The offseason came a couple of weeks earlier than anticipated for New England football fans after the Patriots’ loss to the Broncos last Sunday.
But the football calendar barely sleeps, with preparations for 2016 already under way and some important decisions coming up quickly for the Patriots and the other 31 NFL teams.
Let’s take a look at the important dates for the NFL offseason, and how they affect the Patriots:
■ Teams are already knee-deep in draft preparations, scouting the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl the last two weeks. Teams have also been able to trigger the fifth-year option on their 2013 first-round picks since Jan. 4, and have until May 3 to do so (the Patriots did not have a first-round pick in 2013).
■ Feb. 8 is the first day teams can cut players (think Johnny Manziel) and the day the waiver system begins. Teams can start signing CFL players with expired contracts on Feb. 9.
■ The period to designate franchise tags and transition tags is Feb. 16-March 1. Seven teams used the franchise tag in 2015, including the Patriots (Stephen Gostkowski), but there is a zero percent chance the Patriots will use it on any of their 10 unrestricted free agents this year: running backs LeGarrette Blount and Steven Jackson, linebackers Dane Fletcher and Dekoda Watson, wide receiver Brandon Gibson, offensive lineman Ryan Wendell, defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, and defensive backs Tarell Brown, Nate Ebner, and Tavon Wilson.
■ The NFL Combine is back in Indianapolis from Feb. 23-29, where the athletes perform the 40-yard dash, three-cone drill, and other performance tests, but most importantly get checked out by each team’s doctors.
■ Deflategate! That’s right, the Story That Just Won’t Die rears its ugly head March 3 when the NFL and NFL Players Association appear in federal appellate court for the league’s appeal of Judge Richard Berman’s ruling in favor of the NFLPA and Tom Brady in September. Oral arguments will only last about 15 minutes for each side (both parties have already submitted lengthy briefs outlining their positions), and a panel of three judges will then take up to several months to render a decision. A vote of two judges is required for either side to win, and if the NFL wins its appeal, Brady could be looking at a four-game suspension to start the 2016 season.
■ The “legal tampering” period for NFL free agency lasts from March 7-9. Impending free agents can negotiate with other teams, but cannot sign a contract until March 9. But they can re-sign with their current team at any time, including now.
■ The NFL calendar officially flips to 2016 on March 9 at 4 p.m. At this point, free agents can sign with any team, players can be traded, and each team has to be compliant with the new salary cap. Teams have 90 players on the roster in the offseason, but only the top 51 contracts count against the salary cap. Early projections from the NFL Management Council have estimated the 2016 salary cap at $154 million (plus whatever unused cap space each team rolls over from 2015), but based on previous years the cap could reach $160 million or even higher.
■ The Patriots have 10 unrestricted free agents. Ebner is a core special teamer and the likeliest to return. Blount may return if he’s willing to take a near-minimum contract. Hicks played well for the Patriots after being acquired in a trade, but would likely net the Patriots a compensatory draft pick if he signs with another team.
■ The Patriots have four restricted free agents: fullback James Develin, defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, receiver Brian Tyms, and offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle. Considering that last year’s lowest RFA tender was $1.542 million, Develin seems to be the only candidate to receive an offer from the Patriots, and even then, $1.542 million is likely more than the Patriots want to pay for a fullback. If players do not receive an RFA tender, they are free to sign with any team, including the Patriots, for a lesser amount.
■ Around the league, there are several intriguing free agents, although many will be given the franchise tag or re-sign with their current team before hitting the market. The Patriots will need to retool/supplement their wide receiver, tight end, interior offensive line, and defensive line positions. The biggest names currently set to hit free agency:
QB Sam Bradford, QB Kirk Cousins, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB Brock Osweiler, RB Doug Martin, RB Lamar Miller, RB Alfred Morris, WR Travis Benjamin, WR Alshon Jeffery, WR Marvin Jones, WR Mohamed Sanu, TE Coby Fleener, TE Antonio Gates, LT Russell Okung, LT Donald Penn, RT Andre Smith, DE Junior Galette, DE Greg Hardy, DE Jason Pierre-Paul, DE Olivier Vernon, DE Muhammad Wilkerson, LB Von Miller, CB Janoris Jenkins, CB Josh Norman, S Eric Berry, S Eric Weddle.
