Patriots Thursday Observations, Seahawks Review

After their thrilling-yet-ultimately-disappointing 31-24 loss to Seattle, it’s apparent that over the past 15 years the Patriots tend to lose in three different ways.

1.) The Blowout – just one of those games where the opponent plays well and New England seems to do everything wrong and have everything go against them. At some point in the fourth quarter, fans realize they’ve continued watching because they want to see the backup QB and/or maybe they enjoy the feeling of suffering. See: Chiefs 41, Patriots 14, 2014.

2.) The Nap – Possibly due to underestimating an opponent, maybe because of overabundant contentment with an early lead, or a combination of both, these head-shakers come around every couple of seasons or so. The prime example was 2004’s loss at Miami, but the 2015 upset by the Eagles counts, too.

3.) The Better Team That Day Won – Think Green Bay in 2014. Yeah, the Patriots lost, but fans came out of that game with respect for the Packers and confidence in New England. Half “If Only,” half “Meh, What Are You Gonna Do?”

So, where does the loss to the Seahawks lie? It’s tough to tell. We do know that the NFL has no great, unstoppable team this year. The Patriots are one of the best, yet they have obvious holes that need work and, at this point in the season, probably won’t get 100 percent fixed.

Was this a mediocre New England defense in disarray, or a Seattle offense waking up for the second half of the season? We’ll have a better idea after Sunday’s game in San Francisco. If the Patriots have trouble containing the 1-8 Niners’ 29th-ranked offense, with its 36-percent third-down conversion rate and 20.8 points per game, then the defense has more issues than your grandmother’s attic full of Reader’s Digest.

This could be one of those “Win That Feels Like A Loss” weeks. Ooh. Fun.

Game/Player Observations

Straight Outta Complementary: Metaphors abound regarding the relationship between offense, defense, and special teams. I’ve heard the trio compared to legs on a stool, where the failure of one brings the whole thing down. Now, while the Patriots defense was only slightly more effective than taking Airborne during the bubonic plague, it’s hard to say that offense or special teams had a great day.

That’s complementary football. One team makes a play that sets up the next team. Defense stops them deep, punt return gets a few yards to set up the offense, offense delivers with points. Last week, the Patriots actually converted 60 percent of their third-down opportunities, while the Seahawks cashed in on 50 percent. Looking at the game stats, the Patriots’ two turnovers set the teams apart. The defense too often failed to hold up its end of the bargain, but they weren’t the only reason for losing.

Not to be too much of a grammar weirdo, but “complementary” means to combine and enhance each other, “complimentary” is the other thing. (I try to remember that the word “complete” starts out with the same five letters.) I always think of complimentary running backs as a couple of teammates saying things like, “Nice block!” “Thanks, man. Way to cut and go!”

I reiterate: grammar weirdo.

Two Halves Make A Hole: The Patriots allowing the Seahawks to drive the length of the field in less than a minute at the end of the first half lost them the game, not just because of the seven points, but due also to its impact on Tom Brady’s reluctance to score with about 40 seconds left in the game. This is actually detailed well in this piece by Mike Reiss of ESPN.com.

The Patriots have used this goal-and-minutes-to-go strategy before. Against Cincinnati, LeGarrette Blount appeared to score a touchdown with two minutes left, but the replay ruled him down at the one. On the next play, Brady took the snap and flopped toward the line of scrimmage, gaining nothing and taking 35 seconds of the clock. Blount then went up and over the pile for the score. Now, the Patriots held a 28-17 lead at the time, so Brady could have done the meringue behind his line and lost a couple of yards to no ill effect.

The first time I remember seeing this type of play was in 2008 when the Matt Cassel-helmed Pats hosted the Bills. New England led 13-3 with 11:05 left on the clock. They chewed up over nine minutes on their final scoring drive. With a first down at the Bills’ one with 3:18 left, Cassel took two snaps in a row and made zero yards. It was easy to see that he had no intention of making it into the end zone, as his first move was to crouch behind the center. On third down, BenJarvus Green-Ellis plowed in for the necessary yard, 20-3, Patriots.

We’ve seen this strategy work before; I’m just not sure I’ve seen it when New England trailed. But, even with less than a minute left, the Patriots thought it more important to force Seattle to call a timeout than to tie the game as soon as possible. Here we get into the loser’s side of “ifs”: if Blount reached the ball over the plain, if Brady went the right way on the ensuing sneak, if they tried Blount one more time on fourth down. We’ll see how much this loss makes a difference in January.

Call-Ins For Collins: “Did trading linebacker Jamie Collins hurt the defense?” is one of the myriad reasons I have ignored talk radio this week. As Coach Bill Belichick might say, Look, I’m just trying to do what’s best for the team. Short term, it’s easy to see that the lack of an oak-sized uberathlete didn’t help, but I don’t think Belichick was looking short term. Again, we’ll have a better idea of what’s up after their meeting in San Francisco, because they looked off. Seattle marched down the field meeting all the resistance of tulips to a tank, and Doug Baldwin was so open for his second TD that he could have stopped at the one-yard line and celebrated before stepping into the end zone.

The next three games are away at San Franciso (1-8), away at the Jets (3-7), and home vs. the Rams (4-5). That makes three teams with a combined eight wins. The time for fixing is now.

Spitting Out Pieces Of His Broken Luck: I have never had a punctured lung. I can’t imagine it’s pleasant. The fact that tight end Rob Gronkowski took a nasty hit and, after a five-play respite, returned to the game says so much about his character. Gronk thought he just had the wind knocked out of him. That’s like thinking you got a splinter in your toe and, when you look for it, finding a 10-penny nail.

Cutting the game observations a little short today due to a cold. When I blow my nose, it sounds like I’m starting up a Harley-Davidson. Accidentally took some NyQuil during the day but so far no negative effectsaadcvx#%zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Random Observations

If Tom E. Curran Were Born In County Mayo, We’d Have A Hell Of A Subhead Here: Kudos to Curran and Jerod Mayo for their analysis of New England’s zone breakdowns (you can see their video here). In it, Mayo shows how the Patriots failed to drop back far enough to cover the middle flat, making them especially vulnerable to mid-range down-and-outs. Mayo also has some notable comments on the impact of the Collins trade (hint: it’s not what you might think).

So, salvageable. The next few weeks should see New England bulking up the win column; fans have the luxury of deciding on the quality of those expected wins. Not a bad spot to be in.

Cris Crossed The Line: On a personal note, I was not a big fan of how Cris Collinsworth played up the hit on Gronk. I know, I know: I’m biased, and maybe due to my age I don’t relish the big hits in football like I used to (in part because it hurts enough to get out of bed these days without having gotten tackled the day before). Still, when Collinsworth starts that hawnh-hawnh-hawnh guffaw during the replay and fails to note the sobriety of the moment as Gronk is getting looked at by the training staff, it can be difficult to listen to.

You can note the severity of the hit, praise the defense, and still show proper concern for player safety. We can have nice things.

Hello, My Name Is Inigo Montoya. You Killed My Father. Prepare To Be Reprimanded: If you search for “Seahawks–Patriots–Revenge,” you get several headlines from national outlets promoting the storyline of how Seattle got back at New England on Sunday.

Ah, yes. Revenge. Because the Patriots may have beaten the Seahawks in one of the most tense and memorable Super Bowls in history, but Seattle came to Foxboro two years later and upset the home team in Week 10. Even Steven!

They certainly seemed both pumped and jacked.

Officially Bad: We can all agree that Kam Chancellor committed pass interference on Gronk, right? The tight end tried to get to the ball but the safety prevented him from doing so, impeding him from behind. I’m not saying Seattle stole the game or that, even if New England had scored there, they would have won in overtime. Hell, if the Seahawks won the toss, Russell Wilson could have gotten them down the field in the time it took for fans to fill up the chip bowl. Questionable calls went both ways, from Seattle’s fumble that wasn’t called to Richard Sherman’s phantom face mask penalty. And that’s the issue.

Post-game discussion should not come down to a tradeoff of bad calls like we’re swapping properties in Monopoly: “If I give you the Marvin Gardens fumble, you have to hand over the Park Place pass interference in the end zone.” There exists a parallel universe where this game was officiated well; and frankly, I don’t know how that game ended. Did the Patriots win on a field goal? Did the Seahawks end up with a 14-point lead? There’s no telling.

Referees are human. In some instances, maybe the video guys should buzz in for a second look without a coach’s challenge, especially where fumbles and face mask penalties are called. With help from instant replay, some of these calls are obvious and could be changed quickly.

Or, hey, we could do away with instant replay all together and make it more of a free-for-all. Look everybody! I got Free Parking!

The Most Memorable Play Of A Forgettable Season: Very happy to report that Cassel’s third-down punt at Buffalo in the Patriots’ last game of 2008 is now on YouTube. If you’ll remember, this was the wind game, where Zephyr swirled with such force that the goal posts ended up slanting in different directions. With 6:36 left in the fourth, leading 13-0, they ran Lamont Jordan for one yard twice, then had Cassel boot it out of the shotgun. The wind was such that, once the ball hit the ground at the 25 and bounced to the 11, it featured a breeze-aided roll all the way to the one. Cassel was credited with a 57-yarder.

You know, 2008 was not the most fun year, but it had its moments.

Different Bites For Different Likes: Food fads come and go, so it’s time to get rid of the culinary horror known as caramel and sea salt. I love caramel. It’s a delicious treat. I still don’t understand how people want to add an overabundance of salt to something so delicious. Yet, every time I go to the supermarket, I see a picture on a box of dark chocolate treats, and I read the word “caramel,” and then “sea salt” reaches up its little calcified hands and punches me in the nethers.

Believe me, I understand food fads. No one liked sun-dried tomatoes in 1987 more than I. But we’ve had enough of this sweet-n-savory experiment, right? I don’t want paprika in my butterscotch. I’m sure I wouldn’t like garlic powder on my ice cream. By the way, why sea salt? Regular salt not pretentious enough?

This seems like what would have happened if the Reese’s peanut butter cup people started out in the wrong direction. “Hey, you got sea salt in my caramel!”

And you got caramel in my sea salt. I guess they’re just two great tastes that taste great together

“No. No way. You just totally effed up my caramel.”

Walking I’m Not Dead Yet: For all my ranting about the first episode of the season, I of course went back and watched the next two eps of “The Walking Dead.” I think I see the problem. As a reader of the comics, I wasn’t a fan of Negan, but I did see his value as an outsized, over-the-top character. As much as I like Jeffrey Dean Morgan as an actor, I don’t think he’s right for the part. He’s charming, and handsome, and not nearly as loathsome-seeming as the Negan character needs to be. At times it seems like Morgan’s doing an impression of Al Pacino, bigger than every scene. Doesn’t work for me.

I referred to the books as “comics” because I’ve decided to restrict my use of the term “graphic novels,” for a couple of reasons. One, I don’t see the term “comic” as derogatory, and two, we’re talking about a zombie narrative. If I wanted to recommend a novel about zombies, it would be Colson Whitehead’s evocative, harrowing Zone One. To me, calling a comic book a graphic novel is like referring to a movie as a sight sculpture: it’s simply a different art form.

On to San Francisco. Losing is never fun. How lucky for Patriots fans that, for the past 15 years, they have done it so rarely.

Chris Warner was recently diagnosed with sleep apnea where, apparently, he stopped breathing on an average of 35 times per hour. Sleep well, everyone! And tweet him: @cwarn89 

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Patriots Thursday Observations, Bills Review

“Well, that is how you go into a bye week.” 

That’s what I typed Sunday evening to begin my column. Just a simple, easy line marking the enthusiasm that abounded in New England after the Patriots smacked the Bills, 41-25, gaining a league-best 7-1 record and a three-game lead in the AFC East heading into their mid-season break.

Perfect. Easy.

Oh, a trade? Involving whom, you say?

Well, then. Goodbye, Jamie Collins, hello, speculation.

Has Belichick lost it, as Sports Illustrated’s Greg Bedard said? Was Collins a freelancing bum, as Fox’s Mike Lombardi said? Probably neither.

Two seemingly disparate thoughts can be true here. One, Collins was the most athletic, dynamic player on New England’s defense. Two, Bill Belichick had to trade him.

Collins was seeking a new contract. He also had a tendency to freelance, which sometimes made for a broken play, but other times resulted in a showcase for his tremendous athletic skills. Human nature being what it is, a player in that situation might try to freelance a little more often in an effort to make more “splash”-type plays, increasing his future contract value. The fewer reps the player is allowed on the field, the more this tendency may arise in a quest for that one highlight. This might be true, but again: this is human nature. We don’t need to trash Collins on his way out.

We also don’t need to ever utter the words, “If I were Belichick,” because none of us outside of Gillette Stadium (and, it appears, few of those inside of it) knows what the man sees or understands that helps him arrive at his conclusions. Again, human nature being what it is, the head coach might feel the need to ensure that every defensive player heeds the word of his coordinator. As he overlooks every aspect of the team, he might want to feel fully in charge of said team and subtract anything or anyone who he feels could impede that, even his most talented defensive player. This might be true, but we don’t need to trash Belichick.

In short, the coach made an impactful decision that seems rash, but it’s one that he felt he needed to make. We’ll see how it works out.

Anyway, the Patriots won! They’re 7-1! They have next week off!

Wait: we can’t even distract ourselves with a game this week? Good God.

Player/Game Observations

Third Degree Burns: The Patriots started out super hot on third down, as Tom Brady began the game five-for-five to convert all chances, eight for 10 passing overall, with 107 yards and two touchdowns. Most remarkable about Brady’s performance was his ability to use all of his receivers. On their opening TD drive, Brady shot a down-and-out to Julian Edelman for a first down. He completed a four-yarder to Martellus Bennett, followed by a pretty floater to James White in the left flat for a third-down conversion. Rob Gronkowski’s one-handed grab was out of bounds, but Chris Hogan’s 16-yard out converted the next set of downs. Edelman gained 10 after finding an opening against zone coverage. Gronk caught one, albeit for a three-yard loss after getting felled by the ant-like swarm of Bills. Then Danny Amendola gathered in a nine-yard touchdown pass. All told, Brady completed seven passes to six receivers on the first drive.

I mean, if you’re playing defense, who’s the guy to cover?

A Game Of Quarters: New England started out Mojave-like in the first quarter, burning the Bills for 120 yards and two touchdowns. They went Arctic in the second, frozen to minus-10 yards up to the 6:20 mark. Yes, the Bills’ defense deserves some credit, but penalties and missed blocks led to the kind of inconsistency that you’d hate to see show up at the wrong time. What gets so frustrating is that, as we see above, when the Pats get it going, they seem about as stoppable as that runaway train that picked up speed and kept going in that movie.

What the hell was the name of that movie again?

Anyway, maybe that’s the frightening aspect of this team: as good as they’ve looked overall, they still haven’t played a consistent four quarters yet.

Hold Your Head High: But be careful linebacker Dont’a Hightower doesn’t try to knock it off. His bone-jarring hit on running back Mike Gillislee in the first quarter set the tone for the day. Devin McCourty smacked Reggie Bush at the 13 on a kickoff return. McCourty had another noteworthy stop, mashing Brandon Tate like he was an Irish breakfast. And late in the fourth quarter, Malcolm Butler laid the wood on Robert Woods (ha! see what I did there?). Buffalo’s a team that wants to act like a bully, and they reacted like bullies tend to when New England stood up to them.

