FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. On the move: One of the fascinating aspects of the Patriots’ unsettled quarterback position is how one move by any team could create an unexpected opportunity for them. Call this one the Darnold domino.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Sunday the New York Jets have fielded multiple calls from teams expressing interest in Sam Darnold. The Jets, per Schefter, haven’t turned away the calls, but also haven’t made any firm decisions about their future at quarterback (they own the No. 2 pick in the 2021 NFL draft).
However the Jets proceed, it should have some level of impact on the Patriots.
For example, might Darnold’s availability potentially pique the San Francisco 49ers‘ interest, thus making Jimmy Garoppolo an option for a return to New England? Or, in turn, the Jets sticking with Darnold could create action for the No. 2 pick from other QB-needy teams, altering the draft board and who is ultimately available to the Patriots (No. 15).
These are the scenarios coach Bill Belichick and his staff have likely already begun dissecting.
One longtime NFL executive opined to ESPN’s Jets reporter Rich Cimini that he could envision a low first-round or high second-round pick being shipped for Darnold, who enters the final year of his rookie contract, with a decision on his huge fully-guaranteed fifth-year option (2022) due by May 3.
It all sparks another question: Would the Patriots, in a reverse of their in-the-division-Drew Bledsoe-to-the-Bills trade from 2002, consider making a run at Darnold?
That seems highly unlikely, with Jets general manager Joe Douglas needing an AFC East-type tax to even consider it, but such scenarios fuel what could be a compelling offseason of QB movement.
2. Mariota’s flex: Last week, the possibility of Marcus Mariota as a Patriot was explored, and here’s more: With the projected cost to acquire him (later-round pick) and his salary ($10.6 million) reasonable, it would mean New England has flexibility to add another QB should the opportunity present itself later in the offseason (e.g. Garoppolo or a draft pick). But at least initially, Mariota would provide a combination of NFL experience (61 starts), a chance for a functional passing game, and potential high upside as the Patriots start to use their abundant cap space to put some important pieces in place around the QB spot. I’m warming up to the Mariota idea as a strong Plan B if Garoppolo isn’t initially available.
3. QB landscape: ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay projected five quarterbacks being selected in the first 12 picks of his latest mock draft, which created a scenario for the QB-needy Patriots to snare a front seven defender at No. 15. On the First Draft podcast, McShay and fellow analyst Mel Kiper Jr. opined there are six signal-callers who project as possible future starters — with Florida’s Kyle Trask as the sixth and Wake Forest’s Jamie Newman as a possible wild card — and a notable drop off after that to backup types.
4. Gase’s coaching tree: Former Dolphins and Jets coach Adam Gase has developed a connection with Belichick the past couple years, and a trickle-down effect of that could be the addition of Bo Hardegree to Belichick’s coaching staff this year. Hardegree, 36, has been with Gase at his previous four NFL coaching spots as an offensive assistant. He played quarterback at the University of Tennessee, and he recently met with the Patriots’ staff about coming aboard in 2021.
5. Tag game: Feb. 23 marks the opening of the 15-day window in which teams can assign players the franchise tag, and after surprising many last year by doing so with guard Joe Thuney (probably including Thuney himself), the hunch here is the Patriots don’t use it. So, more compelling for New England — which has big holes to fill at wide receiver, tight end and front seven on defense — will be how many top-tier players get tagged and thus won’t be pursued.
6. Watt’s up: J.J. Watt and the Houston Texans mutually agreed to part ways Friday, and ESPN NFL National reporter Jeremy Fowler tapped league insiders to consider Watt’s most likely landing spots, with the Patriots among the top five. The Patriots have a major need on the defensive line, and Watt has plenty left to offer based on his performance against them last November, but there’s a major question whether Belichick’s team checks off one of the most important things for Watt — the chance to play for a championship.
7. Slater’s gesture: When the Patriots chartered 76 vaccinated health-care workers to the Super Bowl last Sunday on their team plane, longtime captain Matthew Slater was there early Sunday morning to express his gratitude to them on behalf of the players and organization, along with president Jonathan Kraft and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, among others. A classy gesture from one of the all-time classiest Patriots.
Steve Young and Booger McFarland break down how many quarterbacks being on the move can affect the league.
8. Draft nugget: Remember when the Patriots selected defensive tackle Richard Seymour No. 6 overall in 2001, and there was concern about his production (1.5 sacks in his final season at Georgia)? That turned out just fine, and there is a potential similar example this year, albeit a bit deeper into the draft. Georgia tight end Tre’ McKitty totaled six receptions in 2020 after transferring from Florida State, but “made himself a lot of money” at the Senior Bowl with his athleticism and physical traits, according to McShay and Kiper. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound McKitty projects as a mid-round pick.
9. Drew’s birthday: Happy 49th birthday, Drew Bledsoe. Hard to believe it’s already been 10 years since Bledsoe’s induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame. One of the nice parts of the past decade has been Bledsoe’s re-emergence on the Patriots scene and how warmly he has been received.
10. Did You Know: The Patriots will play the Texans in 2021, which will mark the seventh straight year they meet. Since 2002, that ties the third longest streak in the NFL of non-division teams playing each other. The longest streak is 10 years — Patriots and Colts, from 2003 to 2012. That is followed by Bills-Chiefs (eight years, 2008-15) and Patriots-Broncos (2011-17).