Mid-April should be a quiet time on the NFL calendar — the Super Bowl is more than two months old, and the regular season is still nearly five months away.
But the NFL is nothing but marketing savvy, and it put two big events on the calendar a week apart in April — the 2019 schedule release last Wednesday, and the draft this coming Thursday to Saturday.
Let’s first preview the draft with news and nuggets, then take a look at the schedule, with an assist from the hard-working PR folks with the Patriots and the league office:
■ First, the Patriots. Their 12 draft picks are tied with the Giants for the most in this draft. The Patriots have two picks in the second round, three in the third, and four in the seventh.
■ If there’s one certainty with the Patriots, it’s that Bill Belichick will pull off a trade during draft weekend. In 19 previous drafts with the Patriots, the only time Belichick didn’t execute a trade was in 2004. He has made 70 draft trades in his time with the Patriots.
“Bill’s very cut-to-the-chase, as you can imagine,” former Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik said this past week on a SiriusXM NFL media call. “I’ve done three or four trades with Bill, and everything is just like, ‘Get to the point, let’s go. Are you in? Do you want to do this or not?’ He’s not going to sit around and wait. I actually loved that. He got right to the point.”
■ And while Belichick is known as a trade-down guy, he has traded down 24 times with the Patriots, and traded up a surprising 21 times, including last year for second-round cornerback Duke Dawson. In fact, the Patriots have traded up in three straight drafts (and traded down in 11 straight drafts). Their last two trade-ups haven’t worked so well — neither Dawson nor Tony Garcia (2017) played a snap in their rookie years, and Garcia was off the team after one season.
■ The Patriots have used the 32nd pick three times (Benjamin Watson, Logan Mankins, Malcom Brown). Among those drafted 32nd: Drew Brees, Lamar Jackson, and Teddy Bridgewater (plus a lot of busts).
■ The Patriots have the 56th pick for the second year in a row. Last year, they traded into the spot to get Dawson. They also have the 56th pick from the 2017 draft (Obi Melifonwu).
■ One NFL front office source said that several teams are dismayed with the wide receiver prospects, and predicted that the top of the draft will be dominated by defensive front seven players. The most defensive players drafted in a first round is 19 (2006, 2017), but this might be the year it hits 20.
■ Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown and Mississippi’s D.K. Metcalf have the best chances among receivers at going in the first round, but this year could be a redux of 2017, when a receiver didn’t go off the board until the 24th pick, and only two went in the first round. At least two wide receivers have gone in the first round every year since 2008, when there were none.
■ One of the most intriguing story lines involves a player who won’t be drafted — Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen, who may lose his job if and when Arizona drafts Kyler Murray No. 1 overall.
Rosen, who reported for the Cardinals’ voluntary workouts this past week, finally broke his silence in a video with SI TV.
“It’s annoying but, like, it is what it is,” Rosen said of the speculation. “Whatever decisions are made, it’s my duty to prove them right if they keep me, and prove them wrong if they ship me off.”
It is assumed that the Cardinals will trade Rosen after drafting Murray, but Rosen is so cheap — owed just $6 million over the next three years, including only $1.28 million in 2019 — that the Cardinals might be better off keeping Rosen, in case Murray doesn’t pan out.
“I would be in zero rush to trade Josh Rosen, and I would wait a year if I needed to,” Dominik said. “If your No. 2 QB is making $1.3 million, that’s a bargain, let alone the fact that he still might be better than Kyler Murray.”
So I asked Dominik, should the Patriots try to trade for Rosen with the 32nd pick? His answer surprised me.
“Knowing how the Patriots work, I don’t think they would do that,” he said. “My gut instinct is that that’s not a direction they would want to go, even though financially it would be great. There’s just I think too many questions, and I think [Belichick] would rather handpick another guy.”
■ Another player to watch: Mississippi State edge rusher Montez Sweat, and how far he falls (if at all) on draft night. His potential is off the charts — Sweat was an All-American last year, and in February set a record for defensive ends with an eye-popping 4.41 in the 40 — but his Combine medical tests revealed a heart condition, which is scaring some teams off.
