FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Cash and cachet: Coach Bill Belichick had the cold, hard cash necessary for the Patriots to be a major player in free agency. He also had the cachet, which was an important tiebreaker in competitive bidding situations.
Some of the newest Patriots said playing for Belichick, who turns 69 in April, was a deciding factor in their coming aboard.
“I met him before coming out in the  draft and I always talked to my high school coach [Kevin Kelley] about him, and so we kind of had that mutual connection,” tight end Hunter Henry said. “Just kind of building that throughout the years; I have a ton of respect for Coach, the Patriots, and I’m excited to be under him and have him be my coach now and help me grow as a player.”
One would expect players to say nice things about their new boss, especially after Belichick backed up the Brink’s truck for many of them. There also seemed to be a level of awe.
Defensive back Jalen Mills relayed he has watched Belichick closely since before he started taking football seriously, and then shared an anecdote about one of his first meetings with him at Gillette Stadium shortly after signing.
“I was about to walk out of the cafeteria and I hear ‘Hi Jalen.’ So I turn around and it’s Coach. In my mind, I’m saying ‘this is Coach,’ but it didn’t really click it was Coach Belichick. He was saying he was happy to have me here, and I literally turned my back to him and screamed out loud, ‘This is f—ing Coach Belichick!'”
Defensive tackle Davon Godchaux called it a “no-brainer” to sign because of the scheme and “being able to be coached by arguably the greatest coach of all time.” Fellow defensive lineman Henry Anderson added he has long admired Belichick’s defense. Offensive tackle Trent Brown said upon his return to New England via a trade from the Las Vegas Raiders, “I’ve worn a lot of jerseys in my life, but I’ve never been more proud than when I put on a Patriots jersey.”
And linebacker Raekwon McMillan shared he passed on two or three other scheduled visits after meeting with Belichick at Gillette Stadium.
“This opportunity couldn’t be passed up because of the prestige, being coached by some of the best coaches in the NFL,” he said. “Coach Belichick told me that he’s been watching my career. For a player, you’re talking to a Hall of Fame coach, that really inspired me.”
2. Garoppolo in 2022: Friday’s blockbuster trade in which the San Francisco 49ers moved up from the No. 12 spot in the 2021 NFL draft to No. 3 puts them right in the mix for a quarterback, and thus puts Jimmy Garoppolo on notice. The 49ers are saying they are sticking with Garoppolo in 2021, and that’s believable to me when considering they view themselves as a Super Bowl contender and wouldn’t want to turn the team over to a rookie this year. But here’s something for the Patriots to consider as they continue to search for their QB of the future: Garoppolo’s availability in 2022 just became a more likely option, so they don’t need to force anything in the draft.
Mel Kiper explains why he has the Patriots selecting Mac Jones with the No. 15 pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
3. Patricia’s impact: When Matt Patricia returned to the Patriots this offseason as an assistant to Belichick and his coaching staff, it was natural to wonder what his role would be. That should continue to evolve, but in recent weeks, he has been helping finalize contracts (his name appears on some of them) with free agents and getting involved in negotiations in certain spots as a salesman of sorts. In that sense, he truly has served as an added layer of support to Belichick.
4. Wake Forest proud of Herron: News that reserve Patriots offensive lineman Justin Herron was recognized by Tempe Police for helping to stop an alleged sexual assault in an Arizona park resonated at Wake Forest, Herron’s alma mater. Dave Clawson and his coaching staff maintain a strong connection to Herron, who set the school record for 51 starts. “Very proud of Justin. He was one of my very first recruits and he spent six years here. I got to know Justin and his family well,” Clawson told ESPN.com. “I wasn’t surprised. Justin is one of those people that if he was in that situation, there’s no doubt he would do that. To me it was one of those things like football — it’s preparation, character and opportunity. And Justin, when he has the opportunity, always does the right thing.”
5. Clawson’s connection: Clawson, entering his eighth season as Wake Forest’s coach, has a connection to the Patriots that goes beyond Herron. He attended Williams College (Class of 1989) in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where one of his close friends was Josh Kraft, the third of Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s four boys. Clawson recalled playing pickup basketball with Kraft and his dad in the mid-1980s, and he remains close with Josh. So when Herron (2020 sixth round) became the first Wake Forest player selected by the Patriots since the Kraft family purchased the team in 1994, it had some added meaning to him.
