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What the return of Dan Koppen means for the Patriots offensive line

04.13.12 at 12:33 pm ET
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With the news that veteran Dan Koppen has agreed to a two-year contract to return to the Patriots, it creates an interesting dynamic along New England’s veteran offensive line.

The 32-year-old Koppen, who was out for the bulk of the 2011 season with a fractured ankle, now faces a strong positional battle from Dan Connolly, who started in his place last year and has moved from versatile backup to important cog in New England’s offensive line. Earlier this offseason, Connolly signed a three-year deal worth more than $9 million, suggesting that he would now assume the role of primary starter and Koppen would be free to look elsewhere for work. (Koppen did reportedly have one free-agent visit with Tennessee.)

However, Koppen has been a steady and dependable presence up from since he was a rookie — a 2003 fifth-round pick out of Boston College, has started 120 of 121 games over nine seasons with the Patriots, and went to the Pro Bowl in 2007. When it comes to winning his spot back on a permanent basis, Koppen can lean on a lot of things in his favor, most notably the fact that he is close friends with quarterback Tom Brady.

If Koppen is at 100 percent — as many believe he is — that would free up Connolly to serve as either a stopgap for left guard Logan Mankins if Mankins is forced to sit for a stretch because of ACL surgery the Fresno State product underwent following an injury in the Super Bowl. Connolly could also provide support at the other guard position, as it remains unclear as to whether or not starting veteran Brian Waters will be back for a second season with the Patriots.

This move also means that Ryan Wendell returns to his role as a primary backup among the interior offensive linemen, leading a group that includes Nick McDonald and Donald Thomas.

Read More: Brian Waters, Dan Connolly, Dan Koppen, Donald Thomas

Wes Welker on the franchise tag: ‘It’s a lot of money. How can you ever be upset about that?’

04.12.12 at 10:06 pm ET
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Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker made an appearance on the NFL Network’€™s ‘€œTotal Access’€ Thursday night and addressed a variety of topics, including the franchise tags, whether or not he’€™ll attend the upcoming organized team activities and the struggles of Chad Ochocinco last season. Here are a few quick highlights:

On the franchise tag: ‘€œIt’€™s a lot of money. How can you ever be upset about that? It’€™s more than half of what my last contract was over five years. One year — $9.5 (million) over one year? It’€™s not a bad deal. I’€™m not worried about it.’€

On if he will attend OTAs: ‘€œStill looking to try and decide on that. I’€™m in no rush. We’€™ll figure it out. As far as me and my agents, we’€™re on the same page with everything. Just looking to move forward and looking forward to the 2012 season.’€

On his highly discussed drop in the late moments of the Super Bowl: ‘€œThey’€™re all tough. Anytime you don’€™t execute the way you want to in a critical game like that, every play is tough. It’€™s definitely one of the deals that you just learn from and hopefully execute the next chance you get.’€

On why Chad Ochocinco struggled last year: ‘€œWe were in a lockout. You come in and you’€™ve been a part of one offense for the past 10 years. You come into a completely new offense and didn’€™t have time in the offseason to go ever and didn’€™t have time in the offseason to go over everything and be on top of everything. I think this was just a little bit different for him. Being in that same system, everything is called differently. I think this year will be a lot of different as far as being able to hear the play call and not think, ‘€˜This is where I have to lineup’€™ and be able to think, ‘€˜This is my route, this what I’€™ve got to do, this is how I’€™m going to get open.’€™ It just takes time and I think there’€™s just a big learning curve, especially coming here to the Patriots. It’€™s a lot more complex.’€

Read More: Chad Ochocinco, Wes Welker,

Dane Fletcher free of cast, says he’s fully recovered from thumb injury

04.12.12 at 7:38 pm ET
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PROVIDENCE — After undergoing multiple surgeries on a thumb injury sustained in the preseason, Patriots linebacker Dane Fletcher has finally removed the cast that had been on his hand for much of the offseason.

Fletcher took part in a charity event at Hasbro Children’s Hospital Thursday in Providence along with teammates Kevin Faulk and Matthew Slater, bringing smiles and signed memorabilia to patients before taking part in a charity radiothon. While speaking to media after visiting patients, Fletcher also had news that should bring smiles to the faces of Patriots fans.

“We’re good baby,” Fletcher said, cheerfully waving his unencumbered hands in the air in front of a gaggle of reporters. “No worries there.”

The thumb injury had limited Fletcher for much of the regular season and forced him to miss six games entirely before returning against the Redskins on Dec. 11. Now, though, Fletcher is back where he wants to be, healthwise, and ready to get back on the field, telling reporters that he is pleased with his offseason preparation.

“It’s been good,” Fletcher said. “I’ve been progressing just like I wanted to and I just hope to continue there and enjoy my time a little bit back in Montana and relax.”

