FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Rivers an everyday presence at Gillette: While the majority of Patriots players have dispersed for the offseason, with many scheduled to return in mid-April for the start of the voluntary offseason program, defensive end/outside linebacker Derek Rivers has been a constant presence at the facility.
Rivers, the team’s top draft choice from 2017 (No. 83 overall), has missed two of his first three NFL seasons because of knee injuries. Because of that, he might fall into the “forgotten man” category to some when it comes to the Patriots’ plans for 2020.
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But he has been rehabbing behind the scenes — often alongside core special-teamer Brandon King, who is recovering from a season-ending quad injury — to give himself the best chance to reemerge.
Rivers had his 2019 season unexpectedly altered during an Aug. 17 preseason game in Tennessee. On a first-quarter play, he injured his right knee while rushing the passer, first absorbing a chip from Titans tight end Delanie Walker and then trying to bend around left tackle Taylor Lewan. That ultimately led to surgery and being placed on injured reserve.
So it has been a similar situation for Rivers as his rookie 2017 season. That year, he tore his left ACL during joint practices with the Texans while covering a kickoff, which put him on a rehab track. Rivers returned to play in six games in 2018, a limited workload in part due to the depth the Patriots had ahead of him.
Now his sights are set on a 2020 return.
With starting defensive end/outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy set to become an unrestricted free agent, Rivers would be part of the mix — assuming a return to health.
2. The case against a Patriots-Chiefs opener in 2020: When the Chiefs capped off an impressive comeback to win Super Bowl LIV, the result had a direct trickle-down effect in New England. Because the Patriots visit the Chiefs in 2020, it put them in play as one of eight possible opponents for a Thursday game to open the season, or a Sunday night game on opening weekend. The case against the Patriots is straightforward: An opening game will rate highly regardless, and saving a Patriots-Chiefs matchup for the TV ratings sweeps period — similar to the old Peyton vs. Brady matchups with the Colts and Patriots — makes more sense. The Chiefs’ other home opponents are the Falcons, Jets, Panthers, Texans, Broncos, Chargers and Raiders.
3. A follow-up thought on Jimmy G: In his pre-Super Bowl interview on Westwood One, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said something that I took note of when asked about Jimmy Garoppolo — whom he said he still keeps in touch with — and the challenge ahead for him.
“One of his strengths is he has great poise. He’s very confident. He’s a very good leader. His team believes in him,” Brady said. “He has a great opportunity to go out there and prove it — that’s when you really get to see whether someone is capable or not.”
Brady’s words hit at the heart of where I view things with Garoppolo after Super Bowl LIV.
Garoppolo would have had my MVP vote through 48 minutes (49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said something similar this week) before things dipped in the clutch and he missed a couple of throws that could have changed the outcome. It doesn’t mean Garoppolo is all of a sudden a bad quarterback, but can he deliver on the biggest stage when the game is on the line to earn the “franchise” label some already have assigned him?
As Brady said before the game, the only way to prove it is to go do it.
4a. Regret with the Jones trade: Michael Lombardi served as an assistant to the Patriots coaching staff from 2014 to 2016, and he sometimes reflects on behind-the-scenes stories from that time in his columns for The Athletic and on “The GM Shuffle” podcast with Adnan Virk. Here’s a thought from the podcast this past week, thinking back to the team’s March 2016 trade of defensive end Chandler Jones to Arizona for a second-round pick and guard Jonathan Cooper: “We should have never traded Chandler Jones. At the end of the day, we had a lot of decisions to make on the Patriots and who was going to get the money — whether it was going to be [Dont’a] Hightower, Jamie Collins, all those guys. We traded Chandler. That’s the one. If you had Chandler and [Stephon] Gilmore on the team, with the way Chandler has played for Arizona …”
4b. Thuney and Mitchell played key roles: The Patriots turned the second-round pick they acquired for Jones into an early third-rounder (guard Joe Thuney) and fourth-rounder (receiver Malcolm Mitchell), while also picking up much-needed salary-cap space to make other important moves. Thuney started every game over the past four years and was arguably the team’s best lineman, and he is now primed for a big free-agent payday. Mitchell had his career cut short by a knee injury, but he played a critical role in the Patriots’ second-half comeback from a 28-3 deficit to win Super Bowl LI. So it’s not like the Patriots didn’t get anything of value in the swap, but with Jones finishing second behind Gilmore in 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting, it naturally sparked thoughts on what it would be like to still have Jones in New England.
