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Super Bowl…

So we are finally here.  Super Bowl LII is almost upon us.  These two weeks of hype always kill me…of course especially when the hometown team New England Patriots are in the actual game.  The two weeks did help me for sure in one case however…it allowed Rob Gronkowski enough time to shake the cobwebs (literally) and allow him to suit up in the game.  No need to speak about how important that is.

Did I pass my time last Sunday by watching the Pro Bowl?  Ummmmm…no.  But I suppose I should have watched that mess instead of what was probably the worst Grammy telecast of all time.  But that’s a story for a different day.

By the way, did you know that David Carr was in the Pro Bowl?  That guy had a putrid season.  How the hell…nevermind.  Another story for another day.

Time to get to the matter at hand…

Philadelphia “at” New England (-4.5)

Last year, I thought New England was going to hammer Atlanta from the get-go.  Although I do think the Pats could win big here, I won’t make that mistake again.

Just once…ONCE…I would like to see a Pats blowout win in the Super Bowl.  Win or lose, I am tired of the nerve-wracking endings in the Big Game during the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era.  I know, cry me a river, right?  The Pats have been to 8 Super Bowls with that duo, what the hell am I complaining about?  My apologies.  But I still want that comfortable blowout.  And for those of you that may say, “well, the Falcons were blowing the Pats out late in the third quarter and THEY lost.  You really can’t feel comfortable until the clock reads 0:00…”.  That may be true in theory, you would be absolutely correct.  I am generally a “0:00 guy”…talk to me when the game is officially over…in any sport.  But I would also assure you the Pats ain’t blowing that type of lead that late.  Sorry.  So the chances that I would be comfortable under that scenario would probably be pretty good.

In any event, I don’t think I will ever find that comfort.  It appears the formula seems to be set in the Super Bowl for the Patriots:  don’t score in the first quarter, continue feeling the game out in the second quarter, make halftime adjustments and show some life in the third quarter, head into the fourth quarter down (just hopefully not to the tune of 28-3 or 28-10 or the like), score late to secure the victory…or give up a miracle catch near the end and lose a heartbreaking one.  3 point game in the end either way.  Hard to go against what seems to be habit.

Enough of the preamble.  Let’s get down to brass tacks.  Although I have not watched a ton of Eagle football this season and sure as hell have not studied any of their game film.  But after soaking in all the hype for the past two weeks, here are some thoughts/concerns on the game/matchups/etc., in no particular order:

*The Eagle defensive line scares the bejesus out of me because, well, the Patriot offensive line scares the bejesus out of me.  That one is easy.  No, Chris Long doesn’t necessarily make me nervous.  But Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham kind of do.  The good thing is that the Eagles apparently like to rotate these guys to keep them fresh.  Why is that good?  The Patriots can presumably go no huddle the times that the backups are in the game.  Thus obviously keeping the starters on the bench.  Unless the Eagles are willing to take penalties and/or use timeouts.  Which also would be beneficial to the Pats.  Not to mention the fact that running a lot of plays would seem to wear down those fat hogs on the line and perhaps the defense as a whole.  See, Falcons, Atlanta, Super Bowl LI.

*Malcolm Jenkins seems to have a reputation of being a very good player.  However, the rest of the secondary and linebacking corps don’t necessarily make me fret.  Saw a stat recently that showed that Philly’s defense is rather pedestrian on the road, for whatever reason.  Minneapolis is not Philadelphia, as you are well aware.  Eli Manning also carved them up late in the season, while having virtually zero weapons on offense.  This should make Eagle fans a little nervous since, you know, Manning is done.

If Jenkins and say, a linebacker, take Gronk, then that leaves the rest of the secondary to take on the Patriot receivers.  Brandin Cooks had a pretty good game against Jacksonville, despite one horrific drop.  Danny Amendola is money.  But I also have a gut feeling that this is the week that Chris Hogan decides to show up again.  I wouldn’t bet serious money on it, but it’s a lingering thought I haven’t been able to dismiss.  Would be a nice story, since Hogan has been hurt/invisible for most of the year.  We’ll see…

*Doug Pederson is from the “Andy Reid coaching tree”.  What that essentially means is if this game is close in the 4th quarter, expect horrible game decisions and inexcusable clock mismanagement.  There is no way around that.  Pederson is also coaching in his first Super Bowl (with a backup quarterback…more on him next), Belichick his eighth.  This fact simply cannot be overstated.

