Late May tends to be a slow time on the NFL calendar, but there were still plenty of Patriots-related news items in the last week.
Let’s take a look at the most interesting developments:
■ The Patriots adjust Rob Gronkowski’s contract. This was by far the most fascinating news of the week, because the Patriots were under no compulsion to do so.
Gronkowski is under contract for three more years, at a bargain-basement rate of $5 million this year. He’s coming off his third back surgery and had little to no leverage.
Yet the Patriots gave Gronkowski a hefty incentive package for this year — a chance to make an extra $5.5 million, $3 million, or $1 million if he hits certain performance markers. Everything else in his current contract remains the same.
This was about one thing: keeping Gronkowski happy. We advocated for this last year, and are surprised that the Patriots decided to do it this offseason when the star tight end is coming off another injury.
But it’s smart business to keep Gronkowski happy and motivated, and shows how much the Patriots respect Gronkowski and believe he can return to form despite chronic back problems.
The incentives also have the potential to create an interesting conflict for Gronkowski and the Patriots. The incentives are based largely on playing time. He can earn the full $5.5 million simply by playing in 90 percent of snaps in the regular season, $3 million for 80 percent, and $1 million for 70 percent. He also can earn the incentives based on production, needing at least 60 catches, 800 yards, or 10 touchdowns to earn the $1 million incentive. And for Gronkowski to reach the higher benchmarks, he obviously has to be on the field.
In past years, the Patriots have monitored his usage to make sure that he’s healthy, rested, and refreshed for the playoffs. Here are his year-by-year snap percentages (* — played at least 15 games): *2010 — 75.4 percent; *2011 — 96.3; 2012 — 59.2; 2013 — 32.1; *2014 — 73.0; *2015 — 84.1; 2016 — 31.5.
Now these incentives give Gronkowski every reason to push himself throughout the entire regular season, and could result in the oft-injured tight end not being 100 percent himself for the postseason.
■ Robert Kraft plays a major role in bringing the Raiders to Las Vegas. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has been viewed as the linchpin of the deal, but speaking at the owners meetings in Chicago, Raiders owner Mark Davis also singled out Kraft as instrumental in making the move happen.
Jones “and Bob Kraft were the two most vocal in the beginning to help give it a lot of credibility and I’ll always be grateful to them for that,” Davis said. “And they’re still pledging help for me, which means a lot.”
A Raiders source said Kraft has been a vocal proponent of the move from the beginning, and that his 24 years of navigating NFL politics helped make it happen. “He knows how this works,” the source said. “He was a trusted voice throughout.”
■ Malcolm Butler’s interception still haunts the Seahawks. ESPN The Magazine produced a fascinating look into the discord inside the Seahawks’ locker room, much of which stems from the stunning loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX. Not only is Richard Sherman still bitter about the decision to throw a pass instead of run the ball near the goal line, but it has created friction between offense and defense, coaches and defense, and Sherman and quarterback Russell Wilson, in particular.
The detail we found most interesting was the nugget that coach Pete Carroll refuses to call out Wilson for mistakes in team meetings, creating the appearance of a double standard for Sherman and many of the defensive players, who want to see their coach get tough with the star player.
“Guys want Pete to call out Russ in front of the team. That’s not what Pete does,” former Seahawks running backs coach Sherman Smith said.
Contrast that to how Bill Belichick treats his star quarterback. Belichick is legendary for calling out Tom Brady in front of his teammates and making an example of him.
“First day, team meeting. Everyone’s coming in and Belichick puts on the loss to the Jets in the playoffs where they went home early,” Chad Johnson said last October.
“He’s at Tom’s head, and I’m like, ‘Is this a joke? Are we being punked?’ He laid his you-know-what out . . . That set the tone for me right there. I was walking on egg shells from that point on.”
■ Vince Wilfork isn’t ready to retire just yet. The 35-year-old defensive tackle is a free agent and hasn’t received any interest this offseason. We spoke with him by telephone on Thursday from Hawaii, where he’s enjoying palm trees and coconuts, while also embarking on a commercial campaign for Kingsford charcoal.
