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Top Patriots Takeaways from the NFL’s Annual League Meeting

This week, Patriots head coach Jerod Mayo and owner Robert Kraft spoke to reporters during the NFL’s annual league meeting in Orlando, Florida. This marked Mayo’s first time speaking to reporters since the combine and Kraft’s first time since Mayo’s introductory press conference.

With free agency largely in the rearview, most questions centered around the team’s lack of splashy signings, quarterback prospects, and potentially trading the highly coveted No. 3 pick. NFL owners also passed multiple rule changes, including two that will significantly affect on-field play.

Here are my top takeaways from the event.

OUTSIDE FACTORS CONTRIBUTED TO QUIET FREE AGENCY

The Patriots have drawn criticism from fans over their lack of splashy free-agent additions. Despite leading the league with over $100 million in cap space, big names like Calvin Ridley, Christian Wilkins, and Danielle Hunter signed elsewhere. 

De facto general manager Eliot Wolf lived up to his word, retaining all of the team’s key free veterans and re-signing most of its significant role players. But their out-of-house signings didn’t move the needle created by vows to “burn some cash.” 

Mayo told reporters he didn’t regret his phrasing, but began his presser by breaking down New England’s free agency strategy.

“Obviously, the media, the fans, everyone wants that big signing,” Mayo acknowledged. “But at the same time, as we continue to put this team together, I think there has to be a process. It has to be a methodical process. And look, when there is a guy that we want to get, the Krafts have already told us, they’ll spend the money.

“And I would say offensively this year, we were very picky as far as the players that we were getting, and at the same time, that wasn’t really a deep offensive free agent class to even make that kind of splash.”

Mayo was spot on about the offensive options on the market. Calvin Ridley was the only weapon worth investing significant capital in, and quality tackle options Tyron Smith and Jonah Williams both signed with competitors. 

That said, the Patriots had more obstacles to overcome than a shallow pool of offensive talent. Mayo alluded to the team’s uncertain future as a factor in their quiet free agency.

“I would say there were various reasons why guys didn’t sign with us,” Mayo said. “Once again, the unknown is scary for a lot of people and I would say, even in our building right now, it’s still unknown.”

Kraft went into further detail, specifically mentioning Ridley, who signed a four-year, $92 million with the Titans despite a strong push from New England.

“There was one outstanding receiver that, unfortunately, we couldn’t close,” Kraft explained. “It was not because of finance. He made clearly his girlfriend wanted to be in the South. And we had a situation where the taxes were like almost 10% higher. We offered, or were willing to keep going at that premium, but he didn’t want to be in the Northeast. And part of it might be the quarterback situation as well.”

Kraft’s mention of Ridley’s partner, to whom he is actually married, was a bit odd. Still, it was notable that he admitted geography, taxes, and an incomplete quarterback room factored into the receiver’s decision. 

Gone are the days of free agents braving harsh elements and high prices for the promise of a Super Bowl ring. With Tom Brady and Bill Belichick no longer on the sidelines, the Patriots must find other means of recruiting veteran talent. 

Mayo acknowledged as much when asked if the organization will have to rebuild its reputation as an ideal free agent destination.

“The goal is always to have players want to come to your organization, and that is absolutely our process,” Mayo said. “We’re thinking about those things. And once again, the Krafts are giving us the ability to really, I don’t want to say modernize but to really do the things that we want to do going forward to bring people in, which I think is important.”

There was already a lot riding on the upcoming draft, but the uncomfortable truths of a rebuild bring it further into focus. The Patriots have to knock virtually every pick out of the park, which would be made much easier with more at-bats. 

PATRIOTS OPEN TO TRADING THE NO. 3 PICK

Since the Vikings loaded up in a transparent ploy to acquire a quarterback, New England has been a focal point of trade talks. 

A strong argument can be made for simply taking a franchise quarterback. But the Patriots’ roster has many holes to fill. If they don’t love Drake Maye and/or Jayden Daniels, it would make sense for to stock up on 1st-round picks. Mayo confirmed the team is keeping its options open.

“I know everyone likes to think they have the special formula to picking players, but honestly, the guaranteed way to win is to accumulate more picks,” Mayo explained. “And so if we don’t feel convicted at No. 3, to your point, we are willing to [stay put] that as well.”

