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WEEI NFL Power Rankings: Training camp edition

07.26.12 at 7:13 am ET
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Training camps are underway across the NFL and it’s just 45 days until the Cowboys kick off the season against the defending Super Bowl champion Giants on Sept. 5. The offseason was filled with news of free agent signings, suspensions, player arrests and comeback kids. Now it’s time to see where all 32 teams rank before the preseason and injuries begin.

The two teams that dominated the regular season in 2011 find themselves at the top. Powered by their high flying offenses, the Packers and Patriots will start the season as two of the elite teams in the league. The Giants are at No. 3 coming off their second Super Bowl victory in five years.

The Saints (7) and Broncos (10) are two notable teams in the top 10. The anticipation is building by the day to see if Peyton Manning has something left in the tank and if the Saints can overcome “Bountygate.”

And now, since football is officially in the air, here is the first edition of WEEI’s 2012 NFL Power Rankings.

Audio: Click here to listen to Mut and Merloni discuss the NFL Power Rankings.

1. Packers (15-1) ‘€” Coming off a 15-1 season, the Packers addressed their defense in the offseason. Their first six draft picks were dedicated to the defensive side of the ball, and rightfully so. Green Bay’s defense was one of the worst in the NFL in 2011. With that said, the Packers still won 15 games. There’s no doubt, the Packers have a great shot at winning their second Super Bowl in three years.

2. Patriots (13-3) ‘€” The Patriots offense, once again led by Tom Brady, speaks for itself. The addition of Brandon Lloyd adds an outside threat to the arsenal. Bill Belichick will undoubtedly focus on improving the defense during training camp, and the team brought in the personnel to ensure that it’s not the 31st-ranked defense for a second year in a row. First-round draft picks Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower are expected to make an immediate impact. Both add a tremendous amount of athleticism to a defensive squad that struggled to defend the pass and get off the field on third down.

3. Giants (9-7) ‘€” The defending Super Bowl champs are No. 1 in another category, most difficult schedule. The Giants will face six teams that made the postseason in 2011, and don’t forget, that doesn’t include the Eagles or Cowboys. If any team is up to the challenge, it’s the G-Men. Eli Manning has proven he is indeed an elite QB in the NFL, and you can ask the Packers and Patriots about New York’s relentless pass-rushing defense.

4. 49ers (13-3) ‘€” Down to his final out, Alex Smith resurrected his career in San Francisco. It was obvious new coach Jim Harbaugh made a major impact in improving the former first overall pick. If Smith can improve on third down and in the red zone, the 49ers can once again compete for a Super Bowl. The offense finally has weapons on the outside to go along with the run game, and Vernon Davis. Randy Moss and Mario Manningham will help the Niners put points on the board.

5. Ravens (12-4) ‘€” Ray Lewis and the Ravens were so close to the Super Bowl they could taste it. They’ll once again be one of the elite teams in the NFL vying for a chance to play for the Lombardi Trophy. Joe Flacco is the biggest X-factor. In the AFC championship, he proved he can play in big games. He’ll have to be more consistent in 2012. The Ravens should once again have their signature shutdown D, even with Terrell Suggs out until November. Rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw will be relied upon to fill in for “T-Sizzle.”

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Read More: Eli Manning, NFL Power Rankings, Peyton Manning, Rex Ryan

Countdown to Patriots Camp: Defensive back

07.25.12 at 10:18 pm ET
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In the days leading up to the start of Patriots training camp, we’€™ll take a quick look at how each position shakes out. We’€™ve looked at quarterback, tight end, running back, wide receivers and offensive line. Now, it’€™s the defensive backs:

Roster: Cornerbacks Devin McCourty, Sterling Moore, Malcolm Williams, Ras-I Dowling, Kyle Arrington, Will Allen, Alfonzo Dennard and Marquice Cole. Safeties Steve Gregory, Tavon Wilson, Josh Barrett, Sergio Brown, Patrick Chung, James Ihedigbo, Nate Ebner and Ross Ventrone.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW:

By now, the Patriots should have a pretty good idea of what they have in Devin McCourty. After McCourty’€™s first year, the Patriots likely believed they had something of a Revis clone on their hands, and put him into situations last season where he was asked to shadow the opponents’€™ best receiver. McCourty was quickly exposed and the Patriots dialed back on his responsibilities, even using him at safety at the end of the season. That single-coverage scalding he got from some of the best receivers in the league (Brandon Marshall, Vincent Jackson) caused a crisis of confidence for the defensive back, which hounded him all year. Now, New England realizes that McCourty’€™s long-term future is somewhere between his first and second seasons. That means while his days of imitating a shutdown corner are over, he can still be a very important part of the Patriots’€™ secondary.