But Wilfork isn’t completely ready to hang up his cleats after 13 NFL seasons — 11 with the Patriots and the last two with the Texans.
“I’m taking my time with it, because when I make a decision I want to be 100 percent confident in my decision,” Wilfork said. “There’s no rush. I’m just sitting back, enjoying my time right now, just kicking it.”
■ The Patriots give $415,500 in guaranteed money to 18 undrafted rookies. That amount represents a drop in the bucket but still is a significant amount of guaranteed money to be handing out to undrafted free agents.
Linebacker Harvey Langi got the most guaranteed money of any undrafted rookie in the NFL ($115,000), while tight end Jacob Hollister received $90,000 guaranteed. (His twin brother, receiver Cody Hollister, only received $20,000 from the Patriots.) Those players aren’t guaranteed roster spots, but the high guarantee shows how much the Patriots value them, and likely grants them a spot on the practice squad at worst. Cornerback D.J. Killings ($31,000) and receiver Austin Carr ($30,000) were the only other rookies to get at least $30,000 from the Patriots.
Rookies who make the Patriots will earn $27,353 for each week they are on the 53-man roster (a $465,000 salary for the season), or $7,200 for each week they are on the practice squad.
Little mystery to rookie deals
Speaking of rookies, 176 of 253 draftees (69.6 percent) had signed their first NFL contracts as of Friday morning, including 17 of 32 first-round picks. The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement in 2011 slotted rookie contracts based on their draft pick, greatly reducing the chances of a rookie holdout.
No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett signed a four-year deal with the Browns worth $30,412,254 fully guaranteed, including a signing bonus of $20,258,004. His contract is a healthy 8.9 percent greater than the deal signed by last year’s No. 1 pick, Jared Goff, who received $27,937,672 in his four-year deal. Cowboys defensive end Taco Charlton, this year’s 28th overall pick, signed a four-year deal worth $10,028,638, about 7.7 percent more than last year’s 28th pick, 49ers guard Joshua Garnett.
But while rookie salaries are increasing nicely, the players have clearly lost the battle over “offset language,” one of the few terms of the contracts that is still negotiable. Offset language allows a team to recoup salary from players if they are released and sign with another team. For example, if a player who has $1 million guaranteed with offset language is released and signs with another team for $600,000, the original team only has to pay the $400,000 balance.
Offset language is only an issue for first-round picks, who have three or four years of guaranteed money in their contracts. And so far, of the 17 first-rounders who have signed, only Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette, the No. 4 pick, has been able to avoid offset language in his contract.
Lewis objecting at wrong time
The NFL’s decision last week to loosen its grip on player celebrations for the 2017 season was met with near-universal praise — except from at least one member of the competition committee.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis expressed dismay on Tuesday at Roger Goodell’s decision to allow players a little more leeway with celebrations.
“I’m not for that at all,” Lewis told Cincinnati reporters. “We had a good standard, and the whole standard has always been, you want to teach people how to play the game the correct way and go about it the correct way, and that’s not a very good example for young people.”
Mind you, this is the coach who just used a second-round pick on running back Joe Mixon, who was caught on video punching a woman in the face, breaking three of her bones and her nose. Lewis also provided an opportunity for cornerback Adam Jones after he had several arrests and run-ins with police, include a shooting in a strip club. Lewis gave multiple chances to receiver Chris Henry, who had legal issues with guns, drugs, women, and DUI, and is now deceased. Lewis drafted A.J. Nicholson in 2006, despite the linebacker being accused of sexual assault four months earlier.
“I don’t know who isn’t disgusted at what they saw, but that’s one day in the young man’s life,” Lewis said in excusing Mixon’s behavior. “He’s had to live that since then. He will continue to have to live that. And he gets an opportunity to move forward and write a script from there on.”
But players doing a little dance with teammates after a touchdown? Or shooting the football like a jump shot or making a snow angel? Now we’re crossing the line.
“Again, this is a team game, and . . . I don’t understand why we want to give in to individual celebrations,” Lewis said.
