FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. He’s back and “excited it worked out.” Kicker Stephen Gostkowski returned last Sunday from a NFL-USO tour to South Korea, in which he visited U.S. troops and their families at military bases, and he called it an unforgettable and humbling experience.
I have a longer piece on Gostkowski’s trip coming soon. As part of our interview on the NFL-USO tour, I asked him about returning to the Patriots after an extended time as an unrestricted free agent, with a two-year deal finalized over the past couple of days.
“I’m extremely grateful and excited for the opportunity to keep playing, especially for this team. Having had to wait 13 years to be a free agent kind of put a different spin on things for me, because I’m in a whole different place in my life and career than a lot of people when they first have a shot at free agency. The things I had to think about and go through, and decisions I had to make of whether I would stay or leave, are completely different from what I would have had 10 years ago when I could have had a chance at free agency,” said the 35-year-old Gostkowski, who with his wife, Hallie, has three children.
“But having the extra time, and waiting and taking my time, really made me know that I was 100 percent wanting to be here. I’m so blessed to have a chance to play 15 years in one spot. I know my position is different than most. But even in my position, guys that have played it this long, have probably already been with two or three different teams. We love it here. My family loves it here. It would have been a lot to leave.
“You have to make decisions based on a multitude of factors, and every time I thought of what it would be like somewhere else, I always came back to how much I love it here. It’s a weird business, and you have to explore every option, but it was really tough for me to think I was ever going to leave. I’m excited it worked out and just thankful for another opportunity to have a crack at playing for the Patriots.”
2. The bond that ties Solder and McDaniels. There can be incredibly strong bonds formed between players and coaches in football, and I learned of one between former Patriots left tackle Nate Solder and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels this past week. Solder was back in Boston with his wife, Lexi, as they were the headline guests for a Boston Children’s Hospital function in which they shared the story of their son, Hudson, who was diagnosed with cancer. Solder was discussing how McDaniels’ emotional support was so meaningful to him at the time of Hudson’s diagnosis, and part of what made the remarks especially poignant was that McDaniels was in the room to hear them. Even though they are now on different teams, the bond remains as strong as ever.
3. TB12’s challenge for 2019. The Patriots begin their voluntary offseason program on Monday, which sparked a recollection of something quarterback Tom Brady said at opening-night festivities for Super Bowl LIII. Brady didn’t attend the voluntary offseason program last year, and he was asked how much he felt that approach contributed to the team’s success.
“I don’t think there’s a strong correlation,” Brady said at the time. “Had I been a part of the offseason, this team would have fought just as hard. We have great leaders. Even when I wasn’t there, I was totally confident the team was doing everything that they needed to do.”
Not long before Brady had shared those thoughts, he had relayed how this offseason was already on his mind before Super Bowl LIII.
“My greatest challenge in 2019 is going to be continuing to prepare the way I want with my body, my mind. It always has its unique challenges. I’ve already got my offseason mapped out,” he said on opening night. “It’s nice when you figure out the Super Bowl is your last game, and you can start penciling in all the dates for your family and so forth. It will be a lot of time with my family and try to get ready for another year.”
4. Did You Know? Receiver Julian Edelman has the richest financial bonus for taking part in the Patriots’ offseason program, at $500,000. That easily outdistances the second player on the list, defensive tackle Lawrence Guy, who gets a $200,000 workout bonus. The only other players with six-figure bonuses are outside linebacker John Simon ($150,000), safety Patrick Chung ($100,000), receiver Phillip Dorsett ($100,000) and defensive tackle Mike Pennel ($100,000).
5a. Addition of a new tight end. The Patriots’ signing of Austin Seferian-Jenkins to a one-year, $895,000 minimum deal falls into the it-can’t-hurt-to-give-it-a-look category. That’s a low cost for a player who had landed a two-year, $10 million pact last offseason, and, of course, the Patriots have a notable void to fill after Rob Gronkowski‘s retirement. The 6-foot-5, 262-pound Seferian-Jenkins runs and catches the ball well, and though he has never been a mauling blocker, he had several snaps tight to the formation in the Jaguars’ win against the Patriots in Week 2 last season against Keionta Davis, Kyle Van Noy and Deatrich Wise Jr. On one of them early in the second quarter, he helped spring T.J. Yeldon for a 15-yard run to the left edge. The Patriots are always looking for a combination tight end and Seferian-Jenkins’ blocking, from my view, will be the key to see if he can become that in the Patriots’ scheme.
