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Chief Thoughts: Fun facts and random musings about the Patriots in early July

It’s the most boring part of the year.

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NFL: New England Patriots-Minicamp Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve never felt “offseason” was the appropriate term for this stretch of the year. There is no training camp, mini camp, or OTA. There are almost never roster moves of import. Practically everyone from players, to coaches, to reporters are taking advantage of doing anything not football related. This, my friends, is the heart of the no-season where essentially nothing of football consequence occurs.

But Patriot fandom never rests and the hunger for football remains ever present. I’ve tried to write two separate articles but they both felt flat and forced. Instead, I am going to just discuss some random facts and musings, nothing too substantive on its own, but hopefully something that will at give you something to think about as we float through the dark void of the no season. Let’s get started.

N’Keal Harry is probably the strongest wide receiver in the NFL

Let’s take a gander at Rob Gronkowski’s combine measurables:

Weight: 258

Height: 6’6

Bench Press: 23

Now let’s examine N’Keal Harry:

Weight: 228

Height: 6’2 3/8

Bench Press: 27

Your eyes don’t deceive you: Harry at 228 was stronger than Gronkowski at 258. Now, Gronk absolutely got stronger in the NFL and it would be surprising if Harry got meaningfully stronger than he is now because he is already so strong. Would it be better if Harry scored in the the 99th percentile of the 40 instead of the bench? Sure. But do not deceive yourself: strength matters for wide receivers. You don’t pay corners to tackle and you don’t pay wide receivers to block but that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful.

Think back to the blocks we’ve seen from guys like Troy Brown and Julian Edelman over the years that have sprung long touchdowns. Sure, Harry’s technique needs work and he certainly is never going to replace Gronk’s blocking power but developing him with his superior effort and strength could easily turn him into one of the best run-blocking receivers in the NFL.

What’s far more important is the role strength plays in press coverage. When discussing his experience covering the rookie, All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore singled out Harry for his response to press: “I pressed him one time, tried to put hands on him, he just threw them down. He’s really strong.”

The most effective coverage against the Patriots has generally been press-man. The Patriots always had an answer with Gronk. With Gronk “retired” the Patriots will need a new response. Harry’s absurd strength could help him be that response.

The Patriots will probably have the best RBBC in the NFL

The Patriots are reportedly very high on third-round pick Damien Harris and he can serve both as an effective change-of-pace-back alongside Sony Michel and as a short-yardage specialist. Michel had one of the most productive playoff stretches for a running back in NFL history and will still serve as the primary back. James White is the best scat back in the NFL. Rex Burkhead is the classic jack of all trades/master of none, a chess piece that be inserted to do whatever task is required from the goal line, to pass catching, to pass protection.

The Patriots do not have the one franchise back that can carry the rock 25+ times game after game, while continuing to average 4+ yards a carry and still serve as a lethal threat out of the backfield. They do have backs who can excel in any specific role whenever their number is called, however.

Offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn, meanwhile, is a better run blocker than pass protector and rookies generally excel at run blocking sooner than pass protection. A powerful passing game is essential to any NFL offense, which is why the Patriots will never be a run-first team with Tom Brady under center. But I expect that New England will continue to pound the rock aggressively and effectively in 2019.

Jamie Collins might be the best signing of the offseason

When I consider the best signing of the offseason my analysis is simple: how much does it cost you to produce in what role? I declared Trent Brown the best signing of the offseason last summer because he was on a rookie contract, I believe he would produce, and he played the second most important role in football. Collins looks like a similar steal on paper. He costs peanuts and plays as a unicorn linebacker, a linebacker that can cover, blitz and play the run tough. In theory, his role and cost should have skyrocketed him to the top of the list. The caveat was his production. How much would he actually produce?

I was fairly pessimistic about the Collins signing. On the one hand, the upside was enticing. Collins played his best football in this exact system and he plays a position that only a handful of teams in the NFL can boast possession of. Those are powerful arguments to support him becoming a major contributor this season. But the problem has never been physical. It has always been mental.

Collins wants to freelance and play video games. And you know what? There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Collins could retire today, be wildly wealthier than most of the people in the country, and have a Super Bowl ring to boot. But that mindset is not conducive to reaching peak potential. There is a reason Collins was signed for peanuts on a one-year deal: it’s not because he was setting the league on fire with the Browns.

Then there was Collins’ take on rejoining the Patriots. There was nothing wrong with his comments on rejoining the team, but they did not strike me as someone who was thrilled to be back. That stood out to me because on paper this should be a match made in heaven. The Patriots were the team that drafted Collins. They were the team that helped him reach a Pro Bowl and earn a massive contract. They were the team he earned his Super Bowl ring with. He would get to be reunited with Dont’a Hightower and Jerod Mayo. I wanted him to sound enthused and he did not.

Actions speak louder than words, though, and psychoanalyzing every sentence a human says in passing rarely goes well. Essentially, all of the reports regarding Collins since the start of OTAs and mini camp have been positive. Trusted sources like Jeff Howe’s have reported that the Patriots staff has been impressed by what hey have seen from Collins both on the field, and perhaps more importantly, inside the building.

Collins is the kind of player who can win you games if he plays to his potential. The best coverage linebackers in the NFL will still lose over 50% of the time but there is a big difference between winning 10% and winning 35%. Collins’ ability to shoot the A-gap will add another chess piece to Bill Belichick’s amoeba front. When you have a linebacker that can play the run, blitz, or drop into coverage on any given snap it creates significant flexibility for the defense.

