When Willie McGinest stepped up to the mic and announced, “With the 62nd pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, your New England and my New England Patriots select Jimmy Garoppolo,” it was believed the heir apparent had been chosen.
Garoppolo — and Patriots fans — spent the next 3½ years preparing for the young gun with the quick release and quicker smile to take over for Tom Brady.
Well, everyone knows how that worked out. Tom vs. Time? Brady, who’ll turn 41 a few days into training camp, is winning that contest in a runaway, while Garoppolo has struck gold out west.
Now it’s time for the Patriots to find the heir apparent 2.0. And between a quality class of free agents and a deep draft, it should be a mission that’s accomplished in short order.
New England has four picks in the first three rounds and could pluck their future signal-caller with one of those choices — with their second second-round pick or their third-round selection seeming logical.
The consensus top QBs (Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, and Baker Mayfield) will be off the board by then, so the Patriots will be selecting from a secondary group that includes an intriguing prospect from Washington State named Luke Falk, who, like Garoppolo, lists Brady as his favorite player.
In fact, Cougars coach Mike Leach said Falk fancies himself a Brady clone and Leach sees him as a perfect fit in New England.
“He’s kind of an achiever and he’s admired Tom Brady and like anybody that’s really good at something there’s a variety of people that they model themselves after,’’ he said. “Like a lot of QBs — obviously Tom Brady’s one that they start with — but since he was a kid he’s been this huge Brady fan.
“The other thing is Luke is a very disciplined, hard-working guy and that kind of reflects the New England Patriots. And you know Brady’s work ethic meets Bill Belichick meets cultivating the rest of the team around that work ethic, focus, drive, and precision is what’s made the Patriots. I think he kind of fits in with that.”
Leach sees Falk following the path of some of his former players that have ended up in New England.
“In particular Danny Amendola and Wes Welker,’’ he said of his former receivers at Texas Tech. “As time’s evolved they’re kind of right out of Patriots central casting and I think Luke is to a degree also.”
The fit extends beyond the culture and onto the field, according to Leach. While much has been written about the failures of spread quarterbacks being able to succeed in pro-style offenses, the coach has a different take when it comes to modern NFL offenses.
“Well, we can kid ourselves and pretend the Patriots or the Philadelphia Eagles run some sort of traditional pro-style offense all we want,’’ he said. “But you can go back to what we ran at Iowa Wesleyan [where the seeds of his “Air Raid” style were sown] and the Patriots look a lot more like the offense I ran there than they do any pro-set anything and they have for really, to be perfectly honest, for the last eight years.
“The Eagles were later to the party as far as opening it up and running a spread offense. But any illusions that the Patriots are currently running a pro-style offense rather than an Air Raid offense, well, people are just kidding themselves.”
Because of Falk’s familiarity and success running the Air Raid — he threw for 14,481 yards and 119 TDs — Leach believes Falk’s transition to the Patriots offense would be easier than it might be for others.
“He’s been doing it for four solid years what the Patriots are running,’’ he said.
Leach, known as the pioneer of the Air Raid — “We copied some stuff,’’ he acknowledged. “It’s like any offense — you copy, steal, and adjust. But I’d like to think we did it from the best people.” — said Falk’s accuracy and ability to manage games are among his strengths.
“The most difficult thing for offense, to be honest with you, isn’t to find good plays. You can go down the street to the junior high and find some really good plays — and don’t think I haven’t copied some of those before and will not hesitate to again — but the hardest thing is to package it up,’’ said the always entertaining Leach. “You need plays that complement one another, that attack the whole field, and fit together. That’s the ultimate achievement. That’s what you’re trying to accomplish.’’
The 6-foot-4-inch, 223-pound Falk’s ability to string those plays together helped him go from walk-on to NFL prospect.
Falk arrived in Pullman after falling through the recruiting cracks due in large part to missing his junior season because of transfer rules (he moved from California to Utah). Leach, who believed Falk had Division 1 talent, had no scholarships to offer but still was able to get Falk to join his program.
“I needed another arm,’’ said Leach, who had already signed a “highly touted” recruit. “Eventually Luke beat out the highly touted guy and then by about midway through his sophomore year he started and he’s been the guy ever since.”
Falk exudes a quiet confidence, but Leach said one of his greatest attributes is his ability to raise the level of play of everyone around him.
“He’s a shy guy that’s all [about] football. He’s not that big man on campus, struttin’ through the quad with the letterman’s jacket guy,’’ he said. “You know, he’s always kind of working on something football related. The biggest thing is you’ve got to keep him between the lines so he doesn’t try to do too much. Football is his No. 1 job and his No. 1 hobby.”
