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Sunday NFL Notes: Even though it’s quiet, team-building and roster-tweaking continues through June, July

06.22.14 at 6:00 am ET
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1. With the spring practice sessions — OTAs and minicamp — squarely in the rearview mirror, there’€™s the assumption that the NFL pretty much goes dark and rosters are frozen over the next six weeks until the start of training camp in late July. And while there are few seismic moves made between now and the start of training camp, there’€™s always some roster movement, a reminder that the team-building process never stops. Last year — not counting the signing of their own draft picks — the Patriots made eight personnel moves between the end of minicamp (June 13) and the start of training camp (July 25). Those moves included the release of tight end Aaron Hernandez and wide receiver Donald Jones, as well as the addition of practice squadder Justin Green and Tim Tebow‘€™s favorite target, wide receiver Quentin Sims. This year, there are a few moves New England could make between now and late July, including the addition of veteran tight ends like Jermichael Finley or Dustin Keller. In addition, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them shuffle some personnel at the back end of the roster trying to gain more depth at a variety of positions. (Linebacker? Tight end?) In addition, there are always interesting prospects who become available for one reason or another at this time on the calendar. And as of Saturday afternoon, first-round pick Dominique Easley remains unsigned. The larger point here, however, is that there are always moves to be made, even if we are in the most fallow period of the NFL calendar.

2. In that same vein, there’€™s been some talk out there about the Patriots’€™ interest level two veteran defensive free agents who are still available, cornerback Brandon Flowers and defensive end Jason Babin.

a. Flowers, 28, is a 5-foot-10, 190-pounder out of Virginia Tech who has been in the league for six seasons and has 17 interceptions over the course of his career. Last year, he had 71 tackles (65 solo) and one interception. He’€™s just three years from signing a five-year, $50 million deal with Kansas City, with that deal playing a sizable role in Kansas City’€™s decision to move on from Flowers. In the past he’€™s shown an ability to be a game-changer (his five picks in 2009 are certainly proof of that) and while New England has never been shy about loading up at a particular spot, he might be a little out of New England’€™s price range, at least at this point. Of the teams who are reportedly in the hunt for Flowers, the Vikings might have something close to an inside track for a few reasons, not the least of which is the fact that they have the most money currently available under the cap — according to Sportrac — when it comes to the teams who have shown the most interest.

b. As for Babin, it feels like New England has been down this road before. The 34-year-old defensive end, who was cut loose recently by the Jaguars, has 62.5 career sacks in 10 seasons in the league, and likely at least drew the Patriots interest when he was on the open market in the past. At this stage of his career, he’€™s likely a situation pass rusher, and if New England went after him, he would be a part of a crowded picture at defensive end, a group that includes Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Will Smith, Michael Buchanan and Jake Bequette. Two thoughts jump off the page when you’€™re talking about Babin: one, if the Patriots are inclined to show interest, it could be an indication that Smith isn’€™t quite where he needs to be at this stage of the offseason. And two, in most cases when a guy has played for so many different teams over the course of his career, it could be a red flag. In Babin’€™s case, he’€™s been with six teams in 10 seasons in the NFL, an extraordinary number, even in today’€™s transitory world of professional football. New England could do its due diligence and kick the tires on Babin, but from this viewpoint, it would be a surprise if he was wearing a Patriots uniform when camp opens next month.

3. Some quick thoughts on the playbook story involving the Patriots, Jets and former New York assistant (and current Cleveland coach) Mike Pettine that caused a minor flap this week:

As many of my colleagues have pointed out over the course of the week, NFL playbooks are astoundingly easy to obtain. I have been given a couple of old Patriots playbooks, but at the same time, anyone can type “NFL playbooks”€ into Google and take a look at several from the last decade-plus. And while there’€™s something to be said for the idea that the playbook may have been obtained through nefarious means — and can occasionally be used as a first step in deciphering patterns and schemes — as my colleague Matt Chatham inferred in this tweet, a playbook is different than a game plan. Two completely different things: A playbook is purposefully kept vague, with many broad brushes to be used over the course of a season. A game plan is extremely specific in nature, and changes from week to week. There’€™s a reason you can’€™t find “NFL game plans”€ through Google.

Regardless, Pettine tried to quell the story with clarification about what he meant.

“€œMost playbooks are very broad,”€ Pettine said Friday. “We’€™ll have 80 [defensive formations] in a playbook, 30 in a game plan. We’€™ll add six or seven new ones for a given game.”

He also said he didn’t mean to imply Bill Belichick obtained the information illegally.

“€œIt’€™s a credit that [the Patriots] have been able to get that information,”€ Pettine added. “€œI didn’t mean to imply it was gathered illegally. To me, it’s a sign of a smart team. We’re not actively pursuing playbooks, but when they fall in your laps, you’ll study it.”

4. One more Jets note, before the start of summer vacation: It appears that rookie defensive back Calvin Pryor has no concern about putting a target on his back when it comes to Patriots-Jets battles this season. He’€™s already talked about how he knows he’€™s supposed to ‘€œhate’€ Tom Brady and New England, and given the chance to backtrack on those comments this week, he said he isn’t backing down.

