FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. One of the most compelling storylines of the Patriots’ offseason will be if they can find Jimmy Garoppolo 2.0, another promising quarterback with unique traits to develop behind Tom Brady. Such a prospect would likely come from the group of signal-callers in the 2018 draft that come after the top tier, which projects to include UCLA’s Josh Rosen, USC’s Sam Darnold, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield.
With this in mind, I reached out to Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage for his thoughts on four quarterbacks who might fit the Patriots’ bill, with Savage detailing their Senior Bowl week.
Luke Falk (Washington State): “Luke is an interesting case. He is obviously the Pac-12’s all-time leading passer in somewhat of a ‘pass-happy offense,’ the Mike Leach system. Of course, the Patriots have had some background with a quarterback coming from that scheme, with Kliff Kingsbury [in 2003 out of Texas Tech]. Luke is a natural passer of the football. He’s not blessed with super athletic ability, he doesn’t have a huge arm. But he is accurate, he’s got some anticipation, there are leadership traits about him. He is a guy that I do think will be able to gain some weight and fill out and get stronger in the pocket. It’s hard to tag a guy as developmental when he’s been a three-year starter-plus, and thrown for a zillion yards, but he is a prospect that probably will fill out further and there is probably room to grow as a player. There’s an overcoming element to him as a former walk-on that I think the Patriots would like, a resilience there with him. I thought he had a good week of practice, and of course, he did not play in the game because of the death of his quarterback friend Tyler Hilinski, so he went back for the funeral and missed the game day. Luke is an interesting prospect; some of the scouts out West were real high on him, while others were not. It’s sort of a mixed bag.”
Kyle Lauletta (Richmond): “I’d known about Kyle throughout the season and went to U of R in November. I just liked the way he played. He’s had four different coordinators in four years. A couple different head coaches. He was coming off an ACL suffered at the end of the last year, against William & Mary, and he made it all the way back and never missed any time this year. He was in an offense that sort of has some variety to it — he threw short, intermediate, deep, on the run, from the pocket, play-action passes. You get a chance to see him do a lot in that offense; he’s not in a system where only three or four elements are required. He doesn’t have a huge arm, but I thought he was accurate with the ball, he has really strong intangibles, his dad played at the Naval Academy as a quarterback, he has other family members who were college athletes. Speaking of overcoming things, he was sick as a dog on Monday, he didn’t even get out of bed Sunday night, all day Monday. He hit the meetings and practice Tuesday, and I thought he was OK in the practices, did a nice job overall, and then in the game he got in in the third quarter and lit it up; 198 yards, three touchdowns, and just seemed to pull it all together when the lights came on. He’s an intriguing candidate. Again, despite the fact he’s played a good amount of football, there’s a developmental upside to him because he’s going to continue to get bigger and fill out and get stronger, especially coming from an FCS [school].”
Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State): “Mason signed up with us before the season began, and unfortunately he suffered a foot injury at the bowl game and wasn’t 100 percent healthy. The only thing he did here was the weigh-in and a couple days of interviews. But I have to say, just personality-wise and the way he handled his business — letting us know in advance he wouldn’t be able to participate but following it through with all the interviews — I think he really made a great first impression on people with the way he conducted himself, with the media and the teams.”
Mike White (Western Kentucky): “I saw Mike a couple weeks before Lauletta, at the beginning of November. This is another classic case of a guy being a one-year starter in high school, all the main schools had gone in a different direction at quarterback. He goes to South Florida, ultimately they change systems, he leaves there, and Willie Taggart actually recommended him to Western Kentucky, which was his previous school because Jeff Brohm was still there as the coach. So he goes there for two years, Brohm leaves after one season, and the new coach Mike Sanford comes in. So he’s played in two different systems, but he threw for over 8,000 yards, with 66 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, which showed how he really valued the ball. He can really spin the football, and I think that’s really going to be attractive to people. He’s a natural thrower of the ball. He really has a good arm. He’s not particularly mobile. He needs to be more quick, more sudden in terms of manipulating the pocket. He’s another player that has a thin résumé when you consider that he only played one year of quarterback in high school, and then he’s a transfer who played some at USF and then a two-year starter at Western Kentucky. He had a steady week of practice but in the game he got off to a really fast start. He had a hot hand in the first quarter.”
When I asked Savage which quarterback might draw the closest comparison to Garoppolo, he paused for a moment and ultimately picked Lauletta. He also noted that Nebraska’s Tanner Lee was at the Senior Bowl and is “as gifted of a thrower of the ball as anyone in the draft,” and could be in the discussion for teams seeking a developmental prospect.