In the Patriots’€™ secondary, versatility is paramount. New England has three defensive backs who have played both corner and safety at a high level, with McCourty and Moore turning the trick last season and Wilson doing the same as a collegian at Illinois. Meanwhile, Gregory has played both safety spots in the NFL, and even spent some time at receiver in college. And that doesn’€™t take into account the fact that guys like Arrington and Allen have played both in the slot and split wide, and Chung has frequently been asked to play the ‘€œstar’€ position. As they say around Foxboro, the more you can do, the more you can do for us.

The back end of the defensive back depth chart has some important special teamers, and that includes the new faces. Brown and Williams showed up often on special teams last year, while Cole and Ebner figure to get most of their reps on special teams this season.

THREE QUESTIONS

What exactly do the Patriots have in Ras-I Dowling? We asked this question in regards to rookie Alfonzo Dennard earlier this month, but it also applies to Dowling. The Virginia product has shown tantalizing flashes in his relatively brief NFL career. He was talented enough to start the regular-season opener last season against the Dolphins as a rookie and play 67 of a possible 77 defensive snaps, but suffered a hip injury in Week 2 and was lost for the year. Based on his injury history as a collegian, it’€™s worth asking if he’€™ll turn out to be the only occasionally healthy defensive back who will always be battling injuries? (Type ‘€œRas-I Dowling’€ into Google and the second suggestion that comes up is ‘€œRas-I Dowling injury.’€) Or does he have the mental wherewithal to fight through that and become what many believe he can: an every-down corner in the NFL? He’€™s one worth watching in camp.

Will Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown get pushed off the back end of the depth chart by new faces like Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson? Barrett and Brown got a lot of snaps at the start of last season, but were eventually surpassed by Ihedigbo and his weekly shoulder injury, with Barrett ending up on season-ending injured reserve with a calf injury and Brown seeing limited playing time over the second half of the season, with the exception of the two final regular-season contests. (To his credit, Brown did become a special teams regular.) But with all the new faces at safety this season, they could be in a real fight for playing time this summer.

Is Patrick Chung ready to make the leap? It’€™s no surprise that the New England defense was playing its’€™ best football of the season down the stretch when both Chung and linebacker Brandon Spikes were healthy. At this stage of his career, when he’€™s on the field, he’€™s a great contributor and a consistent and stabilizing presence at the safety position. If he can put together a healthy 2012, he will put himself in line for a handsome payday (or maybe the franchise tag) at the end of the year when his current contract expires.

By the numbers, courtesy of Nuggetpalooza: Devin McCourty ‘€œallowed’€ 1,115 receiving yards last season, second most in the NFL (Green Bay’€™s Tramon Williams allowed 1,120), and the most by a Patriots player since they began tracking the stat 17 years ago. The Top 3: McCourty, 1,115 yards (2011); Jimmy Hitchcock, 976 yards (1997); Ty Law, 842 yards (2000).

The skinny: There are a lot of shifting parts in the New England secondary, but with the new faces that were brought in (both in free agency and through the draft), the Patriots have made improvements and built depth at both corner and safety. While there’€™s no way of knowing how newcomers like Gregory, Allen, Cole and Wilson will fit into the system, it seems unlikely that they’€™ll leave themselves open to a similar situation as last season, where they had to rely on converts and part-timers like Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater to come up with regular reps at defensive back.

Read More: Countdown to Camp,

A closer look at the Patriots’ decision to release Joseph Addai

07.25.12 at 5:46 pm ET
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If nothing else, this offseason will be remembered as a stretch where the Patriots picked over the remnants of a once great array of Colts’ skill position players like a shopper at a table full of day-old bargains and found nothing more than spare parts.

New England kicked the tires on wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez (who was on the roster for all of a couple of months) and tight end Dallas Clark (who they took a look at this spring in a workout). Reggie Wayne was also a possibility that never came to fruition. And Joseph Addai was cut Wednesday as training camp began.

(To be fair, the Patriots did add one former Colt this offseason who has managed to stick around to this point: offensive lineman Jamey Richard, who played the last four seasons in Indy.)

The decision to release Addai comes as a bit of a surprise, especially after a series of spring workouts where coaches and teammates all praised him as a committed veteran who was fitting into the Patriots’ system very nicely. (One opposing scout I spoke with praised him as a great pickup for New England.) Combine that with the fact that he signed a  one-year deal with a base salary of $725,000, to go along with a $75,000 signing bonus and $50,000 workout bonus. However, it’s reasonable to think that injuries may have played a role in his situation. The LSU product missed some of the spring camps, and has struggled with the injury bug since 2010.

