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Bill Belichick, Peyton Manning have joined forces … on the golf course

02.05.14 at 3:26 pm ET
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Just a few weeks after Peyton Manning and Bill Belichick parted ways at the AFC championship game, the two have reunited. Wednesday, the pair teamed up to play a practice round together at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am tournament. Here’s here’s the proof:

And in case you were wondering, Tom Brady is a better golfer than Belichick. According to, Brady is an 8 handicap while Belichick is at 14. (Click here to see a list of celebrities who will be participating.)

Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Linebacker

02.05.14 at 11:45 am ET
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With the Patriots done for the season, we’€™ve got an end-of-the-year position-by-position breakdown of where the roster stands. We’€™ve focused on special teams, wide receivers, tight ends, running backs, quarterbacks, offensive line and defensive line. Now, it’€™s the linebackers.

Roster (stats taken from coaches film review): Steve Beauharnais (1 tackle), Jamie Collins (38 tackles, 3 quarterback hits, 3 passes defensed), Ja’€™Gared Davis, Dane Fletcher (19 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 quarterback hits), Dont’€™a Hightower (137 tackles, 1 sack, 5 quarterback hits, 3 passes defensed), Chris White (1 tackle), Jerod Mayo (66 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, 1 pass defensed), Brandon Spikes (134 tackles, 1 INT, 2 passes defensed) (Taylor Reed is on the practice squad.)

Overview: It was an eventful year for the linebackers. Considered one of the positional strengths for the Patriots, the linebacking corps lost veteran Mayo to a season-ending pectoral injury after just six games. In Mayo’€™s absence — and by his own admission — Hightower tried to do too much in hopes of replicating Mayo’€™s impact. As a result, he got outside his comfort zone and had to be benched as a result. He rebounded nicely and played very well down the stretch. Meanwhile, Collins showed steady improvement over the course of his rookie year, so much so that he was going wire to wire by the end of the season and into the playoffs. He still needs to continue to improve — he did about as well as could be expected in the AFC title game against Julius Thomas — but at this point he could become the coverage linebacker the Patriots have lacked for so many years. Fletcher (who is a free agent) did a nice job providing depth and working on special teams, while Beauharnais, Davis and White were mostly special teamers who also got their feet wet in 2013 with minimal playing time.

Then there’€™s Spikes. One of the best run-stoppers in the league, he was clearly hobbling near the end of the season on what appeared to be a bad knee, and he told that he would need surgery as soon as the season was done. But the last University of Florida product in the New England locker room wasn’t around for the end of the year, as he was placed on season-ending IR down the stretch. (Some believe that it was a combination of the knee injury and the fact that he was late for a meeting one day late in the season because of the snow that caused the Patriots to put Spikes on IR.) Whatever the case may be, the pending free agent appears to have played his final game in Foxboro.

Ultimately, Mayo remains the centerpiece of the linebacking corps, and if he returns to full health by the start of the 2014 season, the Patriots can go into 2014 with a combination of Mayo, Hightower and Collins as their starters. That’€™s an impressive group with a versatile skill set.

Best moment: While it was clear Collins was coming on over the course of the regular season, his performance in the divisional round against the Colts was something of a revelation. For the first time in his professional career, the rookie played an entire game, going all 66 snaps at linebacker against Indy and coming away with one sack, six tackles (two for loss), two quarterback hits and a pair of quarterback hurries. He was all over the field, even working split out wide when matched in single coverage on Indy tight end Coby Fleener. A terrific night for the youngster.

Worst moment: The loss of Mayo.

By the numbers: 22 — Spikes had a career high with 22 total tackles in an Oct. 6 loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati. It was the highest tackle total for a Patriots player since Mayo had 23 tackles vs. the Jets in 2008.

