Sunday football notes

In-depth assessments of new depth players

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / March 25, 2012
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The Patriots sure have been busy in the second wave of free agency. They signed 10 players from other teams, and re-signed five of their own.

They appear to have targeted depth, for good reason. The team suffered many injuries last season to key players and was lucky that some of them - specifically, the knee injuries sustained by tight end Aaron Hernandez, safety Patrick Chung, and linebacker Brandon Spikes - happened in the middle of the season. A soft schedule allowed the Patriots to keep winning, and the players returned to form in time for the units to jell for the postseason.

But what if those injuries had happened late in the season? The Patriots would have been wiped out, because there was a substantial dropoff from starters to backups.

To address this, the Patriots targeted secondary players early while other teams were distracted by the big-ticket players.

The Patriots really didn’t have any other choice. Poor drafting from 2006-09 not only left them without starters at certain positions (receiver, safety, outside linebacker), but also with a thin, inexperienced bench.

In the first three rounds of those drafts, the Patriots missed on the following players: Laurence Maroney, Chad Jackson, David Thomas, Brandon Meriweather, Terrence Wheatley, Kevin O’Connell, Shawn Crable, Ron Brace (still hope), Darius Butler, Tyrone McKenzie, and Brandon Tate.

At this point, those players should be ascending starters, or at least solid backups. Nobody’s going to bat 1.000, but if the Patriots had hit on just three or four more players, they’d be in much better shape.

Instead, the Patriots had to find players in free agency. They’re a little bit more expensive, but if there’s a big worry about doing it this way, it’s that you’re asking players to meld into a team in a short time. It doesn’t always happen.

The good news is that, with the exception of receiver Brandon Lloyd, none of the free agents is being looked at as a huge contributor. They’re part of the puzzle, not a large piece.

And the Patriots did extensive work on those players they acquired. They were very mindful about not disrupting a solid core that showed last season they have what it takes to be one of those “special’’ teams. The Patriots are confident they have found players that can not only fit into their program but increase the overall talent of the 53-man roster.

How are those players viewed by other pro personnel executives? We asked a handful who have studied them for their take. Lloyd was previously discussed in this space. Guard Robert Gallery and receivers Donte Stallworth and Anthony Gonzalez will be explored next week.

■ Tight end Daniel Fells, Broncos (6 feet 3 inches, 259 pounds, 4.95 at combine): “He has deceptive speed across the middle. He’s not a burner, but he really surprises from an athletic standpoint. I think he’s more the combination tight end. In the run game, he does a serviceable job. He’s not overpowering like [Rob] Gronkowski, but he’s definitely better than [Aaron] Hernandez. He’s one of the better underrated all-around tight ends. He has really good hands. He’s not a sudden, quick guy but he makes plays. He’ll be more productive with [Tom] Brady. I think he’s a good player. Great guy.’’

■ End Jonathan Fanene, Bengals (6-3, 290, no combine): “High motor, tough kid. He’s a one-gap, in-line, run-defending type. Average pass rusher. He’s more of a rotation, backup contributor in the nickel and dimes. He’s going to have more contributing ability, I think, as an in-line run defender. A hustler, chaser. Will probably give you more productivity on first and second down than third down. He can be a little bit of a flex player. He can play tackle for a run-defending end. Another guy with scheme and positional versatility for the defensive line.’’

Safety Steve Gregory, Chargers (5-11, 195, 4.48 pro day): “I think in an ideal world, he’s a good, solid backup as a third safety who can play core special teams and in sub packages. As a 16-game starter, I don’t know if I’d be crazy about that. An instinctive kid. He is tough. He’ll try to tackle. Average size. Has a little bit of coverage ability. Won’t be a game-changer; more of a steady, reliable, dependable type player at the spot.’’

End/linebacker Trevor Scott, Raiders (6-5, 259, 4.54 pro day): “His first year [2008], he kind of came on like gangbusters as a pass rusher but has kind of evolved as a better first- and second-down run-defender type. Probably a little more close to average as a pass rusher. Scott is an end. We run the 3-4, so we’re always teased by the idea of maybe standing him up at linebacker, but as an end I think he’s an above-average run defender. Just as a pass rusher he’s not real creative, he’s more of a second-effort guy.’’