Now that he’s back at full capacity, Fletcher is now itching to get back on the field. His timing couldn’t be better, with the Patriots’ OTAs beginning next week.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Fletcher said. “A lot of the same faces, a lot of new faces, just get to know everybody again and start from scratch.”

Slater and Fletcher spoke about participating in charity functions like this one and how giving back was just another part of being a player in the NFL.

“As players, we’ve been extremely blessed with all the opportunities that we’ve been afforded and I think the least we can do is come back and visit these kids and try to put a smile on their face,” Slater said. “So, me and Dane, we’re excited about coming out here and visiting these kids and trying to make their day. What they get through on an everyday basis is real life and they’re going through some real struggle and hopefully we can give them a pick-me-up.”

Read More: Dane Fletcher, Matthew Slater,

Resetting the list of the Patriots’ 17 unrestricted free agents

04.12.12 at 4:45 pm ET
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With Thursday’s news that Kevin Faulk is planning on returning for the 2012 season, here’s a quick update on the status of the 17 unrestricted free agents on the Patriots radar at the start of free agency:

Running back Kevin Faulk: Has yet to sign. Previously speculated about retirement, but indicated Thursday that he’s interesting in returning for 2012.
Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis: Signed a three-year contract with Cincinnati.
Wide receiver Deion Branch: Signed one-year deal with the Patriots.
Wide receiver/Special teamer Matt Slater: Signed three-year contract with the Patriots.
Wide receiver Wes Welker: Receiver franchise tag, has yet to sign the tender.
Offensive lineman Dan Connolly: Signed three-year contract with the Patriots.
Center Dan Koppen: Has yet to sign. Has visited with Tennessee.
Defensive end Mark Anderson: Signed four-year contract with Buffalo.
Defensive end Andre Carter: Has yet to sign.
Defensive end Shaun Ellis: Has yet to sign.
Defensive tackle Gerard Warren: Has yet to sign.
Linebacker Gary Guyton: Has yet to sign. Has visited with Miami.
Linebacker Niko Koutouvides: Signed one-year deal with the Patriots.
Linebacker Tracy White: Signed one-year deal with the Patriots.
Cornerback Nate Jones: Has yet to sign.
Cornerback Antwaun Molden: Signed an undisclosed contract with the New York Giants.
Safety James Ihedigbo: Has yet to sign.

Read More: 2012 NFL Free Agency, Kevin Faulk,

Kevin Faulk: ‘I am planning on coming back’

04.12.12 at 3:49 pm ET
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PROVIDENCE — Patriots running back Kevin Faulk took part in a charity event at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence Thursday afternoon. Joined by fellow Patriots Dane Fletcher and Matthew Slater, Faulk visited multiple patients in the children’s hospital facility, taking pictures and giving away signed Patriots memorabilia before stopping to talk to the media gathered at the event. Here are some highlights from his Q&A with reporters:

Have you made a decision on what’s going to happen for this year? “I kinda knew this question was coming, so I kinda had an answer ready. First off, I have some bad news, that the softball game is not going to be this year. Some complications happened, so we’re not going to have the softball game. But I got some good news: I am training to come back and play. But it’s not up to me. It’s up to the team and everything. But I am planning on coming back, so we’ll see what happens.”

Can you tell us about coming back to play and what went into that decision and why another season for you? “Everyone says, ‘You don’t have anything to prove.’ Which, I don’t. I don’t play the game of football to prove anything to anyone. I play the game of football because I love it, I’m passionate about the game of football. It’s what I’ve been doing. It’s what I love to do. It took me a while to make a decision, but I felt like I needed this time. I’ve been playing professional football for a very long time. I’ve been blessed, in my eyes, to play for one of the best organizations in the NFL. And to have the opportunity to be able to play again? I wanted to give myself that time to think about it, and I thought about it, and I knew where my heart is and it’s always been here.”

What has been different about this offseason than in the past? “Well, I’m human – (there’s) stress. Not playing as much as I did before last year, not dressing for the Super Bowl, that kinda weighed into my [thinking], like ‘Is it time for you to let it go?’ But in my mind, I still knew that I could play the game of football. Coming back for me last year, I don’t think it was me physically playing the game, it was moreso mentally. When I say mentally … when you’ve been playing the game as long I as have at the same speed for the New England Patriots, everything has to be perfect. You have to be perfect. Last year, I didn’t feel that way at all until towards the end of the season, but at that point, it was too late, because our team was already developed. So in order to sit back and watch the guys perform and play each an every week, that was a hard thing for me to swallow. But to have the time to think what I wanted to do forward? All I did was pray to God and let him help me make decisions to see what was best for me and my family.”