Money quote: “I’ve been there, done that — tried to do too much. It didn’t work for me. [But I] fell back, and everything is finally coming back into play.” — Hightower on Jan. 7, assessing his overall evolution as a linebacker over the course of the 2013 season

Read More: Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins

Free agent snapshot: Brent Grimes

02.05.14 at 6:00 am ET
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When free agency begins in early March, there are a handful of players across the league who could appeal to New England. With the understanding that the status of these players could change because of the franchise or transition tag, here are a few possibilities for the Patriots to consider. We have to stress that these guys aren’€™t necessarily considered the elite of the free agent class — instead, they are players we think would be a good fit in New England. We started our series with looks at Anquan Boldin, Emmanuel Sanders, Dennis Pitta, Eric Decker, Jacoby Jones and Arthur Jones. Now, it’€™s Brent Grimes.

Position: Cornerback
Age: 30 (will turn 31 on July 19)
Height: 5-foot-10
Weight: 190 pounds

The skinny: Here we are, back again to advocate for Grimes as a Patriot. (If you’€™re just tuning in, we did this the last two years. Hey, you can’€™t say we’€™re not consistent, right?) Anyway, very little has changed when it comes to our feelings on Grimes — a tough, dependable corner who is the sort of underdog story the Patriots love. He was an undrafted free agent out of Shippensburg who battled his way into the Falcons starting lineup and ended up starting 44 games in just over five years in Atlanta, and came away with 13 picks in that stretch, including 11 interceptions in 2009 and 2010. For his efforts, he landed a Pro Bowl spot in 2010. After an Achilles€™ injury sidelined him for almost all of 2012 — his last year with the Falcons — he bounced back to play in all 16 games with the Dolphins last season and had 16 passes defensed and four picks for Miami. (He was one of four Dolphins to reach the Pro Bowl — the second Pro Bowl nod of his career.) While age is becoming an issue, his smarts, durability and versatility (he’€™s played both left and right corner) make him a very good corner in the league.

By the numbers: +16.4 — The final grade given to Grimes for his work this past season by Pro Football Focus. It was second among all corners in the NFL, trailing only Tampa Bay’€™s Darrelle Revis, who was at 18.2.

Why it would work: If the Patriots aren’t able to re-sign Aqib Talib, Grimes figures to be an excellent Plan B. As we said, he’€™s got the underdog approach that certainly would fit in Foxboro. He’€™s a well-respected locker room guy who would also bring a positive attitude to Gillette Stadium. And the chance to swipe the best cornerback from a division rival is something that can’€™t be overlooked.

Why it might not work: Grimes enters the market as one of the best corners available, and as a result he’€™ll likely be in line for a pretty good payday. While he fits the Patriots’ traditional body type when it comes to cornerbacks, if New England is interested in following in the Seahawks‘€™ footsteps when it comes to the secondary, the slightly undersized Grimes probably won’€™t measure up. And there’s always the possibility he’s franchise by the Dolphins — it happened to him once when he was with the Falcons, and given the state of the market and Miami’s need at corner, it certainly could happen again.

Quote: “I like it here. I like the coaches, I like the players and it’€™s a good team. Obviously, we didn’t finish how we wanted to and close out the season well. But I just let my agents handle everything. If [the Dolphins] want to keep me here, they’€™ll see how it goes.” — Grimes to ESPN following the end of the 2013 season

Our take: As we stated, Grimes would be a good fallback plan if the Patriots are unable to come to terms with Talib, but he certainly wouldn’t come cheap. Several folks around the league regard Grimes as the No. 1 corner available this spring in free agency — and that’€™s even if he reaches the market. (The Dolphins might be forced to franchise him.) If he is available and Talib walks, New England should make Grimes a priority. And if they don’t, we’€™ll likely be back here once again next year.

Read More: Aqib Talib, Brent Grimes, free agent snapshot,

Pepper Johnson wanted to get out ‘from under the shadows’ of Bill Belichick

02.04.14 at 11:42 pm ET
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Pepper Johnson said the reason he decided to leave the Patriots and take a new job with the Bills was because he was interested in “getting up from under the shadows of coach [Bill] Belichick.”