New England isn’t banking on a 1st-round passer, either. 

“You’re going to find gems throughout the draft,” Mayo said. “Once again, as we continue to go through the process and look at these players, really it’s about trying to find those gems later in the draft.  Now, sitting at  No. 3 is very unique because, whatever happens at No. 3 or No. 2, if you’re convicted on three or four quarterbacks, then I feel like we’re in a good position.”

When asked about Drake Maye, Mayo was honest about the process of evaluating a quarterback, but he also said the UNC product has no ceiling.

“Yeah, look, Drake Maye had a fantastic interview at the combine,” Mayo said. “He brings a lot of energy.  You can tell he has that leadership ability.  And also, the exciting part about a guy like Drake Maye is, the ceiling, there is really no ceiling with a guy like that.  Now, in saying that, when we’re trying to put together this roster, I know a lot of people look at the ceiling, but you’ve also got to kind of see how low is the floor?  How low is the floor? 

“I would say a guy like Drake Maye, he has a lot of room to grow. He’s a young guy. Honestly, he hasn’t played football nearly as much as these other guys. That’s definitely something that we’ve looked at, but he definitely is going to develop.”

Mayo’s comment about Maye’s ceiling is notable, given Sportkeeda’s Tony Pauline reported not everyone in the Patriots’ building is sold on Maye. If the quarterback does fall to New England, he’ll need unanimous support.

“And once again, it’s not all about me, it’s not all about Eliot,” Mayo explained. “What you guys have heard me say a lot, it’s about collaboration. And one thing that Alonzo Highsmith, one of our scouts, told me, and I truly believe it, he’s been doing it for a long time, and he said all the bad picks that he’s seen, it’s really been where everyone wasn’t on the same page. And you would hope that you can get everyone on the same page, coaches, and also scouts. If you have one person drafting, that’s kind of tough.”

Kraft admitted the fan in him wants the Patriots to stay put and take a quarterback, but will ultimately defer to the experts. 

“I put my ‘fan hat’ on, and I definitely would [like a quarterback with the No. 3 pick]. In the end, you can’t win in this league consistently unless you have a first-rate quarterback and a first-rate coach,” Kraft confessed. “On the other hand, you’re in a different position. We’ve never been in the third draft position since we’ve owned the team. 

“What happens, a lot of people behind are really desperate to move up, and so we’re going to be open to whatever can come our way. But in the end, I’ll let the team make the decision what they think is best. One way or another, I’d like to see us get a top-rate, young quarterback.”

MAYO ASKS FOR PATIENCE AMID SIGNIFICANT REBUILD

The Patriots’ two dynasties weren’t built in a day, but those sky-high standards can be hard to shake. 

When asked about his expectations for this season, Kraft initially played a familiar tune before acknowledging the harsh reality of a rebuild.

“My hope and expectation is to make the playoffs,” Kraft expressed. That’s something, realistically, we have a new leadership team, we’re going to have a lot of young players we don’t know – a lot can happen. We might struggle more than I want. … I just hope we don’t struggle. But in the end, everything is chit-chat until you get on the field. X’s and O’s are where it’s at.”

It’s easy to forget, but New England was more competitive last season than its 4-13 record suggests. Of the team’s 13 losses, eight were by one possession, and in the other five losses, the defense allowed multiple second-half touchdowns once. 

With Christian Gonzalez and Matthew Judon returning from injury, and potential jumps from last year’s early-round picks, it’s fair to think a less anemic offense and improved special teams could get the Patriots past four wins.

That said, expecting a playoff run so soon is ambitious, particularly with a brand new offensive staff and rookies slated to fill major roles.

Mayo was more grounded when referencing New England’s current outlook, asking fans for grace as the franchise charts a new course.

“For Patriots fans, I understand the frustration,” Mayo said. “I understand the expectation that has been really built over the last 20 years. But at the same time, hopefully, the fans understand that we’re trying to build this the right way. And we’re trying to bring in pieces that we think are for the long term. I think there’s a combination between bringing people in for the short-term, but also you have to think long-term, that’s always the hard thing to do.

