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Sunday football notes

Patriots in good shape with draft preparation

Associated Press

New England Patriots first round draft choice Nate Solder, an offensive tackle out of Colorado, held up a jersey flanked by Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft, left, and Patriots president Jonathan Kraft during an NFL football news conference.

Since most teams’ seasons ended well before the Patriots’ did, others were able to send full staffs to college all-star games to get a jump on draft preparations.

Not to fear, the Patriots are on pace for the draft despite finishing their season Feb. 5.

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Director of player personnel Nick Caserio has extensive duties with the team during the season, so he wasn’t able to attend the college all-star games. But senior football adviser Floyd Reese, director of college scouting Jon Robinson, and assistant director of college scouting Brian Smith were on hand to get the needed work done.

“Everybody has certain responsibilities that they have to take care of,’’ Caserio said. “I have a lot of faith and confidence in those guys. Our staff really does a phenomenal job. I’m pretty fortunate to have the guys that we do.’’

Caserio, who often is in charge of scouting the upcoming opponent, was able to split his job during the season between pro and college responsibilities.

“I spend a fair amount of time on the road in the fall to see X amount of players,’’ he said. “The way technology works with the video, everything is online, so I was able to go back and watch all the East-West practices and all Senior Bowl practices so you can get a little more familiar. A lot of those players we’ve seen during the fall.’’

Caserio said the scouting staff was set to meet this past week to “have another run-through of other prospects’’ before heading to the scouting combine Feb. 22.

Caserio seemed fine with the Patriots’ current stock of picks: two in the first round (27th and 31st), two in the second, and one each in the third and fourth.

“We’ll see how it goes,’’ he said. “Where we’re picking, that pool of players is going to be a little bit different than maybe last year because we were sitting at 17. We could stay, we could move. A lot depends on how we feel about the players at those spots.’’

Caserio said this draft looks to be strong in certain areas.

“It looks like there are some pretty good front-seven players, which a lot of them were down in Mobile [Ala., at the Senior Bowl], a pretty fair amount,’’ Caserio said. “The receivers position, looks like there’s some pretty good players in that group. There are going to be good football players in every round, it’s just a matter of finding them.’’

Caserio agreed that the South cornerbacks at the Senior Bowl - namely Janoris Jenkins (North Alabama), Brandon Boykin (Georgia), and Dwight Bentley (Louisiana-Lafayette) - were impressive.

“Jenkins had a pretty good week,’’ Caserio said. “I know a lot of people have some questions on him’’ - Jenkins was kicked out of the University of Florida after two marijuana arrests - “but there’s no question, look, the guy was one of the better players in the SEC when he was there.

“It looked like Boykins had a pretty good week. Bentley had a good week. Not quite [the same as Asante Samuel] in size, they’re a little bit shorter, but they’re all athletic, real good quickness, real good ball skills.’’

TWO SIDES TO STORY

O’Brien deals with the past

One of the great things about the Super Bowl for those who cover the Patriots is that it allows access to many coaches that we normally don’t get to talk to.

That gave us an opportunity to be impressed by the likes of tight ends coach Brian Ferentz. He is extremely bright, and has the ability to talk about the sport simply and directly. You could see why his players play so well for him. They have to be extremely well-prepared.

It won’t be long before Ferentz is a head coach somewhere.

We also got to ask some of the coaches about things from their past.

Before landing as special teams coordinator for the Patriots, Scott O’Brien spent two seasons as Nick Saban’s coordinator of football operations with the Dolphins (2005-06). The mark O’Brien left on the franchise was less than flattering.

He was known throughout the training facility as Saban’s henchman. If somebody - a player, coach, or staffer - needed to be put back in line, it was O’Brien who did it.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel said O’Brien “was as popular inside team headquarters in his role as coordinator of football operations as Saban is now with Dolphins fans’’ at the time of Saban’s exit.

In published reports at the time, O’Brien was said to be brash to the point that he was once reprimanded for using obscene language with team staff.

Some believed that O’Brien was the one who told a team secretary not to speak to Saban again after complimenting the coach on his haircut, an incident that was widely reported.

Much of that seems out of line from what I have observed of O’Brien with the Patriots and heard from some of the people in the game who know him well.

