NFL kickoff change could benefit Patriots

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NFL kickoff change could benefit Patriots

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com

My buddy Rich Levine, who ably columnizes mostly on the Celtics, stepped over today to weigh in on the "safety" issue related to the NFL's kickoff changes. Enjoy. As a practical matter, though, how does moving the kickoff line of scrimmage from the 30 to the 35 impact the Patriots both on kickoffs and returns?Check out some of the numbers. First, on kickoffs, Stephen Gostkowski has gotten progressively more explosive on kickoffs. Here's his year-by-year touchback stats2006: 12 touchbacks on 81 kickoffs (14.8 percent)2007: 15 on 112 (13.4)2008: 17 on 95 (17.9)2009: 21 on 91 (23.1)2010: 15 on 42 (35.7)That 35.7 percent - in limited duty - was second in the NFL behind the Ravens' Billy Cundiff, who had touchbacks on 50.7 of his kickoffs in 2010. (The Ravens can basically just send Cundiff out there by himselfnow if they want to this year.) Only two other kickers were over 30 percent in touchbacks (Matt Prater, Denver: 35.1; Sebastian Janikowski, Oakland: 31.2). Four players were over 30 percent in 2009. Gostkowski was 11th in touchback percentage in '09, but he was the highest among cold-weather, non-dome kickers.Even though he underwent surgery on his injured right quad, you have to figure a young athlete like Gostkowski will return at or even beyond the same level in 2011. He's a ridiculously talented athlete and - with rehab and conditioning what it is these days - the layoff and chance to strengthen could even help him. Mike Reiss at ESPNBoston.com did some research on the touchbacks Gostkowski had in 2010. He found that 22 of Gostkowski's 40 kicks traveled into the end zone (again, 15 touchbacks). If the LOS had been the 35, seven more kicks would have traveled in. So if even five more of those kicks resulted in touchbacks, Gostkowski conceivably would have been at 50 percent. And that's good for New Englandfor a few reasons. Not onlyis 80 yards a long way for an offense to go to score a touchdown, but every touchback means a high-speed, high-collision play on which the risk of injury and the threat to team personnelis high. Take it a step further: Kickoff returns are flash plays that can alter momentum if a big one is broken.
In the AFC East, the Jets have one of the best in the business in Brad Smith. In 2010, Smith led all returners with over 25 returns, averaging 28.6 yards on 50 returns with two touchdowns. Miami's Nolan Carroll averaged 24.3 on 27 returns. Buffalo's CJ Spiller returned a kicoff for a touchdown in the second game of the season but no Buffalo returner was in the top 40 in return average. How does New England's return game get affected by this? Well, Brandon Tate - who was terrific early in the season, then showed an amazing aptitude to not make anybody miss as the season wore on - finished fifth in the NFL among returners with 25 or more chances with a per return average of 25.8. Because his greatest attribute is speed rather than elusiveness, you may see Tate continue to bring out kicks that sail up to 5 yards deep in the end zone (one of his touchdowns was a 103-yard return). But it will hamper the explosiveness of Dan Connolly. Elusive. Not fast.

Tom E. Curran can be reached at tcurran@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran

It's official: Patriots nab third-round compensatory pick in Collins trade

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It's official: Patriots nab third-round compensatory pick in Collins trade

The Patriots received a conditional fourth-round pick in 2018 from the Browns in return for Jamie Collins. That's how the trade was described on the league's transaction wire. 

The "condition" of that fourth-rounder? Well, if the Browns received a third-round compensatory pick in 2017, the Patriots would nab that pick instead. 

On Friday, the NFL announced that the Browns had in fact been awarded a third-round compensatory pick, which meant that almost three full weeks after Super Bowl LI, everything was still coming up Patriots.

In actuality, the odds were pretty good all along that the Patriots would get what they got

Cleveland lost Pro Bowl center Alex Mack in free agency last offseason when he opted to sign with the Falcons. Because compensatory picks are based on free agents lost and free agents acquired, and because the Browns did not sign any similarly-impactful free agents, there was a good chance Mack's departure would render a third-round comp pick that would be shipped to New England.

Had Mack suffered a significant injury that forced his play to drop off or limited his time on the field, a third-rounder may have been out of the question, but he played well (named a Pro Bowler and a Second Team All-Pro) and stayed healthy -- lucky for the Patriots -- missing just 17 total snaps in the regular season. 

The Browns comp pick that will be sent to New England is No. 103 overall. The Patriots were also awarded a fifth-round comp pick, No. 185 overall. That was a result of the league weighing the departures of Akiem Hicks and Tavon Wilson against the arrival of Shea McClellin.

The Patriots now have nine selections in this year's draft: One first-rounder; one second-rounder; two third-rounders; one fourth-rounder*; two fifth-rounders; two seventh-rounders.

* The Patriots forfeited their highest fourth-round selection in this year's draft as part of their Deflategate punishment. They acquired a fourth-round pick from the Seahawks last year. Because that would have been the higher of their two selections, that's the one they'll lose. They will make their own fourth-round pick at No. 137 overall.

Gronkowski says he has 'no doubt' he'll be ready for start of next season

Gronkowski says he has 'no doubt' he'll be ready for start of next season

When it comes to projecting Rob Gronkowski's health, it's been best to steer clear of absolutes. There have been too many injuries, too many surgeries, to predict exactly how he'll feel months in advance. 

Still, in speaking with ESPN's Cari Champion recently, he said he had "no doubt" he'll be ready for Week 1 of the 2017 regular season. 

"Yes, for sure," he replied when asked if he expected to be good to go. 

Gronkowski also fielded a question about his long-term future in the sit-down. Lately it's been his coach Bill Belichick and his quarterback Tom  Brady who receiver all the life-after-football queries, but Gronkowski, 27, was asked how much longer he'd like to play. 

"I’m not really sure," he said. "I mean, I still love playing the game, and as of right now, I want to play as long as I possibly could play. My mindset is to keep on going."

Gronkowski landed on season-ending injured reserve in December after undergoing a procedure on his back -- his third back surgery since 2009. He's had nine reported surgeries -- including procedures on his knee, forearm and ankle -- since his final year at the University of Arizona.