5. Low franchise-tag figure for tight ends notable in New England: With the Patriots badly in need of help at tight end, and with limited options on the free-agent market, free-agent-to-be Hunter Henry of the Chargers would be an ideal fit. But that seems like a long-shot scenario, in part because the projected franchise-tag figure for tight ends is about $10.7 million, according to Joel Corry of CBS Sports, and that amount is one of the lowest of any position. Thus, even with Henry’s injury history, it would be a surprise to me if the Chargers — with salary-cap space to work with — don’t assign him the tag. That would boost Atlanta’s Austin Hooper as the next notable tight end option on the free-agent market.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) February 2, 2020
6. Mystery of the third Belichick ring: When coach Bill Belichick was announced to the crowd at Super Bowl LIV as part of a pregame ceremony for the NFL’s 100-year anniversary team, he flashed three rings — one from the Patriots on his right ring finger, one from the Giants on his left ring finger, and then a third ring on his left pinkie that was turned outward and harder to recognize. What was it? Belichick isn’t saying (for now, at least), and the first thought that came to mind was maybe a Wesleyan class ring. In a moment when he was recognized as one of the greatest in the history of the NFL, perhaps having a personal connection to three of the most special places in his life was part of the thinking.
7. Slater represents Patriots at NFLPA meeting in LA: Patriots special-teams captain Matthew Slater has had a busy couple of weeks, playing in the Pro Bowl in Orlando, then continuing to Miami for the Super Bowl, and then this past Thursday traveling to Los Angeles as the NFL Players Association held a meeting of player representatives and its executive committee. One of the big topics for players as they consider an extension of the collective bargaining agreement is the possibility of a 17-game regular season, and Slater has been outspoken in the past about the importance of player safety and how Thursday night games don’t help in that area. Veteran tight end Ben Watson was also present for the meeting, adding another Patriots-specific presence.
8. Pepper resurfaces in XFL in long-coveted coordinator role: One of the constants on Belichick’s coaching staff in New England, Pepper Johnson, is back on the sidelines after a three-year hiatus — this time as defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Wildcats of the XFL. Johnson served as linebackers and/or defensive line coach for the Patriots from 2000 to 2013, and when the sides parted ways, my sense was that Johnson had grown frustrated because he had hoped to lead the defense but had been passed over for Dean Pees and then Matt Patricia. Johnson spent a year as Buffalo’s defensive line coach and two years in the same role for the Jets, before sitting out the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Now he finally has a chance to lead a defense, albeit in the XFL. One of the assistants working under him is a familiar name to Patriots fans: Otis Smith, the veteran defensive back who started on the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship team.
9. Folk tale previews how kickers could benefit from XFL: If not for his experience in the now-defunct Alliance of American Football last spring, veteran kicker Nick Folk might not have reemerged in the NFL with the Patriots in 2019. Folk had been out of the NFL since kicking in four games for the Buccaneers in 2017, and later explained that the AAF allowed him to show teams he was healthy again after having left knee surgery. Now, I see a similar benefit for those in the XFL as the season kicked off this weekend. Kicker Austin MacGinnis (Kentucky) and punter/kicker Austin Rehkow (Idaho) both worked out for the Patriots during the 2019 season after Stephen Gostkowski landed on injured reserve, which reflects how they are on the radar of NFL teams but need some more experience.
10. Did You Know: The NFL’s field goal accuracy during the 2019 regular season was 81.6%, which was the lowest mark in the past 10 seasons, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information research. That was down from 84.7% in 2018.