“€œI said what I said, I put it out there, and I don’€™t take none of it back,”€ Pryor said Thursday. “The Patriots are our rivalry. We’€™re trying to fight for the same thing — the AFC East title and also a Super Bowl. That’€™s the only thing on my mind. I’€™m not worried about anything else.”

Pryor has already received a mild rebuke from quarterback Geno Smith, who indicated Pryor “hasn’t earned” the right to talk as much as he has. (Of course, in the next breath, he called Pryor “€œmature”€ and a “€œbig hitter.”) But that doesn’t seem to matter to the former Louisville star.

“I believe in myself,”€ he said. “€œYou have to believe in yourself before anybody else does. That’s my main thing. I have a high confidence level within me, and I don’t back down from anybody. I accept the challenge. Whenever the time comes when we have to play ‘em, I’ll show up.”

5. While the veterans were able to get a jump-start on summer vacation this week, the rookies have some business to take care of. The Patriots first-year players will be with the rest of the rookies at the annual NFL rookie symposium in Aurora, Ohio, which will open up later this week. (Players are split up by conference — the NFC runs from June 22-25, while the AFC will take part from June 25-28.)

According to NFL communications, the four core teaching principles of the Rookie Symposium are NFL history, total wellness, professional experience and workplace conduct. The symposium includes presentations, videos, and workshops on player health and safety, decision-making, mental health, substance abuse, workplace respect and maintaining positive relationships.

But it’s not just New England rookies who have been part of the symposium: Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater have been among the Patriots who have spoken to the rookies about how to successfully make the transition to life in the NFL. In 2002, Seymour spoke about the need to spend money wisely, and talked a night when the rookies had to take the veterans out to dinner. A first-round pick in 2001, Seymour had to fork over $15,000. “That was when I decided to put myself on a budget,”€ he said.

While the symposium is often credited as an invaluable transitional tool for players looking to make the jump from college to the NFL, things have occasionally gotten ugly. There was a fight in 2008. LenDale White sparked controversy when he asked former NFL player Esera Tuaolo (who had recently come out as a gay man and was speaking to the rookies on the topic of homophobia), “Is it offensive if I call you a faggot if you are a faggot?”€ And a few years back, quarterback Troy Smith challenged NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, asking Goodell why he chooses to focus on all the negative things the players do, and then pressed the commissioner when Smith believed Goodell didn’t sufficiently answer his question.

This year, former Patriots wide receiver Donte’ Stallworth is one of the featured speakers —  Stallworth was convicted of DUI manslaughter in 2009 after he struck and killed a man. He lost his driver’€™s license for life although he only served a month in jail and was suspended by the NFL for a year.

“€œIt is not an accident when you decide to drive after you have been drinking,”€™ Stallworth told Fox Sports. “It is something I will live with for the rest of my life. I want it to resonate with these young guys. DUIs are totally preventable.’€™’€™

Other scheduled speakers over the course of the week include former players Warren Sapp, Cris Carter and Warrick Dunn, as well as active players Tyrann Mathieu, Gio Bernard, Kyle Long and Pat McAfee. In addition, former Patriots GM Scott Pioli is also a scheduled speaker.

6. Former Patriots wide receiver Chad Johnson was back on a football field Friday night, suiting up for the Montreal Alouettes in a preseason CFL tilt. Johnson, who is attempting a comeback with the Alouettes, used typical Ocho language when talked about what he was expecting when it came to his CFL debut. “€œIt’€™s similar to the feeling before I lost my virginity,”€ he said. “There’€™s a certain level of excitement — anticipation — not knowing what’€™s going to happen or what I’€™m going to get.”€ What he got was one pass for 13 yards from former Ohio State (and current Montreal quarterback) Troy Smith. The game was Johnson’€™s first since appearing in a preseason contest for the Dolphins on August 10, 2012 — his last NFL game of consequence came when he suited up for the Patriots against the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI.

7. The quotes from 29-year-old Adrian Peterson this week — where the sturdy Vikings’€™ running back said that “age doesn’€™t apply to me”€ when it came to him possible reaching the tail end of his career — got us wondering if he had any sort of shot at breaking Emmitt Smith‘s record of 18,355 rushing yards. Peterson is currently 27th on the all-time list with 10,115 yards, which included an amazing 2,097 last year, just months removed from ACL surgery. (The 31-year-old Steven Jackson is currently the active leader with 10,678 rushing yards.)