Included in that hobby is watching film of Brady.
“Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. To the point where it was almost annoying,’’ Leach said with a laugh. “To the point where if the Patriots lost, it was almost irresistible to give Luke a bad time. It wasn’t anything against the Patriots as much as it was Luke’s obsession with it.’’
A guy that can spin it on the field and lives in the film room? Sure sounds like a perfect candidate for heir apparent 2.0.
Eagles’ Johnson off in comments
Lane Johnson’s recent comments about the Patriots being a “fear-based organization” and that there’s a lack of fun being had by team members are perplexing.
The Eagles right tackle also said Patriots players act like “robots” during interviews and that he’d “much rather have fun and win a Super Bowl than be miserable and win five Super Bowls. But hey, it is what it is.’’
Having spent a lot of time in Patriots locker rooms over the past three seasons, it’s obvious there’s plenty of fun going on at One Patriot Place. There’s fun on the practice field, fun in the locker room, and usually there’s lots of fun after games. Because, as Johnson himself pointed out, “Hell yes, they win. They’ve won for a long time.’’
Winning is fun. Hell yes, hard work is and always will be the top priority in New England, but working hard, winning Super Bowls, and having fun are not mutually exclusive. Sure, there are times when the Patriots give quotes that won’t grab headlines (and those are usually in group settings), but having conducted hundreds of one-on-one interviews with Patriots, they are more often than not engaging, informative, insightful, and often times fun.
I think every one of those guys would be happier winning multiple Super Bowls rather than settling for one. Johnson sees and hears 10-second sound bites and throws a blanket statement — and shade — over a franchise he’s never been a part of in the aftermath of the biggest win of his career. He sounded more like a sore winner than a guy happy about winning.
For Exhibit A of a guy who worked hard, had fun, and won in a Patriots uniform, Johnson needed look no further than his own locker room. Chris Long spent a season in New England wearing a perpetual smile. In fact, on one particular afternoon, he actually wore Julian Edelman’s smile.
Sitting at Edelman’s locker wearing a Kent State T-shirt, Long actually duped reporters for a half-second, conducting a mock interview in an Edelman mask and giving Edelman-like answers with a heavy California accent. There were plenty of “bros” and “dudes” sprinkled throughout his answers.
Long loved to have fun, was never robotic with his answers (check out his Twitter feed and you’ll see he truly hates robots), and he won.
For Exhibit B, Johnson could have consulted another teammate: LeGarrette Blount. The big tailback never gave run-of-the-mill interviews during his two stints in Foxborough. He was also one of the most popular guys in the locker room and his banter and laughter with fellow running backs Brandon Bolden and James White was infectious and entertaining and often got the whole room charged up.
Blount also won here, collecting a pair of Super Bowl rings before earning a third with the Eagles. Pretty sure neither Long nor Blount would characterize their Patriot tenures as “miserable.”
Johnson sounds like the one who’s miserable as he rips one franchise rather than celebrating the one he represents.
Local cap cuts appear apparent
With free agency set to begin in just under a month, the Patriots could be looking to create cap space — currently they have a little more than $17 million — in order to fill their needs and hit their targets.
Contract extensions and restructures will almost assuredly be part of the process, as will cuts.
New England could nearly double that space by releasing four veterans coming off disappointing seasons.
Topping the list is a pair of tight ends. Martellus Bennett played just two games after being claimed off waivers from the Packers before being placed on injured reserve with hamstring and shoulder woes, and Dwayne Allen played in every game but totaled just 10 catches for 86 yards — not one in the postseason.
Bennett has a salary cap hit of $6,187,500 and Allen’s is $5 million. Both have $0 in dead money, so simply releasing them saves $11 million-plus.
While it’s possible both could be cut and brought back at lower numbers, it’s not likely. Bennett, who has hinted at retirement, makes the most sense to bring back on a reworked deal. Bennett provides excellent depth — and insurance — at the position should Rob Gronkowski get hurt or (gasp!) retire. A fully healthy Bennett is a solid blocker and receiver who has Tom Brady’s trust.
Allen is an enthusiastic blocker but never really got into synch in this offense — coincidentally, his lone touchdown came in Denver and was overshadowed by Bennett’s return.
On defense, veterans Alan Branch and David Harris are prime candidates for release as both were healthy scratches down the stretch.
Branch, who was benched in Week 5, suffered a knee injury in Week 14, and though he proclaimed himself fit for the postseason he was passed on the depth chart by Ricky Jean Francois and never got back into the defensive tackle rotation. He’s on the books for $4,550,000 with a $1 million cap hit, meaning New England could save $3,550,000 by releasing him.