*If Carson Wentz was playing in this game, I may have a different prediction.  Maybe not, but the point is moot.  Nick Foles is the QB.  Foles had a monster season a few years back in his first go-round in Philly.  But has done little since.  Ergo, that’s why he is a backup QB.

People seem to be overrating Foles at this point, simply because he had that one monster year and…he did play well against a good Viking defense in the NFC Championship.  But have those same people seen the rest of the games Foles played this year?  Wasn’t pretty.  In fact, the Eagles had to go back to some plays that were in Chip Kelly’s playbook to make Foles feel more comfortable.  I don’t necessarily think this is a great thing.  Kelly is also close pals with Belichick.  And likely is still vengeful toward the Eagles after his treatment there.  Maybe he deserved it, but still, that doesn’t change his feelings.  In any event, I’m guessing there was a conversation between Bill and Chip during the prep time.  Of course, Pederson also probably spoke to Reid as well, so maybe it’s a wash.

One thing is for sure though…Nick Foles is not going to single-handedly beat the Patriots.

*I’m praying that Pederson runs the ball 40 plus times with LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi to “keep the ball out of Brady’s hands”.  This will not beat the Patriots.  Will he be that stupid?  I don’t think so, but you can’t underestimate some people.  Oh, and if Blount can fumble early in the game like last year, that would help me a great deal.  Thank you in advance.

*Speaking of Philly running backs, we all know Blount has hands of stone and judging by the numbers, Ajayi doesn’t do much damage catching the ball either.  This is favorable for the Pats.  We know their linebackers may be the worst collection of stiffs I have ever seen.  I don’t care how many sacks special teamer Marquis Flowers had in the last two regular season games against the Bills and Jets.  And if I see Elandon Roberts try to cover ANYONE in the Bowl…

*One big concern for the Patriot defense against the Philly offense is that Philly doesn’t have that ONE dude that Bill usually likes to take out of the game and let the others beat them.  They have a bunch of dudes that can do some things.  This undoubtedly makes things a little more difficult to prepare for.  My guess is that they try to take away tight end Zach Ertz first.  But then you have Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and to a lesser extent, Blount and Ajayi and to an even lesser extent, but perhaps on a deep shot or two, Torrey Smith.  Corey Clement may actually be someone to fear more than a smidge as well.  As poor as the Patriots’ third down defense has been recently, this has to be a big concern for the team.  Even with the two weeks to prepare.  A lot of options.

*One thing about the Eagle offense that they themselves should be concerned about is that Jason Peters is not at left tackle.  Peters is supposed to be awesome, from all the people who actually watch offensive line play.  But he is hurt.  His backup, some Vaitai character with a real long first name, has apparently struggled.  The Pats D-Line is no juggernaut, as we all know.  But maybe Trey Flowers makes his presence felt?

*Aside:  Philly fans are absolute lunatics.  This is absolutely no secret.  I’m glad I’m not in Minny, as one of them may try to set me on fire.  Better to let them do that to someone else.

*Aside, Part II:  Loved Jeffery predicting a win.  You be you, brutha!  Don’t teams ever learn?

*Aside, Part III:  Just for fun, with everyone on the active roster being “healthy” (ie:  not injured enough to be listed on the injury report), here’s my take on the inactive list:  Mike Gillislee (wasted year), David Harris (why bother even having him this season?), Alan Branch (too bad he apparently packed it in this year.  He’s pretty damn good when he’s engaged), Bernard Reedy (who?), Kenny Britt (glad you came for the ride!), Jacob Hollister (sorry, just no room kid) and…Cole Croston (yup…who?).  That seemed fairly easy, though don’t rule out Belichick surprising people.  Like the year he released Tiquan Underwood the day before the Super Bowl, so he could activate someone from the practice squad (Alex Silvestro and yes, I just had to look that up) to have an extra defensive lineman available.

