Curran at the Combine: 5 from Day 3

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Curran at the Combine: 5 from Day 3

By Tom E. CurranCSNNE.com Patriots Insider

INDIANAPOLIS - It all starts with the quarterback, they say. Saturday, it all ended with the quarterbacks. All the head coaches and GMs finished their moments at the podium (except the Patriots, who took a pass on speaking to media) and that cleared the way for the star attractions of this week, quarterbacks Cam Newton and Ryan Mallett. Their local link is minor so we'll get to them a bit later in Saturday's edition of the 5. THE TROUBLE WITH TRADINGFormer Patriots GM Scott Pioli said that a lockout shouldn't be a big problem for teams trying to make pre-draft trades."It's one of those things I don't spend time worrying about or thinking about," said Pioli, who was part of the draft-happy Patriots' front office before going to the Chiefs. "Whatever the circumstances are, that's what they are. You can't spend time or energy on things you can't control."There are moving parts to consider though. For instance, the Patriots have so many early picks there will be a market for them. So what if they wanted todeal for the rights to a player? Would that trade hold up post-lockout? And wouldn't the team want to kick the tires or find out as much as possible about the player pre-trade? Surely deals are done without players being contacted all the time, butthe Patriots' draft weekend deal for Randy Moss required extensive conversations. Just another monkey wrench to lob into the works. OLD PATRIOTS DON'T FORGETOn Saturday, Pioli was asked what he remembered of assistant coach Brian Daboll whenDaboll was a Patriots' assistant. Daboll was part of the outflux of coaches that left with Eric Mangini when Mangini got the Jets job. Daboll then went with Mangini to Cleveland and is now the newly-hired offensive coordinator in Miami. Hard feelings over the way Mangini recruited Patriots coaches to go with him to New York and, of course, Spygate seemed to be close to the surface when Pioli answered. "I remember that he was part of a great deal of success there," Pioli said curtly. Pioli could have pulled a punch as well when he was asked about Charlie Weis leaving the Chiefs to go to the University of Florida and coordinate offense. I dont think you enter any relationship thinking its going to be a short-term relationship, especially when someone is under contract. It changes, theres nothing you can do about it, you adjust to it as you have to. Thats life, Pioli said.THE EXPERIENCE FACTOROne thing that may lurk in the back of teams' minds as they shop for players this April is how soon they'll be able to get those players in with their coaches. If, for instance, the situation between owners and players isn't resolved until August, it will be almost a lost year for the incoming group of rookies without much college experience. Those players will have missed out on minicamps, passing camps, etc. And by the time training camp starts, getting the veterans ready may trump the need to get rookies up to speed. So if you're a team looking at a third-year sophomore like defensive end Aldon Smith from Missouri or four-year senior Cameron Jordan from Cal who played twice as many games after high school, wouldn't it make sense to err on the side of experience? The ability of teams to self-start despite not being with coaches is going to be absolutely vital once football starts again if there's a protracted work stoppage. BIG DAY FOR CASTONZOBoston College offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo probably benefited as much as anybody when USC tackle Tyron Smith left the Combine early and passed on running in Indy. Castonzo ran a very respectable 5.23 in the 40 and word from two team sourcesis that Castonzo continues to impress in team interviews. "I'm having a blast," Castonzo told me Saturday afternoon outside the Indianapolis Convention Center. "These interviews are perfect for me. I love the grilling." Castonzo was an exceptional student at Boston College, a bio-chem major. It's no surprise he's killing it. GRILLED QUARTERBACKThere was really no way that Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett could win on Saturday when he stepped to the podium. Dealing with a flurry of rumors that he's been involved with drugs, he was bound to be questioned about it. And he was. Four times. After the last entreaty, he ended his interview and left the podium. He'll be criticized for that. People will use that moment to extrapolate he can't take pressure. But, as a quarterback, sometimes you have to know when to get out of a bad play, as it were, and I felt that's what Mallett did. When initially asked about the rumors, Mallett said, "When I saw that stuff, I laughed about it."He insinuated he's being sabotaged by saying, Obviously someone did that for a reason, right before the Combine.Mallett said he wasn't going to address anything in the press conference forum and that he'd speak to the teams in his personal interview. Which is perfectly reasonable. What college kid should be made to address a room full of strangers and possibly unveil drug use when that's only going to turn into headlines for the next two months? And nobody's going to say, "Oh. Thanks, we don't need to know anymore," if Mallett comes clean. As for Cam Newton, his problems were minor in comparison. He had to squish the perception he's a diva after saying he hopes to become "an entertainer and an icon."He tried to undo that by opening his time at the podium with a statement, saying, "First and foremost I understand that my obligation is to be the best possible football player that I can be. I know and believe that.He said he was speaking about an endorsement he'd signed when he said the words. I was making the point that I want to be the best possible ambassador for them just like I want to be the best possible ambassador for whatever team I am lucky enough to play for, Newton said. He's an eminently likable kid. He handled the questions about his readiness with aplomb. And by using the third-person. Obviously, everybody knows that Cam has been in a spread offense and I have been trying to work as much as possible on trying to be fluid, he explained. He was also asked about his father, Cecil Newton, who nearly cost his son his eligibility by allegedly demanding Mississippi State pay for Cam Newton's presence. "My father is just like any other father that wants the best for his son. He wants to see his son succeed in every way possible.He added that the experience brought he and his father closer together.
Tom E. Curran canbe reached at tcurran@comcastsportsnet.com.Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran

Five things to look for from the NFL annual meetings this week

Five things to look for from the NFL annual meetings this week

PHOENIX -- Bill Belichick may not be speaking with the media here this week, but there will be plenty for us to examine at the annual league meetings. 

Reporters were informed via a team spokesperson that the Patriots coach would not be in attendance at the AFC coaches breakfast Tuesday morning -- where in the past orange juice has been sipped and tape recorders have been bulldozed -- due to a scouting conflict. 

The breakfast is not mandatory for coaches so for Belichick to use his time at a college pro day (Florida, Texas and Iowa State all have theirs scheduled for Tuesday) or a private workout comes as little surprise. He's been busy on the Trail of Due Diligence in recent weeks, making visits to Vanderbilt, Ohio State and Michigan in order to get a closer look at prospects.

Five weeks behind, remember? No days off. 

Patriots owner Robert Kraft is planning to meet with reporters on Monday so we'll have an opportunity to hear from him on a variety of topics when that comes to pass. 

Here are some of the other Patriots-related stories we'll be doing some digging on this week as we keep you updated with blog posts, occasional television hits, tweets (@PhilAPerry), Instagram shots (@PhilAPerry), and maybe even a podcast or two.

-- What does the rest of the league think when it sees the way the Patriots have attacked this offseason? How will the new pieces fit? Do other coaches and executives see it as Belichick going all in on 2017? Or is this just a case of a team adhering to its motto of doing "what's best for the football team" -- both in the short and long-term?

-- What's next for the Patriots? They're not done building the roster, so where might they turn next? Will they add other lower-level free agents? Will they be looking to trade back into the first and second rounds? Which positions seem to be of interest to them in the draft, and how might that signal the direction this roster is headed?

-- What is the feeling on the future at the quarterback position in New England? We know the Patriots aren't looking to give away Jimmy Garoppolo, but do people around the league really feel as though a haul of draft picks won't get the Patriots to think twice about trading him? Is it possible that in this rare scenario -- where the franchise quarterback is playing at an MVP-level but headed into his 40-year-old season -- people could see the Patriots paying two passers a starter's salary?

-- Will anything happen with Malcolm Butler before the meetings are out? Some have speculated that if his status as a restricted free agent (with an unsigned first-round tender) is to change anytime soon, it could happen here, where presumably his agent will be able to hear offers from one or more clubs in person. Will Butler find a team willing to give him an offer sheet and relinquish its first-round pick to the Patriots? Or will he sign his tender -- whether it's with the intent to play for the Patriots in 2017, or to be traded?

-- Rules changes are coming. We just don't know which ones. Will the linebacker leap (executed by Jamie Collins and Shea McClellin under Belichick) be eliminated? Will Stephen Gostkowski soon be looking to blast kickoffs through the uprights due to the passing of a rule that would place the ball at the 20 as opposed to the 25 for such a feat? Will real-time replay decisions suddenly shift from the officials on the field to the NFL offices at 345 Park Avenue? We'll let you know which proposals are held up, which fall flat, and how the Patriots might be impacted. Belichick and his staff did not submit any proposals for the second consecutive year.

Film review: Burkhead provides Patriots combination of power, quickness

Film review: Burkhead provides Patriots combination of power, quickness

Rex Burkhead knew he was staring at a rare opportunity.

Going into Cincinnati's 2016 season finale, the 5-foot-10, 210-pound back was averaging just three carries per game. But with both Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard injured, the fourth-year player out of Nebraska understood he had a chance to put something on tape that would help him land a job in the offseason. 

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"Can't lie," Burkhead told his college teammate Adam Carriker. "Going into free agency, I knew that game was huge. It was a good opportunity for me to show what I could do. I guess it kind of helped me out."

It certainly didn't hurt. 

Burkhead ran 27 times for 119 yards and two scores against the Ravens, showing off an intriguing blend of toughness and elusiveness in the process. 

Burkead was already an accomplished special-teamer -- he led the Bengals in special-teams tackles last season -- but his performance against the NFL's fifth-ranked rushing defense made it clear that he could be leaned upon for more than just a few carries every week.

The Patriots must have taken notice. 