Will A Part Of Gronk Feel Sad When He Scores 70? Congratulations to Rob Gronkowski, scorer of 69 touchdowns in a Patriots uniform. Gronk set the New England career record on Sunday, passing receiver Stanley Morgan. Here’s what amazes me: Morgan took 13 seasons to notch that number; Gronk took seven. Even more incredible, Morgan played 180 games for New England, while Gronk has only played 86.

So … that’s pretty good.

From Glen To Glen And Down The Mountain Side: Oh, Danny Boy. Amendola’s rambling 73-yard kick return to start the third quarter deserves more attention, as it marked the first time since the Houston game in Week Four that a Patriots special teams play made had such a positive effect on the team. This replay shows the blocking alignment from the end zone, as well as a nifty move by Amendola as he spins out of a tackle at the 45-yard line and zips to his right for another 30 yards. That, plus three catches for 75 yards and a touchdown, demonstrated Amendola’s aptitude for key plays.

Christopher Cross? If Chris Hogan was angry at Buffalo, he got it out of his system after four receptions for 91 yards and a TD. Brady’s 53-yard parabolic touchdown pass graphed out how the rest of the day would go for the home team. Even more impressive was Hogan’s sideline catch in the second quarter where he leapt over cornerback Ronald Darby and latched onto the football for a 19-yard gain. That play brought New England out to its own 44-yard line and set up Brady’s 53-yarder to Gronk for a 21-10 lead.

Post Mortem: How about the goalposts killing the Bills’ hopes before halftime? With 4:18 remaining in the half, the home team drove from their own 25 to New England’s 31. With 32 seconds left, Dan Carpenter gave the 49-yard field goal a shot, but the kick sailed like an eephus pitch in the Western New York wind, going high and to the right before eventually boinking off the upright. In the remaining 27 seconds, Brady threw an incomplete pass, then found White for a six-yard gain where he shimmied out of bounds. A 15-yard gain to Amendola, followed by a 7-yard pickup to Gronk, set up the Pats at the 33. With three seconds remaining, Stephen Gostkowski hit a 51-yarder that moved like a knuckleball before it banked off the left post and through for three points.

A potential 21-13 lead quickly became a 24-10 advantage. Coupled with Amendola’s second-half kickoff return and Edelman’s touchdown off of a screen pass, New England scored 10 points in less than one minute of playing time to break out to a 31-10 lead early in the third.

Random Observations

Will Commish For Food: I know, we around New England have stopped talking about domestic assault in the NFL because a player got traded, but I’d like to add one more note before the post-bye week. Commissioner Roger Goodell makes over $30 million a year. The league should know that I am willing to do his job for less than half that. Shoot, one-tenth that. The first rule I’d like to enact involves the penalty for abuse. We can keep the automatic six-game suspension, but we will use those six games to run a thorough investigation from an unbiased third party. If the charges have merit, and if there is proof such abuse has occurred before, the player in question will be suspended for a year, with pay. The team will pay the salary, though they can work with the league to move the salary off the cap.

This does a few things, most notably remove conflict involving payment that can often prevent a victim of abuse from coming forward. The player must then attend a psychiatric health facility as an in-patient for anywhere from three months to the full year, depending on the extent of the abuse. No matter how long he attends, he is on probation for the extent of his employment by the NFL.

This would a) keep the abused party safe, b) ease the stresses of day-to-day life that become a factor with some professional athletes’ behavior, and c) encourage the athlete to focus on himself and do the work necessary to avoid becoming a repeat offender.

It’s an imperfect strategy that could withstand some tweaks, but it beats the “nothing to see here” m.o. of the NFL. Anything that would help someone come forward – victim or abuser – and get necessary help seems like a better idea than a blind eye and a cover-up. Or the owners could fire Goodell and hire Amy Trask. But they’d never do that.

Collins’ Worth: One issue I have with sports radio in general involves the amount of time taken on each topic. Take a look at the quote box below for a second.

Jamie Collins was the Patriots’ most talented defensive player. Bill Belichick traded him for what seemed like little value. This doesn’t make much sense.

Got it? Great. Now talk about this for four hours, and then four more hours, and four more on top of that, and you have the gist of every Boston sports radio station this week. Speculation combined with ignorance that often materializes in the form of rhetorical questions (“Did Collins do something? Is he hurt? Is Belichick mad at him?”) makes for tedious radio. It reminds me of when Princess Diana died in a car crash. The American cable news networks kept going overseas for updates.

Yes, updates. As if maybe she weren’t still dead.

The Collins trade is over. It’s unsettling and confusing. But we know for sure that Belichick didn’t do this on a whim. He has no other player who can fill the fast-moving, high-jumping shoes of his departed linebacker, so he’ll gather his forces and try to put everyone in the right spot for the next eight games and beyond. We’ll see how it works, and until then only speculate whether or not it will.

Not-So-Happy Gilmore: Man, the Bills will never learn. After the game, instead of talking about self-improvement or how the Patriots deserved credit, most Bills players refused to believe they’d faced a better team. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore said that the Patriots “didn’t ever beat us one-on-one, really. We just gave them everything.” This seems an odd thing to say, as on the Hogan TD it appeared that Gilmore himself was so thoroughly roasted he’s now featured in a Boston Market menu with two sides and a medium soft drink.

Let’s see, here … on New England’s first TD, Brady scrambled to his right, allowing Amendola to lose defensive back Jonathan Meeks in the end zone. Hogan then ran past the entire Buffalo defense for the next score. Then Gronk dusted Nickell Robey-Coleman for a TD. So that makes three instances where the Patriots seemed to get the better of the Bills in one-on-one match-ups.

Gilmore’s seemed an odd point of view to take, especially considering Coach Rex Ryan’s realistic, sportsmanlike press conference where he lauded the Patriots and seemed willing to concede the AFC East title to them. Not sure how Bills fans feel, but measured, contemplative Rex seems like a better bet for their future than fiery, trash-talking Rex.

I Have Osmosed The Basicalities: On CBS’ halftime show, after the panel lauded Brady’s efforts and execution, James Brown said, “He has internalized the fundamentals,” and then went to commercial break. Um, what?

In this situation, we see that part of Brown’s job involves getting the last word in before each break. This can lead to unusual utterances like the one above, where he had to say something, no matter what. Kind of like what the expert in the science-fiction movie does at the end of each scene: “I know one thing: we’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Oh, really? We’ve never seen a robot the size of a skyscraper destroying a city before? Thanks for the tip.

Farming Cumberlands: The Patriots tried out a number of special teams free agents recently, including old friend Tyler Ott, long snapper out of Harvard. (If he ever makes a mistake, Vegas won’t even carry the odds that the announcer will say, “Not the smartest move for a Harvard kid, eh?” Hilarious!) Also of note, Oregon punt returner Bralon Addison and Cumberlands kick returner Wendall Williams (not to be confused with Wendy O. Williams, late lead singer of the Plasmatics. Oh, you didn’t confuse them? Fine. Never mind.)

Addison (5-9, 197) returned this 81-yard beauty a year ago at Michigan State. He was signed by the Broncos as a rookie free agent, then released in August. Williams (5-11, 185) ran an alleged 4.19-second 40-yard dash, though at his pro day he was timed at 4.40. He also had a 6.64-second 3-cone drill, which is Edelmanesque. In 2015 at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky (Go Patriots!), Williams topped the nation in kickoff return yards per attempt (32.4). He spent some time with the Texans and the Jets this season. You can see some of his college highlights here.

Way too many column inches to spend on two fringe NFL guys, but it points to a desire to have consistency on kick returns. Before Amendola’s efforts Sunday, Matthew Slater brought back the Bills’ first kick and fumbled (though helpfully, harmlessly out of bounds). Edelman has brought stability to the punt return unit, but watching the Patriots’ two best wide receivers make themselves vulnerable to high-speed punishment doesn’t exactly soothe the nerves. Could be time for a regular return guy to take the hits. (Come on, Cyrus Jones. Pull it together.)

Send Me An AngleI have to wonder if the NFL really wants to do what’s best for the game, because they refuse to buy cameras for pylons. As Coach Belichick suggested, cameras placed on the goal line give the best angle for whether or not the ball crosses the plane. We saw a perfect example of this on Edelman’s touchdown, when he scooted past one defender (with help from a nifty cut block from Amendola) and scrambled over another to reach the ball toward the end zone.

Did he make it before his elbow touched? I assume most Patriots fans think so while most Bills fans would disagree. And we’ll never know, because the NFL has deemed it “too expensive” to equip each pylon with a camera. Really? A quick search for spy cameras shows that WalMart prices them at about $30 each. Maybe they’d require some higher-tech devices, but they can’t be that expensive.

Again, the NFL loses credibility here after spending $12 million on an investigation into alleged football deflation. If they wanted to improve this aspect of the game, they could do it, easily.

A Little Out Of Thuney: I’ve heard it’s good to read hard-copy print instead of pixels at some points during the day, so Sunday morning I skimmed the Lindy’s draft magazine for 2016 (and, if you’re going to buy a draft magazine, this is the one). Entertaining to read the pre-draft statuses of guard Joe Thuney out of N. C. State and linebacker Elandon Roberts from Houston, whom the Patriots grabbed in the third and sixth rounds, respectively.

Lindy’s listed both players as “Worth Watching,” meaning they deemed neither worthy of a draft pick. This puts Thuney in Sebastian Vollmer territory, as the Patriots turned a lot of heads using a 2009 second-rounder on the Houston product who was not ranked in most mock drafts. Like Vollmer, Thuney has started since the beginning of camp. Roberts, meanwhile, has tallied 20 tackles, almost all of which have come in the past four games in relief of Collins.

(I wrote that before the trade, I swear.)

Giving Up The Ghost: As a regular viewer of “Marvel’s Agents of Shield” (and, yes, I am a grown man), I have to wonder about the addition of humorless, joyless murderer Ghost Rider into the mix. His head flames up because he made a deal with the devil, apparently, and now he’s useful in eradicating ghosts. Seems like a lot to add to a show already dealing with super-powered inhumans and alien life forms. It’s like if “The X-Files” had a story arc that took place in Middle-earth. Way too much going on, there.

A Nice Departure: It’s probably due to Journey’s “Any Way You Want It” residing in my high school wheelhouse, but Southwest Airline’s lip synch commercial is one of the only ads this season that I actually look forward to seeing again.

Cold Front: When my sister and I were little, we had nicknames for the various cough syrups our mother gave us. Dimetapp was “Yummy,” Robitussin was “Yucky,” and the brown bottle of prescription antibiotics Mom kept around for the tough coughs was “Poison.” It amazes me that, 40 years later, Robitussin still hasn’t figured out how to make their product taste like something other than cherry-infused candle wax and despair.

Yes, we give our child Dimetapp. And I am jealous of her.

Rest easy this week, friends. The Pats host Seattle on November 13 at 8:30.

Chris Warner overbought candy for trick-or-treaters by a laughable amount, which wasn’t entirely by accident. He tweets: @cwarn89 

Patriots Thursday Observations, Steelers Review

A brief history seems in order here. In 1981, your New England Patriots went 2-14, earning the nickname “The Patsies.” They played the Baltimore “Dolts” in the season finale, with both teams ending the season at 2-14 (Baltimore’s two wins coming against New England). In the strike-shortened 1982 season, the Patriots went 5-4. They managed 8-8 in 1984, then 11-5 in 1985, leading to their enthralling playoff run, where they beat the Jets, Raiders, and Dolphins in their own houses.

Then, of course, they suffered what was at that time the worst Super Bowl loss in history, getting torn apart by the Bears, 46-10.

That was the team I grew up with. That was a team that, much like most franchises, saw its fortunes go up and down through each decade, without a championship.

I mention this because the Patriots beat the Steelers at Heinz field, 27-16, yet the listless atmosphere around New England suggested we had all just simultaneously finished The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Yes, the team has some issues to deal with, as we’ll discuss below. Still, considering how that game started – with one offensive play resulting in a turnover in their own half of the field – it’s a solid win overall.

The Patriots are now 6-1. With one more victory, defensive end Chris Long will have as many wins as he did in any full season over his eight years in St. Louis. Right now, the Cleveland Browns are 0-7. Speaking of the Browns, let’s recall this little ditty from way back on 2003, when the 5-2 Patriots hosted the 3-4 Browns and needed a Ty Law interception late to seal a 9-3 win. I don’t remember hearing too many complaints after that one.

So maybe we should all lighten up, look at New England’s record over the past 15 years (and contrast it with the 15 before that) and just relax a little. Every victory is sweet and should be savored.

On to Buffalo Sunday at 1 p.m. That’s good stuff, those 1 p.m. games. Win or lose, you can get things done on Sunday afternoon.

“Who wants to come out here and help Dad rake leaves? Sweetie?”

Sound of wind whistling through trees…

Player/Game Observations

Where The Heck You Ben? A couple of reasons why this game might not have been as easy as some expected. One, while Ben Roethlisberger’s inability to play may have helped overall, it could have messed with the Patriots’ psyche. Think about it: While Tom Brady sat out the first four games, a pattern seemed to develop with New England opponents regarding sluggish starts. The Cardinals, despite opening at home, looked lackadaisical. Miami got torched by Jimmy Garoppolo in the first half before making a rabid comeback in the second. And Houston, facing rookie Jacoby Brissett, never quite got off the plane, mentally.

I point these out because I have to think playing against the backup of a renowned QB has to take some momentum out of a defense. Instead of telling your grandkids that you got to tackle Brady, you’re explaining that Brisett was in for that game. Maybe the Pats experienced that against Landry Jones (29 of 47, 281 yards, one TD, one INT) and had trouble motivating for this one. I don’t know.

Two, after their one-play, turnover-stopped opening possession, the visitors scored on their next two drives and went up, 14-0, looking very tough to stop. Tom Brady completed his first nine passes for 90 yards and ended up completing 19 of 26 (73 percent) for 222 yards and two touchdowns. LeGarrette Blount looked tough early, gaining 28 yards on his first four carries during the Patriots’ early scoring drive. As humans with all the foibles of such, New England might have figured they had a win in their pockets after a two-score lead. Back to the previous point, the Steelers going Roethlisbergerless probably made it tempting for the visitors to start coasting.

Not saying taking a mental break was the right thing to do; the Patriots need to address playing four full quarters of football. We’ll see if they can sustain a lead and even increase it against a tough team.

For Whom The Bell Trolls: You know, considering the faux penalty on Dont’a Hightower for a perfectly legal hit on LeVeon Bell, which happened right after a woeful punt/shank by Ryan Allen, which succeeded a missed third-down conversion catch by Brandon Bolden, it’s amazing the Patriots held Pittsburgh to a field goal attempt on their ensuing drive (which was missed). The Steelers had more chances to gain momentum than an iceboat on a windy day. Commendable work by the defense to limit the damage.