*Aside, Part IV:  I don’t want to hear any more about injuries…Wentz’ specifically.  Sure, having him healthy and active would probably put a different spin on this game.  But you don’t think the Pats wish they had Julian Edelman and Dont’a Hightower, among others?  EVERY team loses key players EVERY season.  Deal with it.

*Aside, Part V:  I don’t want to hear about the officials either.  The Patriots have historically have had plenty of bogus calls go against them as well.  No different from any other team.  Those things tend to even out over time.  And I would bet that officiating will not be a factor in this years’ Super Bowl either.

*Dion Lewis…PLEASE hang on to the ball.  Thank you.  I have a hunch you may be catching the ball quite a bit and not running it as much.  Hopefully that helps.

*Rex Burkhead WILL make a few plays.  Perhaps out of the slot.

*Stephen Gostkowski has had a nice career.  But my confidence, and likely Patriot fans’ confidence, in him is not where it was a few years back.  Let’s make him a non-factor, ok?

*With “Tom vs. Time” and “The Two Bills” and all that crap going on this week, it would appear Brady and Belichick are putting some unnecessary pressure on themselves to win this game.  Like, why did they do these now?  Tom certainly and Bill probably had some say in when these would come out.  Why add this to the mix before the game if you really don’t need to?  It probably doesn’t matter, what do I know?  It just doesn’t seem like normal operating procedure for the two of them though.

Ok, that seems like enough.  Prediction time…oh, one more thing.  I love Seth Wickersham of ESPN picking the Pats to win 38-9.  Yeah, the same guy who wrote that piece about New England organizational discord several weeks ago.  I’d love to have his back on that prediction and see it come to fruition.  But…

New England 27, Philadelphia 24.

Week (against the spread):  1-1

Week (straight up):  2-0

Season (against the spread):  142-124

Season (straight up):  180-86

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New England Patriot Free Agency Review – Defense

Picking up where we left off yesterday…onto the defense.

Arriving:  Stephon Gilmore, Kony Ealy, Lawrence Guy

Returning:  Dont’a Hightower, Alan Branch, Duron Harmon, Geneo Grissom, Justin Coleman, Brandon King

Departing:  Jabaal Sheard, Logan Ryan, Barkevious Mingo

In limbo:  Malcolm Butler

Who cares?:  Chris Long

Worth mentioning:  No one else

Let’s start with the big ones:

*Sign Gilmore for 5 years, 65 million…of which apparently 40 mil is guaranteed.  Whoa.  Lotta dough.  Did anyone see this coming?  I doubt it.  Sure, everyone knew they were likely to lose Ryan.  And that Butler would want some big money sooner, rather than later (more on him later) and that fact may have had some impact going forward.  So signing a cornerback or two in free agency may have been on the list at some point.  But signing a big-ticket CB?  One of the most coveted free agents out there?  On the morning of the very first day of free agency?  Not typical Patriot behavior.  Especially throwing the most guaranteed money for a defensive player in the history of the franchise.

OK, let’s just cover Butler here as well.  A lot of fans seem to be pretty upset that the team would make this kind of move.  After all that Butler has done here…cementing the Super Bowl with his interception at the end of his rookie year.  Then playing at an All-Pro/Pro Bowl level the subsequent two years.  All the while doing everything the team asked him to and keeping his mouth shut.  At limited dollars.  Blah blah blah.

And those fans may have a point.  Butler sure as hell does deserve a raise.  And he got one.  This year as a restricted free agent, he was tendered at the highest level and will make close to 4 million.  I’d say that is a pretty good raise.  Apparently, he was offered 6-7 million dollars a year before this past season.  Now, we don’t know how many years (ie: how many years past his current unrestricted free agent date at the end of next year would he have to lock into and “lose”), or the guaranteed money involved (BIG consideration).  But still looks like a pretty good raise nonetheless.