6. Failed fifth: Take the hit and move on. That’s what Belichick is doing after the Patriots bombed on 2020 fifth-round pick Justin Rohrwasser, the place-kicker from Marshall who was waived last week without appearing in a game for the team. It’s not ideal, but far from a backbreaking decision when compared to the Tennessee Titans already having moved on from 2020 first-round pick Isaiah Wilson. The fifth round is traditionally a transition point where the Patriots identify a specific role for a player to fill — or identify a prospect with a standout trait to possibly develop. Special-teamer Matthew Slater, punter Zoltan Mesko and long-snapper Joe Cardona represent good hits in that realm.
7. Pats in Cali: Backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham seemed to be the catalyst for gathering a bunch of Patriots in Southern California for throwing sessions this past week. He did something similar last year in suburban Boston, and once Cam Newton signed with the team, he invited Newton to the workouts. But then Stidham faded quickly out of the QB picture once training camp began. Whether Stidham can make a more decisive charge this season will be a storyline to monitor, as Newton joined last week’s workouts one day after they started. Others in attendance included wide receivers Kendrick Bourne, Nelson Agholor, Jakobi Meyers, N’Keal Harry and Kristian Wilkerson, and tight ends Henry, Devin Asiasi and Matt LaCosse.
8. White/Vereen plan: The Patriots’ re-signing of James White to a one-year deal with $2.75 million guaranteed solidifies their “passing back” role in 2021, and sets up a scenario where they can target that position in the draft and have the prospect “redshirt” for a year while learning the nuances of the pro passing game, just like White (2014) and Shane Vereen (2011) did before emerging. Of the possibilities in this year’s draft, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said, “It’s a good group and you can get some guys a little bit later.” Kiper highlighted Kenneth Gainwell (Memphis), Demetric Felton (UCLA), Jake Funk (Maryland), Raheem Blackshear (Virginia Tech), CJ Marable (Coastal Carolina) and Javian Hawkins (Louisville) as players fitting that profile.
9. Mr. Underrated: One of the enjoyable parts of reporting is interacting with longtime fans, and Scott Winslow is one of them. He sent a nice note last week after defensive tackle Lawrence Guy agreed to return on a four-year deal, which read: “Just thrilled about Lawrence Guy. He was the best player on the field in so many games last year. One of the most underrated players I remember in 57 years of following the team.” No argument here. If an All-Time Underrated Patriots team was put together, Guy and Tim Goad (1988-1994) would be a great place to start at the heart of the line of scrimmage.
10. Did You Know: The Patriots are tied for the NFL’s third-longest streak of not selecting a quarterback in the first round of the draft, as it has been 27 years since they tabbed Drew Bledsoe No. 1 overall in 1993. That matches them with the Seattle Seahawks, who last did so in ’93 with Rick Mirer. Only the New Orleans Saints (49 years, Archie Manning/1971) and Dallas Cowboys (31 years, Troy Aikman/1989) have longer streaks.
Former New York Giants head coach Jim Fassel dies at 71
Former New York Giants head coach Jim Fassel has died at the age of 71, his son, John, confirmed to the Los Angeles Times on Monday night.
Fassel was the head coach for the Giants from 1997-2003. He was named the NFL’s Coach of the Year in 1997, and guided the Giants to three playoff berths.
Fassel’s Giants team lost to the Baltimore Ravens 34-7 in Super Bowl XXXV in January 2001, after going 12-4 and winning the NFC East that season. Fassel was 58-53-1 overall with the Giants.
Fassel also coached in the college ranks, leading Utah from 1985 to 1989.
Nine things to watch at NFL minicamps
Nine NFL teams open their mandatory three-day minicamps this week, with the rest of the teams to follow next week (except for the Philadelphia Eagles, who have elected not to have a minicamp this offseason). Most of the practices will be Tuesday through Thursday, though the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers will begin theirs Monday.
Teams have already been going through organized team activities, but for some, this is the first time that veterans will take the field since the end of the 2020 season. Of course, the biggest stories in some places will be which veterans don’t take the field, aka Aaron Rodgers watch in Green Bay, as the Packers are among the teams participating in mandatory camps this week. The Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons — who just traded away star receiver Julio Jones — also are having their camps.
We asked our NFL Nation reporters to preview this week’s minicamps and tell us the biggest thing they are watching from all nine camps. Come back next week for a primer on the rest of the minicamps.
What will the Falcons’ offense look like without Julio Jones?
Jones is off to Tennessee, and the first practice without him will be at minicamp, where theoretically all of Atlanta’s offensive options — including Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage and Kyle Pitts — will be in attendance. Seeing how these players work together with Matt Ryan, along with who might be taking an early lead as a No. 3 receiver, is going to be the primary thing to pay attention to throughout the week. — Michael Rothstein
Can the revamped Dallas defense continue its positive momentum?