Young Guns Having Some Fun: Oh, not big fans of Wham! you say? Well, you were on Sunday, as New England’s combination of blocking schemes – including tight end whams and wide receiver crack blocks – opened the way for Blount’s day. The burly-back finished with 127 yards on 24 carries (5.3 avg) and two touchdowns, the second of which featured him darting left, cutting right, and charging toward the end zone like a cartoon rhinoceros in ballet slippers. For a clip of that run, click here. For an image of a cartoon rhinoceros in ballet slippers, click here. (Ah, Internet. You can’t be stumped.)

Ghost Story: Okay, Stephen Gostkowski’s kicking problems are officially a thing. Not sure what else to say about it. On the one hand, it would seem prudent to bring in another kicker. On the other, that might mess with Gostkowski’s head. Maybe competition isn’t what he needs right now.

Not sure. But if I see another extra point attempt go wide, I will lose it to the point where my wife, once again, will have to call from the other room to see if I’m okay.

A Modern Day Warrior, Mean, Mean Stride: I know, I know, sacks are an overrated stat. Still, it would be amazing if the Patriots could get a super-nasty pass-rusher into their defensive mix (and, while Kyle Van Noy should prove a reliable complementary player, he is not the guy). Again (ad infinitum), holding the home team to 16 points mattered the most, but allowing some of those third-down conversions proved infuriating. For example, late in the third, Pittburgh got two successive third-and-10 conversions. They failed to convert a third third-and-10, however, and settled for a 44-yard field goal to make it 20-16 at the start of the fourth.

Yes, the Patriots held off on the blitz, usually sending just three or four defenders. But if their front line had more dynamism – if, for example, Jabaal Sheard could require more double-teams and Long and Rob Ninkovich could win more one-on-one battles – then your defense could start making things happen, getting the ball back to the offense more quickly.

(Fun note: As pointed out by Rich Hill of Pats Pulpit, the Patriots’ third-down defense at Pittsburgh was their best showing of the season, as they held the Steelers to a 31 percent conversion rate. Hunh. Funny how a couple of third-and-longs can fuzzy-up perception.)

Of course, when you get the ball back, you have to take care of it…

Ho-o-o-o-g-a-a-n! Two turnovers from Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman didn’t contribute to a winning formula, especially in an away game. Edelman’s was especially disappointing. He held that football like he was Jean Valjean trying to feed his family. At least it’s likely that two of the most capable receivers in Foxboro will work on avoiding such mishaps again anytime soon.

Sans Antonio: Saw a tweet by Steelers super-receiver Antonio Brown featuring a photo of him and Tom Brady with the hashtag #DontSleepOnThe6thRound, and it reminded me of my interview with Brown as a Central Michigan junior before the 2010 draft. I figured the Patriots could get some production out of a versatile receiver like him, but instead they used a third-round pick on receiver Taylor Price and a fourth-rounder on The Tight End Who Shall Not Be Named.

I’m usually not the best at scouting pre-draft talent, so forgive me as I cash in one of my few “I Told You So” chits here.

On a related note, you can also read this engaging Q&A with Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats from when he was prepping for the 2010 draft. As a senior defensive end at James Madison, Moats earned the Buck Buchanon Award for best defensive player in the FCS. He also had some noteworthy comments on his meetings with the Patriots and the Redskins. The Bills drafted Moats in the sixth round.

No, I Can’t Dig It: All-Pro receivers aside, I don’t like to nitpick on the draft. Results are still too early to call here, but I think we’re all disappointed in rookie cornerback Cyrus Jones’ “healthy scratch” (a journalistic way of saying “benching”) Sunday. Jones looked like a solid contributor as a slot corner in the preseason. He also did great work as a punt returner for Alabama in 2015, with four touchdown returns. In the first preseason game at Carolina, he had this nifty 60-yard take-back and seemed on his way to a regular gig. Hey, anything to keep Edelman and Danny Amendola out of harm’s way. But Jones’ recent ball-handling issues (e.g., the ball squirting loose on a kick return vs. Houston) have made him unreliable.

Here’s hoping Jones gets another chance and takes advantage of it.

Pat On The Back: Safety Patrick Chung hounded the Steelers, tallying 11 tackles and defending two passes. Chung did a little of everything and did it all well, covering tight ends and receivers all over the field while also providing stout run support. Sometimes when a defensive back piles up the stops, it’s a bad sign. Not so for Chung, who tackled runners like they were trying to steal the Olympic torch.

Random Observations

Giant Error In Judgment: Like adjusting their rearview mirror after the car crash, the Giants finally released kicker Josh Brown. The NFL had suspended him for one game for domestic assault. Of course, for months, the New York brass and NFL Commissioner/Owner’s Waterboy Roger Goodell had a decent idea of what had happened.  Apparently, knowledge of abuse wasn’t quite enough for Giants owner John Mara to suspend his kicker until public outrage grew. As Mara told WFAN in an interview a week ago:

“He certainly admitted to us that he abused his wife in the past. What’s a little unclear is the extent of that.”

So, here’s what’s been bothering me: after Brown’s admission, what, exactly, was Mara’s follow-up question? How is the “extent” of the abuse “a little unclear?” If someone says they’ve done something bad “in the past,” that connotes a repeated behavior. A proper investigation – and by no means am I giving Mara credit for anything proper here –  would have included the simple, direct inquiry, “How many times has this happened before?” Brown’s statement didn’t help much, especially considering he didn’t apologize to his ex-wife.

Keep in mind, the greatest quarterback of his generation served a four-game suspension after an 18-month odyssey that involved a $12 million investigation and multiple trips to court over alleged deflation of footballs that science has proven untrue. The Brown case tells us everything we need to know about a) Mara’s power among owners, b) Goodell’s arbitrary method of ruling, and c) the NFL’s callous disregard for the victims of domestic abuse in particular and, we have to assume, women in general.

Call It A Girlcott, Maybe: In light of the NFL’s mishandling of the Brown case and multiple other issues, let’s considering turning our televisions off when our favorite team isn’t playing. We can keep track of our fantasy team online (hell, we can keep track of everything online). Think about it. Sunday nights free. Monday nights getting to bed at a more reasonable hour. Thursday night games via Twitter for all the “color rush” jokes. This is the right time to make an impact and let the NFL know they have flaws that need to be changed.

Last year, I wrote a piece on The Unstoppable NFL, where I interviewed sports journalists to ask what, if anything, could derail the league. Most of us didn’t see a ratings decline anytime soon. I hate to admit this, but I didn’t include domestic violence as an issue, as I assumed Goodell had learned his lesson from the Ray Rice case. The league seemed to have established specific rules for such events. And, hey, the photos of Greg Hardy’s girlfriend’s bruises taken in 2014 didn’t reach the Internet until November of 2015, so I totally get a pass, right?

God damnit.

I said this about the problem of leadership within the NFL:

“It seems probable the commissioner will make more mistakes; therefore, it must be possible he makes one or two big enough to actually make an impact. But how big do those gaffes have to get?”

I guess we shall see.

The Catcher Kicker In The Rye Tie: What a bunch of phonies. Just when we thought the Gostkowski situation looked depressing, here comes last Sunday night’s game, featuring two missed field goals in overtime to ensure an oh-so-suitable 6-6 tie between Arizona and Seattle. (One more 6 would confirm our suspicions on who engineered this hellfest.) And these are, presumably, two of the best teams in the NFC.

I love great defensive plays as much as anyone, but I feel like people who enjoyed the Sunday night game as a “defensive battle” probably appreciate action movies for the exposition. (In seismology terms, what we’re experiencing is what we call ‘a swarm event.) I mean, yeah, it’s important, but it’s not the only reason to watch, you know?

Kind of like that 9-3 Pats win over Cleveland in 2003. Ugly. Frustrating. I was happy it was over. But at least it wasn’t a tie.

Not A Home Run, Derby: As much as I understood it, I was sorry to see the Patriots trade away tight end A. J. Derby to Denver. The second-year athlete had an eye-opening preseason, averaging 12.6 yards per catch (15 for 189), and seemed ready to contribute as a smaller, quicker, “move” tight end. But, with the multiple talents of Gronk and Martellus Bennett, Derby had no receptions. Seems risky to have only two tight ends on the roster, but if necessary, tackle Cameron Fleming can come in to block, while Edelman, Hogan, Amendola, and James White can handle the short passes.

W-E-E-Why Oh Why: Listening to the WEEI morning show hosts discuss (shout?) politics reminds me of when “Law & Order” features a case involving a rock band. They try to hit the right notes (literally, I guess), but it always seems forced and obvious. The name of the band is something like Slutty Sally and the Punky Girlz, and the suspects say things along the lines of, “Bummer, man. She just wanted to rock ‘n’ roll, you know?” The rudimentary, intentionally ignorant political talk on WEEI doesn’t seem to go anywhere. I hear about politics everywhere else in media; call me nuts, but I listen to sports radio to hear about sports-related topics.

By the way, no complaints here if they want to have Trenni Kusnierek on the show more often. Nice to have an informed voice amidst the same old noise. You can follow her on Twitter @trenni – worth it for her recent takedowns of the NFL botching the Brown case.

Walking Dead To Me: I have seen every episode of “The Walking Dead,” and this past Sunday I saw my last. No spoilers here, but it said a lot that Chris Hardwick, the host of the companion show “Talking Dead,” teased viewers by saying, “I’m here for you; let’s get through this together.” And it hit me: why on God’s Great Green Earth would I want to watch a TV show that I need help to “get through?” It wasn’t entertaining. It didn’t make me feel good; it didn’t make me look forward to the next show.

It actually reminded me of my last episode of “ER” (darkly titled, “Be Still My Heart“), where adorable intern Lucy Knight got stabbed. Just … why? I don’t want to go through that. Sure, it’s a hospital emergency room where characters are expected to die, but it made no sense to take out the adorably plucky intern, especially by having a psychologically disturbed patient murder her. In interviews, the “Walking Dead” writers constantly talk about how, as much as they don’t want to, they have to kill off characters to keep the stakes real. But, wait: No. No, they do not. It’s a show about a zombie apocalypse. Realism isn’t a huge requirement.

Also, if they cared about realism, why would they have seasoned, grizzled characters constantly doing stupid things? And how come the walkers can run and climb a fence in the season one episode “Guts” yet don’t do either action again for the rest of the series? Did they forget?

To hell with it. I’m done.

Chris Warner hated that goddam Elkton Hills. He can also be tweeted @cwarn89

Patriots Thursday Observations, Bengals Review

Welcome home, Tom Brady. The longest-tenured Patriot had himself a day on Sunday, leading a second-half offensive outburst that helped get the home team past the can’t-get-out-of-their-own-way Bengals, 35-17. New England sits at 5-1 and travel to Pittsburgh next Sunday at 4:25 p.m. Eastern, which should be an interesting game given the Steelers’ roster adjustments.

Some compelling story lines vs. the Bengals, including some none-too-surprising events unfolding near the end.

Player/Game Observations

Tom Pain: Cincinnati certainly felt it in the second half. After a more human-like 12 of 16 (75 percent) for 136 yards and one touchdown in the first two quarters, Our Tom connected on 17 of 19 passes (89 percent) for 240 yards and two TDs after halftime. Overall, he completed 29 of 35 passes for 376 yards and three scores, giving him an 83 percent completion rate for the game. Now, that’s a disappointing number if you’re Larry Bird shooting free throws (lifetime .886 avg), but Larry never had to worry about getting his foul shots intercepted.

You’d think, after having a month without practice or even any contact with the team, the man would come in with some timing and/or accuracy issues. Nope. Instead, it looks like he’s been sitting back and connecting with receivers like he used to bullseye womp rats in his T-16 back home. I mean, no, he wasn’t perfect, but 83 percent is pretty close, right?

Brady just passed quarterback Steve Grogan for longest-tenured Patriot with 17 years in New England. Growing up, I loved Grogan. It wasn’t official, but I considered myself a citizen of Grogan Country. Well, Ol’ Steve had a 52.3 career completion percentage. Brady is currently at 63.7 for his career. His 76 percent after two games will get lower as the season progresses, but every Patriots fan has to remember: this is pretty good stuff we’re witnessing.

Train Rob-bery: Lookout! It’s a runaway Gronk! Tight end Rob Gronkowski got the offense locomotivated (note: not really a word) with seven receptions for a career-best 162 yards and one touchdown. With a mix of crossing patterns, sideline and seam routes, and just plain old posting up (you can see his highlights here), Gronk is fast turning into the spike machine we’ve known and loved. If teams gear up to stop him – which they have to, now – look for Martellus Bennett, Julian Edelman, James White and others to benefit.

Ghost Protocol: A couple of years ago, Bill Belichick got the idea to make the extra-point kick a less-than-sure thing, and the NFL competition committee went with it. As expected, percentages decreased last season, from 99.3 in 2014 (eight total misses) to 94.2 in 2015 (71 total misses). Belichick must have thought, hey, I’ve got the best kicker in the league, this can only be good for us, right? Yipes. So far, Stephen Gostkowski has missed three field goals (nine of 12) and one extra point.

As a Bird lover who practiced free throws for hours and never got significantly better, I can tell you: it’s in his head. Time will tell if he can get back to his old, automatic self. I’m sure we’ll all be keeping an eye on the Patriots’ tryout list.

Riding Coach: What a difference between halves. New England adjusted to the Bengals’ offense, foregoing much of their earlier zone defense for more man-based schemes. Cincy QB Andy Dalton opened up the game 10 for 10 for 93 yards; from there, he went 11 of 20. The Patriots offense got the ball out more quickly and found open pockets in Cincy’s D that allowed receivers to catch the ball and run like pronghorns out on the prairie. Rich Hill of Pats Pulpit has some strong film study in this piece elucidating how New England keyed on Cincinnati’s linebackers in the second half.

We Can Dance If We Want To: But not if you’re Andy Dalton trying to escape the clutches of Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower. The defensive captain had 13 tackles and 1.5 sacks, including the tone-changing safety in the third quarter. A well-timed, well-executed play by New England, as tackle Alan Branch, linebacker Elandon Roberts, and tackle Malcolm Brown occupied Cincinnati’s middle three O-linemen, creating a gap between the center and guard that Hightower exploited. A game-changer making the score 14-12 and giving the home team the ball back. About two minutes later, Gronkowski hauled in a worm-skimming pass for a 19-14 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Elandon Calling: How inaccurate is draft status in terms of determining a player’s worth? Seriously. New England has done a better-than-average job at selecting players – so much so that they had to cut some potential contributors at the beginning of the season (number eight in Mike Reiss’ very necessary Sunday column) –  but look at what sixth-round rookie linebacker Elandon Roberts has done. Seen initially as a special-teamer/linebacker-in-case-of-emergency-only by some (including me), Roberts has filled in nicely for Jamie Collins, playing in 50 of 68 snaps Sunday and compiling seven tackles. He had a notably nifty stop at the goal line where he raced to the running back like a kid hustling after piñata candy. He also elicited an offensive holding call on his pass rush. The Pats were smart to take Roberts when they did, but where would he go if the draft happened today?

One Nice Stand: The Patriots’ red zone defense has had its issues, forgotten for a few minutes during their impressive goal-line stand around the 10-minute mark of the second quarter. Giovanni Bernard gained five yards from the six, but from the one-yard line, the Bengals’ attempts to dance in the end zone were met with the Patriots playing the minister from Footloose. On second down, Roberts started a good six yards from the line of scrimmage and came careening toward the offensive left side, undercutting the attempted block of D-lineman/ersatz fullback Domata Peko (aka The Dude With The Hair) and smacking Bernard at the two, getting help from Brown and Hightower to pig-pile at the one. (Roberts got dinged up on the play and had to leave the game temporarily.)