Harris started the Steelers game in Week 15 but never saw the field again. He was lauded by coaches for his work ethic and professionalism and by his teammates for his guidance. Harris is scheduled to make $2,750,000 and has a $625,000 cap hit, so the Patriots would save $2,125,000 by cutting him.
Options already exist in secondary
With Malcolm Butler likely moving on, the Patriots will need to replenish their cornerback corps. There still is good depth at the position with Stephon Gilmore in place and Eric Rowe poised to replace Butler on the outside.
New England has some in-house candidates to take over the nickel spot in Jonathan Jones and Cyrus Jones, both entering their third seasons.
Jonathan Jones is a lightning-quick player with excellent instincts and recovery speed. He started four games in the slot during the season and acquitted himself quite well. A top special teamer on a squad loaded with excellent special teamers, he was missed down the stretch after injuring his ankle against the Titans in the divisional round.
Cyrus Jones’s season ended before it got started when he tore his right ACL in the exhibition finale against the Giants. Though he was pretty scarce during the season, Cyrus was around a lot toward the end of the campaign and had no noticeable limp. He’s had a disappointing two-year run but now has the chance to turn that around and be a part of the future. As a bonus, he has exceptional return skills and could be a major contributor on special teams, taking some of the workload and wear and tear off Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Dion Lewis (should the latter two return).
Two other names to remember are Ryan Lewis and Jomal Wiltz, who spent the season on the practice squad and have re-upped for 2018. With a year of the system under their belts, the 6-foot, 200-pound Lewis (he has good size and blazing speed), and the 5-10, 180-pound Wiltz (he is another track star) could get in the mix.
If the Patriots look to supplement the position from the outside, there’s also a couple of veterans who may be in the market for short-term, “prove-it” deals in Vontae Davis and David Amerson. Because they were released, both can sign before free agency opens.
Davis, the former Dolphin and Colt, has been cleared after having surgery for a core injury. An ex-Raider, Amerson’s play fell off after signing a $34 million deal a few years back. Both will be looking for bounce-backs and New England could be a good fit, though there’ll be no shortage of suitors for these two.
Ventrone headed to Colts
Ray Ventrone, who spent the last three seasons as the Patriots’ assistant special teams coach, took the top special teams job on Frank Reich’s staff in Indianapolis, a league source confirmed.
Ventrone, a rock-solid special teamer during his nine-year playing career, was often cited by coaches and players for his preparation and dedication. Ventrone’s trademark was running multiple wind sprints across the field hours before kickoff on game days.
McCourty on the mend
Devin McCourty had minor shoulder surgery last week and the procedure isn’t expected to keep the safety, perennially one of the Patriots’ workout ironmen, from participating in any of the team’s offseason activities.
McCourty, 30, one of the smartest and most versatile players in the league, was listed as questionable with a shoulder ailment before the team’s Week 17 matchup with the Jets, but never missed any game time because of it. He played in 97.1 percent of the team’s defensive snaps this season.
Seeing Chris Long don the dog masks during the Eagles’ postseason run to the title brought back memories of a brief conversation with coach Doug Pederson during the owners meetings in Phoenix last spring. Asked what attracted him to Long, the new Eagles coach said, “Well, he has a little bit of that dog in him.’’ Little did he know . . . The video posted by former Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi on The Players’ Tribune was fascinating and worth your time. Massaquoi was in a horrific ATV accident last year and lost most of his left hand. In the four-minute-plus video, he opens up about the accident for the first time and details how it happened and what his life is now like as he adjusts to his prosthetic/robotic hand. “When I look at my hand, I’m just thankful,’’ Massaquoi says, with not a hint of bitterness in his voice. “I’m thankful for the process. I’m thankful for the little things in life. I’m thankful for family, for friendship, thankful for real things.’’
Read with Malcolm, the literacy initiative started by Malcolm Mitchell, will make a pair of stops in Boston Feb. 26. The first will be at the Boston Public Library, where students will be given a copy of Mitchell’s book, “The Magician’s Hat.” Later they will be at Boston Harbor Hotel for a public reading event . . . Here’s hoping Johnny Manziel is sincere and successful in his latest comeback attempt. He was one of he most exciting and refreshing players to watch during that magical, ad-libbing, Heisman-winning freshman year at Texas A&M. His off-field antics overshadowed it all. He’s signed up for the Spring League and his game seems perfectly suited for some CFL seasoning before a possible return to the NFL. It’s a path that worked quite well for another improvisational, Heisman-winning QB.
Jim McBride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.