In an interview with Buffalo’s WGR 550, Johnson — who left the Patriots the week after New England’s loss in the AFC title game to the Broncos — talked about the chance he was given to become the defensive line coach of the Bills.

“My legs are still shaking a little bit. But I’m excited. I’m so excited,” Johnson told WGR 550, via the Bills website. “I always have been a fan of Doug [Marrone] and the Buffalo Bills [and it’s] just getting the opportunity to spread my wings and getting up from under the shadows of coach Belichick. So it’s a good thing and a good opportunity.”

Johnson joined the Patriots as assistant linebackers coach in 2000. He was the team’€™€™s inside linebackers coach from 2001-03, the defensive line coach from 2004-11 and the linebackers coach the past two seasons. However, one day after New England lost to the Broncos in the AFC title game, he announced he was leaving the organization, saying he was going to “embrace this new chapter in my life.”

It was believed one of the reasons Johnson left New England was because he was passed over for the defensive coordinator position when it was open following Dean Pees‘ departure following the 2009 season. Instead, the job went to Matt Patricia.

“I would love to [be a defensive coordinator],” Johnson said. “In a sense, those 13 years that I played in the NFL, I graduated to calling a lot of the defenses and having the responsibility of running our defense and being an extension of the coach from the sideline. It’s a dream of mine, a goal of mine.”

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Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Defensive line

02.04.14 at 1:58 pm ET
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With the Patriots done for the season, we’€™ve got an end-of-the-year position-by-position breakdown of where the roster stands. We started with special teams, wide receivers, tight ends, running backs, quarterbacks and offensive line. Now, we flip it and go to the defensive line.

Depth chart (stats taken from coaches film review): Vince Wilfork (10 tackles, 1 quarterback hit), Tommy Kelly (23 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 6 quarterback hits), Jake Bequette (1 quarterback hit), Andre Carter (5 tackles, 2 sacks, 7 quarterback hits), Chandler Jones (82 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 22 quarterback hits), Rob Ninkovich (93 tackles, 8 sacks, 18 quarterback hits), Joe Vellano (48 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 quarterback hits), Chris Jones (56 tackles, 6 sacks, 8 quarterback hits), Sealver Siliga (21 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 quarterback hits), Isaac Sopoaga (2 tackles, 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit), Michael Buchanan (3 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 quarterback hits), Cory Grissom (Marcus Forston is on the practice squad, and ex-CFL star Armond Armstead is out there … somewhere.)

Overview: The story of the defensive line can be divided into two distinct parts — the first three-plus weeks of the season when the Patriots had a fully healthy combo of Wilfork and Kelly up front at the defensive tackle spot, and the wholly underrated pairing of Chandler Jones and Ninkovich at defensive end.

As a group, it was a rock-solid positional grouping that looked to be one of the strengths of the 2013 team. Then Wilfork and Kelly went down in back-to-back weeks, and everything changed. While youngsters like Chris Jones and Vellano stepped in and did as well as they could given the circumstances, New England became a team you could run on fairly easily. The Patriots tried to stem the tide with the midseason trade for Sopoaga and the promotion of Siliga off the practice squad, but it was a far cry from the work of Wilfork and Kelly. Siliga, Chris Jones, Siliga and Vellano certainly did enough to warrant consideration as depth players in 2014, but the loss of Wilfork really shone a light on the fact that with the All-Pro closer to the end of his career than the beginning, New England would be well-served to start thinking about the post-Wilfork era sooner rather than later.

As for the rest of the group, the Patriots had a good season on the edges, as Ninkovich continued to emerge as one of the most underrated defenders in the league. Despite the fact that he occasionally had issues with some of the league’€™s elite left tackles, Chandler Jones became the first member of the Patriots to finish a season with double-digit sack totals since Carter and Mark Anderson had 10 each in 2011. At the age of 34 — he’€™ll be 35 before the start of next year — Carter might be unlikely to return for 2014, but if any one of the younger defensive ends struggle (particularly Bequette and Buchanan), he could be recalled on an emergency basis.