Third down, a fade route to the left, A. J. Green vs. Malcolm Butler. Butler did enough hand-checking to stay on top of Green, with the ball bouncing off the receiver’s gloves.

Fourth down, and it wasn’t even close. Bernard headed toward the line and hit a torrent of humanity, as Woodrow Hamilton and Anthony Johnson shimmied past their blockers while Branch and Chris Long stood their guys up, allowing everyone in a Patriots uniform – possibly including a few fans wearing Tedi Bruschi jerseys – to stop the play at the one. Just good, solid, old-fashioned football. The end result didn’t show it, but this was a close game. This play kept it that way.

Random Observations

He’ll Pass: When I lived in New York, I used to go to Professor Thom’s, a Boston sports bar on the Lower East Side. Watched some historical stuff there, both coincidentally involving Kansas City in 2008: Jon Lester’s no-hitter vs. the Royals (“Honey, I’ll head home soon, but, ah, let’s just say Lester’s having a REALLY good game“) and Brady’s debut vs. the Chiefs (“God DAMNIT”). Every once in a while, I’d come across a Patriots fan who was also a Yankees fan, or a Red Sox fan who also rooted for the Giants. As someone born in Boston who spent my childhood pretty close to that area, rooting for two different cities’ teams always seemed odd to me. I know it happens, but sometimes sports don’t mix with other sports. So, if that’s true, then sports sure as heck don’t mix with politics.

NFL.com recently posted a Sound FX video of Brady highlights that I’ve watched several times already. I think he should be mic’d up for every game for the rest of his career; seriously, I’d run that loop 24/7. That said, I don’t need to know much else about Brady. I don’t really need to sit down to dinner with him (I like pizza, and ice cream not necessarily high in healthy fats). I don’t need to know his politics. As long as he keeps contributing to charities and playing as hard as he can, I’m not asking for anything else.

Mission To Marvin: This column by Ian Logue of patsfans.com covered the Bengals disciplinary issues well, but I thought it was worth mentioning here.

Here’s a section of my notes from the fourth quarter, verbatim: Pac-Man lost it after pen. (holding Hogan), then Burfict in Gronk’s face after catch. (And yes, I now understand he spells it Pacman.)

Okay, the call on PacmanJones was questionable. So, what do you do? Play football, right? But Jones got so riled up that, it appeared, the Bengals were not lined up on defense for the ensuing play and had to call a timeout. Does Jones, a 33-year-old man in his 10th season, seem like a calming veteran presence? Is linebacker Vontaze Burfict worth the trouble? Coach Marvin Lewis seems to think so.

Watch the fourth quarter again and pay attention to the post-whistle stuff (including when Burfict appears to intentionally step on LeGarrette Blount’s leg). After Burfict was fined $75,000 for said stomp, Lewis said, “I don’t think he did anything wrong.” Not sure what Lewis was looking at, but the real kicker is that Lewis complained that the fine stemmed from Burfict’s reputation due to past indiscretions.

Umm … yes. Yes, Marv, it did. Your linebacker has been fined for groin-punching (2013), ankle-twisting (2014), and ankle-targeting (2015), and those don’t even include his illegal hit to the head that helped the Steelers to victory in the AFC Wild Card game. He’s an issue, so let’s hope no one needs to get seriously hurt before his coach takes him to task.

The Imagination Agency: If you’re tired of troll journalism where opinion is everything, I’d advise a look at this piece by Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal. In it, Daniels follows up on how tight end Martellus Bennett got to know his teammates by hitching rides with them to get to practice. Ten people are quoted in the piece, a testament to Daniels’ persistence and his imagination in how to frame the story. He sets himself apart, not by ranting or offering up counterpoints to common thought, but by asking specific questions of people who have specific, yet thoughtful, answers. Solid piece that deserves attention.

We Can Leave Your Friends Behind: Was anyone else surprised by how CBS handled showing the goal-line stand and the safety, replay-wise? Big plays that didn’t get their due, in my opinion. Let’s focus on the broadcast of the safety. The play happens, then we spend 20 seconds watching Hightower celebrate in the end zone with other defenders before heading to the sideline, with Ian Eagle saying what we already know (“New England has cut the Cincinnati lead to two. Hightower makes the play on the quarterback”), then we go to commercial. And not just one, “Now you can have a McGriddle at 10 p.m. and devour your self-loathing!” commercial. Nope: McDonald’s, Toyota, Verizon, and a quick CBS self-promo for what I’m sure is a hilarious reworking of “The Odd Couple,” because the original just had it so wrong.

Then, once we return to the game, we get the post-safety punt/kickoff (punt-off?). We don’t get to see a replay for a few minutes. That replay included one view from behind the defense and no real explanation of how it worked other than Dan Fouts saying, “Nobody picks him up until it’s too late.” Yeah, but Roberts blitzed and occupied the center, and the guard double-teamed Brown, so Hightower’s delayed A-gap blitz …

You know what? Forget it. I like Fouts in general, but I can’t expect that much from a color commentator who called Elandon Roberts “Eldon.”

The Times Are Tough Now, Just Gettin’ Tougher: Here’s a pet peeve I’ve had for a while: What’s up with knee pads that don’t cover the knees? I first remember seeing this phenomenon with Marcus Allen, and wondering how in the hell a running back could sprint into a cluster of tacklers with any confidence knowing that his knees didn’t have protection. I guess it’s for freedom of movement, but when it comes to knees it’s hard for me as a Patriots follower to forget the fate of poor Hart Lee Dykes. Also, in the era when I last suited up, most players dressed like Robocop, with plenty of coverage.

Another Saturday Night And I Ain’t Got Parody: You know, I actually feel bad for the writers of “Saturday Night Live.” How can anyone effectively satirize this election season? What can you exaggerate and/or make funnier? At this point, it’s like trying to write a parody of Gallagher’s act. “Hey, maybe instead of using a sledgehammer, we could blow up the watermelons with C-4?” That said, there’s just not a lot of life to their sketches. One of the first offerings of the season – this bit with Margot Robbie about a live news report – delivered, with numerous cast members meshing well. In ensuing weeks, though, the pickings have been slim, with decent, oft-absurd ideas failing to get the proper execution.

Meh. I’ve actually seen worse. My junior-high heyday came in the forgettable-at-best early 1980s, when it was Eddie Murphy and not a heck of a lot else.

Why Are You So Far Away From Me? Another game across the sea, New York vs. Los Angeles, 9:30 a.m. Eastern. The Rams took a 10.5-hour flight on Monday to adjust to an eight-hour time difference. The Giants will travel Friday to adjust to a five-hour time change. London, folks! Me ol’ bamboo!

Please consider spending your Sunday morning doing something else besides watching this crumpet-load – or, more likely, having it on in the background.

Chris Warner puts the over/under on comments until the section gets hijacked at 1.5. He can also be tweeted: @cwarn89 

Pats Thursday Observations, Browns Review

The Patriots went to Cleveland and did the expected, reaching 4-1 overall by overtaking the Browns, 33-13. They host Cincinnati next Sunday at 1 p.m.

Yup. That’s it. Not much to report. Well, except for a few small details…

Player/Game Observations

Genius Of Love: Oh, Tom Tom Club? Sure. Members of said establishment must have felt happy with the return of Tom Brady, who was suspended for no good reason whatsoever.  The world’s greatest quarterback returned with what some might call a vengeance, completing 28 of 40 passes (70 percent) for 406 yards and three touchdowns. Sunday, New England hosts the Bengals, who lost at Dallas last week, 28-14.

Loosen Up Your Too Tights: The recipient of Brady’s three TD passes was tight end and fantasy football roller-coaster Martellus Bennett, who ended up with six receptions for 67 yards. Though his line mate Rob Gronkowski didn’t score, he caught five passes for 109 yards, including this schoolyard romp through half of the Browns’ defense to set up the visitors’ first touchdown.

Before Brady’s return, Gronk had caught one pass for 11 yards. Bennett had one touchdown reception. So, yes: release the hounds!

What Can Brown Do For You? Stop the run, apparently. Second-year defensive lineman Malcom Brown had three tackles, a statistic which tells about as complete a story as my daughter does after knocking something over.

Sweetie, what happened?

“Nothing.”

I know it was an accident, but what happened?

“I don’t know.”

Brown consistently manipulates his blocker and causes problems for opposing offenses. Between him, veteran Alan Branch, and rookie Woodrow “All Right” Hamilton, the defensive line helped shut down the Brown’s previously vaunted rushing attack, as Isaiah Crowell – who came into the game averaging 6.5 yards per rush – tallied just 22 yards on 13 carries (1.7 ypc, which, by the way, is a stat that tells a story).

Mr. Roberts, Report To The Captain’s Cabin On The Double: This past spring, the Patriots drafted two smaller linebackers in the sixth round: Kamu Grugier-Hill out of Eastern Illinois at the 208th selection overall, and Elandon Roberts out of Houston at 214. Grugier-Hill is the better athlete, as he posted some notable pro day numbers, including a 4.45-second 40 and a 6.89-second 3-cone drill. He impressed onlookers in spring camps, but when it came time to winnow down the roster, New England cut Grugier-Hill and held on to Roberts. This week, Roberts got to show off the kind of instincts and strength that earned him a nation-best 88 solo tackles last season. The rookie notched seven stops at Cleveland, leading the team.

Perhaps his best play came with 6:03 left in the first half. With the Browns backed up against their own end zone and looking to give themselves some space, Roberts used his none-too-tortoise-like 4.60-40 speed to power toward the ballcarrier. On the way, he caught tackle Joe Thomas under the shoulder pads and took the perennial Pro-Bowler to the Magic Pan, while somehow making the tackle on Crowell for no gain. (You can see a clip of the play here.)  Roberts flexes his biceps after the play, and, as much as I dislike showing off, we all should feel fine about that.

Ghost Right-er: So, we’re not worried about Stephen Gostkowski missing to the right on a few kicks, are we? We’re not concerned that will come back at some grossly inopportune time and bite the team again?

No? Okay, good.

Nope, me neither. Hadn’t even crossed my mind.

We’re On To Cincinnati: There we go. Though now at 2-3, the Bengals are not to be overlooked, as their losses have come against the Steelers, Broncos, and a very peppy Cowboys club. Should be fun to watch.

Random Observations

Outside The Lines: I’m not here to rant against sideline reporters. They’re fine. Still, I have to admit, watching last Sunday’s game in Cleveland, right after Jamie Erdahl got through her pre-game bit on Brady, I realized I hadn’t paid attention to a single word. Something about playing catch, maybe? Who knows?

Also, if she’s at the game, what the heck is former kicker Jay Feely doing there? Two sideline reporters? That’s like having two appendixes. But, no, there’s Jay Feely, telling us what Brady was up to over his “break.” Family. Check. Just not sure of the usefulness. Plus, with his comically large necktie knots, Feely looks like an extra on Bugsy Malone.

So, yeah, fine: be the sideline reporter. Just let me ignore you.

Pretty In Pink: When considering whether or not to buy pink NFL gear to support breast cancer awareness, please keep some numbers in mind. On its website, the NFL boasts that,

Since 2009, the first year of the NFL’s “A Crucial Catch” campaign, the NFL’s work has raised nearly $15 million for the American Cancer Society, with the majority of the contributions coming from the sale of Breast Cancer Awareness-identified pink merchandise at retail and via the NFL Auction website.

Now, that’s great. It’s wonderful that $15 million has gone toward the ACS. But, the campaign has been happening for seven years now, which averages out to $2.14 million per year. Again, not too shabby, but remember that a) the league made $7.2 billion in 2014, which meant $226.4 million per team, and b) the NFL spent $12.5 million to prosecute the Deflategate case. If they wanted to spend more to support the ACS, they certainly could, but – just as they do with military veterans – the NFL uses righteous causes as PR fodder.

Sometimes they can’t even do that right, as evidenced by last season’s kerfluffle when Steeler running back DeAngelo Williams was denied permission to wear pink gear throughout the season to honor his mother, who died of breast cancer in May of 2014. Williams ended up dyeing the tips of his hair pink. The NFL said they could not make an exception to the uniform policy.

What? Of course they could. Here’s an example of how:

Hey, players, listen up. If you want to wear pink gear throughout the season to honor a loved one, please email me and let me know whom you’re doing it for. We will keep a list on our website to further promote breast cancer awareness. Thank you for supporting the program that we started.
Sincerely,

Roger “Media-Friendly-And-Decent-Human” Goodell 

Never forget: the NFL is a business. They don’t care about you beyond your wallet and what’s in it. Please consider donating directly to the ACS by clicking here.

Pryor Engagement: With the realization that Bill Belichick had some interest in drafting Ohio State QB/Browns WR Terrelle Pryor (thank you, Mike Reiss),  it’s always compelling to wonder what a great athlete could accomplish with a better team around him. Pryor has caught 24 passes this season for 338 yards and one TD. He has also rushed for 18 yards and passed for 40. Those 24 receptions have come after being targeted 45 times this year, which is a pretty rough ratio.

Not that New England is desperate for receivers, but it’s an intriguing “what if?”

You Should Have Seen The ’80s: Ah, shoulder pads. Watching Cleveland quarterback Cody Kessler get knocked down by Dont’a Hightower looked like a frame-by-frame homage to New England QB Jimmy Garoppolo’s hit by Miami linebacker Kiko Alonso, and it got me thinking. Why can’t someone figure out a way to protect a ball carrier’s shoulders? Think about flopping onto your side from a kneeling position. That would hurt your shoulder, right? I mean, maybe not injure it, but you’d feel it. Now imagine falling onto your shoulder from a standing position. Now, add a 250-pound linebacker driving your shoulder into the ground. Yeesh.

Is it possible to run a rod or slat of hard material through the back of the shoulder pads and attach it to the shoulder flap – something that could break the fall and take the stress off the shoulder if need be? Maybe, if the player wanted to raise his arms, it could be attached by an elastic that would bring it back into place when the arm went down? I dunno. Just spitballing. Seems like a recurring injury – the kind where we know exactly what happened the second it happened – should get a closer look in terms of prevention.

No, Really, What Can Brown Do For You? I know they’re called the Browns, but do they have to wear that abysmal color? For a brief period in the early ’90s, Brown University experimented with red and black uniforms, which are the colors of the school’s seal.   Cleveland could go with the colors of any of various Brown family crests, none of which seems to feature the color brown prominently. Seriously, brown denotes rust and rot, among other things. Adding bright orange doesn’t help. At best, Cleveland’s football team could be an advertisement for Reese’s peanut butter cups.

Lions aren’t really blue. I’ve never seen a purple raven. So, Browns, consider keeping the name and ditching the color.

(Very proud of myself for not referring to Cleveland coach Hue Jackson, as in, “Looking For A New Hue.” So I guess now I’m not so proud of myself.)

