In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June and July, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
What's a perennial powerhouse to do when its quarterback is creeping up on retirement, its archrivals are a stride ahead, and a new wave of contenders appears to lead by a lap? Some teams would risk everything in the name of one last cavalry charge. Others would stay the course, building slowly and carefully in the hope of crawling tortoise-like across the finish line while the hares catch their breath. The Patriots opted to do a little of both this offseason.
The Darrelle Revis signing, coupled with the acquisition of suspended cornerback Brandon Browner, demonstrates that the Patriots know their tomorrows are numbered. Drafting Dominique Easley in the first round was another short-term boom-or-bust tactic. Easley's multiple ACL tears are troubling, but he has John Randle-level talent, and the fact that the Patriots put him on the field during minicamp shows that they are expecting some 2014 returns on their investment.
The remainder of the Patriots draft was all about the future, from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a trio of developmental offensive linemen. The Patriots aren't planning to swim upstream toward Brady's retirement, then die as they spawn one last championship. They are gearing up for a Super Bowl push on one hand and an orderly succession of power on the other, a two-pronged plan that few teams have the vision or leadership to execute.
Let's leave Garoppolo and the 2018 Patriots aside for now and focus on the current team. They appear ready to battle the Broncos for the conference again. They may even have what it takes to tangle with the NFC powers. It all comes down to two outstanding players that the team doesn't like to talk about. But then, the Patriots don't really like talking about anything.
Biggest Move: Buying (or perhaps renting) property on Revis Island
A running gag here in these OTAs is to link to the song "Everything is Awesome" from The Lego Movie whenever quoting minicamp news. Reports from June practices tend to be a little overly sunny, like summer days on PBS Sprout or antidepressant commercials. Well, things are never quite so sunny behind the Belichick Curtain. Say, cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer, how is the perennial All Pro your teams spent millions to acquire panning out?
"Every individual is different, so each case is probably going to be a little bit different, so you just kind of work with, OK, what was their experience, what have they had here, how will it fit into what we're doing? and you just kind of take it individual by individual case. Our ultimate goal is to try to make each individual the best possible player they can be to help the team, and we'll ask them to do numerous different things. As we build that way and the individuals get better, the group gets better and then the team gets better."
My, that's not like "Everything is Awesome" at all. That's more like:
If Patriots coaches actually raved about someone, we would worry that that player had some incurable disease or something. Revis already is the subject of creepy Stalinist rumors and whispers -- he disappears from practice like a dissident journalist! He hints that he is only a Patriot "right now," a sign of dangerous self-think -- and that's a good thing, a sign of business as usual within the dark fortress.
Revis' 2013 season in Tampa was a source of myth and mystery, so a little time off the grid is par for the course for him. Revis had a "bad year," according to those who see a cornerback allow one completion on a highlight reel and shout, "Overrated! Finished!" Those who look more carefully saw that Revis was his usual self for most of the season. He was only targeted 50 times, according to Football Outsiders, allowing just 6.4 yards per pass thrown at his receivers. When you are only targeted 50 times, breaking up 11 passes is quite a feat.
Revis excelled despite Greg Schiano's strange experiment, forcing Revis to play frequently in off coverage or zone coverage, even though he'd made his reputation in tight man. Too much was made of that as well. The "inflexible Schiano" routine got carried away as we tried to portray the Bucs coach as chaotic evil, when he actually is somewhere between lawful and neutral evil. Revis wasn't always misused, but Schiano had a funny way of trying to get the most from him. At any rate, opponents looked over and said, "Hey, there's Revis doing something he is not really comfortable with," and in most cases, they still tried their luck elsewhere. Which tells you something.
From Schiano to Belichick: Is this Revis Island or the Gulag Archipelago? Revis sounds very content in New England and excited with the new system (when he's permitted to speak). Belichick has thrived for over a decade by fitting his schemes to his players, not vice versa. Once Boyer stops babbling in vague Patriots-speak, he probably will be instructed to clamp Revis down in man coverage, so the Patriots can forget about opponents' No. 1 receivers. Belichick can then get back to his favorite non-World Cup pastime: scheming to thwart the various inexperienced quarterbacks the Patriots will face this season, plus the all-too-experienced one who stands between the Patriots and the Super Bowl.