They signed Burkhead earlier this month to a one-year deal that will pay him $1.8 million in base salary and carry what some considered a relatively surprising maximum value of $3.15 million. That's more than the $1 million LeGarrette Blount was offered on his one-year deal last year, and it's enough to make Burkhead the highest-paid running back on the roster. 

What did the Patriots see from Burkhead that made him worth that kind of money? Let's take a closer look at his film -- particularly what he did in Week 17 last season -- to get a sense of what he might be able to do in New England. 

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The Patriots have long had a "big back" on their roster. Most recently, that's been Blount, who has been complemented by sub back James White and all-purpose runner Dion Lewis. 

Before Blount it was Stevan Ridley. Before Ridley, it was BenJarvus Green-Ellis. You can go all the way back to Corey Dillon and Antowain Smith. Belichick likes runners who can get what's blocked, protect the football, then create their own yards in the secondary by punishing defensive backs.

Burkhead doesn't quite tip the scales as those players listed above -- though he comes close to Green-Ellis (5-11, 215) -- yet he's currently the biggest back on the Patriots roster, and he seems to run with a bruiser's mentality. 

On his very first carry against the Ravens, when he got through the line of scrimmage and into the secondary, he saw that safety Matt Elam had him lined up. Instead of trying to spin away from Elam or hurdle him, Burkhead lowered his shoulder and became the aggressor. 

Elam, who was thought to be one of the biggest hitters to enter the league four years ago, had to give himself a moment before popping back up to his feet after the collision. 

Statement made. 

Burkhead's strength, it seems, is his strength. Just ask Eric Weddle and the rest of the Ravens how he turned this play into a nine-yard gain to help the Bengals bleed the clock late in the fourth quarter. 



Burkhead consistently fought through first contact and fell forward to pick up maximum yardage snap after snap versus Baltimore's stingy run defense. On his first touchdown of the game, he was tripped up near the line of scrimmage but showed good balance by stumbling into the end zone from five yards away. 

Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of Burkhead's performance against the Ravens was his ability to keep the Bengals out of negative plays. On multiple occasions, he was hit at the line of scrimmage or behind it and consistently made his way back to the line or beyond it. 

Early in the fourth quarter, he was hit for what looked like it would be a three or four-yard loss yet somehow he was able to twist and dive back for no gain. Midway through the second, he was hit at the line and turned it into a four-yard pickup. 



One of the reasons Lewis has been so valuable to the Patriots when healthy the last two seasons is that when things break down up front, and when it looks like Tom Brady is about to be looking at second-and-11, he cuts and knifes forward for a yard or two or more. 

Those aren't big plays in the box score, but they're critical when it comes to extending drives. It seems like Burkhead has the ability to submit the same kinds of small-but-important gains with a hard-charging style all his own.

VISION, QUICKNESS TO FIND RUNNING ROOM
For someone who seems to enjoy imposing his will on would-be tacklers, Burkhead has a good amount of wiggle to his game. His vision and lateral quickness helped him make Ravens defenders look silly at times. 

As opposed to burrowing into a pile of bodies at the line of scrimmage early in the third quarter, his jump cut to the right helped him find space in the open field for an eye-opening eight-yard run. 



On the very next down, he was stopped a yard behind the line of scrimmage but was able to pick up three thanks to another jump cut that allowed him to stretch the run out wide.

In the fourth, Burkhead showed good patience by stalling behind the block of receiver Brandon LaFell, picking a path, and running decisively once he did. 



Burkhead may not be Lewis when it comes to his elusiveness, but he has the ability to mix in some off-speed stuff in between snaps spent trying to bowl over tacklers. 

Asked by Carriker if he preferred powering through defenders or bouncing around them, Burkhead said he'd actually go with the latter. 

"I think making a guy miss just because I feel like they don't expect that from me a lot of times," Burkhead explained. "But growing up I always took good pride in that. Just my quickness, my ability to make my guy miss."

MR. VERSATILITY
Part of what makes Burkhead's signing so interesting is that he doesn't fit tightly into the definition of either "big back" or "sub back." He seems somewhat like a larger version of Lewis -- an all-purpose runner who he can be used in a variety of packages and deployed in a variety of positions.

Burkhead has run out of the I-formation and the shotgun. He's caught the ball out of the backfield and lined up as a receiver, where he spent most of Cinci's 2014 Divisional Round game against the Colts. He caught three passes that day for 34 yards and ran a reverse for a gain of 23. 

"He has tremendous short-area quickness," then-Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said during training camp two years ago. "His 10-yard times were off the charts; his three-cone was off the charts. He's very talented [as a receiver]."

However Burkhead is used, he'll very likely continue to see time as a contributor in the kicking game. Not only does he have a wealth of experience when it comes to covering kicks, but he's served as a kick-returner in the past as well. 

So to recap: Running back...receiver...special-teamer.

Sure sounds like someone Belichick would be willing to invest in.