■ The Patriots have 63 players under contract for 2016, and have more than $148 million committed to their top 51 players, but salary cap space will not be an issue, as they will release or restructure several players before March 9.
■ The first order of business is tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is owed the remaining $6 million of his $10 million option bonus that is due “prior to the last day of the 2015 league year,” or before March 8. The Patriots paid him $4 million before last season, and once the balance is paid it will trigger what essentially is a four-year, $34 million contract extension for Gronk (including the $10 million bonus).
■ The second order of business is making a tough decision on Jerod Mayo, which most likely will result in the Patriots cutting their defensive captain and 2008 first-round pick. Mayo is due a $4 million roster bonus March 9, which the Patriots certainly won’t trigger given Mayo’s declining skills and injury history. Mayo is due to have the second-highest cap number on the team ($11.4 million) and the Patriots can create $7 million in cap space by declining his option and setting him free.
■ Other players who are in trouble this spring: Danny Amendola ($4.07 million in cap savings), Sebastian Vollmer ($4.125 million), Marcus Cannon ($2.675 million), Brandon LaFell ($2.675 million), and Scott Chandler ($2.05 million), among others.
■ The Patriots can also create cap space with contract extensions for current players. Jabaal Sheard is a player the Patriots want to keep for the future, and his $6.812 million cap number can be lowered. Dont’a Hightower will make $7.751 million on the fifth-year option, and is a prime extension candidate. Jamie Collins and Malcolm Butler are prime extension candidates, as well, so the Patriots can lock them up at a discount. But since they are on team-friendly rookie deals, any contract extension would likely increase their cap number.
Chandler Jones is due to make $7.799 million on his fifth-year option, but is likelier to get cut, traded, or remain on his one-year deal instead of receiving a big-money extension from the Patriots.
■ There are two sets of owners meetings this spring. From March 20-23 in Boca Raton, Fla., the owners and Competition Committee will vote on new rules for the 2016 season. And from May 23-25 in Charlotte, N.C., NFL owners will vote on the sites for Super Bowls 53 and 54 (2019 and 2020). The candidates are Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, Tampa, and Los Angeles (2020 only).
■ Teams with first-year head coaches can begin their offseason program April 4, and teams with returning coaches can begin April 18. Offseason workouts are strictly defined for the type of contact and type of drills that are allowed, and last nine or 10 weeks.
■ The NFL Draft is April 28-30 in Chicago. The Rookie Symposium is June 19-25 in Aurora, Ohio. The deadline for franchise-tag players to sign long-term extensions is July 15, and training camps will open around July 28.
Departures about opportunities
The Patriots have had more than their share of coaching/front office turnover. While the perception is that the Patriots are cleaning house after a disappointing end of the season, from what I’m told, the departures are more a reflection of coaches reaching their ceiling inside the Patriots’ organization and having better growth opportunities elsewhere.
That certainly applies to Bob Quinn, who was named the Lions’ general manager after working his way up the Patriots’ food chain for 16 years. On Friday, Quinn hired Kevin Anderson, who spent the last 10 years in the Patriots’ operations department and five as the team’s director of player development. Anderson will serve as Quinn’s “chief of staff,” a position that has been held for 16 years in New England by Berj Najarian.
Also Friday, Quinn and the Lions hired Harold Nash, who had been the Patriots’ head strength and conditioning coach the last five years and had been with the Patriots since 2005, to the same position. Quinn, of course, had Bill Belichick’s blessing to hire Anderson and Nash.
The Patriots feel confident that assistant strength coach Moses Cabrera is ready for the full-time job. I’m told that Nash’s contract was not renewed with the expectation that he would land a head job.
The departure of offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo is not too surprising, as I’m told he was viewed as more of a short-term solution at the position when he signed a two-year deal before 2014. DeGuglielmo had a feeling that his time in New England was short, and had a job with the Chargers lined up within days of leaving Foxborough.