Malcolm did not want any of that and wants to cash in after next season in unrestricted free agency.  Fair enough for sure.  So despite the fact that we all feel for him to some degree, he really shouldn’t be upset that the Pats pounced on a potential long-term replacement now in case Butler walks next year.  Plus, the team rarely pays players before they have to, unless it’s a situation like above, where the player pushes off unrestricted free agency a few years for additional financial security before the Pats actually HAVE to lay out the cash.  I usually don’t begrudge a player for going after the money, especially in a sport like football where the average career is short.  But…them’s the rules…

As for the two players’ actual skills on the field?  I have seen Butler every week and I love him.  I don’t watch a lot of (ummm…any) Buffalo Bills football, so I can’t tell you if Gilmore is a better player.  But he is a smidge younger.  A smidge bigger.  And the Patriots locked him up for 5 years, so apparently THEY think he is better.  So who am I to argue with that?

All that being said, I hope Butler stays this year, makes his 4 mil, gives the team a great CB tandem (while keeping Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones, Justin Coleman, et al off the field as much as possible) and this helps them win another Super Bowl.  Then he can walk, since I doubt the Pats are paying 2 cornerbacks 8 figures a year apiece.  But now what I think will happen, especially with Butler’s visit today to New Orleans, is that Malcolm will get traded to the Saints post-haste.  It appears it would have happened in the Brandin Cooks deal, but it didn’t for many reasons.  One, Butler can’t be traded without signing his tender.  Two, Cooks had some sort of bonus deadline that he had to be dealt by if NO didn’t want to pay.  And also I suppose three, Butler needs to decide if he wants to play there and sign long-term and he and the Saints would have to negotiate and all that.

Butler leaving would certainly be too bad.  But that’s life in the NFL I guess…now that we’ve beaten this to death…

*Trading a second round pick (#64) to Carolina for Ealy and a third rounder (#72).  Steal, even if Ealy sucks.  Dropping 8 spots in the draft and getting a young defensive end with potential?  One that makes less than a million beans?  With Long and Sheard gone and Rob Ninkovich seemingly towards the end of the line, leaving the position fairly thin?  How could you not do that?  Maybe he’s not as good as the guy that had 3 sacks against Denver in the Super Bowl 2 years ago.  But should be an asset…and absolutely worth the seemingly miniscule acquisition price.

*Re-signing Branch and signing Guy.  You know I wanted Branch back.  Don’t know a thing about Guy and the contract seems steep.  But I’m guessing he is better than Woodrow Hamilton.  And along with Malcom Brown and Vincent Valentine, seems like a serviceable rotation to have in the middle of the defensive line.  I’ll wait and see if Guy gets turnstiled regularly before I complain about this one.  In the meantime, Hamilton can go back to the practice squad and be insurance for if/when Branch decides to smoke some more weed.

The rest:

*I’m not classifying Hightower’s return as a “big” one.  Not because it’s not a big deal he came back.  It sure is…just look at the rest of the linebacking core.  But rather because I think most felt like he was pretty much coming back here anyway.  That he had a “McCourty-esque” kind of understanding with Bill Belichick and the team.  Where he would bring any offers back to the Pats and they would get the opportunity to match it.  Once the first few days of free agency passed with no monster offers for Dont’a, I think this theory became stronger.  I mean, seriously, the Jets?  The cupcakes were a nice touch (huh?), but unless they gave him the moon, did anyone actually think that he would go there?  Doubtful.  Didn’t seem to be other serious suitors.  Always kind of felt like he wasn’t going anywhere.

*Seems like waaaay too much dough for Harmon.  3rd safety, technically a backup.  But I’m not opposed to him being here.  Just hope the money invested in Duron doesn’t stop them from paying someone, you know, good, in the future.

*Again, I expected someone to overpay Ryan.  That happened.  No worries there.  We knew Sheard wasn’t coming back.  But the Colts gave him 25.5 mil over 3 years?  Yikes!  The Colts also gave Mingo 2 mil for a year.  Mingo barely played on D here, so 2 mil sounds way too steep as well.  Guess Indy had some money to burn.