Whitehurst, Right Now, There Is No Other Place I Want To Be: Sure, we can all sit back on our couches and make fun of Charlie Whitehurst, aka “Clipboard Jesus.” Thin on QBs after Kessler’s injury, the Browns gave Whitehurst the reins and watched him do as well as expected, completing 14 of 24 passes for 182 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. Whitehurst banged up his knee Sunday and was cut by the Browns on Tuesday. He’s been in the league for 11 years. He’s played for five different teams (Browns, Colts, Titans, Seahawks, and Chargers, twice). He has sat through seven seasons where he threw as many NFL passes as I did (which, coincidentally, is the same number of Olympic gold medals I’ve won, or times I’ve climbed Mt. Everest).

But here’s the thing about Charlie Whitehurst: he’s 34 years old. These days he gets a base salary of about $950,000 a year. He has never played in more than seven games in a season (Titans, 2014), and he should be able to literally walk away from the league in good health. As I said, we can all sit back and laugh at Whitehurst all we want; in the end, I have to imagine he’ll have a few chuckles saved up for himself.

For The Last Time, What Can Brown Do For You? The Patriots’ website posted a video of Belichick bringing the team to the statue of NFL great Jim Brown. Once at the base of the statue, Belichick calls Brown the greatest player that ever played, and goes on to call him a great person. I can’t be the only one who flinched. While Brown may well be the greatest player ever, and he has in many cases acted as a “great ambassador” (Belichick’s words), he has also compiled a disturbing police record of domestic abuse.

On The Big Lead website this past February, Stephen Douglas recounted the numerous occasions that Brown has been implicated in domestic violence incidents. They began in 1965 and occurred at least once each decade until 2000, when Brown went to jail rather than serve probation and attend a domestic violence counseling program. Now that he’s 80 years old, I have to hope that he’s slowed down and left these problems in the past. But let’s not go overboard praising him as a person, at least without mentioning some of his troubles.

Sox 2BU: Well, that certainly wasn’t the way I wanted David Ortiz’s last game to go. If anything, the 2016 Red Sox remind us of how stunning the 2013 Sox were. That team won it all with a .211 World Series batting average, and that included Ortiz’s Zeus-like .688 BA. Mike Napoli batted just .154, but he had four World Series RBIs. Jonny Gomes batted a mere .118 (!), but he had three RBIs. Hell, Mike Carp batted .000 (0 for 2) and still managed to push a run across the plate (a forceout at second got Xander Bogaerts home). It’s not average, it’s timing, and this year’s club lacked it.

Hunh. Seems like a bummer to end on that note. Hmmm…

Pumpkin Peeve Of The Week: Pumpkin Spice Sweet Potato Chips. Suck it, Whole Foods.

Chris Warner can be reached via email (chris.warner@patriotsdaily.com) or Twitter @cwarn89 

Patriots Three-Sixteenths Through 2016 Review

Come on. I mean, 3-0? Sure, most fans hoped for it, but to see it happen the way it has happened has been a real trip.

Yes, here the Patriots sit after coming back to win in Arizona, outlasting the Dolphins at home, and besting the Texans in every phase of the game last Thursday night. Each an impressive win in its own right, even disregarding the players who missed time on the field.

A list of some of the topics we’re discussing this week.

Flying Coach: The game day roster had dwindled like the cast of a Hitchcock movie. The offense had more questions than a six-year-old watching a Pinter play. Who’s held in higher esteem right now than the Patriots’ coaching staff? They got their team prepared, set them off to strong starts, and beat some teams who are expected to do something in the league this season. Impressive all the way around.

The Third Man: Imagine hearing this a few months ago. Hey, listen up, Patriots fans. Tom Brady won’t play the first four games because of a supercilious, sniveling toady who wanted to clarify his power over players. Then, less than halfway through what will be shaping up as a benchmark performance vs. Miami (18 for 26, 232 yards, three TDs), Jimmy Garoppolo will hurt his throwing shoulder. So, Jacoby Brissett will start vs. the Texans. (That’s the rookie.)

Well, you might ask, who’s Brissett’s backup? Oh, nobody. I mean, Julian Edelman, I guess, but if it comes down to that, the match is more or less lost, anyway.

With 103 yards passing (11 of 19 for 58 percent), Brissett’s first start will not make the Patriots Hall of Fame, but it should stay in fans’ memories for a while. The rookie got sacked just once and ran eight times for 48 yards, including a slick touchdown run where, even if Houston had brought 13 players onto the field, all 13 would have gone for the fake handoff. Keep in mind, no opposing coaching staff knows the Patriots as well as the Texans staff does, yet Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels and company kept Houston on their heels for much of the night during their 27-0 dominance.

Part of that game plan, of course, called for a focus on running the football.

Develin A Deep Blue Key: Donning his smart “color rush” threads last Thursday, fullback James Develin once again demonstrated his importance in the running game. After three weeks, he has compiled exactly zero yards on zero carries with zero receptions. Yet he’s one of the most important offensive players on the field. LeGarrette Blount is averaging 4.0 yards per carry (75 for 298) with four touchdowns. While much credit goes to O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia with his young charges, Develin has made a huge difference, paving the way for the Pats to run out the clock this year.

Giving Him The Bennett Of The Doubt: I must admit, I did not have high hopes for tight end Martellus Bennett coming into this season. His preseason performance seemed a bit underwhelming (seven catches in four games). Though his blocking made an impression in Week One (largely the impression of Cardinals defenders planted in the Arizona turf), he caught just three passes for 14 yards. This was why I convinced my wife to bench him for her fantasy football team (still sorry, my Love!). Bennett, of course, caught five passes for 114 yards and a TD. He continued his essential role the following week, acting as a safety valve for Brissett (two catches for 10) and pushing bodies around like a Tokyo train conductor. Also, for the first time in his career? Carrying the football. One rush for six yards on an end-around.

So, yeah, I was wrong about Bennett. Imagine what he can do playing with a healthy Rob Gronkowski alongside him.

Take The Long Way Home: The Patriots showed interest in defensive end Chris Long before the 2008 draft. Nice they kept their interest, and nice for a solid veteran like Long to experience winning on a regular basis. In his eight years on the Rams, the team never had more than seven wins (four times) and went 2-14 twice (2008, 2011) and 1-15 once (2009). Long seems rejuvenated, with one sack, two passes defensed, and numerous pressures. Here’s hoping he discovers what it’s like to go over .500 in a season.

Dont’a You Forget About Me: Important to note that New England’s defense held Houston’s offense in check without linebacker Dont’a Hightower. New England’s defensive play-caller and run-stopper managed one tackle before getting hurt against Arizona. In the meantime, battery mate Jamie Collins has turned Kraken, tallying 23 tackles in three games (14 vs. Houston), along with two interceptions. Backup Jonathan Freeny (10 tackles, one forced fumble) has pitched in, but when Hightower returns, the defense has the potential to improve. This really seems like the proverbial icing on the cake. I mean, life’s great, you’re eating cake, and someone comes along and says, “Hey, how about some icing on that?” Hells, yeah. Frost that sonofabitch.

All The White Moves: Some impressive plays from running back James White thus far this season, and that observation comes from a big supporter of running back D. J. Foster. Some idiot may have even figured it would have been a good idea to release White in favor of Foster. That same nincompoop feels relieved this never happened. Besides averaging a nifty 4.4 yards per carry (eight for 35), White has caught eight passes for 52 yards and shown an increase in power and elusiveness from last year. With pass-catching dynamo Dion Lewis’ expected return later this season, White might see his playing time limited. For now, though, he has provided quarterbacks not named Brady with a comfy fallback option.

All Four One And One Four All: As much as I questioned New England keeping only four receivers on their roster (not counting special teams ace Matthew Slater), it has paid off to this point in the season. Edelman (18 receptions, 180 yards) remains a central, go-to guy. Danny Amendola (nine for 119, two TDs) just seems to catch tough passes to convert third downs. Rookie Malcolm Mitchell (four for 75) has shown the potential to become the first dependable receiver the Patriots have drafted since Edelman. Chris Hogan (eight for 122) has popped up in key moments (none better than his opening TD at Arizona) and shown the willingness to block so necessary for NFL pass-catchers.

Vito, You’re Blocking: Speaking of which, check out this clip of Blount’s touchdown run, and keep an eye on Develin, Hogan and Edelman. This play reminds me of when the Naval Academy’s option offense really gets rolling: the entire offense accounts for every defender. For Pete’s sake, Edelman IHOPs his defender as Blount runs by. Houston came to Gillette as favorites, the first team to do so since the Portsmouth Spartans in 1931. (Note: This is decidedly untrue.)

You’re Wondering Now, What To DoNew England’s special teams have made such a huge difference over the past few weeks, from punter Ryan Allen dropping footballs at the Texans’ 10-yard-line, to kicker Stephen Gostkowski hitting all three field goal attempts at Arizona (including a 53-yarder), to myriad contributors forcing fumbles and making tackles (Gostkowski’s high-flying kickoffs have helped). Play-for-play, special teams contributions have the highest impact, and their ability to fluster opponents has been a key part of the Pats’ 3-0 start.

Nothing But Flowers: Defensive lineman Trey Flowers has six tackles and one fumble recovery this year; he gets mentioned here for something beyond numbers. The best Patriots teams over the past 15 years have had strong backups to help weather any injury fronts. Flowers backs up both Long and Jabaal Sheard (two sacks). Free agent athlete Barkevious Mingo and Shea McClellin back up the linebackers, including the aforementioned Freeny. This is a talented team with a deep roster that, if necessary, could make a difference in January.

The Brady Hunch: One aspect of the Patriots’ as-hot-as-could-be-expected start that no one seems to consider is opponents’ motivation factor. Are teams starting out flat vs. New England? As ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss pointed out in his indispensable Sunday notes, the Patriots have outscored their three foes 34-0 in the first quarter. Partly Pats’ preparation, of course, but also a sign that the other guys aren’t as pumped as usual? Though impossible to tell, it might make sense that a defensive player isn’t quite as focused facing Garoppolo or Brissett as he would be vs. one of the greatest quarterbacks ever.

Not saying that going without Tom Brady for a month has been good for the team, the league, or anyone else. Just looking at it from another angle.

What angles are you looking at this season? Let us know in the comments section below.

Chris Warner tweets a little more than he should @cwarn89

Who’s The FA? UDFA! (2016 Edition)

Almost every year, New England finds an undrafted free agent to fill out their roster. Some, like guard Stephen Neal, work their way up to starter. Others, like cornerback Malcolm Butler, seem to burst onto the scene all at once.

Right now, Butler, punter Ryan Allen, guard Josh Kline, center David Andrews, running back Brandon Bolden and special teamer Brandon King compose some but not all of the UDFAs in Foxboro this spring. It’s an important avenue of team-building, especially for a franchise that seems to emphasize the so-called “middle class” of the roster.

Below are the undrafted New England rookies listed on NEPatriotsDraft.com, an invaluable website for this time of year. We’ve included highlight reels for all the players we could find. (Beware of questionable lyrics on many of them. And, yes, I sound like my father.)

Plus, high school fun facts!

Too Scheu Scheu, Hush Hush: We first mentioned tight end Steven Scheu (pronounced Shoy – 6-5, 253) in our Combine Snubs series after his successful pro day at Vanderbilt.

Why undrafted: Scheu’s 26 receptions ranked second among all Commodore receivers. Not exactly Texas Tech during its pass-happy heyday, there.

Why invited: He has good size. Ran a 4.70 40 and benched 225 pounds 23 times, which would have both been good enough for second place among combine tight ends. He was also named the team’s top scholar-athlete of 2015. Junior year highlights here.

High School Fun Fact: At Reitz Memorial High in Indiana, Scheu started at tight end for three years and played some fullback as a senior. His best year came as a junior, with 43 catches, 724 yards, and 10 touchdowns.

Hell Yeah, Hey D. J. Bring That Back: Arizona State slot receiver D. J. Foster (5-10, 193) made an appearance in our post-combine “That Guy” column in the potential seventh-round slot receiver category. He made the switch to receiver after playing running back at ASU.

Why undrafted: Not a huge guy, and his position switch may have scared some teams off. Also may have been knocked down draft boards after a mediocre 40 at the combine (4.57). His senior year output (59 receptions for 584 yards and three touchdowns) is solid yet not spectacular.

Why invited: He had a strong 40-yard dash at his pro day (4.46), and stood out due to his 6.75-second 3-cone. In 2015, Foster  continued to run the ball, compiling 280 yards on 55 carries (5.1 ypc). In his career, he gained more than 2,000 yards each rushing and receiving. For an organization that values versatility more than the makers of New Shimmer, a productive receiver/running back should get a look. See his highlights here, but it’s NSFW unless you want your fellow employees to be regaled with racial epithets.

High School Fun Fact: As a senior for Saguaro High in Arizona, Foster carried the ball 20 times vs. Sunrise Mountain, gaining 508 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns – both state records.

Driving A Bentley: At least, Patriots coaches hope to. V’Angelo Bentley (5-8, 193), Illinois cornerback, arrives in Foxboro to round out their special teams squad and possibly add a defensive back.

Why undrafted: Look again at that 5-foot-8, and remember Bentley ran an uninspiring 4.57 40-yard dash at his pro day. His 7.22-second 3-cone drill didn’t exactly write his ticket to the NFL, either.

Why invited: Notched 54 tackles, one sack, and six pass break-ups last season. Also – and more importantly – Bentley received All-Big Ten Honorable Mention as a returner, ranking second in the conference in punt return average (8.6). He was also the only player in school history to return a kickoff, punt, interception, and fumble for touchdowns in his career. Short and vague highlight reel here.

High School Fun Fact: Bentley ran track at Glenville High in Ohio, where his coach was Ted Ginn, Sr.

Drawing LeBlanc: Cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc (5-10, 185) from Florida Atlantic adds his name to a growing group of rookie corners for New England.

Why undrafted: His 4.67 40 at his pro day couldn’t have helped, and measuring a bit under 5-10 probably didn’t have scouts shouting his name, either.

Why invited: Completed a respectable 6.95-second 3-cone drill and put up 21 reps on the bench. Made All-Conference USA Second Team, leading the league with four interceptions. That, along with 11 pass break-ups, earned him Team Defensive MVP honors. Returned kicks and punts; also served as team captain. Aggressive coverage highlights here.

High School Fun Fact: While at Glades Central High, LeBlanc doled out the “Hardest Hit of the Year” in Palm Beach County. (I have no way to verify this, but it sounds cool.)

A Hit And A Miss: Mississippi linebacker C. J. Johnson (6-1, 234) could work his way onto the roster as another smaller linebacker/special-teamer type.

Why undrafted: Rather uninspiring numbers for both the combine and at his pro day, including a 4.81-second 40 and a 7.69-second 3-cone drill. (For comparison, Pats rookie offensive guard Joe Thuney ran a 7.47.) Also missed two weeks due to an October knee injury.

Why invited: Showed some toughness by coming back in two weeks and not the expected four. Plays Mike linebacker, where New England could use some depth. Had 43 tackles, two sacks, and two interceptions in 10 games. Johnson displayed versatility by moving from defensive end to middle linebacker before his senior year. High effort, low production sophomore highlights here.

High School Fun Fact: When he played at Philadelphia (Miss.) High, Rivals.com ranked Johnson the number one high school player in Mississippi.

Look At The Bones! Not to be confused with Jon “Bones” Jones, Auburn’s Jonathan Jones, cornerback, will be fighting for a roster spot amongst a crowded field of defensive backs.