I would just ask Patriots fans for patience. Once again, there will be players that hit the wire, free agents, guys that are explosive, whatever you want to say.  There will be guys in the draft.  There will be guys after the draft.  So just sit back and kind of let us do our job going forward.”

PATRIOTS TAKING ACTION AFTER DROPPING TO BOTTOM-FIVE IN NFLPA SURVEY

Each season, the NFLPA surveys players on their working conditions to highlight teams that excel and raise standards for teams that need improvement. The results are aggregated into an annual report card for each of the NFL’s 32 teams.

The Patriots ranked 29th in the team surveys, with their strength coaches earning the league’s 2nd-lowest grade and their weight room ranking as the worst in the NFL.New England ranked 24th in 2023, pointing to a glaring regression that Kraft was asked about during his press conference.

“I must tell you, I was unaware of how bad that was,” Kraft confessed. “We’ve had a plan, and we put in place, where we’re committing a whole new facility adjacent to ours that has been discussed with the young leadership team. A building that will be in excess of $50 million that will have the most [modern] facilities.”

The Patriots’ lowest grade on the survey was an F- for their treatment of families. New England is one of 12 teams that does not provide a family room during games, one of seven teams that doesn’t provide daycare support for players’ children on gamedays, and one of just four teams that doesn’t offer a family room or daycare. 

Kraft said he was unaware of the daycare issues but called it a fixable issue that they plan to address.

“Look, the players are the heart and soul of the business. I’d be very surprised if that didn’t improve.”

PLAYER SAFETY EFFORTS LEAD TO BIG RULE CHANGES 

The NFL’s attempts to make the game safer are often polarizing and this year was no exception. 

The first major rule change enacted by NFL owners was a ban on the controversial “hip-drop tackle,” specifically the swivel technique that has led to multiple significant lower-body injuries. According to NFL executive vice president Jeff Miller, 230 instances of the tackling technique occurred last season, resulting in 15 players missing time.

Violating the rule will result in a 15-yard penalty during games. However, according to NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, the league will use fines rather than flags to legislate the rule.

Officials’ judgment has seemingly gotten worse by the season, so speculation over their ability to enforce the rule properly is justified. Players have also spoken out against the rule.

While pushback is understandable, the injury’s results are hard to ignore. Patriots fans will remember losing Rhamondre Stevenson to a swivel hip-drop tackle late last season.

Lower-body injuries are difficult to bounce back from and often affect careers, so addressing this technique felt necessary. Its effectiveness will ultimately be decided by how effectively it is enforced.

In a move that received more general praise, the NFL is making big changes to kickoffs following a league-record-low 21.7% return rate last season.

Taking inspiration from the XFL, coverage teams will now line up on the opponent’s 40-yard line while return teams line up between the 30 and 35-yard lines with a maximum of two returners deep. No one but the kicker or returner can move until the ball is fielded or hits the ground.

This change was made to reduce the number of unnecessarily violent collisions that led to an unsustainable rate of head injuries.

The field will also be broken up into separate zones that affect the outcome of the kick.

Kicks into the end zone or out of the back of the end zone result in a touchback to the 35-yard line. Kicks into the “Landing Zone”(goal line to the 20-yard line) must be returned but result in a touchback to the 20-yard line if the kick lands and rolls into the end zone before being downed. Any kick that falls short of the landing zone will result in a touchback to the 40-yard line, similar to kicking the ball out of bounds in previous iterations.

Onside kicks now must be declared but are limited to trailing teams in the 4th quarter.

These changes will affect play design, returner evaluations, and roster building, as Eric Galko, who helped pioneer the new style, breaks down fantastically in the thread below.

The value of returners like Jalen Reagor and Marcus Jones should increase significantly, as they’ll now have opportunities to make an impact rather than waiting for kicks to boom past their heads. It will also be interesting to see how return schemes and the style of specialists we see on the field change to take full advantage of the new rules.

This rule will only be a one-year trial run before another decision is made this time next year. But for now, with the league encouraging returns rather than discouraging them like in recent years, special teamers will once again have a place on NFL rosters.

Taylor Kyles

Taylor Kyles is the lead NFL Analyst for CLNS Media covering players, schemes, and tendencies through a New England Patriots-centric lens.

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