At the Super Bowl, O’Brien seemed surprised to learn of his reputation.

“A bad guy? Really?’’ he said. “I don’t care. It is what it is. They can say what they want.

“It’s been that way my whole career. If you don’t talk to somebody, if the policy is not to talk to people, you don’t talk to them, then you’re the bad guy. You do what you’re supposed to do.

“I don’t care how people perceive me. I know who I am. I do what I do because I enjoy doing it. So they can say what they want.’’

Asked about dressing down staff members, O’Brien said, “That ain’t true, not one bit.’’

O’Brien also said that it wasn’t true that he was not allowed back at the facility after Saban quit.

“When Nick was leaving, I was leaving anyways,’’ he said.

O’Brien, who had been special teams coach for the Panthers from 1999-2004, said he was only going to work with Saban for two years as an administrator.

“At the time, I was making a switch for personal reasons - other reasons besides coaching - and there were options that came up at the time, and when Nick decided to get back into football, it was a fit for me,’’ O’Brien said.

“Obviously I had worked with Nick [on Bill Belichick’s Browns staff], I know what kind of coach he is, I know what kind of program he wants to run, but he had been out of pro football for so long and he wanted someone to come in with him to get him back acclimated to the rules.

“I committed to him for two years. If he was going to stay longer than that or whatever, I didn’t know, but that’s how long I was going to do it for. I took the heat when he left too, but it doesn’t matter to me.’’

O’Brien said he enjoyed the personnel responsibilities that came with his Miami job but that no one will ever know the truth about those two fateful years for that franchise.

“I love personnel,’’ he said. “I don’t like administrative stuff - that to me isn’t football. It’s a big part of football, but that’s not for me and I know that.

“But there’s a lot of things that happened there that if it got out would shed a lot of light on what really happened in Miami, but I’m not going to say it. I’m not going to do it.

“There’s stuff that we’ve done in our careers that will never be talked about. So it is what it is.’’

MISSED CONNECTION

System threw Ochocinco off

We all know the struggles that receiver Chad Ochocinco had in assimilating into the Patriots offense, and that puts his future with the team in doubt.

Receivers coach Chad O’Shea related some of the complexities with the offense that can make things difficult for a new receiver.

“At times, there are four decisions that a receiver needs to make after the snap the way our offense is,’’ O’Shea said. “That’s one of the advantages of our offense, that we give players a lot of flexibility within the system to take what the defense gives us. And that’s definitely something that’s unique about our offense.’’

Recognizing blitzes is something receivers have to do as well. They often have to break off their route if a defense sends extra players.

“It’s on everybody,’’ O’Shea said. “We always say we need to see everything through the same set of eyes. So receivers have responsibilities in blitz, we have responsibilities in our route conversions, and the most important thing is the quarterback and receiver have to be on the same page. That’s why it takes time.’’

Playing with a veteran quarterback like Tom Brady is also an issue.

“They have a quarterback that has played within the same system for a number of years, so he’s so advanced within the system and you have players trying to play within the same system,’’ O’Shea said.

“Tom’s level of advancement in the system is a difference to the new player because he moves fast and they need to move fast with him.’’

A POSITION ON MCCOURTY

Corner could be sharper

The way Patriots defensive backs coach Josh Boyer was talking at the Super Bowl, it sure sounded as though Devin McCourty will go back to cornerback full-time once offseason practices start.

Boyer said McCourty was switched to part-time safety because of issues other than his struggles at cornerback.

“I think the reason we put him at safety is we felt that’s what would be what’s best for our group and with what we were doing schematically,’’ Boyer said.

“Devin’s still out there as a corner. We can play him as a corner or a safety. We asked him to play man coverage, we asked him to play zone coverage, and it’s like anything else - there’s been some good and there’s been some bad.

“There were some plays that he didn’t make for us, and there were some plays that he did make.

“I would think if you look at the guys that made plays on the ball in man coverage, Devin’s probably made more plays than anybody we’ve had.

“Now, he’s had more balls thrown at him than some of the others, and the times that he hasn’t made plays, he’s probably been pretty close. Maybe it’s just a technique thing or finish thing here on the ball, or maybe it’s a better press or jam at the line of scrimmage. Little things which he’s working hard to improve on, he really is.