Remember, before his shocking trade, the assumption by most was that Collins would get an extension over Hightower. I’m not saying Collins is going to make another Pro Bowl, but however faint the winds are, they seem to be blowing in the direction of Collins being a meaningful upgrade over Elandon Roberts.

Can Michael Bennett still carry a defensive line?

I still remember Sound FX where Dave DeGuglielmo told the Patriots offensive line they were doing great with everyone except Michael Bennett: in Super Bowl 49, Bennett could not be blocked. He was probably the best defender on the field that day — high praise for a Seahawks team that possessed multiple All-Pros on their defense. Bennett proved during his stint with the Eagles that his penchant for playoff performances was not a fluke.

He graded extremely well for PFF during his postseason run with the Eagles, noticeably better than he did during the regular season, and recorded multiple pressures and a sack. The most important reason Bennett wanted to leave Philadelphia was a pay raise: the Eagles had invested heavily in their defensive line with draft picks and cap space and did not have the money to give Bennett a raise if they wanted to hold unto Brandon Graham. The trade that sent him to New England made it clear which player they prioritized. This is all fairly well known.

The less talked about but still significant factor was that Bennett was unhappy with his usage. He wanted more snaps than the Eagles were willing to give him. This is not an indictment of the Eagles, who have boasted the best defensive line in football for two consecutive years — and managing the aging Bennett’s snaps was probably a prudent move. But whether or not it was smart was not terribly relevant to Bennett. He felt he had a lot more in the tank and he wanted to make the most of his remaining years.

Bennett is going to be given the opportunity to prove he is deserving of more snaps. I hope it doesn’t become a lesson in being careful what you wish for. The Patriots are solid, if unremarkable, at defensive tackle but the edge defender position leaves much to be desired. Bennett is the only player of substantive caliber on the roster. There is no other player on the roster who I think could find a starting position on another team based on their current pedigree. That’s not to say they cannot develop but for right now the edge defender position looks like the weakest on the Patriots defense.

Is Bennett enough to carry it? He’s a better pass rusher in his 30s than Trey Flowers has even been but he’s a downgrade in terms of setting the edge. I think Bennett is a good but not great player. This defense will still rely heavily on scheme in order to generate consistent pressure. I don’t expect the Patriots to rely on rushing four to consistently get the job done, at least, not unless another player besides Bennett takes a step up.

Will J.C. Jackson continue to fly?

In 2017, Marshon Lattimore set the NFL on fire and earned a first-team All-Pro nod as a rookie. His sophomore season was not nearly as successful: he started out slowly but ended the season playing well, albeit not at the elite level of the previous year. In many ways Lattimore reminded me significantly of Devin McCourty, who also earned an All-Pro nod his freshman year at corner only to disappoint the following season.

Will J.C. Jackson rise to the occasion like fellow undrafted rookie free agent Malcolm Butler who filled in admirably replaced Darrelle Revis in 2015 and turned in a Pro Bowl season in 2016? Or will he sink like so many other corners once opposing teams earn reliable tape? I don’t know why but I am erring toward improvement. My biggest concern is penalties: Jackson is a grabby corner and with the new review rules that might create some big problems. He will really need to refine his technique. Still, there is something fundamental to his physical style that I think will continue to translate at the pro level.

Brief questions

The Patriots scheme caught opposing offensive lines off guard and the previously anemic pass rush turned into a blitz-driven pressure machine. In some ways it reminds me of the Jets under Rex Ryan who benefited from a stout secondary and a clever scheme. I will be interested in how quickly the league figures the Patriots out. Was the 2018 performance a stroke of gimmick genius or a more fundamental marriage of scheme and talent? We will find out.

Have the Patriots cornered the least valuable market? Excluding fullback and special teams, I think most franchises would rank interior offensive linemen, linebackers and running backs as the least valuable all else being equal. The Patriots could easily have a top-five rushing attack, top-five interior offensive line and top-five linebacking corps. They have cornered the market on those positions most teams consider least valuable. It gets even worse when you do throw in fullback and special teams. The Patriots have a top-ten kicker, top-three fullback, and will likely end the year top-ten in special teams. Is this intentional? Or just a coincidence? I wouldn’t say the Patriots had a top-five linebacking corp before Collins was signed but now it’s at least feasible. I am sure some of it is purely coincidental but I would be remiss if I said I thought all of it was.

Who are the Patriots’ biggest foes on paper? Outside of the Chiefs there is no team that springs to mind as a lethal threat. The Browns and Chargers have mostly dominant rosters but are hamstrung by their offensive lines on paper. You can scheme around a weak defensive line, it’s more difficult to scheme around a weak O-line. The Colts, Texans and Ravens were all put away without much fuss during their post season entry last season. I know it’s too early to say squat but I wouldn’t be shocked if the Patriots and Chiefs are dueling for the number one playoff seed all season over again.

Where are people’s heads at on Harry? I’m thinking he turns in a 600-800 yard campaign with 4-6 touchdowns. I think if Josh Gordon does not come back, the Patriots will need him to produce more than that to make a serious championship run.

Who are people’s favorite draft picks? Mine are Chase Winovich, The Dane Hjalte Froholdt, and Harry.

I hope Winovich does not burn me the way Derek Rivers did, though.

I wonder when Brady’s new contract will get inked. That will tell us more about the future of the franchise than most things this summer.