As is the case with the offensive line and Logan Mankins, it’€™s Wilfork who sets the tone for this group. His leadership skills, blue-collar attitude and unmatched skill set make him one of the most valuable members of the roster. If he returns to full health in 2014, figure that there will be better days ahead for the defensive front.

Best moment: It was a relatively quiet play, but it was hard not to acknowledge the recognition displayed by Chandler Jones when he was able to trip up Saints quarterback Drew Brees late in the dramatic 30-27 win over New Orleans in October. Jones was able to stop Brees for a 5-yard loss, which allowed the Patriots to continue their memorable comeback. As we wrote at the time, it interesting the way it came about — in the days following the play, Jones confessed that Ninkovich tipped him off to the fact that such a play might be coming. It was impressive for reasons: one, it speaks to the level of film study that Ninkovich engages in every week. (Everyone studies film, but to see it pay off in a big moment speaks to Ninkovich and his overall approach to the game.) And two, it displayed the level of communication between Ninkovich and Jones. The two clearly have mastered the art of playing good, complementary football, something that opposing defensive ends really need if their are going to succeed when it comes to playing good team defense.

Worst moment: The sight of Wilfork getting carted off during the Falcons game and the ensuing news that he would be lost for the season was a colossal loss for the team on both sides of the ball. From a defensive perspective, the on-field loss was huge, but at the same time, the veteran is a tremendous presence in the locker room across the roster. It says something about his stature within the organization that he continued to travel with the team even after he was done for the season.

By the numbers: It’€™s a small sample size, but for comparisons sake, the loss of Wilfork and Kelly was sizable when it came to run defense. Through the first four games — with Wilfork and Kelly — the Patriots yielded an average of 105 rushing yards per game, 13th in the league. By the end of the season, that number had jumped to 134.1 rushing yards per game allowed, 30th in the league.

Money quote: “You just don’€™t replace Vince Wilfork. We’€™ll still have his presence around the team and in the locker room and those types of things, which he’€™s great at. On the field, we’€™ll miss him, but whoever is out there, those other 11 guys that are out there, we’€™re all going to have to pull a little bit harder, including the coaching staff and all that. It’€™s a big loss, but we’€™re just going to have to find a way to do it. That means everybody doing their job. Obviously somebody is going to have to replace him and whoever those people are, they’€™re going to have to answer the bell. But collectively as a team, we’€™re all going to have to pull together. There’€™s no one person that can replace Vince Wilfork.” –€” Coach Bill Belichick on the loss of Wilfork, Oct. 2

Read More: position-by-position breakdown,

SI legal expert Michael McCann on D&C: Aaron Hernandez case not the ‘slam dunk we thought it was’

02.04.14 at 9:51 am ET
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Sports Illustrated legal expert Michael McCann joined Dennis & Callahan on Tuesday to discuss the Aaron Hernandez trial. To hear the interview, go to the Dennis & Callahan audio on demand page.

Alexander Bradley, who filed a lawsuit against Hernandez in February alleging that the then-Patriots tight end shot him in the face, was shot several times in the leg at a Hartford club over the weekend. He is one of four people associated with Hernandez’s case who has either died or been injured since Hernandez was arrested in June.

“It’€™s frightening,” McCann said. “If you know something about Hernandez and you know that three people have died and another has been shot repeatedly, it has to be frightening to think if you go to authorities and say you know something, the same fate could befall you.”

While McCann said there was “a lot of damning evidence,” he also pointed out that Hernandez’€™s lawyers could find a way out of the first-degree murder charge.

“Let’€™s face it — there’€™s still no murder weapon that has been found,” McCann said. “There’€™s also the odd coincidence of a number of people that have been connected to Hernandez that could testify against him either dying or being shot. … And then of course there’€™s the fact that the other evidence against him –€“ there are questions about it.

“Text messages, the video equipment, the possible destruction of evidence — these are things that could be damning, but Hernandez’€™s lawyers may be able to provide a little bit of doubt so that at least one juror says, ‘I’m not convinced,’ and then we have a hung jury.