The departure of linebackers coach Patrick Graham is a bit more surprising, but after seven years in New England, and with Matt Patricia firmly entrenched as the defensive coordinator, Graham will likely achieve further professional advancement with another team. He remains close with Patricia but will be joining the Giants as a defensive line coach.
The Patriots also lost their lead physician when medical director Dr. Matthew Provencher resigned as the chief of sports medicine service at Massachusetts General Hospital (and with it his automatic appointment with the Patriots).
Provencher accepted a position as an orthopedic surgeon at the renowned Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colo., and I’m told his departure was mostly about spending more time with his family, and of course a pay raise. In fact, we hear that Provencher will be accompanying the Patriots to the Combine next month.
Browns are now Crimson-tinted
The Browns have gone 14-34 in Jimmy Haslam’s three full years of ownership, but Haslam hasn’t been afraid to think outside the box this offseason to retool his football operation.
The top three executives on the football side all have Harvard degrees: executive VP of football operations Sashi Brown, chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta (of “Moneyball” fame), and VP of player personnel Andrew Berry, a three-time All-Ivy cornerback for the Crimson who at 28 is now in charge of an NFL front office.
The Browns are clearly taking a more analytical approach to the draft, free agency, and on-field decisions, and hired former Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson as their head coach to put the plan into action on the field.
All the brainpower in the world won’t help the Browns win games if they can’t find a quarterback. But at least Haslam and the Browns are searching for answers and aren’t afraid to try something new.
The hirings also produced perhaps the pettiest criticism from NFL insiders we’ve ever heard. A number of “highly respected personnel men” bashed the Browns’ hiring to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer because the Browns made unconventional hires and didn’t stay within traditional NFL circles.
“They should be ashamed of themselves,” one unnamed executive told the Plain-Dealer.
Yes, how dare the Browns take a different approach instead of picking someone from the Old Boys’ Club.
Yes, the Pro Bowl officially is a joke. The game is boring, and no one wants to play — a record 45 players declined to attend this year, including all seven Patriots named to the roster. But what can be done? Many people float the idea of a Skills Competition or 7-on-7 competition, but do we really want NFL players risking injury by running the 40-yard dash or doing 1-on-1 receiver/cornerback drills?
😳 @OBJ_3 #ProBowl https://t.co/qRThn1R7Fa— NFL (@NFL) January 30, 2016
And as bad as the game is, the Pro Bowl still drew 8.77 million viewers last year, making it the highest-rated show on cable that week. The owners will only get rid of the Pro Bowl if they can find something else to replace the TV ratings and revenue it generates, and right now there is no good answer . . . Not having an agent can potentially save Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung several hundred thousand dollars on a new contract, but certainly gives him more work to do. Last week, Okung e-mailed all 32 NFL teams to inform them that he was undergoing shoulder surgery and would be ready to play in five months. Okung has to tread carefully, as he is still under contract to the Seahawks until March 9 and needs to adhere to NFL anti-tampering rules until then . . . Looked like another cold, rainy week in Mobile, Ala., last week for the Senior Bowl. Don’t think too many people would mind if this event moved to Orlando or Phoenix . . . Anyone buying the Raiders-to-Las-Vegas threat? Nope, us neither . . . Good to hear 49ers CEO Jed York say last week that Colin Kaepernick gets a “fresh start” in 2016 and that the 49ers are looking forward to getting Kaepernick back from shoulder and knee injuries and letting him compete for the quarterback job. Kaepernick’s fall-off in 2015 was due as much to poor coaching as it was his own performance, and a quarterback with dual-threat skills such as Kaepernick is an intriguing choice to run Chip Kelly’s offense next season . . . Teams that have swept the Patriots in a regular-season/postseason rematch in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era: 2005 Broncos, 2006 Colts, 2011 Giants, 2012 Ravens, and 2015 Broncos.
When Cam Newton takes the field for Super Bowl 50, the quarterback will attempt to become the 12th player to be on a Super Bowl winner’s roster and win a Heisman. Here’s a rundown of how the double winners fared in the big game:
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.