NFL Draft season reached its crescendo this past week, with prospects flying across the country on official visits and teams making their last big adjustments to their draft board.
Each team is allowed 30 prospect visits leading up to the draft. The teams can’t put the players through workouts, but they will introduce the players to their coaches, test their skills on the white board, conduct further medical testing, and put the players through a de facto job interview. The interviews finish up next weekend, a few days before the NFL Draft begins on April 25.
Let’s take a look at what the Patriots have been up to, and what it all means:
■ The Patriots had an intriguing week with their predraft visits. Monday, they brought Texas A&M tight end Jace Sternberger to Foxborough. Wednesday they hosted a pair of quarterbacks, West Virginia’s Will Grier and Duke’s Daniel Jones. Thursday, they brought in four potential targets for Tom Brady: Iowa tight end Noah Fant, Ole Miss receiver A.J. Brown, Baylor receiver Jalen Hurd, and South Carolina receiver Deebo Samuel.
They’re also hosting Arizona State receiver N’Keal Harry and Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin this spring. And these are just the visits that are getting reported. The Patriots have until the weekend before the draft to bring players to Foxborough.
So the Patriots are loading up on receivers in this year’s draft, right? Maybe.
The Patriots are obviously interested in these players. At least three members of last year’s draft class took top-30 visits (Duke Dawson, Christian Sam, Braxton Berrios).
But sometimes the predraft visits and workouts are really about getting a closer look at a player to confirm whether or not you want to draft him. The Patriots brought Lamar Jackson in for a visit last year, then passed on him twice in the first round. They brought in running back Kerryon Johnson last year, but drafted Sony Michel at No. 31 instead. In 2017, the Patriots drafted Tony Garcia and signed Josh Augusta as an undrafted rookie after bringing them in on official visits. But the Patriots also punted on the draft, trading away their first- and second-round picks.
The visits are still valuable whether or not the Patriots draft these players. The team uses the information when game-planning in the fall, and again down the line when the players become free agents or available via trade.
So the Patriots are clearly taking a deeper look at the receiver and tight end class, but there’s no guarantee that they will use their high picks at those positions. Knowing the Patriots, they’ll probably take an offensive lineman and a defensive tackle with their first two picks, anyway.
■ Bill Belichick actually had a few interesting comments at his predraft news conference on Wednesday.
On the Patriots’ draft board, Belichick said that college scouting director Monti Ossenfort and his staff start with “several thousand players” and eventually whittle it down to “100 or so in the final analysis. But you don’t know what that number’s going to be until you go through the entire process, and it’s a very lengthy and tedious one that Monti and his staff have done a great job on.”
■ Belichick also was asked if the Patriots need to be aware of the draft needs of the teams picking around them, and Belichick answered that the real teams to worry about are the ones drafting several picks behind the Patriots, who might trade up ahead of them at No. 32.
“There could be a team at, whatever, 40, that’s really more of a problem for us than the team at 31,” Belichick said. “We usually have a decent amount of time between our picks to identify, ‘OK, here are the players that we’re considering. Here are the teams that are around us.’ If one of those teams is actively trying to trade out then that means somebody is going to trade in and who could they be coming up for, how would that affect us, do we want to get ahead of that team, do we care?”
Belichick also noted that the Patriots won’t be trading up “from [No.] 30 to 8, 32 to 8, whatever it is. That’s not realistic,” which means they won’t be selling the farm to get a player in the top of the first round.
■ And Belichick said that all 32 teams generally use the same trade value chart when it comes to trading draft picks, though that wasn’t always the case.
“I’d say in our draft trade negotiations through the years, especially the last two or three years, there hasn’t been a lot of, ‘My chart says this. Your chart says that,’ ” Belichick said. “Now, 10 or 15 years ago there was some of that. ‘Oh, here’s what we think it should be.’ Well, the other team’s in a different ballpark because they’re looking at a different chart.
