Curran: Kicking around some kickoff strategy

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Curran: Kicking around some kickoff strategy

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com Patriots Insider Follow @tomecurran
FOXBORO - My name is Tom. And I'm way too interested in the new kickoff rule. (Hi Tom.) I think I will get over it. But for right now, in these nascent days of the ball being teed 15 feet closer to the opposing end zone, the possibilities seem endless. A cavalcade of onsides kicks? Scoring plunges? Soaring scoring? How will it all affect this game, this game, this game, this game? Lotta things. Lotta things. Bill Belichick is thinking about the kickoffs too. And the preseason game Thursday night against Tampa Bay will provide more data about how to best approach the normally routine play. Does a team simply have its kicker pound the ball out of the end zone? Or hang it high and let his coverage team try to pin the returner inside the 20? I asked Belichick about the "hang it high" approach.

"If you cant cover it very well, then youd probably take every touchback you can get," he said. "If you feel youve got a lot of confidence in your coverage team and your kickers ability to place the ball with both location and hang time, then you might feel differently about that. That might not be the same every game; the situation may change. Thats the thing about playing here that we have to be very aware of in the kicking game just how situations change every single week.

"If youre playing in a dome in St. Louis or Detroit or wherever, you know what its going to be every single week, so you can plan accordingly," he continued. "In our situation, because the elements affect the kicking game first before they affect even the passing game, we have a lot of situations that we have to deal with: weve got crosswinds, we kick into the wind, we kick with the wind, weve got weather conditions in addition to all the other variables of just the team youre playing and what they do and so forth. There are a lot of different options there and things that we have to consider. And the bad side of it is defensively, on the return team, we have to be ready for all of those different things, too: where theyre going to kick it and what theyre going to do and how the elements affect us. Its an interesting part of the game, it really is."

Oh, I agree. The main point of the new rule is to create more touchbacks and fewer collisions between 250-pounders going about 17 mph. But it also adds an opportunity for kicking teams to be experimental.

"I think part of it gets down to how you feel you match up against your opponent," Belichick offered. "My guess would be, with all other things being equal, Chicago would see more touchbacks than some other teams would (because of their explosive return game). But they may not because of the conditions that they play in that may not statistically show up. But I think if they played on the same field as the other 31 teams in the same conditions, if you had a chance to kick it out of the end zone or not kick it out of the end zone, you would probably choose to kick it out of the end zone, if your kicker could do that."

Of the 13 kickoffs in last week's preseason opener between the Pats and Jaguars, 10 sailed into the end zone. The Jaguars returned six kickoffs. Their starting field position was their own 11, New England's 18 and their own 17, 24, 13 and 6.

There are hidden yards in every game. And a team that is inside its own 20 after a kickoff return may be inclined to play-call more conservatively. If you have a kicker who can drop a kickoff at the goal line every time, the opportunity is there to get extra yards for the kicking team.

"Certainly, theres an opportunity for more momentum in the game, just like we saw last week in the Jacksonville game: score, kickoff, tackle them on the 11, bad punt, score again," Belichick agreed. "In two minutes, youve got a quick turn around. So, that can work both ways, too."

The guy in charge of serving up the kickoffs, kicker Stephen Gostkowski, is amenable to anything.

"If the coach wants to kick it high to the goal line, I'll do that," he said. "If he wants me to blast it and get a touchback, I'll try to do that too."

The possibilities? Endless.

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

Patriots making contract statements with OTA absences?

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Patriots making contract statements with OTA absences?

Malcolm Butler was one of many not spotted during OTAs on Thursday when the media got a looksee at one of the practices.

Butler wasn’t the only one. But he did stand out as a missing player who hadn’t (to my knowledge) had a surgery but did have a contract that needs addressing. Another one? Rob Gronkowski. If we really want to extend it out, throw in Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan.

This is the point where it’s important to point out that these workouts are voluntary – VAW-LUN-TERR-EEEE! Players don’t have to be there. Additionally, I’m not even sure Butler or Gronkowski (or Ryan and Harmon) weren’t at the facility. All I know is they weren’t on the field. And, per usual, nobody’s tipping his hand as to why.

But we do have this, relative to Butler. ESPN’s Mike Reiss wrote Sunday that he “wouldn’t be surprised if it was related to his contract status.” Reiss said that Butler “told teammates and friends he plans to push for an adjustment to his contract before the 2016 season, and staying off the field in voluntary workouts would be a decision that limits injury risk and also could be viewed as a statement to the organization that he's unhappy with the status quo and/or the movement/specifics of contract talks.”

In the same vein, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gronkowski opted out as well for the same reason, especially since he threw out a tweet that signaled dissatisfaction with his pact in March.

But in terms of a statement, not going to OTAs is more of a throat-clearing than a noisy proclamation.

Not to minimize the move if Butler, Gronkowski or anybody else is actually staying away because of business. The Patriots usually enjoy almost perfect OTA attendance. Also, there hasn’t been much contract strife around here for the past five seasons.

Money matters were an annual issue for the Patriots from about 2003 through 2010. Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, Ty Warren, Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork, Randy Moss, Adam Vinatieri, Mike Vrabel and – quietly – Tom Brady all had their contract dances back then. But the only one that got hairy in the recent past was Wes Welker.

It’s still too soon to know if any of these will get contentious. When will we know? When either a player or his agent spouts off. Or, when someone’s a no-show at mandatory minicamp beginning June 7.

That would amount to a shot across the bow. Of all the players likely to take that shot, Butler seems a reasonable bet. His base pay this season is $600K after a Pro Bowl campaign in 2015 that saw him check the opposition’s best wideout on a weekly basis. He’s a restricted free agent at the end of the year. He deserves longer-term security than he currently has. Gronkowski has a lot less to kick about. He may make less than lesser players, but he also was the league’s highest paid tight end when he was missing scads of games due to injury.

After Butler, Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower would figure to have the strongest cases to want new deals and want them snappy. Ryan and Harmon would be right behind those two. Then Jabaal Sheard.

Sheard, Hightower and Collins were all on the field Thursday. 

Can the Patriots get all these guys reupped? Will they even try? How do they have them prioritized? If the guy who howls loudest gets to the front of the line, the time to make some noise is close.

But we have yet to hear any of these players loud and clear.