FOXBORO, MA — Gillette Stadium was the scene on Sunday afternoon for approximately 1200 football starved New England fans as the Patriots hosted the 2014 Patriots NFL Draft Preview Party that was presented by ESPN Boston. The annual event is put on for Patriots season ticket holders and invited guests.
Besides plenty of food, drinks and giveaways, fans could meet and get their picture taken with Pat the Patriot and the team’s cheerleaders, former Patriot tight end Jermaine Wiggins, and they also got a chance to walk on the new Field Turf that was recently installed at Gillette Stadium.
As in years past, some great video clips were shown with both Tom Brady and Bill Belichick wired by NFL Films during game action, providing a fascinating glimpse of what goes during the heat of Patriots’ games. Brady in particular had the sound clip of the day when in the final seconds of the comeback win against the Saints, he turns to Julian Edelman and says simply, “Just get open”, which drew a chuckle from the fans.
The fans were treated to some great football insight by the panel of experts headed up by ESPN’s Trey Wingo, who was acting as the MC of the day once again, and consisted of Field Yates of ESPN Boston and NFL Insiders, Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston, Former Patriots LB and ESPN Boston analyst Tedy Bruschi , and former Patriots offensive lineman Trevor Matich, who is an analyst for ESPN College Game Day.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter, who has attended the event in the past as a member of the panel, pre-recorded a couple of video clips that were played during the discussion. It also featured special surprise guest, former Patriots 1st round pick Chandler Jones, who treated fans to a question and answer session that was at times both enlightening and funny.
But the real reason fans were there was to hear the panel’s take on the upcoming 2014 season, and the group discussed the moves so far in free agency and where they see the team headed in the upcoming NFL Draft. They didn’t disappoint, as for 90 minutes they kept the crowd well entertained and engaged. Some of the highlights included:
FA Period, Revis Signing: Bruschi talked about the cyclical method of Free Agency with some years where the team didn’t sign any big name free agents, while in and others they’ve brought in marquee players such as Roosevelt Colvin and Adalius Thomas. Bruschi remarked that the Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner signings could signify a sense of urgency inside the organization.
Reiss chimed in with how the team in recent years had missed on some free agents they’ve signed, noting players Jonathan Fanene, Leon Washington and Adrian Wilson, with none from that group having ever taken the field or contributed little. Reiss also noted Tommy Kelly, who played well but whose season was cut short due to injury, saying the team “didn’t get their bang for their buck.”
Both Bruschi and Yates stated that Revis should be highly motivated to play at a very high level in 2014 while playing on what is essentially a one-year contract.
Vince Wilfork Contract: Matich noted that re-signing its own players is a bedrock of the organization and that a healthy Wilfork is key. Bruschi chimed in that the current off-season workouts are key for Wilfork’s return. “Can he still be an every-down player? Can he be an explosive pass rusher? When you have an Achilles injury you can’t do a lot of cardio and conditioning and Vince’s work this off-season will have a lot to do with his production this year.”
Reiss also noted that there are certain times where the owner gets involved in a contract negotiation and in Wilfork’s case Kraft got involved, so that there was at least a chance that the veteran defensive tackle could return.
Bruschi added, which brought cheers from the crowd on hand, that Wilfork is a player you don’t want to see him ever in another team’s uniform but noted due to players who are currently on the roster, Wilfork needs to be an every down player.
Depth At Offensive Line: Switching to offense, Field Yates talked about the interior offensive line and Patriots center Ryan Wendell’s contract and the need for an upgrade with a guard, center, or swing tackle. Yates and Wingo both noted that the team will have to deal with the big loss of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
Bruschi added that the offensive line is an area to watch, especially early in the season as they may struggle learning the nuances of a new coach. Reiss also added that Scarnecchia was a great judge of talent as well, speaking of how the team sent him to check out a tight end from tiny Livingstone College in North Carolina and how that player ended up being Ben Coates.
Discussion also ensued on Marcus Cannon and where he fits long term in the Patriots plans. Yates added that the great success of the Patriots running game down the stretch in 2013 had a lot to do with Cannon providing key, solid support. He could be a starting guard or stay at tackle, and provide depth at tackle where Sebastian Vollmer is coming back from injury.
Wide Receiver Situation: The talk then went on to the receiver position, and the consensus was that the return of Edelman was a major step in the right direction for the team, with Bruschi noting Edelman’s toughness, attitude, and his trust factor with Brady.
Matich added that Brady’s frustration early in the season wasn’t a result of a lack of talent, but in chemistry. He pointed out that accuracy isn’t just about throwing the ball to a spot on the field, but throwing the ball at a very specific point of time at the correct spot on the field. Matich said that was one of the problems the Patriots had early on last season, as the younger receivers were still learning the nuances of the offense and struggled, as did Brady.
Reiss stated that the Danny Amendola signing hasn’t initially worked out because of the injury suffered in the opener against Buffalo and that in that game, but that Amendola has shown many of the characteristics of Wes Welker.
Yates talked about how many fans are still clamoring for further additions to the wide receiving core, adding that with the contracts signed, essentially Amendola, Edelman and newcomer Brandon Lafell are locks. Since they were only drafted last year, he feels the same applies to Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, adding that Matthew Slater, listed as a receiver but is a special teams player, leaves little room for them to bring in additional players at that position.