Sweat’s situation is similar to that of defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, who fell to the fifth round last year. Hurst, a Xaverian graduate, started 10 games and had four sacks in a productive rookie season.
“Someone’s going to get a good player like the Raiders did last year with Hurst in the fifth round who had the same type of problem and came in and played very well for them,” SiriusXM draft guru Gil Brandt said.
■ The running back position has seen a bit of a renaissance, with eight taken in the first round over the last four drafts. But that streak could end this year, with Alabama’s Josh Jacobs the best chance at cracking the first round. The first-round running backs over the last four years: Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette, Sony Michel, Rashaad Penny, Saquon Barkley.
■ Oklahoma is becoming Quarterback U, with Murray having a good shot at joining Baker Mayfield as back-to-back No. 1 picks. If Murray does go first, it will mark the second time in the Super Bowl era that a school produced back-to-back No. 1 picks — Southern Cal did it in 1968 (Ron Yary) and 1969 (O.J. Simpson).
■ Dwayne Haskins is set to become just the second Ohio State quarterback to go in the first round, joining Art Schlichter (1982). But buyer beware Urban Meyer quarterbacks (Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Braxton Miller, Cardale Jones).
■ Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant could become the first tight end duo from the same team to get picked in the first round of the same draft. Both are scheduled to attend the draft in Nashville, which should discourage Patriots fans that either will be available at 32. Brandt thinks both players could go in the top 15.
■ In one of the more unusual predraft stories, LSU cornerback Greedy Williams reportedly didn’t take any top-30 visits to NFL teams. Apparently the teams had all the info they needed on Williams, a 6-foot-3-inch corner who was a consensus All-American and twice an All-SEC selection. He might be the cleanest prospect in the draft.
■ Nick Bosa is a lock as a top-five pick and could even go No. 1. He will join brother Joey Bosa and father John Bosa as first-round picks, joining the Mannings (Archie, Peyton, Eli) with three father-son first-rounders. Michigan linebacker Devin Bush Jr. and Alabama tight end Irv Smith Jr. could also join their fathers as first-round picks.
■ Time per pick: Round 1 — 10 minutes; Round 2 — seven minutes; Rounds 3-6 — five minutes. Round 7 — four minutes. If the Patriots stick at 32, they won’t be picking until after 11 on Thursday night.
IT’S A DATE
Schedule offers some highlights
■ The NFL’s motto for this year’s schedule: “You’ll watch anyway.”
The NFL used to schedule premier games for its signature events such as the Kickoff Game and Thanksgiving. But for the second year in a row, the NFL is saving many of its premier games for the 4:25 p.m. national window, both as a nod to the network partners and also as a way to boost TV ratings.
The Kickoff and Thanksgiving games will draw big numbers pretty much regardless, so the NFL is giving us some good but not great matchups. Packers-Bears to open the season? Meh. Packers-Eagles or Packers-Cowboys would have been more fun.
Patriots-Steelers to open “Sunday Night Football?” Not a bad game, but been-there, done-that (the 2015 Kickoff game). The NFL instead put the Patriots’ four most exciting games all at 4:25 p.m. — Browns, Eagles, Cowboys, Chiefs.
And the Thanksgiving schedule is a total snoozer — Bears-Lions, Bills-Cowboys, and Falcons-Saints. The first and third matchups are repeats of last year, while the Bills will make their first appearance on Thanksgiving since 1994.
■ The Bears are this year’s TV darlings. NFL teams are supposed to max out at five prime-time games, but the Bears get seven national TV games — five in prime time, plus Thanksgiving and a London game against the Raiders. The Bears earn a seat in two of the NFL’s biggest events, the Kickoff Game and Thanksgiving. The NFL apparently likes Mitchell Trubisky more than we do.
■ The Cowboys get five prime-time games plus Thanksgiving, while the Rams get five prime-time games and a London game. And the Patriots, Packers, Chiefs, Vikings, Eagles, Steelers, and Seahawks each get five prime-time games.
■ The Browns get four prime-time games, or one more than they had from 2016-18 combined. They would’ve been our choice for the Patriots’ Sunday night opener (the game will be played at 4:25 p.m. in Week 8).