FB/LB Spencer Larsen (6-2, 238, 4.85, played linebacker at University of Arizona): “He’s a fullback all the way. He can be an H-back. Great kid. Got nicked up a lot. Didn’t miss a lot of time, but he was always dealing with something. He is a serviceable run blocker. He’s not overpowering. He’s more of an angle blocker. He’s versatile. Really good on special teams, good on blocks, and cover units. Good hands out of the backfield. You can use him in a lot of ways. A couple years ago he played some linebacker. He can play multiple positions and is smart enough to handle the load.’’

Cornerback Will Allen, Dolphins (5-11, 192, 4.44 at the combine): “I think [Bill Belichick] likes a veteran presence in the secondary to a degree, and he fits the short-term bill for that. I don’t think he’s a starter anymore. He’s lost a step. Still has some quickness, but in terms of recovery speed, it’s not what it used to be. Smart player, understands where help is and leverage. Instinctive guy, plays with awareness.’’ Allen could be asked to play some free safety, which is something the Dolphins discussed at one point. “The one thing he may be able to do is a coverage situational role because he has veteran savvy; that wouldn’t surprise me. From a run-support position, that would lead me to be a little bit concerned.’’

Cornerback Marquice Cole, Jets (5-9, 191, 4.31 pro day): “In my mind, he’s like a fifth cornerback who could situationally help you in dime, potentially a fourth corner. He’s not a guy you’d want to be hanging your hat on in nickel. He’ll play core special teams. Smaller body. Has some speed and quickness. It’s tougher for him to match up with bigger, physical receivers.’’


Tebow may be good for them

By trading for Tim Tebow and the hysteria that comes with him, the Jets have a powder keg on their hands.

It could certainly blow up in their face.

But I actually like the move, for a couple of reasons.

The biggest is this: The Jets tried the no-pressure “you’re our guy all the way’’ approach with Mark Sanchez his first three seasons. It didn’t work. His yards per attempt declined each season, even though his numbers increased in other categories.

Sanchez came from a coddled existence at Southern Cal, where he started only one season. With the Jets, he had old man Mark Brunell backing him up. Brunell was never an option to start if Sanchez struggled.

With Tebow on board, the pressure will be on Sanchez to perform as soon as he steps on the practice field. And in the meeting room.

Nobody outworks Tebow. If Sanchez has been lacking in the preparation department - and his performances indicate he has - then he will be shown up in front of the coaches and players by Tebow.

So Sanchez is going to have to improve in several areas, just as a result of Tebow’s presence.

Sanchez’s recent contract extension guaranteed his salary the next two seasons, so the Jets are locked in with him. If he wants to be the franchise’s rock, he’ll earn his stripes by finding success the next two seasons. If not, everyone will know he could never handle the franchise-quarterback mantle, and someone else will be the starter (likely with a new head coach, too).

Besides the Sanchez factor, Tebow is a good football player. Regardless of what you think about him as a quarterback and what position(s) he ultimately plays for the Jets, you can’t have enough good players who love the game. And that’s Tebow.

As for what he will bring on the field, the Jets at least will be able to employ different packages that will cause opponents to spread out a little. If your opponent is predictable, preparation is easy.

Tebow has been in this position before. Chris Leak was the starter at the University of Florida in 2006, and Tebow was involved in only certain packages. Everyone made it work, and the Gators won the national championship.

The NFL is obviously much different, but at least the Jets know Tebow can handle a lesser role and the team won’t be ripped apart because of it.

Many think Tebow won’t have much of an influence in a combustible locker room. No, players aren’t going to look at him as a leader when he’s not a starter and doesn’t have a big contract, but the way he goes about his business, the enthusiasm with which he tackles a lesser role, and his performance in practice will have an influence.

It is enough to keep the Jets from blowing up? That’s the big question. Coach Rex Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum are betting their jobs that it won’t happen.


