NFL teams have spent months grading prospects and formulating their draft boards, and the process is almost complete.
The Senior Bowl and Combine have come and gone, almost every college has held its Pro Day, and only one last piece of the equation remains — the official pre-draft visits, which will dominate NFL conversation over the next two-plus weeks leading up to the draft on April 30.
General managers, coaches, and scouts have spent months speaking with players on campus and at the Combine, but those meetings were in a “speed dating” setting. The last step of the pre-draft process, the official visits to team headquarters, allows teams to get to know the prospects on a deeper level, and on their terms.
“At the very least, it’s an important get-to-know-you session,” one AFC executive said. “And it helps you find out, is this a player that is an overall fit for your team as it relates to every aspect? You can get a lot answered.”
The NFL has strict rules for these visits. Each team can bring no more than 30 players to its facility, and no on-field testing or timing is allowed, only blackboard work or written tests.
The visit lasts one day, with the team covering all travel expenses and the player usually meeting with the head coach, GM, coordinator, position coach, strength coach, and owner if he’s a potential franchise player. A medical check can also be a part of the interview, although many players get most of the medical component done at the Combine (and the Combine medical re-check, taking place later this month).
“You get some remaining medical questions answered, or maybe something with character,” the executive explained. “You look at his time spent in the classroom or with your coaches and staff, and maybe get a clearer conviction on his ability to learn football. Or maybe you’ve got a good feel of the player from his tape, but you need that final piece to clear up in the interview process to have better conviction about where you want to put him on your board.”
Sometimes, the visit can be an intense X’s and O’s test, particularly with quarterbacks. I remember last year, Jimmy Garoppolo’s parents told me that the Patriots worked him so hard in his visit that he didn’t have time for lunch.
“I remember him saying that there was a lot more playbook stuff than any other team,” said Tony Garoppolo. “Josh McDaniels went through hours of an interview with him, with the playbook, when other teams were just basic.”
And sometimes the visit is purely an opportunity to get to know everything about the prospect outside of football. Often the teams will send a low-level staffer to pick up the player from the airport, and the staffer will report everything back to the GM and coach — how the player treated the staffer, whether he slept on the drive or was obviously hungover, whether he was engaging or buried in his cellphone the entire time, and so on.
The better the player, the more attention is paid to his off-field acumen. The GM and coach will usually take a top prospect out to dinner or on a tour of the city.
“When Eric Weddle visited the Chargers, the coach brought him in and said, ‘I don’t need to know anything about you, we’re going to go to lunch and go to the beach,’ ” said his agent, David Canter. “I already know about you on the field, I know about your character, let’s go to the beach and talk about family. Then they traded up for him.”
The trap, of course, is putting too much stock in pre-draft visits. Sometimes a visit indicates genuine interest — last year, the Patriots had both Garoppolo and first-rounder Dominique Easley in for visits. Jerod Mayo came to Foxborough for a visit in 2008, former defensive tackle Armond Armstead visited in 2012, and receiver Josh Boyce visited in 2013.
But there are many ways to get a look at a prospect, and an official visit is only one. The Patriots obviously speak with almost every prospect at the Combine and their Pro Days, and are free to do on-field workouts on campus up until a few days before the draft. They also might avoid bringing a player in for an official visit so as not to tip off their interest to the other 31 teams.
In 2011, Nate Solder had his Foxborough visit canceled at the last minute, but Dante Scarnecchia worked him out at Colorado four days before the draft. Bill Belichick worked out Jamie Collins on campus in 2013 but didn’t bring him for a visit. Dont’a Hightower met with the Patriots at the Combine and at his Pro Day, Devin McCourty watched film with Belichick when the coach was at Rutgers for a coaching clinic, and Chandler Jones had very little contact with the Patriots, other than at the Combine.
Each year the Patriots thoroughly check out certain position groups, though it doesn’t always mean they will draft that position. Last year, for example, they brought in four quarterbacks and six defensive linemen for official visits (taking Easley and Garoppolo), but also brought in five tight ends, a position they avoided in the draft.
There’s a little gamesmanship involved in the official visit process, but a team usually isn’t going to take the time to spend a day with a prospect if it isn’t serious about the player.
“Maybe at the top of the first round there could be some deception, but time is valuable,” the executive said. “You’re being proactive, and you need to be prepared in case a guy gets to you in the draft. You can’t have any questions left.”
NO ONE-HIT WONDER
Jones, Ninkovich believe in Butler
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich held Q&A and autograph sessions for about 150 Patriots fans on Wednesday at the team’s Hall of Fame, and one fan posed a question saying he was nervous about how the team would replace departed cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner.
“I’m not,” Jones replied. “I’m actually very excited about what this means for Malcolm Butler. I know you guys hadn’t heard of him until the Super Bowl, but we had seen him in practice every day. I’m not trying to tell the future, but I’m excited about Malcolm Butler.”
The Patriots haven’t publicly identified their starting cornerbacks (of course), and they just might go with the committee approach this year. While they don’t have any clear-cut stars, they have a large group of decent depth players, including Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard, Butler, and newcomers Robert McClain and Bradley Fletcher.
None of those players can necessarily “replace” an elite player such as Revis, but Jones and Ninkovich certainly believe that Butler, who played 17 percent of the snaps last season and earned the nickname “Scrap” from teammates, has a great opportunity to win one of the jobs and be a lot more than a one-hit wonder.
“As a veteran group of guys, you don’t make a nickname for a kid unless you see something you really haven’t seen before, and Malcolm was one of those kids,” Ninkovich said. “He’s got special gifts as far as his movements and explosiveness. Not many people could have made that play that he made in the Super Bowl. Even the play that was caught on the 5, you can’t run with somebody, jump in the air, and tip the ball. That’s a very hard play to make that play.”