“I would say that when you look at the trades now, over the past few years, a majority of them fall within what we would say is a range of a fair trade.”
Taken to task for criticism of CFL
In my column last week about the failure of the American Alliance of Football, I included these sentences:
“The Canadian Football League works because it is distinctly Canadian and operates on a much smaller scale than most pro sports leagues (and I’ve been to a CFL game. There’s no downfield passing. It’s boring.).”
Boy howdy, our friends up north did not take kindly to this. For most of the week my Twitter account was barraged by angry Canadians accusing me of being an ignorant American (guilty), a lazy journalist (not guilty), and of having no idea how the CFL works (the jury is still out).
And it wasn’t just fans hurling the insults — the league’s players, broadcasters, and even the BC Lions got into the act, using my tweet as the intro to a highlight package.
I didn’t expect this one paragraph to lead to an international incident. Here is what I should have said about the CFL:
The CFL is important. It’s the only other stable professional football league on the planet, and provides opportunities for NFL long shots — coaches as well as players — to keep their dreams alive. And CFL players and coaches are definitely doing it for the love of the game, since they aren’t getting paid millions like their NFL counterparts. You can’t help but respect their devotion.
And the CFL as an overall product is cool. In 2015, my coworkers and I drove over the border the day before a Bills game to check out the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the Edmonton Eskimos. The rules were a bit wacky, but the experience at Tim Hortons Field was fun. We drank a few Labatt’s, reminisced about some names we recognized (Tiquan Underwood! Jacory Harris!), and watched the Eskimos score 14 points in the fourth quarter to come back and win, 25-18.
And I certainly shouldn’t have painted the entire league with a broad brush. NFL games can be plenty boring, too, as this year’s Super Bowl exemplified.
The CFL game I attended didn’t have any downfield passing — the Eskimos won with just 49 yards passing, and the Tiger-Cats were even worse, throwing two pick-6s. But as I learned through dozens of Canadian hate-tweets, downfield passing isn’t usually the CFL’s issue. The league is basically set up for all-or-nothing on offense, since the field is so big, and offense only has three downs with the ball. Basically it’s deep shot, deep shot, punt (or touchdown).
But CFL fans need to chill out, too. The game-day experience was great, but the actual football product is . . . meh.
Not to be the bad guy here, but come on — it’s minor league football. Or, more appropriately, it’s low-level college football. The talent level is about the same. The crowd that day in Hamilton was a near-capacity 24,000.
The league isn’t exactly bursting with star power. Few players, if any, actually choose to play in the CFL. It’s thrust upon them when they don’t make it in the NFL.
By the third quarter of the Tiger Cats-Eskimos game, the novelty of the wacky rules wore off, and you realize you’re just watching players who couldn’t cut it in the NFL, for one reason or another. And with just three chances to get a first down, the flow of the game was really choppy — Two plays, punt. Two plays, punt.
The quarterbacks, especially, have flaws — whether it’s their arm strength, accuracy, anticipation, football smarts, athleticism, etc. The NFL is desperate for quarterbacks, and will turn over every rock on the planet to find a quarterback. About 100 of them are employed each training camp. That tells you what the NFL thinks about the CFL QBs.
This is where CFL fans bring up names such as Warren Moon, Doug Flutie, and Jeff Garcia, who each started in Canada and went on to have solid-to-great NFL careers. But Garcia is the last CFL QB to make an impact in the NFL, and he last played up north 21 years ago.
Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell has two Grey Cups and two Most Outstanding Player awards, and is the winningest quarterback in CFL history. He worked out for eight NFL teams in December, but subsequently signed a four-year extension with Calgary.
CFL fans threw a bunch of stats in my face this past week about 5,000-yard passers and yards per attempt, but that falls under “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” The CFL plays 18 games and the field is bigger, so of course the stats will be higher. They need the gimmicky rules — 12 men on the field, allowing receivers to take a running start before the snap, making the end zones 20 yards deep, only three downs with the ball — to create scoring and excitement. If the CFL played with NFL rules, offensive production would plummet.