Better in 2014: All four members of the panel agreed that the Patriots are a better team on paper right now than the one that lost the AFC Championship in Denver with not just the players they added in free agency, but also the team’s own re-signings and, most importantly, the players the Patriots have returning from injuries.
Bruschi remarked on how much linebacker Jamie Collins will mean to the coverage units in 2014, saying that he can cover the big, fast tight ends. Reiss also added that Revis and Browner will change the way the team can play defense, remarking that the matchup in Denver without Talib turned into a track meet that the Broncos were primed for.
Bruschi made a great point that having the better corners may mean an extra half second that each of those players can cover, which could be a key difference in the defense’s ability to get a sack, a QB pressure, or a hand on a pass that can be tipped at the line.
Yates agreed, stating that extra half-second could mean the difference between Chandler Jones being a 10 sack and a 15 sack player.
Matich used a go-cart analogy for the offense, stating that the young receivers were learning the ropes “like a go-cart with a governor limiting their speed”. This season he believes they should be better prepared and their production, like Brady’s, will increase.
Improving the Defense: A common theme was using the Seattle defense as a measuring stick, and the panel agreed that Seattle’s production was tied to all eleven players playing as a unit on defense.
Matich stated that to beat Peyton Manning, one doesn’t have to out-smart him but to beat “his friends”. He stated that the Super Bowl showed that Seattle beat up Manning’s receivers and that made the pass rush even more effective.
Bruschi talked about intimidation and how Denver’s receivers didn’t fight back, which Wingo chimed in “which is why [Eric Decker] is now a NY Jet”. However, the point Bruschi ultimately made was the fact that with Revis and Browner on board, the Patriots are now building that type of defense.
Reiss stated the Seahawks victory reminded him of the Patriots first Super Bowl win over the Rams and that perhaps the team was getting back to its defensive roots of those early 2000’s teams.
Draft Issues/Selections: The talk moved on to the upcoming draft and the Patriots pick at #29 and much of the talk centered around helping the interior of both the offensive and defensive lines, as well as help at tight end.
Yates believes that while the defensive line needs to be addressed that the tight position is of a more pressing need, stating that “Tight ends not named Rob Gronkowski, accounted for only 13 catches last year.” Yates added that they need to not only compliment Gronkowski, but prepare for replacing him, noting his injury history if it should crop up again.
Reiss noted that the team may look ahead to beyond 2014 and address team needs in 2015 and possibly even further, noting that not many starting positions on this roster would be filled via the draft. Reiss thinks the defensive line or linebacker will be the priority of the draft.
Bruschi also thinks the defensive line is a priority and stated that as a Patriots fan, you want to see a lot of quarterbacks taken in the first round. Bruschi feels that the more quarterbacks that are taken early, the more options the team will have available at defensive tackle when the Patriots pick at #29.
Matich believes tight end is the top priority and that they need to maximize Brady’s weapons on offense. Switching to defense, Matich noted that a player like Louis Nix of Notre Dame would spell Wilfork and make the depth of the defensive line much stronger.
Film Breakdown: Breaking down some film of different prospects began with Matich showing some highlights of Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt, who can play both inside at defensive tackle, or outside at the 5-technique. Matich also noted some of Tuitt’s excellent pass rushing moves.
The Fighting Irish’s Louis Nix got a lot of film breakdown as well, with the feeling that he could be a disruptor at nose guard or at defensive tackle. Reiss added that unlike the popular misconception, a big man inside is still very much needed, citing the first Denver game of 2013 as an example. He also added that a Rutgers presence in the past few NFL drafts may be replaced this year by the Notre Dame influence of Brian Kelly with Bill Belichick.
The panel also spoke about pass rushing defensive end Dee Ford of Auburn, with Matich noting that he is a nice prospect in the mid-rounds but doesn’t believe him to be an every down player. Matich showed highlights of Ford with a complete set of moves, including a sack of Johnny Manziel.
Yates added that any edge rusher defensive end drafted at #29 wouldn’t necessarily be considered a starter since both Jones and Rob Ninkovich are locked up until 2016 in their contracts.
Reiss added that another common theme this off-season is talk of going “big” at safety, as the Seahawks have Cam Chancellor but that players like him don’t turn up often. Reiss noted that the Patriots have Duron Harmon , who they drafted last year. He added that one player to watch is Deone Buchanon, who is a big physical safety that could be of interest.
Bruschi thinks Browner could be used in certain packages as a safety, which has been a frequent topic on these pages.
They finally got around to tight ends and the first player mentioned was a player frequently tied to the Patriots in mock drafts, Jace Amaro. Amaro is a matchup nightmare in the Aaron Hernandez mold. He can beat coverages from corners, linebackers, or safeties, and is a player to certainly watch as the draft unfolds.
Reiss made an interesting caveat however, that an interesting thing to watch will be how the team views Amaro and “Will they see him as a tight end or just a big receiver?” He also feels if the Patriots view him as just a big receiver, they may not value him at the 29th pick. Matich showed more tape on Notre Dame (see the trend developing here?) tight end Troy Niklas and believes him to be a better target for the Patriots in their offense.
The panel had some fantastic discussions overall and the fans went away with their football fix sated until the draft rolls around in a few weeks. The one takeaway is that this is a draft loaded with talent and there is plenty for the Patriots to choose from this year. 2014 is indeed shaping up already to be quite interesting….