One voice of reason came from a surprising source: Chad Johnson, one of Lewis’s former players.
“Listen, if it was a team game, which it is, because there are 11 people on the field, then all 11 players should be paid equally the same,” Johnson said on a podcast last week.
Sidelines add a bit of privacy
It slipped under the radar on Tuesday with the new celebration policy coming out and overtime being shortened to 10 minutes, but commissioner Roger Goodell revealed an interesting medical development for the 2017 season.
Now every sideline will have a medical tent, to give the player and doctors privacy from the prying eyes of fans and the media. The move comes on a recommendation from the league’s new medical director, Dr. Allen Sills, a professor of neurological surgery, orthopaedic surgery, and rehabilitation at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
“It’s an opportunity for us to have a better examination because it will ensure privacy for a short period of time, so doctors can go ahead and make the appropriate diagnosis,” Goodell said.
While we lament the NFL reducing its transparency with injuries — an essential part of watching a game is observing which players are getting checked out by doctors — teams are still required to announce all significant injuries during the game.
The long goodbye
One of the most interesting facets of the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas is the fact that they will continue to play in Oakland while they wait for their new palace to be built. The Raiders won’t move to Las Vegas until 2019 at the earliest, and they are the first team in the NFL — and maybe in pro sports history — to not move right away and play multiple seasons in a lame-duck city.
But an interesting thing has happened in the Bay Area — Raiders fans are still supporting the team. Owner Mark Davis offered a full refund to any season ticket-holder upset with the team’s decision. Davis said last Tuesday in Chicago that about 1,000 fans took him up on it, but that the Raiders have still sold out for the 2017 season, meaning 1,000 fans happily took their places.
“Sold out for this season because they love the Raiders. I think that to me means more than anything,” Davis said. “Best fans in the world.”
The NFL world seemed to get a nice chuckle out of the news on Thursday that the Browns signed former Colts general manager Ryan Grigson as a senior personnel executive. His Colts teams disintegrated at the end of his five-year tenure, and he made one of the worst deals of the last decade when he traded a first-round pick for Cleveland running back Trent Richardson. But he was a talented scout and mid-level executive for the Eagles for eight seasons under Andy Reid, Joe Banner, Tom Heckert, and Howie Roseman, and he should do good work for the Browns. The Colts simply miscast him as a GM and gave him a bit too much credit for the success in Philly . . . In light of our column last week on Tom Brady and players hiding concussions, a reader sent us an interesting 2013 study from the American Academy of Neurology of 262 varsity athletes at the University of Pennsylvania. The study found that 22 percent of athletes overall indicated they would be unlikely or very unlikely to report concussion symptoms, and 43 percent of those with a history of concussion reported to knowingly hide their symptoms to stay in a game . . . Remember when the Patriots placed that rare free agent tender on LeGarrette Blount? Not that it matters anymore, now that Blount has signed with the Eagles, but his salary and cap number would have been $1.91 million from the Patriots . . . Chip Kelly could be quite entertaining in his new role as a college football and NFL analyst for ESPN. He displayed keen sarcasm in his short tenure with the Eagles. “We run the See Coast Offense,” he said dryly when asked about his offensive system. “If we see something, OK, and we think it fits, we’re going to run it. The Philadelphia Eagles run the See Coast Offense.” . . . Patriots tackle Nate Solder was scheduled to be given the Inspiration to Youth Award by Pop Warner youth football on Saturday night, at a banquet supporting its Little Scholars program that awards college scholarships. Solder has been involved in several school-based programs and shelters in New England, Italy, and Guatemala, has been active in supporting the Jimmy Fund and the YMCA, and raising money for families of cancer patients . . . The Patriots are once again offering their public support for the Gay Bowl, the national LGBT flag football tournament. This year’s Gay Bowl XVII will be held Oct. 5-8 at Progin Park in Lancaster.
The Eagles, who had 16 rushing TDs last season, signed running back LeGarrette Blount (18 TDs in 2016) to a one-year deal to beef up their ground game. Since Blount entered the league in 2010, only four players have rushed for more scores.