The obvious storyline is Dak Prescott and his return from a serious right ankle injury, but the quarterback has looked good in the two OTAs open to the media. There is more up in the air about the defense, although there have been encouraging signs this spring in the changes Dan Quinn is bringing. The biggest change is the level of communication that has gone on throughout the group.
After virtual meetings leading up to camp a year ago, players were unsure of the new scheme and it was noticeable by how quiet practices were on the defensive end. With on-field work this spring, plus virtual meetings, there is a lot more talking between groups and an understanding as to what is expected. The Cowboys’ hope is that level of understanding leads to players going faster and making more plays when things get real. — Todd Archer
Who are the wide receivers?
Detroit’s receiving corps doesn’t look strong on paper, and it will be interesting to see who steps up as a primary target in Jared Goff‘s first season. Some guys to watch out for are Tyrell Williams, Breshad Perriman and Quintez Cephus. Fourth-round draft pick Amon-Ra St. Brown is also looking to take someone’s spot. — Eric Woodyard
How will Jordan Love look with his full complement of receivers?
Now that it appears certain that Aaron Rodgers will skip the mandatory minicamp, Love should finally get to work with the top receivers. The 2020 first-round pick hasn’t had many experienced targets to work with during OTAs because the top-four returning receivers (Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard and Equanimeous St. Brown) along with 2020 opt-out Devin Funchess have all stayed away. They’re expected to attend this week’s camp. Love has favored check-down passes during the practices that have been open to reporters, but now he shouldn’t have any reason not to take some more shots down the field.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford‘s integration into the offense.
Stafford is entering his 13th NFL season, but his first in L.A. His arrival from Detroit immediately put the Rams in the Super Bowl conversation, but there is plenty of work to be done as Stafford continues to learn the offense and the tendencies of his new playmakers. — Lindsey Thiry
The Saints aren’t having a traditional minicamp with full practice sessions. So we’ll have to wait until late July to see how they divvy up first-string snaps between Winston and Hill at quarterback. But the competition is already well underway as the Saints install a playbook without Drew Brees as the conductor for the first time in 16 years. — Mike Triplett
Daniel Jones working with all of his new weapons.
There is Kenny Golladay, first-round pick Kadarius Toney, speedster John Ross, running back Devontae Booker. How will they all fit in this offense? And what is Saquon Barkley doing as he rehabs the torn ACL? — Jordan Raanan
How much will Tom Brady do on his surgically repaired knee?
He has been throwing for three weeks now in private workouts with teammates, but coach Bruce Arians said he may have Brady do more coaching on the sidelines and not take any chances. They’ll have Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Griffin and Kyle Trask if Brady can’t go. — Jenna Laine
Chase Young‘s return.
He was the only player not to attend at least some of the six voluntary workout sessions. Young is a workout maven and was doing his work elsewhere and was in communication with the coaches (who would always prefer everyone attends). But this will be the first time to see Young since the season ended and to see how he’ll start building on a strong rookie season. There’s been a good energy at Washington’s practices; having Young back could lead to more. — John Keim
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft gifted new Bentley from celebrity friends for 80th birthday
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft celebrated his 80th birthday on Sunday, with some of his celebrity friends surprising him with an unexpected gift — a sparkling new Bentley.
Rapper Meek Mill posted a video on his Instagram account of a stunned Kraft receiving the car. Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin, the chairman of Fanatics, contributed to the gift, as did Jay-Z, among others.
All have worked together in creating the Reform Alliance, which since its inception in 2019 aims to transform probation and parole in the United States.
In the video posted on Instagram, Kraft put both hands on his head after first seeing the car, and said “Oh my God!” He had apparently been hoping to buy a Bentley, but seemingly wasn’t able to find the car he was looking for, which led to his surprise.
“How did you get it?” Kraft asked Rubin.
Kraft was then told the car had been delivered on a flatbed from Florida.
Kraft’s connection to Meek Mill is well documented. He met him through Rubin, and visited the rapper in prison in 2018, then spoke publicly on Mill’s behalf that his sentence was unfair and reflective of a broken criminal justice system.
“It makes it clear to me that we have to do something with criminal justice reform,” Kraft said at the time. “His kind of case, in a situation like this, it’s really bad. I know some of our players in the NFL have talked about this and I see it firsthand; it’s just wrong. We have to find a way to correct it.”
After the Patriots won Super Bowl LIII over the Los Angeles Rams, Kraft wore a thick gold chain at the victory parade that was gifted to him by Meek Mill.
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