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Read More: Kevin Faulk,

Rob Gronkowski: ‘I’m definitely excited to get rolling this offseason’

04.12.12 at 12:19 pm ET
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Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski joined Toronto’€™s 590 The Fan on Wednesday to talk about his offseason, the addition of wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, his injury and what it takes to earn the trust of quarterback Tom Brady. Here are a few quick highlights from the Q&A:

The Patriots went out and signed a deep threat in Brandon Lloyd. How great is it to have another weapon? ‘€œI’€™m excited to have Brandon Lloyd coming in. I heard he’€™s a great guy, great player. It’€™s just always exciting to meet new players coming in that want to work hard, that want to get better, that want to help out the team. ‘€¦ He knows the system, coming from the Denver Broncos with Coach McDaniels there, so it’€™s just going to be a blast. I’€™m definitely excited to get rolling this offseason.’€

When you started the 2011 season, did Belichick come to you and tell you you were going to be a bigger part of the offense? ‘€œNo, it doesn’€™t really work like that. It’€™s what you do in practice, just going out there and working hard in practice every day. You create your own roles on the team. It’€™s just going out and getting on the same page as everyone else, getting on the same page as the QBs to get open and basically just going out in practice and showing what you have, going out in the preseason games to earn a job. Whatever you show, that’€™s what they do for that season with you.’€

Was it intimidating at first trying to earn the trust of a great QB in Tom Brady? ‘€œYes, definitely. It’€™s pretty wild first going in. You just sit in the huddle and you’€™re kind of star-struck a little bit. ‘€¦ The next couple years now, I’€™ve settled in and everything and it’€™s just great going in and feeling comfortable now.’€

Were there moments leading up to the Super Bowl where you didn’€™t think you’€™d be able to play? ‘€œNot really, because your mindset is it’€™s the biggest game of the year and your mindset is you’€™re playing no matter what. That was my mindset going into the game and I was basically just doing everything possible in the training room, rehabbing and everything, to make sure I could get out there.’€

Did anyone in the organization have problems with the pictures of you that filtered out where you were partying after the Super Bowl loss? ‘€œThat was a while ago, man. I’€™m just looking forward in the future, just trying to get better now in the offseason training program.’€

Read More: Brandon Lloyd, Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady,

The Slater family finds important lessons in rewatching Super Bowl defeat

04.11.12 at 6:43 pm ET
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Patriots special teamer Matthew Slater was asked Tuesday if he had a chance to watch the Super Bowl loss to the Giants.

‘€˜’€˜I watched a little bit of it, only because my dad made me watch it,’€ he said with a rueful smile. ‘€œBut, it was tough to watch it. We got so close. We were winning with four minutes left in the game. You could taste victory. A lot of effort and heart and soul was put into that [game], to get to that point. Unfortunately, things didn’€™t work out. But we can’€™t dwell on that. It’€™s time for us to look to 2012.’€™’€™

Slater was unsure why his father ‘€“ former Rams offensive lineman Jackie Slater — made him watch the game again.

‘€œI don’€™t know — you’€™ll have to ask him,’€ he said. ‘€œI think he wanted me to really relish what we were able to do, get into that stage, and it was something to be proud of. At the same time, learn from that experience and try to improve.’€™’€™

When reached by phone on Wednesday, his father had a simple explanation for the mandatory viewing.

‘€œIt wouldn’€™t make a lick of sense to reach the pinnacle of your chosen profession and not look at the things that you and your teammates did well, and then also see the things that ultimately foiled you,’€ Jackie said. ‘€œIf you can do that, you’€™ll have even more of a clear vision when you start to try and pursue that same goal again.’€

When it comes to taking another look at a Super Bowl loss, Jackie can speak from experience. He was part of a Rams’€™ 31-19 loss to the Steelers in Super Bowl XIV, and said going back and watching it again (as painful as it might be) helped his development as a player — particularly, the insight on his game from analyst John Madden.

It certainly paid dividends for Jackie, who would go on to a 20-year career in the NFL and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

‘€œExperience is the very best teacher,’€ Jackie said. ‘€œFor me personally, after playing in Super Bowl XIV and having John Madden make the comments that he made about my performance — which were all positive ‘€“ that helped keep me driven and focused in an attempt to try and get back to the zenith of my profession.’€

According to Matt, the goal going forward is to shake off any feeling that the 2012 Patriots are a Super Bowl team. The process of climbing the mountain toward the summit will begin again soon enough.

‘€˜’€˜I think it’€™s important for us as a team to understand: we’€™re not a Super Bowl team at this point. This is a new team. This is not the 2011 team,’€ he said. ‘€œWe shouldn’€™t come in there expecting for teams [to say] ‘€˜Oh, that’€™s the Patriots. They were in the Super Bowl last year.’€™ We have to re-establish an identity. There are new players. We have to create an identity for this 2012 team. We’€™re going to have to earn everything all over again. So we’€™re back at ground zero now. We have a lot of work to do.’€™’€™

Read More: Jackie Slater, John Madden, Matthew Slater,
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