2. If my Twitter timeline is any indication, the thing that would appease the majority of those who reached out is a credible, clear explanation of what led the Patriots to not play cornerback Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl LII. Some of the people close to the situation that I trust implicitly insist it was a pure football decision, but I am taking more time and making more efforts to see if anything else might be uncovered because it was so outside the box. While it was such an unconventional decision, it wasn’t out of character for Bill Belichick in a Super Bowl against the Eagles. Back in the 2004 season, Belichick and Romeo Crennel drew up a defense the Patriots hadn’t run all season (they were a 3-4 team and instead ran a 4-3 with a “Cali” front) as part of a game plan to keep quarterback Donovan McNabb in the pocket. It worked that game. This time around, the team’s Butler-less plan didn’t work, and the Eagles — who played a masterful game offensively — deserve a lot of credit for that.
3. While the odds seem higher that tight end Rob Gronkowski will return for 2018 than step away from the game at the age of 28, one person close to Gronkowski said he wasn’t surprised that the idea of an early retirement had possibly crossed his mind. The reason: Outside of thunderous touchdown spikes, if there was one word to describe what has defined Gronkowski’s career, “pain” might be at the top of the list. His body has been through a lot. I still think he’s back in 2018.
4. As good as defensive end Trey Flowers has been for the Patriots, and as solid as 2015 first-round pick Malcom Brown has been at defensive tackle at times, one takeaway that was relayed to me from how the Eagles viewed New England entering Super Bowl LII was that they didn’t fear anyone in the front seven. Getting linebacker Dont’a Hightower back will help the Patriots (but relying on him to last through a 16-game season is no guarantee), and top 2017 draft pick Derek Rivers (third round, No. 83) could provide a pass-rush boost after missing his rookie year (torn ACL), but when the Patriots self scout their talent and analyze their personnel and needs, it’s likely they come to the same conclusion the Eagles did: The front seven needs a significant talent injection.
5. The Patriots will have three selections within the first 63 picks of the draft, as they own their own choices in the first (No. 31) and second round (No. 63), as well as the 49ers’ second-round choice, which will fall either at 41 or 43. The exact spot of the 49ers’ pick will be tied to how a coin flip unfolds between San Francisco and Oakland to see which team picks ninth and 10th in the first round. San Francisco, Oakland and Miami all finished 6-10, and their draft slots will rotate each round.
The team traded its fourth-round pick to the Eagles for cornerback Eric Rowe, and gave up fifth- and seventh-round picks in trades for Cassius Marsh and Marquis Flowers. Nick Korte of OverTheCap.com also projects the Patriots to receive a fourth-round compensatory pick.
6. Belichick often gives his coaches projects to complete over the offseason, and given the way the Patriots were gashed on some of the Eagles’ run-pass option plays in Super Bowl LII, it makes sense to think a thorough evaluation of RPO’s and their potential growing influence in the game will be on the radar. RPO’s are more prevalent in the college game, and so when Belichick makes his annual scouting trip to campuses down south leading up to the draft, perhaps he will be devoting some of his own time towards studying that part of the game with some of the college coaches he has a solid connection with, starting with Alabama’s Nick Saban.
7. The NFL’s tradition of having a defending champion open the season on Thursday night sparks a question: What game might most appeal to the league to kick off 2018? The Eagles’ home opponents are scheduled to be the Falcons, Vikings, Texans, Panthers, Colts, Cowboys, Giants and Redskins. Those are some compelling choices. Outside of maybe Indianapolis, the NFL could really throw a dart on the board and feel good about wherever it lands.
8. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks absorbed a big shot from Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins in Super Bowl LII, ending his night in the second quarter with a head injury (presumably a concussion), but those close to him relay that he’s responded well over the last week. While the long-term effects of a concussion should never be overlooked, Cooks is said to be encouraged with how he’s felt since the Super Bowl.
9. Former Patriots cornerback Ty Law has done well to make it to the final 10 each of the last two years in Pro Football Hall of Fame voting, which highlights the strength of his candidacy. One concern for Law looking ahead to next year’s class: Ed Reed and Champ Bailey are eligible in their first year, and they could trump him for one, or possible two, spots for defensive backs.
10a. Did You Know, Part I: Of the 336 participants invited to the NFL combine, two played high school football in Massachusetts — Boston College defensive back Isaac Yiadom (Doherty HS in Worcester) and Michigan defensive lineman Maurice Hurst (Xaverian Brothers HS in Westwood). If the Hurst name sounds familiar to longtime Patriots fans, it should; he’s the son of former New England defensive back Maurice Hurst.
10b. Did You Know, Part II: Five players from New England-based colleges have been invited to the combine — OL Jamil Demby (Maine), DL Foley Fatukasi (UConn), DE/LB Harold Landry (Boston College), DB Kam Moore (Boston College), and Yiadom.