History tells us that running backs traditionally hit the wall around the age of 30, but there are several instances of backs doing well into their 30s, and plenty of those guys were able to hit 1,200 yards: Curtis Martin had 1,697 rushing yards for the Jets in 1997 2004, Walter Payton had 1,684 yards with the Bears in 1984, Tiki Barber had 1,661 yards for the Giants in 2006 and Thomas Jones had 1,402 yards with the Jets in 2009 (all at the age of 31). Payton excelled in his 30s, with four seasons of at least 1,300 rushing yards after turning 30, and Smith had his last 1,000-plus yard season in 2001, when he rushed for 1,021 rushing yards at the age of 32

It won’€™t be easy — and he’€™d have to stay healthy — but if Peterson could somehow manage 1,200 yards a season for the next five years, that would bring him to 16,115. That would certainly put him in a good neighborhood at the age of 34, 2,240 yards short of Smith. He could conceivably hang around for another couple of seasons at the end of his career hoping to pile up enough yardage in his mid-30s to try and pass the former Cowboy and Cardinal.

But who says he’€™s going to stop when he hits his mid-30s?

“€œI was talking to [Brett] Favre,’€ he said with a laugh. “Forty sounds good, you know?”

8. The news that Belichick brought out the soccer balls at the end of the final minicamp practice on Thursday reminded us that futbol has held an interesting place in the Patriots locker room the last few years. One of the biggest fans of the sport was Wes Welker, who was a soccer star as a young athlete before switching to football, and long maintained that soccer was a huge help when it came to developing the requisite footwork and shiftiness he needed to become an elite slot receiver.

“€œI really feel that it’€™s helped with my footwork, getting in and out of breaks, and it seems like I can take a bunch of little steps in a very quick amount of time,”€ Welker told The Boston Globe in 2008. “Your feet get put in some awkward positions in football, but I’€™m sort of used to that from playing soccer, from moving the ball around. I definitely think that’€™s a big part of what has made me successful in the NFL.”

Welker got then-teammate Randy Moss into the game, and Moss incorporated it into his workout program. (There are still videos of Moss joining in random pickup soccer games floating around the Internet.) While we’€™re not sure if Moss still indulges in the game, current Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said he enjoyed the break, but he’€™d still prefer playing football to futbol.

“€œI didn’t get in that. I don’€™t even know how to kick a soccer ball,”€ Wilfork said with a smile after the workout. “€œLet me tell you something — that ball moves way too fast for me. I’€™ll stick to football. The real football. American football.”

9. Antonio Cromartie is never at a loss for words, and the former Jet and current Cardinal didn’t disappoint when the NFL Network asked him this week who is the best cornerback in the NFL. Cromartie, who was a teammate of Darrelle Revis in New York, said it’s one of the two of them at this point, dismissing talk of Seattle’s Richard Sherman being the best in the game.

“€œYou got three young guys [Sherman, Patrick Peterson and Joe Haden] that are up and coming, but right now it’€™s either me or [Revis] when we’€™re healthy,”€ he said. “€œAnd when we’€™re healthy, we know what we can do on the football field and we’€™re both showing it. We have zero help at all; we tell the safety to roll up to the other side. So we know what we can do.

“€œI want these guys [Sherman, Peterson and Haden] to be on an island by themselves and play zero coverage –€“ they [haven’t done] it yet. They havent done anything that me and Revis have done in a Rex Ryan defense,”€ he added. “œHonestly, I think it’s either me and Revis and that’€™s how I feel who’€™s the best cornerback in the league, especially when both of us are at 100 percent and we go out there and play the way we know we’€™re capable of playing and we’€™re not thinking about anything else. That’s what it’s really all about. Yes, [Sherman] has been playing great for these past two years, but I think my 2012 season vs. his 2012 season was a lot better than his season; that was the season when Revis went down.”

Cromartie said that one of the things that should be counted as a strike against Sherman is the fact that he traditionally plays on just one side of the field, as opposed to matching up with individual receivers in one-on-one situations.

“When you think of the best corner in the game, you think about guys matching up one-on-one as Prime Deion Sanders did; Mel Blount did the same thing back in the Steelers days,”€ Cromartie said. “€œCan a guy adjust to the defense? And what Richard has done, he has done that for his defense. But also, at the same time you have two All-Pro safeties back there. And another thing, you have another corner, they would rather throw at the other corner rather than throw at you. Deion went one season when he was only thrown at 19 times because he had another corner that was thrown at too.

“€œBut Prime did what he was supposed to do on the other side and he was covering the best guy; he covered the Jerry Rices, the Michael Irvins ‘€“ he covered those guys, and that’€™s what he wanted every single week,”€ he added. “€œAs a top defensive back, that’€™s what you want. You want to go cover the best. We have [Calvin Johnson] this year. I told [Peterson] let me take him. I want to cover the best. I had a down year last year and I felt like I didn’t give my team the opportunity to go out and win because I was injured.”

10. It seems like we were flying back from the AFC title game in Denver two weeks ago, but the end of the spring practice sessions means that training camp is right around the corner. The team has yet to announce the opening of training camp in July, but we can make an educated guess as to the earliest date they can open: July 23. NFL veterans — other than quarterbacks or injured players — can report to training camp no earlier than 15 days prior to first preseason game. And with the first preseason game set for Aug. 7 against Washington, that would make July 23 the earliest possible date. Circle your calendars — football is almost back.

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