*We covered Long already, with his desire to “get back to being the player he once was”.  Good luck with that, my friend.  I hate to tell you that that ship has sailed.

*Grissom, Coleman, King?  Useful.  Depth.  Low cost.  Sounds good to me.

Now let’s get this Butler nonsense settled…

New England Patriots Free Agency Roundup, Part 3

NFL free agency begins Thursday afternoon at 4:00 pm.  Of course there is some sort of “legal tampering” period that starts Tuesday.  But let’s ignore that for now.  The following is one man’s thoughts on what’s going on with the players that ended the 2016 season on the Patriots’ roster, by position.

Defensive line:

Players under contract:  Malcom Brown, Trey Flowers, Woodrow Hamilton, Darius Kilgo, Rob Ninkovich, Vincent Valentine

Free agents:  Alan Branch, Geneo Grissom (exclusive rights), Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard

What I would do:  Sign Branch ASAP!  Along with Flowers, Branch was the best the defensive line had to offer this season.  Brown is competent.  Valentine may have promise.  The rest?  Ugly may describe most of them.  Long wants to leave “to get back to showing the world the player he once was…” or something like that.  What?  His playing time dipped as the year went on because…he will never be the player he once was.  But good luck to him.  Sheard had a nice year in 2015, not so much in 2016.  See ya.  Ninkovich has always been a nice piece.  But without the ‘roids this year, was this the beginning of the end?  Pass rush was non-existent most of the year outside of Flowers.  They were pretty stout against the run however.  I’d work on some edge rushers in free agency.  If Branch is retained, as I would like, the tackles should be in decent, if unspectacular shape.  Maybe add a big body in the draft or a close to “end of the line” player as free agency rolls on.

What I think will happen:  Not sure which way the league will go on Branch.  My sense is he will be back.  Simply because no one is going to hand him a fat contract when he is one toke away from a suspension.  But you never know.  Long and Sheard will be replaced by two lower level free agent defensive ends similar to what brought them here.  Short deals, not huge dollars and being veterans looking for a fresh start or a last hurrah, so to speak.  Sign a bunch of guys like Marcus Kuhn and Frank Kearse and see what sticks, similar to last year.  The Pats will not break the bank here…as if this comes as any surprise.

Linebackers:

Players under contract:  Trevor Bates, Jonathan Freeny, Shea McClellin, Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy

Free agents:  Dont’a Hightower

What I would do:  Don’t you HAVE to re-sign Hightower?  Last offseason, the Pats had kind of a “Big Six” on defense that were becoming free agents:  Hightower, Jamie Collins, Chandler Jones, Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Jabaal Sheard.  Collins and Jones are gone, Sheard is likely to be.  Ryan?  We will get to that.  Butler is restricted, so they can hold off a year.  It appears that the Pats will have over 60 mil of cap space, even more if guys like Solder and Amendola restructure.  Don’t you have to pay SOMEBODY?  Who is getting all the dough?

Look at all the names above.  Again, don’t you HAVE to re-sign Hightower?  That list above…YIKES!!  Sure they can replace Dont’a with a guy or two.  But they are not likely to have the same impact.  Look how long it took Hightower to be what he is in this defense.  A few years.  Why lose that now?  Sure, he is banged up a lot and misses games.  But he’s in the games that count.  I feel like they have to keep him.  And also add a few more decent guys to the mix as well.

What I think will happen:  My gut tells me that other teams in the league won’t overpay for Hightower, with the injuries and all.  My gut also tells me that he brings the best offer to the Pats and the team matches it.  Similar to Devin McCourty a couple of years back.  The Patriots will then be paying Hightower more than they want, but less than the franchise tag.  BUT…my gut has often been wrong.  All it takes is one humongous offer from one specific team with a ton of cap space.  We should know quick at least.

Other than this, I’d say the Pats sign a couple of lower level veterans to bring to camp.  Nothing else to see here.

Next:  Finishing up the defense and the specialists.

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