Why undrafted: Jones measures on the smaller side at 5-9, 186 pounds. Also not the quickest, with a 7.25-second 3-cone drill.

Why invited: His 4.33 40 time was the third-fastest overall at the NFL Combine. Strong for a corner, as his 19 bench press reps tied for second at the position. Started for four years at corner; ended his final year with 69 tackles, one interception, and 13 pass break-ups. Fast-paced interception highlights that also need a mute button here.

High School Fun Fact: While at Carrollton High in Georgia, Johnson was the 110-meter high hurdles national champion with a time of 13.72 seconds.

They Stretchya, They Workya, De’Runnya: Ole Miss’ De’Runnya Wilson (6-5, 224) arrives as a tight end/receiver hybrid and could bring even more versatility to New England’s receiving crew.

Why undrafted: We call it versatility, others may call it a man without a position. Also ran a flat-out miserable 4.82 40, which would be fine for a blocking TE but not a 224-pounder.

Why invited: New England has searched for a prolific “move” tight end ever since He Who Shall Not Be Named committed That Thing We Won’t Talk About. Wilson made All-SEC Second Team last year, catching 60 passes for 918 yards (15.3 avg.) and 10 touchdowns. Impressive highlight reel (that’s what highlight reels are for, after all) here.

High School Fun Fact: Wilson’s basketball team won the state championship his junior year, as he averaged 13.7 points and 10.9 rebounds for Wenonah High in Birmingham, Alabama (go Dragons!).

All Right, Hamilton! Defensive tackle Woodrow Hamilton (6-3, 312) from Ole Miss could further bulk up the defensive front in Foxboro.

Why undrafted: Hamilton tweaked his hamstring in March, which may be partly to blame for mediocre times in the 20-yard shuttle (4.88 seconds) and the 3-cone (7.90).

Why invited: Put up 29 reps on the bench press, which would have tied him for eighth at the combine. Was also said to have had a “very good pro-day workout” by Gil Brandt on NFL.com. Has started since his sophomore year at nose tackle, a position the Pats seem quite interested in this off-season.

High School Fun Fact: As a senior at Raleigh High in Mississippi, Hamilton had six sacks and two blocked punts, making the All-State team. If you want to see two high school plays highlighted, click here.

Smithers, I’m Home: Free safety Mr. Devonta Burns (5-10, 203) of Texas A&M could contribute as a special-teamer and eventually make his way into defensive sub packages.

Why undrafted: Not an explosive athlete, with non-special times in the 40 (4.52) and 3-cone (7.07) for someone his size. Had a mere 17 tackles in 2015. Had zero interceptions in his college career.

Why invited: As a nickel corner, had 57 tackles in 2014, as well as one pass break-up and two forced fumbles. Plus, special teams experience. Some almost-impossible-to-see kickoff coverage highlights here.

High School Fun Fact: Burns was named to the 4-5A First-Team All-District squad as a senior at Arlington Martin High in Texas and was ranked the third-best safety in the state by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football.

Pay The Bryce: Well, we shall see. Bryce Williams (6-6, 257), East Carolina tight end, will give New England’s bigger TEs some reps off this summer.

Why undrafted: His 4.94-second 40 was about the same as our aforementioned rookie guard Thuney, who ran a 4.95. As far as strength, his 19 bench reps seem low for the position of blocking tight end.

Why invited: Not Gronk-level talented, but definitely Gronk-sized. Could provide another big body at the position, which would mean competition for the likes of Michael Williams. Williams (Bryce, that is) caught 58 passes for 588 yards and four touchdowns last season. Some highlights of what a big pass-catcher can do are found on this link.

High School Fun Fact: At North Davidson High in North Carolina, Williams excelled in football (school offensive MVP), track (All-conference in the 110 meters), and basketball (all-county).

Shaq’ing Up: The Patriots did not draft a running back, but they decided to add to their running back stable by inviting Shaquille Powell (5-9, 210) out of Duke.

Why undrafted: Powell’s a smaller back but lacks the speed (4.63 40) and quickness (7.07 3-cone) that runners of his size seem to require. Averaged just 4.3 yards per carry. Also, fair to say that Duke is not known as a football school.

Why invited: Powell caught 35 passes for 212 yards (6.06 avg.) and two touchdowns and did not fumble his senior year – in fact, he lost only one fumble in his entire career (418 touches). Was an Academic All-ACC selection for three years running (so to speak). Powell’s prowess on runs, screens, and wheel routes can be witnessed here.

High School Fun Fact: As a senior at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas, Powell rushed for 2,458 yards and 40 touchdowns on his way to a state title.

His Middle Name Is Kringle-Jack: Linebacker Kris Frost (6-2, 240) out of Auburn also got a camp invite and could fit as a backup middle linebacker.

Why undrafted: Frost lacks speed, running a 4.97 40 at the combine. He also had shoulder issues in February that prevented him from performing the combine bench press.

Why invited: Second on the team with 96 tackles. Also had two interceptions and one forced fumble. Pretty good quickness with a 7.15 3-cone. Along with Jones (and Garrett, below) – and with the fact that Belichick visited Auburn this spring for pro day – highlights the coach’s interest in the Tigers. You can see Frost’s game film vs. Mississippi State in 2014 here.

High School Fun Fact: As an outside linebacker for Butler High in Matthews, North Carolina, Frost’s team went 16-0. In his final two years, he tallied 178 tackles, (22 for loss), six forced fumbles, and seven interceptions.

Justin Case: Apparently, when it comes to training camp, you can’t invite too many linebackers. Justin Garrett (6-1, 226) became the latest Auburn defender to make his way to Gillette.

Why undrafted: Garrett’s smaller than most ‘backers and failed to make up for that lack of size with great speed, getting timed at a mediocre 4.75 seconds in the 40.

Why invited: His 28 bench press reps would have been the second-best effort for linebackers at the combine. Had 50 tackles, one sack, and two interceptions for the Tigers in 2015. Showed some versatility by practicing as a safety before his sophomore year. Watch Garrett return a fumble for a TD in this clip.

High School Fun Fact: Playing for Tucker High in Stone Mountain, Georgia, Garrett was ranked as the number 12 outside linebacker in the country by Scout.com.

It’s A Shame About Ray: Or not. We’ll have to wait and see what happens with camp invitee wide receiver Melvin Ray (6-2, 208) out of – wait for it – Auburn, who will provide some competition for the lower end of the receiver roster.

Why undrafted: Ray ran a less-than-spectacular 4.60 40-yard dash at his pro day. Playing behind superior pass-catchers, Ray only managed 33 receptions for his career. Just turned 27 years old last month, as he played minor league baseball prior to attending Auburn.

Why invited: His 6.98-second 3-cone drill is pretty swift for his size. Speaking of size, right now Ray ties with rookie Devin Lucien for the second-tallest receiver on the team behind Aaron Dobson. Averaged 17.2 yards per catch and gained a TD or first down on 81 percent of his receptions. Has special teams experience. He eluded non-existent coverage for one of his four career TDs here.

High School Fun Facts: As a senior at North Florida Christian in Tallahassee, Florida, Ray caught 53 passes for 1,058 yards and 16 TDs. He later got picked by the L. A. Dodgers in the 2008 MLB Draft.

If any new undrafted players join the team after this article posts, please let us know in the comment section below. Also, if a Boston sports radio host says something outlandish, feel free to voice your outrage.

Chris Warner wanted to play tight end for the Patriots growing up and was a huge fan of Lin Dawson. He tweets from @cwarn89.  

Patriots “That Guy” 2016 Draft Review

Predicting New England’s draft picks provides more setbacks than predicting spring weather (Hello there, 70 degrees! Nice to see you, sleet!). However, forecasting what types of players they usually pick has gotten easier.

In our previous, pre-draft “That Guy” piece, we touched on several different kinds of athletes the Patriots tend to bring into the fold. They remained true to form, as we’ll see below.

Just to review, here are New England’s picks by round (and overall number).

Round Two (60): CB/PR Cyrus Jones (5-10, 197), Alabama

Round Three (78): OL Joe Thuney (6-5, 305), N.C. State

Round Three ( 91): QB Jacoby Brissett (6-4, 231), N.C. State

Round Three (96): DL Vincent Valentine (6-4, 329), Nebraska

Round Four (112): WR Malcolm Mitchell (6-0, 198), Georgia

Round Six (208): OLB Kamu Grugier-Hill (6-2, 208), Eastern Illinois

Round Six (214): ILB Elandon Roberts (6-0, 235), Houston

Round Six (221): OL Ted Karras (6-3, 307), Illinois

Round Seven (225): WR Devin Lucien (6-2, 195), Arizona State

Trades: Ah, yes. On draft day, Coach Bill Belichick tends to go the full Monty Hall, wheeling and dealing in his search for the best value. New England entered the draft with 11 picks and wound up using nine, at one point trading up to the fourth round by swapping picks 196, 204, and 250 for Miami’s 147. They later used that to get an extra pick in 2017 (a Seattle fourth-rounder).

So, what kinds of players did they end up with?

The Alabama Guy: Our lone correct hit of the day came in the second round with Jones, who will join fellow Tide alum Dont’a Hightower on New England’s defense (and if Hightower could start as a rookie, expect Jones to contribute this year, too). Jones lacks height but has bulk and quickness (a head-turning 6.71-second 3-cone at the combine). He nabbed two interceptions last fall to go along with eight pass break-ups and 37 tackles. Where he’ll make his mark, though, is on special teams, as he averaged 12.6 yards per punt return in 2015, bringing four punts home for dinner.*

*Still working on a catchphrase for a return TD. It’s not going well. 

The Offensive Line Double-Dip: Last year, rookies Shaq Mason and Tré Jackson started several games on the interior; the year before, Bryan Stork and Cameron Fleming shored up the line. This season, Coach Belichick and returning OL coach/wizard Dante Scarnecchia hope to continue the trend with their two-fer of Thuney and Karras.

Thuney projects as a guard, but his speed (4.95 40) and upper-body strength (28 bench reps of 225 pounds) allow him some flexibility. Most importantly, he made All-ACC First Team last year as a left tackle after playing left guard in 2014 and right tackle, right guard, and left tackle in 2013. The man has more versatility than a Swiss Army knife with a Humanities doctorate.

Karras, who may or may not be able to knock out a horse, should compete for a guard spot. Though he lacks quickness (his 5.34 40 and 8.15 3-cone were timed indoors – on a couch! Right?), his 32 bench reps would have come in fourth overall at the NFL Combine, third for offensive linemen. Karras made All-Big Ten Third Team in 2015, filling in briefly at center as a senior. He started at right guard for 43 games in his career .

The Backup Quarterback: Well, this came as a surprise. With 2014 second-rounder Jimmy Garoppolo in the fold, we figured New England would wait until the later rounds to nab a third-string QB, and that they’d try to address an area of need (namely, anything but a rookie play-caller). Brissett became the number two third-round quarterback picked during Belichick’s tenure (Kevin O’Connell got the call in 2008). He’s an interesting prospect, with prototypical size (6-4, 231) and notable quickness (7.17 3-cone). Last year, he passed for 2,662 yards and 20 touchdowns vs. six interceptions. Had a 60 percent completion rate.

This is a “friend of Bill” pick, as both former Pats offensive coordinator Charlies Weis and former Pats coach Bill Parcells have mentored Brissett over the years. Interesting to see how this all works out.

The “Who’s That Guy?” Guy: New England usually pulls this off in the second round, with Sebastian Vollmer in 2009, Tavon Wilson in 2012, and Jordan Richards in 2015 as examples of Day Three prospects getting Day Two treatment. The highest rating for Valentine that we could find (NFLDraftScout.com) measured him as a late seventh-rounder. Speaking of measurements, apparently 329-pound D-linemen do not grow on trees (because surely they would break the branches). And men of such size who submit 5.19-second 40-yard dashes and 29-inch vertical leaps grow more rarely still.

Valentine could have crossed into another category as “The Injured Guy” after playing only 10 games last season as a junior due to an ankle injury. He notched a mere seven tackles in 2015. As a sophomore in 2014, he tallied 45 tackles (6.5 for loss) including three sacks, and forced a fumble.

The Take-A-Shot-On-This-Receiver Guy: The Patriots took a shot on Mitchell in the fourth round, and it feels like their best chance for pass-catcher production out of a draftee since a certain seventh-rounder in 2009. (Back then, I dismissed Julian Edelman in part due to his name. Even worse, that year my favorite pick was Tyrone McKenzie. I had more misfires than a wet musket. You can read all of them here.)

Mitchell has decent size and good speed (4.45 40). His 3-cone is fine at 6.94 seconds – he certainly seems to get open on film. As a senior, he led the run-heavy Bulldogs with 58 receptions, gaining 865 yards and scoring five touchdowns. He’s also got intangibles, earning numerous honors in community service, such as the 2015 AllState AFCA Good Works Award and the 2016 Community Spirit Award.

Plus: 10.5-inch hands! Those are, like, Goliath birdeater tarantula hands.

The Sixth-Round Small School Defender: No, Eastern Illinois isn’t as small as Concordia (Zach Moore, 2014) or Central Arkansas (Markell Carter, 2011), but as a 1-AA school in the Ohio Valley Conference, it’s not exactly Ohio State. The Pats got themselves a nifty athlete in Grugier-Hill, whose pro day performance should have been included in our Combine Snubs Who Showed ‘Em column. The strong safety ran a 4.45-second 40, a 4.20-second 20-yard shuttle, and a 6.89-second 3-cone drill. All three times would have made top five for safeties at the NFL Combine.

For the Panthers, Grugier-Hill made All-Ohio Valley Conference First Team with 62 tackles (a noteworthy 14.5 for loss) 5.5 sacks, and one interception.

The Special Teams Guy: Looks like Roberts can join Matthew Slater (2008) and Nate Ebner (2012) as athletes drafted in later rounds for their potential special teams prowess. At 235 pounds, Roberts weighs less than most Patriots linebackers, but the kid has skills: his 4.60 40 would have tied for the fifth-best time among combine linebackers, while his 25 bench reps would have been top three at the position. Best of all, he had more stops than a five-page telegram, leading the Cougars with 142 total tackles in 2015 (the next guy had 50 fewer). His whopping 88 unassisted tackles led the nation. He had 19 for loss, with six sacks. Throw in five pass break-ups, two forced fumbles, and an interception, and you’ve got yourself a defensive “Mark Twain Live!” (In other words, a real one-man show.)

The Seventh-Round Slot Receiver Guy(?): Besides Edelman, the Pats have drafted a couple of Jeremys – Ebert (2012) and Gallon (2014) – to fill this role. We’re shoehorning Lucien into this category like Cinderella’s stepsisters’ feet: his college (and now pro) teammate D. J. Foster gets the glass slipper here. In fact, we said as much in this year’s first “That Guy” column after Foster’s combine performance. Lucien has solid numbers from his pro day (4.49 40, 6.93 3-cone), but his production at ASU says much more. He led the Sun Devils in receptions (66) and yardage (1,075), while tying for the team lead in receiving TDs (eight). He averaged 16.3 yards per catch.