Biggest Gamble: Entering training camp with no kickoff returner
This is a gamble? Barely. But the Patriots do not appear to be in a gambling mood this year.
The Patriots alternated LeGarrette Blount with Josh Boyce at kick returner last year. The team has moved on from Blount and is not jazzed about using Boyce in the role anymore. Mathew Slater is currently listed as the Patriots kickoff returner. Slater has been a special teams loyalist since 2008: if he was an ideal solution, he would have started returning kicks regularly years ago.
Reggie Dunn handled kickoffs in minicamp earlier in the month, but Dunn was recently waved. Devin McCourty has returned kicks in the past, but assigning a starting safety to the task is not a great idea. It is not hard to grab a roster and point to names of potential returners -- Boyce, rookies James White and Jeremy Gallon, Brandon Boldin -- but there is no obvious selection. Gallon looks the part, for example, but returned just five kickoffs in his last three seasons at Michigan after handling the chores as a freshman, and his punt return profile is nothing special. White averaged just 19.7 yards per kickoff at Wisconsin, giving up the chores after the 2011 season. And so on.
This is not a big deal, of course. But there are few things worse for a contender than losing a game because some novice coughs up a kickoff at the 15-yard line. That may be why Slater is the starter right now: he may not be flashy, but the Patriots know they can count on him.
Biggest Question: Gronk Rx
If a cornerbacks coach is unwilling to state whether or not he is happy to be working with Darrelle Revis, what chance do we have of getting accurate health information out of Fort Mumbles? Rob Gronkowski is on the mend from ACL surgery; when asked about his status, team officials would neither confirm nor deny the existence of knees.
Albert Breer reported last week that the Patriots are targeting a Week 1 return for Gronk. Breer still had lacerations all over his hands and torso, from scaling the barbed wire fence to retrieve the information, so the story sounds legit. But if Star Wars taught us anything, it's that the bad guys like to put on a show of offering resistance when they let the good guys escape, making it easier to track them. Gronk spent well over a month being "day-to-day" last year, so Week 1 could represent the start of the NFL season, NHL season, the first week of January 2015 or Belichick's regime as earth's overlord.
There's a lot of Gronk optimism out there, despite the Patriots' tendency to talk of the Pro Bowl tight end's health in "free beer tomorrow" terms. November-to-September is a lightning-quick ACL turnaround, even in the post-Adrian Peterson, post-RG3 era. Perhaps it's because Gronk has been partying like there is no rehab tomorrow for weeks; if you can boogie at a J-Lo concert, you have probably regained some lateral motion. A potential clue to the Gronknosis: The team ignored the tight end position in the draft and has not made any effort to sign Jermichael Finley. By logical reasoning, we can conclude that Gronk is healthier than Finley, but that may not be saying much.
Whether Gronk is healthy for the opener or the Patriots plan to bluff their way to Halloween, it is clear that the team is moving away from the two-tight end offensive philosophy that Gronk helped define from 2010 through 2012. The Patriots are deeper than ever at running back. Last year's rookie receiver trio is now a trio of sophomores with playoff experience. (Boyce didn't play in the postseason, but you get the idea.) The Patriots are evolving offensively again, possibly for the last time in the Brady era. A healthy Gronk could make a huge contribution to their latest strategic plan, but part of that plan apparently is to become a little less reliant on him.
Rookie James White will replace Shane Vereen as the 10-carry, eight-catch, third-down guy in the backfield committee. Also, Brandon LaFell will not make it to the first round of cuts. Oh, yeah, and Brady-Manning: Anarchy drops on November 2. That's All Soul's Day, so be ready to sacrifice yours to the angry pagan rivalry gods.