the 2014 season will be coming soon. Under rules that the NFL passed last year, eight teams can be considered for this year’€™s show: the Bills, Bears, Cardinals, Giants, Jaguars, Raiders, Rams, and Steelers. All of the rest of the NFL teams can claim an exemption because they fall into one of three camps: one, they’€™ve appeared on Hard Knocks in the last 10 years. Two, they have a new coach. And three, they’€™ve made the playoffs in either of the last two years. (From this viewpoint, the Bills would certainly be compelling television for several reasons, not the least of which would include a certain ex-Patriots linebacker.)

8. Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty was asked this week about the fact that the team has to go on the road to open the 2014 season in South Florida against the Dolphins, and he joked about building “a big sauna”€ at Gillette to try and beat the Miami heat.

“€œIt’€™s always a challenge anytime we go down there, whether it’€™s the beginning of the season or if we go down in December. Trying to get your body ready for that heat is just tough. You really can’€™t get it up here in New England. I know guys will do whatever they have to do just to get ready to go,”€ he said.

“€œIn my second year, we played down there on (a) Monday night –€” that was tough opening the season there with the humidity. Guys will work hard. I don’€™t really worry about weather, because I know guys will do any and everything, and our nutritionist will make sure we’€™re ready to go.”

It’€™s easy to forget now, but not so long ago, the Patriots had massive early-season struggles in Miami. The Dolphins used to be without peer when it came to playing in the South Florida heat early in the season — from 1994 to 2002 they won 16 consecutive home games in August and September. In that same stretch, several former Patriots confessed to being befuddled about how to beat the warm temps, and admitted that the whole thing got in their heads. (On one occasion, the Patriots tried to tape garbage bags over the air conditioning systems in the locker room for fear of getting too comfortable at halftime.)

While it’€™s not always easy in Miami — the Patriots stumbled late in the 2013 season against the Dolphins in South Florida — it appears as though the Patriots are over their early-season phobias with the weather on South Beach, as New England has won its last four early-season meetings in Miami, coming away with victories in September/October games in 2003, 2007, 2010 and 2011.

9. While the Patriots endured one of the more eventful offseasons in the league last year, it appears the Niners are undergoing a similar level of drama this offseason.

In the loss to the Seahawks in the NFC title game, linebacker Navorro Bowman tore his ACL and suffered additional damage to his MCL, throwing his 2014 season into doubt. On the heels of his five-game ban last year to undergo treatment after his September DUI arrest, defensive end Aldon Smith was arrested April 13 at LAX. Police say Smith was involved in an incident at LAX where, after being randomly selected for a secondary screening, he reportedly told a TSA he had a bomb. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was linked to a Miami police report earlier involving a woman who passed out in a hotel and later woke up in a hospital not knowing how she got there. And cornerback Chris Culliver (who made headline for anti-gay remarks he made before the Super Bowl XLVII) has pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor hit-and-run charges and felony possession of brass knuckles from March arrest.

All of this is playing out against a backdrop of a perceived rift between coach Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke, one that was fueled by a report that the Browns reached out to Harbaugh about their coaching vacancy. Harbaugh has also made it known that he’€™d like a new contract.

Our pal Greg Bedard of MMQB.com sat down with both Harbaugh and Baalke this week, and it appears that at least — for now — rumors of a rift have been silenced. CEO Jed York acknowledged that the relationship between Harbaugh and Baalke “€œmay not be perfect,”€ that that’€™s just life in the big city.

“€œI don’€™t think there are many better combinations than Trent and Jim as a GM-head coach relationship, and I think they realize they work pretty well together. The results speak for themselves and they know what the other one does,”€ York told Bedard. “They realize it may not be perfect but they really respect each other and they do like working together. They might get heated once or twice a season. But when you’€™re competing for a Super Bowl — it’€™s football. To me, it’€™s part of it, it’€™s good and it’€™s healthy.”

10. Congrats to Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who finished the St. Jude Country Music Half Marathon Saturday in a time of 2:36.46, according to the official race website.

Belichick, who has previously run a marathon, was relatively fast (he averaged just under 12 minutes per mile), but not as fast this spring as his trusted adviser and confidant, Berj Najarian. Najarian, who holds the title of director of football/head coach administration, has been working closely with Belichick since 2000 — former New England offensive coordinator Bill O’€™Brien described Najarian as Belichick’€™s “consigliere.” Najarian also enjoys running, and was one of a handful of Patriots employees who ran in last Monday’€™s Boston Marathon, completing the course in 4:33:18, an impressive pace of 10:26 per mile.

(Of course, it wasn’€™t just pounding the pavement for Belichick while he was back in Nashville. While making his visit, Belichick reportedly took the opportunity to work out Vanderbilt offensive lineman Wesley Johnson, safety Kenny Ladler, wide receiver Jordan Matthews, cornerback Andre Hal and kicker Casey Spear.)

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