Lucien graduated from UCLA and transferred to ASU. Before Super Bowl 49 in Arizona, Belichick praised ASU coach Todd Graham, which may have helped Lucien get drafted (and Foster get a call as a rookie free agent).

That sums it up for this year’s selections. Later this week, please keep an eye out for our annual undrafted free agent piece “Who’s The FA? UDFA!”

Chris Warner visited the National Museum of the Marine Corps this past weekend and thought it was amazing. He also tweets: @cwarn89

Patriots “That Guy” 2016 April Edition

Welcome to part three of our “That Guy” Patriots draft series. In our previous two installments, we reviewed some Senior Bowl standouts and inspected NFL Combine results in our search for players who may fit in at Foxboro.

Since then, we’ve had a few weeks to look at pro day results in our “Combine Snubs” series, as well as watch New England build their squad for the 2016 season. These observations have led to a few alterations to our “That Guy” column. Here are the types of athletes the Patriots tend to draft, with suggestions on particular players for later this spring.

The First Round, Solid Bet Guy: The more we look at the NFL taking away New England’s first rounder, the more it hurts. Using defensive linemen as an example, the Patriots have a strong record for the position in Round One that includes Richard Seymour (2001), Ty Warren (2003), Vince Wilfork (2004), Chandler Jones (2012), and Malcom Brown (2015). All starters. Their selections in Round Two? Marquise Hill (2004), Ron Brace (2009), and Jermaine Cunningham (2010). That’s a disconcerting difference in production, there.

We wanted to consider an athlete they could select in the second round who could contribute for years to come, and possibly utilize some of ex-Patriot (and lone first-round bust) Dominique Easley’s minutes as an interior rusher.

Possible Pick: For where they’ll be drafting, it’s easy to consider Carl Nassib of Penn State. A defensive end at 6-7, 277 pounds, Nassib showed the ability to work inside and create havoc against interior defensive linemen. He has good speed (4.84-second 40) and solid quickness (7.27 3-cone, 4.37 20-yard shuttle) that give him positional flexibility New England adores. Nassib, a walk-on at PSU, won the Ted Hendricks Award this past season as the best college defensive end. He led the nation in sacks with 15.5, adding six forced fumbles on the year.

The “Who’s That Guy?” Guy: By making second-round picks out of unheralded names like Sebastian Vollmer (2009), Tavon Wilson (2012), and Jordan Richards (2015), the Patriots demonstrated how they often value certain players differently than most pundits. If they like a guy, they tend to go get him.

Possible Pick: I mean, based on the name alone, we had to select linebacker Cassanova McKinzy out of Auburn. Coach Bill Belichick traveled to Auburn for their pro day; he surely witnessed McKinzy (6-1, 248) during position drills. McKinzy started at middle linebacker as a freshman and had 263 career stops. As a senior, he tallied 74 tackles, including 10 for loss (five sacks) and 20 quarterback hits. A minor scouting note: he had one of his most prolific games vs. Alabama, with eight tackles and three QB hits.

I’ll take Cassanova, because me and Romeo ain’t never been friends.

The 3-Cone Guy: The Patriots seem to appreciate high-octane 3-cone drills more than speedy 40-yard dashes. (WEEI.com’s Chris Price would tend to agree.) This has led to the drafting of Julian Edelman (6.62-second 3-cone) in 2009 and Darryl Roberts (6.66) in 2015, among many others who have quick feet for their respective positions.

Possible Pick: We’re going to go to the defense here, as Kansas State cornerback Morgan Burns (5-10, 200) had a 6.60 3-cone during his pro day (of course, his 4.38-second 40 probably won’t hurt his stock, either). Burns earned All-Big 12 Honorable Mention status as a defensive back with one interception and 10 pass break-ups. Most importantly, he was named All-American as a kick returner, bringing back four kickoffs to the far horizon* last year while gaining an average of 33.5 yards per return.

*I’m trying to think of another phrase for “to the house” or “all the way.” I’m open to suggestions.

The Freakishly Athletic Guy: Every once in a while, the Patriots select someone who drops jaws at the combine. In 2013, that was Jamie Collins, whose 11-foot, seven-inch broad jump at 250 pounds remains a stunner. (You can watch it here. Listen for the announcers laughing at its ridiculousness.)

Possible Pick: We went with Justin Simmons out of Boston College for our combine edition, and we stick with him now. He’s big for a free safety at 6-2, 202 pounds, and with a 40-inch vertical, 10-foot, six-inch broad jump, and a 6.58-second 3-cone, he has the quicks and power to play various spots in sub packages. His experience at cornerback could help defenses give different, QB-confusing looks. At BC, Simmons had 67 tackles, five interceptions and two forced fumbles.

The Long-Limbed Defensive End: New England often seeks out a lanky pass-rusher, as seen in the likes of Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom in 2015 and Michael Buchanan in 2013. While they seem pretty stocked at the position – Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard remain stalwarts; Chris Long just got added in free agency – the trading of Chandler Jones could open up an opportunity for rookie minutes in a sub role.

Possible Pick: Lots to like about Matt Judon, a small-school wrecking crew from the Greater Lakes Interscholastic Athletic Conference. Judon (6-3, 275) actually outweighs the 2012 rookie version of Jones (266) and ran a slightly faster 40 (4.73 to Jones’ 4.87). Not saying Judon could come in and start, but he does have some notable talents (30 bench press reps, 35-inch vertical) that could help him become a solid defender in time. The GLIAC Defensive Lineman of the Year led the nation with 18 sacks. He also forced three fumbles and recovered two.

Offensive Line Double-Dips: Last year, the Pats looked to Tré Jackson and Shaq Mason as rookies to bolster the interior line. The year before, both Bryan Stork and Cameron Fleming added important minutes, with Stork coming in to start at center and stabilize a shaky offense. Their veteran offensive tackles are getting closer to the ends of their careers (as are we all, really), so it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Belichick looked for two rookies to add to the O-line.

Possible Picks: We’ve got to acknowledge North Dakota State tackle Joe Haeg (6-6, 304), especially after his meeting with Patriots coaches during Senior Bowl week. Haeg was an All-American in his final two seasons, earning Top Collegiate Offensive Lineman by the FCS Athletic Directors Association. Also ran a 5.16-second 40 at the NFL Combine and had a 7.47-second 3-cone, good enough for fifth-best OL.

South Carolina’s Brandon Shell is another tackle candidate we’ve noticed, especially after a 5.22-second 40, impressive given his size (6-5, 324). He started at left tackle as a senior after spending most of the previous three years on the right side, compiling 47 consecutive starts. Shell is the great-nephew of Hall of Fame lineman Art Shell, which we’re sure Belichick knows and appreciates.

The Alabama Guy: ‘Bama coach Nick Saban coached with Belichick at Cleveland lo these 25 years ago. This has led to such players as Dont’a Hightower getting nabbed in the first round in 2012, as well as LB Xzavier Dickson getting the call late in last year’s draft.

Possible Pick: We’re going with cornerback Cyrus Jones this year. At 5-10, 197 pounds, he’s not super big. With a 4.49-second 40, he’s not super fast. But, with a 6.71-second 3-cone, he is super quick, and he uses it well on the field. Last season, Jones returned four punts for touchdowns (“to the far horizon,” maybe? No?), averaging 12.6 per take-back. He also had two interceptions and eight pass break-ups. Here he is working his magic vs. the Spartans with a punt return TD in the Cotton Bowl.

The Rutgers Guy: Due to Coach Belichick’s relationship with former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano, players from that school have flowed through Foxboro with all the force of the mighty Raritan, including Devin McCourty, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon.

Possible Pick: Oh, so, so much to like about Quentin Gause. The 6-0, 232-pound linebacker had solid production with 96 tackles and a team-leading 12 tackles for loss, sure, but my oh my: the intangibles, people. Team captain? Check. Big Ten Sportsmanship Award? Academic All-Big Ten? Check and check. The “R” Man Courage Award? Checkeroo. And you know what? Running a 4.73-second 40 and a 7.01-second 3-cone probably can’t hurt, either.

The Ohio State Guy: Belichick used to have a friendly relationship with former Florida coach and current Ohio State head Urban Meyer. That has probably cooled a bit over the past several years, draft-wise, considering some of the algal slime that has crawled out of the Gator swamp up to Foxboro. (Seriously, if Mike Reiss is calling the benefits of that relationship into question in his indispensable Sunday notes, there’s an issue.) But now, since former Rutgers head coach Schiano took on the role as OSU co-defensive coordinator, we’re taking another gander at the Buckeyes.

Possible Pick: We’d like to add Tyvis Powell to the list of solid, dependable safeties on the Patriots’ potential roster. He has noteworthy size at 6-3, 211 pounds and great speed for said size with a 4.46-second 40. (For comparison, the 6-0, 196-pound Harmon ran a 4.51, while the 5-11, 193-pound McCourty ran a 4.48.) Add a thoroughly decent 7.03-second 3-cone, and we’re in the Buckeye business. At OSU, Powell had 71 total tackles, with three interceptions, three pass break-ups, and a blocked kick. He had eight career interceptions, with one each in bowl games vs. Alabama and Notre Dame.

The Injured Guy: New England likes to take chances with players who have missed playing time due to injury. This has worked out well in some cases (Rob Gronkowski) and not so well in others (Ras-I Dowling). Last year, the Patriots selected guard Tré Jackson, who had been bothered with knee issues while at Florida State. Jackson did miss time with injuries, but he started nine games as a rookie and should vie for playing time this year.

Possible Pick: Boise State guard Rees Odhiambo is worth reviewing. The 6-4, 314-pound Odhiambo injured his ankle in October and missed the rest of the season. Despite playing in only eight games, he was named to the All-Mountain West First Team. Injuries have chased the native Kenyan throughout his college career, as he has never started more than nine games in any one season. Still, for a mid-round pick, Odhiambo could serve as an inexpensive backup for the interior O-line.

The Day Two Running Back: In 2011, the Patriots drafted Shane Vereen in the second round and Stevan Ridley in the third. In 2015, injuries to Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount showed how much the team needed depth at the position.

Possible Pick: Even after signing Blount, we assume New England will seek out another sizable back this spring, which brings us to Keith Marshall of Georgia. Marshall (5-11, 219) averaged 5.1 yards per carry for the Bulldogs, scoring three TDs. At the combine, he blew away the field with a 4.31-second 40, the fastest at Indy this year (As far as we can tell, no draftee has had a faster pro day this spring.) We spend a lot of time yakking about how the Patriots don’t fall in love with 40 times, but Marshall’s 25 bench reps and 6.98-second 3-cone should factor in here.

The Sixth-Round Small School Defender: From Markell Carter (Central Arkansas) in 2011 to Zach Moore (Concordia) in 2014, the Patriots aren’t shy about checking out the lower divisions for talent. With about 27 sixth-round picks this year (note: number may be exaggerated for effect), it seems like an ideal time to revisit this tendency.

Possible Pick: Back to the GLIAC (see: Matt Judon above) for some more D-II action. We mentioned Justin Zimmer from Ferris State in our Combine Snubs series. He would fit in well here. The 6-3, 302-pounder moved faster than a rolling temple boulder, notching a 4.85-second 40. His 7.01-second 3-cone drill would have come in fourth for NFL Combine safeties this year. Perhaps most awesome was Zimmer’s 44 bench reps of 225 pounds that would have bested all 2016 NFL Combine participants. At Ferris State, Zimmer tallied 81 tackles, with 26 coming for loss, half of those in sacks. He broke up five passes and forced four fumbles.

The Backup Tight End: No position has changed more for the Patriots over the past few weeks than tight end. The signing of Martellus Bennett created a dreamscape for wannabe offensive coordinators all the way from Madawaska, Maine down to whatever scattered parts of Greenwich, Connecticut root for New England. The signing of Clay Harbor added a smaller, “move” tight end, and – along with a healthy A. J. Derby – could fortify the position even more. So what do we do? We go jack-of-all-trades on ’em.

Possible Pick (Move TE): We’ll take our chances on a prolific college QB, one Jason Vander Laan of the aforementioned Ferris State. He’s got good size (6-4, 240), decent speed (4.75 40) and excellent quickness (6.73 3-cone – better than all combine tight ends). And, best of all, he has the football knowledge and production that could make him a threat from different positions. Vander Laan won The Harlan Hill Trophy (Division II Player of the Year Award) two years running. He is the first quarterback in the history of the NCAA with four consecutive seasons both passing and rushing for 1,000-plus yards. In 2015, he threw for 2,626 yards and 27 touchdowns and ran for 1,542 yards and 24 touchdowns.

I mean, I know it’s Division II, but he produced numbers like a 12-year-old playing against 11 cats. Old, disinterested ones.

Possible Pick (Blocking TE): Sometimes we add picks that probably won’t happen but would love to see. Enter LaQuan McGowan, a tight end/fullback out of Baylor who measures an astounding 6-6, 405 pounds. His running times are, as one might predict, only slightly faster than erosion, with a 5.48-second 40. However, he leapt a noteworthy 24 inches vertically, and put up 30 reps on the bench. He has noted his willingness to play guard, his natural position. Hey, we could see plays like this in the future. Could be fun.

The Special Teams Guy: As a former special teams coach, Belichick has always paid attention to the one-play wonders of the NFL. We think drafting specifically for ST roles probably got going in 2008 with Matthew Slater, continued in 2012 with Nate Ebner, and was maintained throughout with plenty of specialists (long snapper Joe Cardona last year, for instance).

Possible Pick: While the Patriots tend to focus on smaller linebackers and/or bigger safeties for this role, Washington outside linebacker Travis Feeney catches the eye. He has unusual measurements for most special-teamers at 6-4, 230 pounds, and he did very well on his 40 with a 4.50-second time. Speaking of 40, that’s how many inches he jumped in the vertical, topping all other combine linebackers. A Huskies team captain, Feeney was voted UW’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player with eight sacks and 17.5 total tackles for loss last season. He also forced three fumbles.

The Take-A-Shot-On-This-Receiver Guy: The Patriots have drafted a long list of receivers who failed to pan out in Foxboro. The ones that did (Deion Branch, David Givens, Julian Edelman) helped win Super Bowls, so it’s easy to figure they’ll take another chance this spring.

Possible Pick: Let’s take a closer look at the speedy Charone Peake out of Clemson. He’s got size at 6-2, 209 pounds – a veritable Gulliver compared to most of the LilliPatriots currently on the roster. He also has speed (4.38 pro day 40) and quickness (6.96 3-cone). Peake caught 50 passes last year for 716 yards, a 14.3 yards-per-catch average, with five touchdowns.

Aaaaand he’ll probably be a bust. But it’s worth a shot, people. It’s always worth a shot.

The Backup Quarterback: They got Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round (2014), Kevin O’Connell in the third (2008), Rohan Davey in the fourth (2002), Kliff Kingsbury in the sixth (2003), and Matt Cassel in the seventh (2005). Time to bring in a camp arm to nurture and – when the time comes –  see how it can best help the team moving forward.

Possible Pick: Cassel was a backup out of USC who panned out, so why not take a starter from the same school? Cody Kessler has had a great career for the Trojans. At 6-foot-1, height might play a role in his lower draft status, but height didn’t seem to matter to Belichick when he kept Doug Flutie around. Plus, the kid can play: An All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention in 2015, Kessler completed 67 percent of his passes (298 of 446) for 3,536 total yards, 29 touchdowns, and seven interceptions.