And yeah, sorry, Anthony Calvillo’s 79,816 passing yards are not a record that American sports fans will recognize. Mike Hessman’s 433 minor league home runs don’t count in the all-time home run race, either.
The CFL game is quirky, but I’m not alone in thinking it’s not all that exciting. Most of America obviously agrees, as the CFL doesn’t have a major TV deal in the US (the league signed a new multiyear deal with ESPN in January that will place the majority of games on ESPN+). Ask 20 Americans at a sports bar who won the Grey Cup, and you’ll get 20 blank stares. Most people don’t even know the team names (when in doubt, guess Roughriders).
That’s not because we’re anti-Canada. It’s because the CFL just doesn’t have the same caliber of athletes as does the NFL.
So I apologize to our friends up north for taking a shot at the CFL this past week and painting with a broad brush. The game-day experience is fun, the league is important, and the athletes are working hard to keep their dreams alive. If I find myself in Winnipeg in July, I’ll probably check out a Blue Bombers game.
But, sorry, BC Lions and CFL fans everywhere. I’m not apologizing for being less than enthralled with the football product. If you watch the NFL regularly, the CFL just doesn’t compare.
Practice rules for offseason in play
With the NFL offseason gearing up — the Patriots and most teams open up on Monday — let’s take a quick look back at the offseason practice rules, as spelled out in the collective bargaining agreement.
The offseason lasts nine weeks, and is broken down into three phases. The entire offseason is voluntary except for minicamp, which lasts three days toward the end of the spring. Teams usually practice four days per week.
The first phase lasts two weeks and is limited to strength and conditioning and rehab work only. The players can’t use footballs, though quarterbacks are allowed to throw to receivers as long as there is no defense. The players can’t have any contact with their football coaches (only the trainers and strength coaches).
The second phase last three weeks. Players can work on football-specific drills with their coaches, but they can’t do offense vs. defense, one-on-one drills, or wear helmets.
The third phase lasts four weeks, and includes 10 practices, or “organized team activities,” plus three days of minicamp. Players can wear helmets, but no pads. No contact of any kind is allowed. Teams can run seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 drills, but no one-on-one drills.
Players are paid $235 for each workout attended, though players have to attend three out of four practices in a week in order to get paid for those workouts.
The AAF may have been an unmitigated disaster, but at least it is delivering on a promise to get the players noticed by NFL scouts. As of Friday, close to 50 ex-AAF players had signed deals with NFL teams, including seven with the Dolphins, six with the Steelers, and five each with the Vikings and Panthers. These players may not make the 53-man roster this fall, but at least they earned invites to OTAs and training camp. Interestingly, the Patriots have not signed an AAF player yet . . . Speaking of the CFL, the league instituted an interesting rule change that the NFL should keep an eye on. Starting this season, the league’s “command centre” (i.e. their Al Riveron) can increase roughing the passer penalties from 15 to 25 yards if they are deemed egregious enough. And two 25-yard penalty is an automatic ejection . . . The NFL and NFL Players Association announced this past week that their leadership met on Tuesday to begin discussions on a new collective bargaining agreement. But don’t expect a resolution any time soon. The current CBA expires in the spring of 2021, and it works so much in the owners’ favor that they would love to rubber-stamp it and continue on for another 10 years. But NFLPA leadership would be doing a great disservice to its members if it didn’t spend the next two years fighting tooth and nail to secure a better deal for the players . . . In an interview with NFL.com, former Raiders coach Jack Del Rio called Antonio Brown a “pain in the a—” and said it “wouldn’t surprise me” if Russell Wilson were traded this offseason. He’ll be great at this media thing if he keeps it up with the honest takes . . . Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins, considered the second- or third-best QB prospect this year, is the biggest name not attending the NFL Draft. Makes me think he’s worried about slipping down the first round . . . Happy birthday, Bill Belichick. The Patriots coach turns 67 on Tuesday.