“I would say if anything, it’s been a plus for us this season to see that he has position flexibility, that he can play safety or a corner for us.’’

Look for the Patriots to work hard on those minor technique issues, which were a problem throughout the season.

THE BONUS ROUND

Teams have a pair in hand

Giants general manager Jerry Reese was happy to point out that his team will be getting a bonus next season because its two highest draft picks, cornerback Prince Amukamara (first round) and defensive tackle Marvin Austin (second), barely played this season.

“Obviously we’re going to be picking low in the draft this time, so Prince really will be a bonus for us coming back because he hasn’t played a lot,’’ Reese said. “And Marvin hasn’t played at all. Our first two picks, we feel like we’re getting a bonus with our first two picks last year.’’

The Patriots are in the same boat.

Cornerback Ras-I Dowling, the first pick of the second round, appeared in only two games before having season-ending hip surgery. Running back Shane Vereen, who was picked later in the second round, appeared in just five games and had 15 carries while battling hamstring injuries.

So the Patriots, too, will be getting two high picks back in the fold.

Vereen can’t wait.

“It’s definitely had its peaks and valleys,’’ Vereen said of his rookie season. “Throughout it all, I’ve been able to learn a lot. I’ve been able to experience things that were important for me to experience, and learn what I needed to learn to move forward.

“It’s definitely not how I envisioned it, not how I wanted it to go, but you have to play the cards you’re dealt. I will turn it into a positive.’’

Vereen, who had to endure the lockout and then a delay in signing his contract, said he is completely healthy now. Asked if he could have done anything to prevent the hamstring injuries, he wasn’t sure.

“Throughout the whole lockout I was [working out] like everyone was,’’ he said, “but just coming in, sometimes you can’t really prevent it - it just happens.’’

ETC.

Bon voyage to a class act

Best of luck to outgoing Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien as he takes the reins at Penn State.

The Andover native was nothing but class in his time with the Patriots. Being the offensive coordinator for Tom Brady is not easy. Both Brady and Bill Belichick have the hardware, so when things go wrong, fingers will quickly point to the other guy. O’Brien did a much better job than some give him credit for.

During Super Bowl week, O’Brien talked about what a challenge Brady is for a young coach. And it’s part of what makes Brady great.

“Most challenging guy I’ve ever coached, obviously,’’ O’Brien said. “As a coach, you have to be ultra-prepared to coach him every single day.

“The thing that, in my opinion, stands out is he is all about football and family. When it’s football season, it is 24/7 football.

“We have, even when he’s not in the building, e-mail contact, telephone conversations about the game plan, about what we’re seeing, the defense that we’re playing against.’’

One interesting note from the week: O’Brien said Belichick assigned him a few administrative people to help with e-mails and phone calls to assist O’Brien in his dual duties with the Patriots and Penn State.

Nickel package

1. Yes, I defended Wes Welker last week, but it wasn’t because I thought Tom Brady was more to blame because of the pass he threw. It was because the oft-used line to explain why Welker should have caught the pass - “It’s a pass he catches all the time’’ - is patently untrue. Welker threw fuel on the fire with his comments after the game, but he was just being a good teammate. Scott Kacsmar of coldhardfootballfacts.com put my research on Welker to shame: He found that of Welker’s 554 receptions since 2007, just 11 (1.99 percent) were thrown 20 yards or more in the air. And one was from Matt Cassel.

2. One rule change that has to come out of the Super Bowl has to do with too many men on the field. The Patriots lost eight seconds when the Giants did that. What’s to stop a team from putting 14 on the field every single play with less than 30 seconds left?

3. It may not have been how I would deal with a season-ending loss, but I think the criticism of Rob Gronkowski, Matt Light, and others is just wrong. They gave it their all for an entire season and it was over. Who cares how somebody blows off steam?

4. As opposed to last year in Dallas, the Super Bowl in Indianapolis seemed to be a fantastic experience for most everyone. The one minor complaint I had was that there were not enough police to deal with the crowds downtown on the weekend. There was some trouble Friday night.

5. Thanks to everyone for their kind words of encouragement both during and after the season. I haven’t had a chance to respond to all of them, but they mean a lot. I’d say I can’t wait for next season, but that would be a lie. I think we all need to catch our breath a little bit. It was a fun ride.

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