Indeed, Butler showed an impressive ability to stay with his receiver and get his hand on the football last year. Butler broke up six passes in 33 targets as a rookie (18.2 percent), by far the best rate on the team (and, of course, he could have had another if not for the circus catch in the Super Bowl). Revis broke up 14.1 percent of his targets, Ryan 11.3 percent, Browner 11.1 percent, Arrington 5.3 percent, and Dennard 4.5 percent. Fletcher broke up 15.7 percent of his 115 targets last year, while McClain was a dismal 1.4 percent (1 out of 70).
Numerous teams carrying quite a load
The salary cap is a good way to compare and contrast the 32 NFL front offices, since every team is working with the same resources and restraints. This week, we wanted to take a look at which teams are carrying the most and least “dead money” for 2015 — salary cap commitments to players no longer on the team.
Dead money occurs when a team releases or trades a player before his contract expires, but only if the player received a signing bonus with his contract. If a player receives a $3 million signing bonus on a three-year deal and then is cut after the first year, the team has to take a $2 million salary cap hit in the second year (but nothing in the third year).
The average team is carrying $9.4 million in dead money for 2015. The Patriots have the ninth-highest amount (approximately $10.6 million), most of which is sunk into two players — Darrelle Revis ($5 million) and Logan Mankins ($4 million). Vince Wilfork counts $866,667, and Armond Armstead counts $143,222 for an injury settlement he recently received after retiring in 2014 because of a heart condition.
The team with the most dead money is the Dolphins, carrying almost $22.3 million. New football boss Mike Tannenbaum has been shedding all of the bad contracts from the previous GM (Dannell Ellerbe $7.8 million, Mike Wallace $6.6 million, Brian Hartline $4.2 million). However, this massive amount of dead money still didn’t prevent the Dolphins from making the biggest splash in free agency, $59 million guaranteed for Ndamukong Suh.
The other top dead money spenders are the Saints ($21.7 million), Buccaneers ($21.1 million), Ravens ($20.9 million), and Chiefs ($19.97 million), all of whom are paying for bad free agent contracts of the past.
The five teams with the least amount of dead money: Bengals ($783,000), Broncos ($939 million), Browns ($1.5 million), Jaguars ($1.8 million), and Jets ($3.1 million).
And the top individual dead-money hits: Suh $9.7375 million (Lions), Ray Rice $9.5 million (Ravens), Jimmy Graham $9 million (Saints), Dwayne Bowe $8.894 million (Chiefs), and LaMarr Woodley $8.58 million (Steelers).
Consider it a job well done by Polamalu
Best of luck to Troy Polamalu, who announced his retirement Thursday night after 12 NFL seasons. Polamalu’s freelancing style finally caught up to him when his legs slowed down at the end of his career, and Tom Brady never seemed to have too much trouble against the Steelers — he has a 17:3 touchdown to interception ratio and has averaged 318 passing yards in seven games — but for the rest of the league Polamalu was a terror.
Polamalu made eight Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams, won two Super Bowls, and was named to the 2000s all-decade team. And what he lacked in X’s and O’s discipline he more than made up for in instincts and athleticism, much like his equal, Ed Reed.
There’s little doubt that Polamalu has a spot in Canton waiting for him (can’t wait to see the hair on his bust). The only question is whether he gets in on the first ballot.
He’s officially made it
Sarah Thomas earned the national attention when she was announced on Wednesday as one of nine new officials for this fall. But there is a local guy in the group, too — Pittsfield’s Kevin Codey, a middle school physical education teacher who earned the position after shooting through the NFL’s developmental program. A graduate of Western New England University, Codey has worked his way up the officiating ladder in 23 years, from JV high school football to Division 3 to the Big East and the American Athletic Conference, and now to the NFL, where he will be a line judge assigned to a full-time crew this fall.
Date change should help veterans
It didn’t seem like a big deal last month when the NFL announced a date change from June 1 to May 12 for free agent signings not to count against the compensatory draft pick equation. But the earlier date should help veterans sign with a team and participate in an offseason program, as opposed to having to miss most of the spring and play catch-up during training camp. That said, expect free agent signings to be slow from now until May 12.
A few teams are starting to announce fifth-year options being exercised on their 2012 draft picks, even though the deadline isn’t until May 3 (the Colts did it last week with Andrew Luck, as did the Steelers with David DeCastro). The Patriots almost certainly will exercise the options on their two players, Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower, although probably not much before May 3 (there’s a possibility they could strike a long-term deal with either player before then). Jones’s number will be $7.799 million (assuming he’s listed as a defensive end and not an outside linebacker), while Hightower’s will be $7.751 million. The fifth-year options are guaranteed for injury only until becoming fully guaranteed on the first day of the 2016 league year (next March) . . . Yes, the NFL prefers to pit the opening Thursday kickoff game against two teams from the same conference. But the guess here is the league will choose Patriots-Eagles for that opening game — you’ve got two powerhouse franchises and Chip Kelly is the biggest story of the offseason — and there is precedent for an interconference game, with the Colts beating the Saints in the 2007 kickoff game . . . Among the dozens of prospects working out for the Dolphins last week at their local Pro Day: Florida International safety Justin Halley, an aspiring model who has walked runways in Paris and Milan and been on the cover of Vogue in Japan . . . The best news of the week came from Evan Berry, younger brother of Eric Berry, the Chiefs safety who is dealing with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “He’s doing really good,” Evan Berry, a sophomore defensive back at the University of Tennessee, told reporters. “I think he has three more treatments left. To be honest, I don’t really see it affecting him. He’s a very strong person.”