Hell, Cassel completed 10 passes in his entire Trojan career, so the Pats should be able to do something with this guy, right?

The Seventh-Round Slot Receiver Guy: This trend started off quite well with Edelman in 2009, yet found less success with Jeremy Ebert out of Northwestern in 2012 and Jeremy Gallon out of Michigan in 2014. Still, if they can add another dependable sticks-mover in the seventh, they’ll give it a chance.

Possible Pick: Slot receiver, outside receiver, running back, returner. Byron Marshall (5-9, 205), did a little of everything for Oregon in 2015 before his season-ending injury after only four games. He was well enough to participate in Oregon’s pro day on March 14, with a so-so 4.56-second 40 getting overlooked due to encouraging quickness times (4.19 20-yard shuttle, 6.99 3-cone). As a junior in 2014, Marshall led the Ducks with 74 receptions for 1,003 yards (13.6 avg) and six TDs. He also averaged 7.5 yards per rush (52 for 392).

High School Fun Fact: At Valley Christian High, Marshall was the top-ranked sophomore in California in the 100-meter dash with a time of 10.67 seconds. So, hey, that 40-yard time? He’s just getting warmed up.

The Navy Guy: Last year, long snapper Joe Cardona got drafted. While he figured into our seven-round assessment, we did not think he would go as high as the fifth. Hard to think that any other NFL coach has the same fondness for Annapolis as Belichick. It is his hometown, after all.

Possible Pick: Hoo, boy. Whom to pick, whom to pick? Our choice comes between QB Keenan Reynolds, who set all kinds of rushing records for QBs, and FB Chris Swain, who would follow the New England tradition of Navy fullbacks in Foxboro (Kyle Eckel and Eric Kettani). Based on Belichick visiting Annapolis to see Reynolds, we’ll go with the QB. Belichick loves the Naval Academy, and he loves football history, and few Midshipman have made quite as much history as Reynolds. His 88 career rushing touchdowns are the most ever in Division I. He’s also the first player in Football Bowl Subdivision history to score at least 23 touchdowns in three different seasons. He rushed for 4,559 yards in his career, the most in FBS history by a QB. He’s not big (5-9, 190), but his ability to run the ball in open space – along with his experience under center –  is something Coach Belichick might want to work with in camp.

Any “Guys” we’ve overlooked or any names you think belong in each category, please let us know in the comments section below.

Chris Warner tweets with the fury of the winds @cwarn89  

Combine Snubs Who Showed ‘Em, Part II

Every year, over 300 college football players head to Indianapolis to demonstrate their prowess at the NFL Combine. Every year, hundreds more players get overlooked.

We’re here to give props to those athletes who excelled at their pro days, proving that they probably should have received Combine invitations. You can review Part I from mid-March here. For a refresher on the various pro day events, the NFL’s Combine page offers a succinct description of each.

As always, thanks to NFL.com’s Gil Brandt and his incomparable pro day results list. Now, on with the show.

OFFENSE

Double Darius: Eastern Michigan running back Darius Jackson ran two 40-yard dashes, in 4.38 and 4.35 seconds. That latter time would have tied for fifth overall, second for combine RBs, which is better than expected for a 6-1, 220-pounder. Complement that mark with great power (41-inch vertical, second for RBs; 11-foot-1 broad jump, also second) and quickness (6.82-second 3-cone, a woulda-been top time for combine backs). Jackson rushed for 1,089 yards in 2015, and set EMU’s record for touchdowns in a single season with 16.

Pretty Smitty: Iowa receiver Tevaun Smith had a great pro day, running a 4.38 40 that would have come in second for combine pass-catchers, top eight overall. The 6-0, 205-pound receiver jumped 38 inches vertically (fifth for WRs) and ran the 3-cone drill in 6.72 seconds (fourth for WRs). Smith caught 32 passes for 563 yards (17.6 ypr) and three TDs last season for the Hawkeyes.

I Want To Love You, BYT (Brigham Young Thing): One of the tallest receivers in the draft, Mitch Mathews of BYU (6-6, 222) ran a 4.47-second 40, which would have tied him for seventh-best among (more diminutive) receivers at the combine. He also had a 10-foot-9 broad jump (tied for fourth receiver) and a 36-inch vertical (tied for ninth). His 4.25 20-yard dash and 6.99-second 3-cone times didn’t set combine records, but they look strong given Mathews’ size. The big man led the Cougars with 54 catches for 737 yards (13.6 avg) and 11 touchdowns, none more memorable than this 42-yard Hail Mary to beat Nebraska.

Fun Fact: Mathews served his Mormon mission in Orlando, Florida. Sweet gig.

Save Ferris: Wide receiver Jake Lampman of Ferris State (5-11, 200) ran a 4.47-second 40, which would have put him in the top seven for combine receivers. He also had a 39-inch vertical (top four for WRs) and a 6.76-second 3-cone (tied for fifth WR). His 27 bench press reps is the best mark for a combine receiver since 2009. (It also helps him bury defensive backs, as you can see on his highlight reel.) As a senior, Lampman caught 43 passes for 717 yards (16.7 avg.) and seven touchdowns.

Bell, Biv, Devonte: What? Let’s try that over…

Delicious, Delightful, Devonte: Meh. A little better. But not as good as the numbers that wide receiver Devonte Robinson put up at Utah State’s pro day. The 6-1, 199-pound pass-catcher ran a 4.31-second 40, which would have tied him for the best time at this year’s combine. He also had a 38-inch vertical (tied for fifth-best WR) and 10-foot-8 broad jump (tied for seventh-best WR). In 2015, Robinson caught 20 passes for 326 yards (16.3 avg) and two touchdowns.

M-I-C… See You On Draft Weekend: Mighty mite receiver Jaydon Mickens out of Washington caught our eye at the East-West Shrine game, then caught many more eyes at his pro day. The 5-10, 174-pounder had a decent time in the 40 (4.51), but set himself apart in quickness drills with a rabbity 3.87-second 20-yard shuttle and a 6.58-second 3-cone. His shuttle would have come in second overall at the combine (top receiver), while his 3-cone would have tied for second overall (second receiver). In 2015, Mickens led the Huskies with 58 catches for 692 yards and two touchdowns. He also added seven rushing attempts for 44 yards and one TD.

Give Some Lee Way: This isn’t the first time we’ve mentioned Jay Lee, as the Baylor receiver stuck out at the Senior Bowl. The 6-2, 215-pound wideout continued this trend at his pro day with a 6.75-second 3-cone drill, which would have been top four for combine receivers, top nine overall. His 4.53 40 won’t move him up draft boards, but his size and quickness should provide a boost to his stock. At Baylor, Lee caught 38 passes for 758 yards (a team-leading 19.9 avg) and eight touchdowns.

I Know A Little German, But This Is A Different Guy: German Moritz Boehringer forced a bevy of scouts to their Berlitz books, as the Titanic Teuton had one of the best pro days of any receiver in this draft, making top five for combine pass-catchers in all events. Measuring 6-4, 227 pounds, Boehringer ran a 4.43 40 (tied, top four wide receiver), leapt 39 inches in the vertical (top four WR) and 10-foot-11 in the broad (tied, top two WR; top seven overall), hustled through a 4.10 20-yard shuttle (top four WR) and topped it off with a 6.65 3-cone (tied, top three WR; top five overall).

As one might expect, Boehringer put up awesome numbers in the German Football League last season, catching 59 passes for 1,232 yards and 13 TDs for the Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns. (The most disappointing aspect of Schwäbisch Hall Football t-shirts? No freaking unicorns.)

Field General Washington: Angelo State quarterback Kyle Washington (6-6, 220), ran two 40s that averaged out to 4.67 seconds. He had a 38.5-inch vertical, 10-7 broad jump, 4.36 short shuttle, and a 6.97-second 3-cone. He would have been, as you might imagine, at or near the top for Combine quarterbacks in almost all events. Last season, he did some serious damage for the Rams, completing 265 of 443 passes (60 percent) for 3,691 yards, 27 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. Again: this is in 2015 alone, in a mere 11 games played (335 yards passing per game). Washington also led the team in rushing, averaging 6.8 yards per carry on his way to 831 yards and 15 TDs. And, sure enough, he caught one pass for a score, adding up to a total of 43 TDs, passing, rushing, and receiving on the year.

DEFENSE

It’s Dawn, Zimmer: Considering his size (6-3, 302), Ferris State defensive tackle Justin Zimmer ran an eye-opening 4.85-second 40 at his pro day – a comparable time to many fullbacks. His 7.01 3-cone would have tied with the fourth defensive lineman at the combine (the top 13 D-line times came from lighter D-ends). Last but most, his 44 bench reps would have been the overall best mark this year at the combine by 10. Zimmer terrorized the Greater Lakes Conference (GLIAC) with 81 total tackles, including 26 for loss (13 sacks). He also forced four fumbles, broke up five passes, and blocked one kick. If you want to see a D-lineman go after QBs like a doberman set loose in a meat locker, click here.

The Captain And Shaneil: Defensive end Shaneil Jenkins out of Division II Shepherd in West Virginia ran a 4.78-second 40, remarkable given his 6-3, 281-pound frame. He had a 7.25-second 3-cone, which would have come in 11th for all defensive linemen at the combine, and a 4.5-second 20-yard shuttle. Jenkins made First Team All-Mountain East Conference as MEC Defensive Player of the Year with 41 tackles (including 23 for loss with 13.5 sacks), three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, three pass breakups, and a blocked kick.

Maine Attraction: Oh, yay, how super original! Wait a sec…

The Bear Necessities: Remember when a store by that name resided in Faneuil Hall? They sold teddy bears? No? Anyway…

Fresh Bates: I hate myself. Trevor Bates, Maine defensive end, ran a decent 4.78-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, which would have scored in the top eight for combine defensive linemen (though, to be fair, at 6-1, 245 pounds, Bates is looking at a conversion to linebacker). His most impressive mark was a 6.75-second 3-cone drill, which would have come in second for all linebackers at the combine. The former Black Bear had 57 tackles in 2015, including 14.5 for loss (7.5 sacks). He also had two pass break-ups, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery.

Wiiiilllllllssso-o-o-o-on! Fresno State will certainly lament the moving on of linebacker Kyrie Wilson. Running light at 6-2, 228 pounds, Wilson ran a 4.57 40 that would have been third-best at the combine for linebackers, sixth-best for safeties. His 40.5-inch vertical would have come in seventh overall, while his 6.99-second 3-cone time would have tied for third-best linebacker and come in fourth for safeties. As a middle linebacker last fall, Wilson made 74 tackles (three for loss) and forced two fumbles.

Better Get Ute To It: Like many other snubs, Utah’s Jason Whittingham (6-2, 238) would have been right in the combine linebacker mix, starting with a 4.66 40 that would have come in seventh for the position. His 35.5-inch vertical (tied, fifth), 6.9-second 3-cone (second), 28 bench press reps (second) and 4.1-second 20-yard shuttle (second) all would have made top five for linebackers at Indy. In 2015, Whittingham had 26 tackles (six for loss), including 1.5 sacks.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight: At least he should after this workout. Penn State cornerback Trevor Williams (5-10, 191) ran a 4.41 40, tied for seventh-fastest corner at the combine. His 10-5 broad jump would have tied the sixth-best corner, while his 6.84 3-cone would have come in fifth for the position. For the Nittany Lions, Williams earned All-Big Ten Honorable Mention from conference coaches with 31 tackles (three for loss), three pass break-ups, and one interception. He’s probably on the Patriots’ radar after a big game in 2014 where he had two interceptions at Rutgers. Because, you know, Bill Belichick has a 24-hour loop of Rutgers game film running on his home screens.

UNIque Name, UNIque Player: Cornerback Makinton Dorleant from Northern Iowa (UNI) – all 5-11, 177 pounds of him – ran a 4.35 40 that would have tied for second-best corner at the combine, fifth overall. He leapt a 39-inch vertical (tied for fourth cornerback), a 7.03-second 3-cone (tied for 12th CB), and 16 bench press reps (tied for 11th CB). A Maryland transfer, Dorleant had 47 tackles last fall, including four for loss. He also had three forced fumbles, one interception, and 17 pass break-ups (that’s right: a full Hondo). On top of that, he returned kicks and punts, averaging 23.9 and 14.2 yards, respectively.

Enchanté Devonte: I should have used that for the first Devonte. Anyway, at Weber State’s pro day, cornerback Devonte Johnson (5-11, 180) had a 41-inch vertical leap (tied, second combine cornerback; third-best overall) and an 11-foot broad jump (tied, second CB; fourth overall), along with a 6.96-second 3-cone (11th-best CB). He also put up 15 reps on the bench, notable given his willowy frame. For the Wildcats, Johnson had 40 tackles last year, including one sack. He also broke up 11 passes.

Stay Gold, Pony Boy: SMU safety Shakiel Randolph – a spring-coiled 6-4, 213 pounds – had a 42-inch vertical at his pro day that would have come in first overall at the combine. In comparison to combine invitees, Randolph’s 4.59 40 (seventh for safeties), 10-foot-10 broad jump (second), 7.13 3-cone (ninth), and 16 bench press reps (tied, seventh) all would have made top ten for the position. Last year, Randolph had 39 tackles, including 1.5 for loss.

Running On MT: Safety Kevin Byard of Middle Tennesse State (5-11, 216) ran a 4.51-second 40 that would have made top four for combine safeties. His 10-foot broad jump (top ten safeties), 38-inch vertical (tied, second), 4.20 20-yard shuttle (fifth), and 6.73-second 3-cone (second) all would have made top ten for the position. For the Blue Raiders, Byard compiled 66 tackles and four interceptions, making First Team All-Conference USA in 2015.

COMBINE BESTS (With Pro-Day Comparables)

40-YARD DASH

4.31 seconds – Keith Marshall, Georgia RB

4.31 seconds – Devonte Robinson, Utah State WR

4.35 seconds – Darius Jackson, Eastern Michigan RB

4.35 seconds – Makinton Dorleant, Northern Iowa CB

BENCH PRESS (225 pounds)

44 reps – Justin Zimmer, Ferris State DL

43 reps – Vi Teofilo, Arizona State OL

34 reps – Christian Westerman, Arizona State OL

VERTICAL JUMP

42 inches – Shakiel Randolph, Southern Methodist FS

41.5 inches – Daniel Lasco, California RB 

41 inches – Darius Jackson, Eastern Michigan RB 

BROAD JUMP

11 feet, 3 inches – Daniel Lasco, California RB

11 feet, 1 inch – Darius Jackson, Eastern Michigan RB

3-CONE DRILL

6.49 seconds – Devon Cajuste, Stanford WR

6.58 seconds – Jaydon Mickens, Washington WR

6.6 seconds – Morgan Burns, Kansas State CB 

20-YARD SHUTTLE

3.85 seconds – Justin Simmons, Boston College FS

3.87 seconds – Jaydon Mickens, Washington WR

4.06 seconds – Jhurrell Presley, New Mexico RB

Any combine snubs with noteworthy performances that we’ve missed, please let us know in the comments section below.

Chris Warner tweets to stave off the fear of anonymity: @cwarn89