“I don’t think it’€™s the slam dunk case we thought it was back in June, that’s for sure.”

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Free agent snapshot: Arthur Jones

02.04.14 at 6:00 am ET
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When free agency begins in early March, there are a handful of players across the league who could appeal to New England. With the understanding that the status of these players could change because of the franchise or transition tag, here are a few possibilities for the Patriots to consider. We have to stress that these guys aren’€™t necessarily considered the elite of the free agent class — instead, they are players we think would be a good fit in New England. We started our series with looks at Anquan Boldin, Emmanuel Sanders, Dennis Pitta, Eric Decker and Jacoby Jones. Now, we go to the defensive side of the ball, and Arthur Jones.

Position: Defensive end
Age: 27 (will turn 28 on June 3)
Height: 6-foot-3
Weight: 315 pounds

The skinny: The older brother of Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones, Arthur was taken in the fifth round of the 2010 draft out of Syracuse, and has developed into one of the more underrated parts of Baltimore’€™s front seven over the last two years. He started 13 games this past season for the Ravens, and has 8.5 sacks since the start of the 2012 season. Not as long and lean as his brother (Chandler is 6-foot-5, 265 pounds), he’€™s able to generate pressure with his size, and has also a rep as a quality run-stuffer. A penetrating lineman, he had 38.5 tackles for a loss as a collegian, the most in Syracuse history for an interior lineman, and he had five this year with the Ravens to tie for the team lead. He has some positional versatility, as the Ravens have kicked him inside as needed, and has provided a boost with a consistent interior pass-rushing presence. A smart and versatile defender who has been able to flourish as a complementary part of the Baltimore defense, he would make a solid addition to most rosters at the right price.

By the numbers: 15. The number of quarterback hurries Pro Football Focus awarded Jones this past season, good enough to tie for third on the team. (For some perspective, that would put him third on the Patriots, behind Rob Ninkovich, who had 39 last year, and his brother Chandler, who had 39.)

Why it would work: The opportunity to play alongside a brother can be a powerful lure — the chance to have someone you know watching your back at all times might be the sort of thing that could attract the older brother to Foxboro. His versatility would allow the Patriots to do multiple things, including work him as a defensive tackle who could occasionally kick out to defensive end in relief of his brother Chandler or fellow defensive end Ninkovich. (There’€™s also the possibility New England could take advantage of Ninkovich’€™s versatility and move him to an outside linebacker spot if Arthur is needed as a defensive end.)

Why it might not work: While the Ravens aren’t expected to franchise him, Jones is expected to be one of the better free-agent defensive linemen on the market this year, and will almost certainly command serious money that could put him out of New England’€™s reach. In addition, playing alongside your brother can be an occasional double-edged sword — the questions for both would likely get tiresome pretty quickly. There’€™s also a semi-checkered injury history — he missed the 2013 season opener due to an irregular heartbeat, and knee and pectoral injuries that kept him out of much of the 2009 season as a collegian.

Quote: “I can’€™t say enough complimentary things about him as a person and as a pro. I think he’€™s one of the most improved guys that we have. From where he’€™s come to where he is now, he’€™s just vastly improved. There’€™s really not a time when we come out of a game saying, ‘€˜Boy, I don’€™t know about that game.’€™ He’€™s had great performances every week.” — Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees on Jones’€™ 2013 season

Our take: It would likely take a good chunk of cash, but the idea of the Jones brothers together in New England would be intriguing. The Patriots need some help when it comes to building depth up front — Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Sealver Siliga are good short-term fixes, but represent a considerable step down from the Vince WilforkTommy Kelly combo that started the 2013 season for New England. Jones would represent a significant upgrade, and could work in relief of one of the defensive tackles and also spend time at defensive end. He’€™s already on New England’€™s radar, as he had a visit with the Patriots shortly before the 2010 draft. While that was a while ago, all the front office would need to do to update their files would be to ask Chandler for an update.

Read More: Arthur Jones, chandler jones, free agent snapshot,
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