■ All 32 teams will play on national TV, but a quarter of the league only gets one national TV game: Arizona, Buffalo, Carolina, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Miami, Tampa Bay, and Tennessee. “Thursday Night Football” used to be the dumping ground for teams to get their one national TV game, but Miami and Cincinnati are so bad they won’t get one this year. Fox paid $3 billion over five years for the “TNF” package and wants decent games. The other six one-timers, though, are all getting their one national shot on “TNF.”
■ This is a big year for international games. The first two London games will be played at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, which the NFL helped finance and will be built with football in mind. The success of this stadium and these games could be the start of something bigger for the NFL and London.
And this is a make-or-break year for Mexico City if it hopes to continue to host NFL games. The Chiefs and Chargers will play at Estadio Azteca on “Monday Night Football,” a year after the Chiefs’ game against the Rams had to be moved from Mexico City to Los Angeles because of poor field conditions. The NFL’s extension with Mexico City is on hold pending this game.
■ This marks the 50th season of “Monday Night Football,” and ESPN once again will hold a doubleheader in Week 1: Houston at New Orleans, then Denver at Oakland. The Week 2 matchup features Browns at Jets, a rematch of the first “MNF” broadcast in 1970 (and also Odell Beckham’s return to New York).
■ An interesting quirk, mostly because of the natural scheduling rotation: Every team plays between five and seven playoff teams from last year. The Patriots will face five (Ravens, Eagles, Cowboys, Texans, Chiefs in consecutive weeks) and none until Week 9.
■ The Ravens will alternate away-home for all 16 games, never once playing back-to-back games at home or on the road. Per ESPN, this is only the fourth time this has happened since the NFL went to 16 games in 1978.
■ The Raiders play seven of their 16 games at 10 a.m. West Coast time, which could mess up their body clocks. But they only have two long plane trips — at London, and at the Jets. Their other five 10 a.m. games are played in the Midwest (Minnesota, Indianapolis, Green Bay, Houston, Kansas City).
Belichick gives a history lesson
If Clarke Hinkle’s name appears on the NFL’s All-Time Team this season, his family can thank a certain Patriots coach for inclusion.
The All-Time Team — a selection (but not a ranking) of the 100 greatest players in NFL history — will be revealed this fall as part of the yearlong “NFL 100” campaign celebrating the league’s 100th season. The top 10 coaches of all time will also be selected in a different list.
The NFL announced that it gathered a “blue-ribbon panel of former players, general managers, coaches, NFL historians, and media” to select the teams, but didn’t announce who was on the panel. Gil Brandt, a former Cowboys personnel executive with Tom Landry, said this past week that he is serving on the panel along with about 20 others, including Tony Dungy, John Madden, Art Shell, Dick Vermeil, Rick Gosselin, and, yes, Bill Belichick, the only current coach to be included.
Brandt said the panel already had one all-day meeting at NFL headquarters to discuss the All-Time Team, and a separate two-hour meeting to discuss the coaches. Belichick participated by phone both times, and was a valuable resource when discussing players from the early half of the 20th century. Brandt said Belichick was especially passionate about Hinkle, a two-way player for the Packers in the 1930s who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1964 as part of its second class. Hinkle died in 1988.
“He’s amazing as far as he can tell you about coaches and players back in the ’30s and ’40s without any problem at all,” Brandt said of Belichick. “And I mean, he can tell you Clarke Hinkle, what he did, how he was a fullback but when they were going to pass they moved him to tailback. This guy studied like it was for a math test. He was brilliant.”
Antonio Brown made a pain of himself. DeMarcus Lawrence used his impending shoulder surgery to force the Cowboys to act. Russell Wilson created an artificial deadline of April 15. And all three players got what they wanted — big, fat contract extensions. If you want to get paid, you can’t be afraid to use whatever leverage you’ve got . . . Demaryius Thomas only got $150,000 guaranteed from the Patriots, and won’t count against their compensatory pick formula. Chris Hogan, though, should net the Patriots an extra sixth-round pick next year, assuming he makes the Panthers’ roster . . . The best news of the week: The Chargers are going with the powder blues as their regular uniform. Best look in sports.