5b. In 2017, when Seferian-Jenkins had his most productive pro season with the Jets (50 catches), current Patriots assistant coach Mick Lombardi was on the Jets offensive staff. It makes sense to think that link provided the Patriots some solid intelligence on what Seferian-Jenkins was like on a daily basis.
6. Hogan’s departure. Although not a carbon copy, I see some similarities between the free-agent departures of receivers Chris Hogan in 2019 and Wes Welker in 2013. In both cases, my belief is the Patriots had explored extensions well before each player became a free agent, but the initial financial gap was so wide in each case that it ultimately resulted in too much ground to make up. Specific to Hogan, by the time free agency began, I sensed that both player and team viewed a fresh start as the best approach. I haven’t seen the specifics of Hogan’s one-year deal in Carolina, but it was relayed to me that he received just a $300,000 signing bonus and has a chance to earn a maximum of $2 million, which stood out as extremely modest based on what his expectations were at this time last year.
7. Crystal ball into 2019 schedule. If the past holds true to form, the NFL should be releasing its 2019 schedule this week, which for many is one of the most anticipated days of the year because it means autumn and winter plans can be made for trips with friends and family. The NFL has already confirmed the Patriots will open at home on Sunday night, Sept. 8, and part of the fun is considering what opponent might fit best from a scheduling standpoint. My rankings:
Steelers: Lots of intrigue around the Steelers without Antonio Brown and Bell, and this game hasn’t been in prime time in recent years.
Cowboys: One would think this game would do big ratings later in the season, and is a big asset to Fox on one of its limited visits to Foxborough, so why waste it on opening night?
Browns: My former No. 1 choice, I bumped it down after the Odell Beckham Jr. trade, thinking the league wouldn’t want to waste it in a spot that figures to draw big ratings regardless.
Chiefs: A rematch of the AFC Championship Game seems to be too good of a matchup to put on opening night.
Bills: A team that seems to be on the upswing, but my question would be if there is enough national appeal to give them the Sunday prime-time opener.
Giants: It wouldn’t make much sense for the teams to meet in the fourth preseason game at Gillette Stadium, and then turn around a week or so later and play a game that counts in the same venue.
Dolphins: With Miami in transition, this falls into the rare category of not having enough appeal to be on the opening-week national television schedule.
8. Something else to put on the schedule this week. Finalists for the Patriots Hall of Fame are expected to be announced by the club. Defensive lineman Richard Seymour and linebacker Mike Vrabel were finalists last year, and it makes sense to think they’ll be there again. So the intrigue comes with the third and final spot, with safety Rodney Harrison my hunch for filling that place on the ballot.
9. From the set-your-clock department. Last year’s first round of the NFL draft lasted 3 hours, 25 minutes, which means if the pace stays true to form, the Patriots would be on the clock with the 32nd overall pick at about 11:15 p.m. ET on Thursday, April 25. That is, of course, if they don’t trade up with their NFL-high 12 overall selections as chips in hand.
10. Add a seventh-rounder for Patriots in 2020. The Patriots and Falcons tied up one loose end from last September by confirming that conditions were met in their September trade of safety Jordan Richards, which means the club will receive Atlanta’s 2020 seventh-round pick in the exchange. The conditions of the trade were tied to how many times Richards was on the 46-man game-day roster. Projected as a core special teams player, Richards ended up assuming a larger role than that, playing in 15 games overall, with 12 starts on defense. That heavier-than-expected workload was mostly a result of Keanu Neal suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 1. From a Patriots perspective, Richards appeared to be in jeopardy of not making the 2018 roster, so the ability to recoup an asset — albeit a modest one — was sound business.