Check that 2014 cap size

As agents craft contracts for their clients during this free agency period and beyond, they are looking toward 2014 as sort of a pot of gold.

The widespread belief among agents - and they were likely told this at the NFLPA agents meeting in Indianapolis last month - is that the cap will explode in 2014, because that’s when the revenue from the new mega-television contracts is due to be paid out.

But that might not necessarily be the case.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who is very plugged in when it comes to the financial realm of the NFL, doesn’t see a huge cap bump coming in 2014.

“I don’t really see that happening,’’ said Kraft. “I think there’s going to be a smooth growth. I don’t think what happened in ’06 will happen in the future here.

“If you understand the labor agreement and the long-term part of this, there will be a smooth growth. Anyone who assumes huge jumps, I hope they’re in our division.’’

In 2006, the cap increased 19.3 percent from $85.5 million to $102 million as part of the collective bargaining agreement extension.

If something similar doesn’t happen in 2014, players and agents will be upset, and teams that believed the wrong information and back-loaded contracts will be in worse cap shape than they anticipated.


Sapp should be penalized

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell did the right thing when he leveled unprecedented discipline in the Saints bounty scandal.

Goodell had no choice. You can’t usher in a new era of player safety and then let a bounty system go without stern punishment. Add in the fact that the Saints lied about the program and showed off-the-charts arrogance (even for Sean Payton and Gregg Williams) by maintaining it even though they knew the NFL was looking over their shoulders? They deserve what they got.

Goodell’s punishment will have an effect, but he also needs to stamp out the Neanderthalism that still permeates the league. Especially when that attitude is heard on the league’s television network.

Former NFL defensive tackle Warren Sapp boasted on his Twitter account that he “just heard who the snitch was,’’ then he identified former Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey as the person who first alerted the league.

Sapp later did the same on NFL Network.

Shockey has denied several times that he was the league’s initial source on the bounty, and a few former teammates have backed him up.

That doesn’t even matter.

What does is Sapp’s attempt to out a possible whistle-blower, and that he feels such a person somehow did something wrong and should be a pariah because he violated the locker room code.

Of course, we shouldn’t expect anything less from Sapp, who nearly ended the career of Packers tackle Chad Clifton in 2002 when he laid a dirty, blind-side block on him - about 20 yards away from the play - after an interception. Clifton sustained serious injuries to his hip, and the NFL has since outlawed the type of hit delivered by Sapp, who continues to show no remorse.

“I made him a household name and $42 million,’’ Sapp told USA Today at the Super Bowl following the 2010 season. “What’s the problem here? I still don’t understand. You wouldn’t know who Chad Clifton is if it wasn’t for me. But now I’m so vile that I put a block on the guy?’’

The NFL hasn’t taken Sapp off the air, but his situation is being evaluated by the league, according to a league source.

The league should take action, either firing him or suspending him.

As with the bounty scandal, Goodell doesn’t have a choice. Not if he wants to change the culture about player safety.

Nickel package

1. The NFL world descends on Palm Beach, Fla., this week for the annual league meetings. Expect there to be some fireworks about the cap penalties thrown at the Redskins and Cowboys for not taking part in collusion, and for executing player contracts that were approved by the league.

2. The league will likely push the trade deadline back two weeks (to Week 8) to generate more action. But no league power broker thinks it will move the needle.

3. Really like the proposed injured reserve exception for one player who could return later in the season. There’s no reason why an important player shouldn’t be able to return if he’s injured in the preseason.

4. What in the world are the Bears doing to running back Matt Forte? They make him play out his rookie contract, slap the franchise tag on him, and then bring in Michael Bush at four years and $14 million ($7 million guaranteed)? If the goal is to make Forte angry, the Bears have accomplished that.

5. Best of luck to running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis with the Bengals. He showed class and played with a team-first mentality (incredibly tough runner when it counted) that Patriots fans shouldn’t soon forget. The reported $3 million per year he got from the Bengals was too expensive at a position where the Patriots use a committee approach. With a great quarterback, drafted players and cheap veterans should suffice.

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