The Patriots now have 89 players on the roster, and four running backs: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead and undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden. It would appear that Ridley is the biggest beneficiary of the move: the certainly flashed well throughout the spring, and even before Addai signed as a free agent, he figured to get the bulk of the carries in 2012 with the departure of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. However, New England could add another free agent running back, possibly Ryan Grant or veteran Kevin Faulk, who has played the last 13 seasons with the Patriots but remains unsigned at this point.

Read More: Anthony Gonzalez, BenJarvus Green Ellis, Brandon Bolden, Dallas Clark

Reports: Brandon Spikes cleared to play, while Nick McDonald is placed on active/PUP

07.25.12 at 5:26 pm ET
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Linebacker Brandon Spikes was removed from the active/PUP list after passing his physical on Wednesday and is cleared to play, according to multiple reports. Spikes, who underwent an offseason knee procedure, did not take part in the spring workouts that were open to reporters, and had been placed on the active/PUP list earlier this month. In addition, offensive lineman Nick McDonald was placed on the active/PUP list. Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe first reported the transactions.

Read More: Brandon Spikes, Nick McDonald,

Official release from Pats on addition of Visanthe Shiancoe and Tim Bulman and release of Joseph Addai

07.25.12 at 5:19 pm ET
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Here’s the complete press release from the Patriots on the moves from Wednesday afternoon:

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. ‘€“ The New England Patriots signed veteran defensive lineman Tim Bulman and veteran tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (vi-sahn-TAY SHANK-oh) today. Terms of the contracts were not announced. In addition, the Patriots released running back Joseph Addai.

Bulman, 29, is a veteran of seven NFL seasons with the Arizona Cardinals (2005) and Houston Texans (2006-11). The 6-foot-4, 281-pound defensive lineman originally entered the NFL as a rookie free agent with the Cardinals out of Boston College in 2005. He spent the majority of his rookie season on the practice squad before being signed to the 53-man roster in early November and played in eight games. Bulman was released by Arizona following training camp in 2006 and spent that season and 2007 seasons rotating between the Houston practice squad and 53-man roster. His first full season in the NFL on the 53-man roster was in 2008.

A native of Milton, Mass. and a Boston College High School graduate, Bulman has played in 49 NFL games with two starts and registered 57 total tackles and 4.0 sacks.

Shiancoe, 32, is a veteran of nine seasons with the New York Giants (2003-06) and Minnesota Vikings (2007-11). The 6-foot-4, 250-pound tight end originally entered the NFL as a third-round draft choice (91st overall) of the Giants in 2003 out of Morgan State. He joined Minnesota as an unrestricted free agent on March 3, 2007.

Shiancoe has played in 144 NFL games with 90 starts and has 243 receptions for 2,677 yards and 27 touchdowns. He has not missed a game in his nine NFL seasons. His best statistical season came in 2009 when he caught 56 passes for 566 yards and 11 touchdowns, a team record for a Vikings tight end. Last season he started in 14 of 16 games and caught 36 passes for 409 yards and three touchdowns.

Addai, 29, was signed by the Patriots as a free agent on May 10, 2012 following a six-year career with Indianapolis. He originally joined the Colts as a first round draft pick (30th overall) out of LSU in 2006 and was released by Indianapolis on March 9, 2012.

The 5-11, 214-pound running back has played in 78 NFL games with 60 starts and has gained 4,453 yards on 1,095 carries and has 39 rushing touchdowns. He has also added 191 receptions for 1,448 yards and nine touchdowns.

Countdown to Patriots Camp: Offensive line

07.25.12 at 2:10 pm ET
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In the days leading up to the start of Patriots’€™ training camp, we’€™ll take a quick look at how each position shakes out. We’€™ve looked at quarterback, tight end, running back and wide receivers. Now, the offensive line:

Roster: Nate Solder, Kyle Hix, Marcus Zusevics, Logan Mankins, Robert Gallery, Jamey Richard, Jeremiah Warren, Dan Connolly, Dan Koppen, Nick McDonald, Brian Waters, Ryan Wendell, Donald Thomas, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, Matt Kopa.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW:

Nate Solder will be the heir apparent to Matt Light. Light, who called it quits this offseason, will give way to Solder. The Colorado product had an impressive rookie season, flip-flopping back and forth between right and left tackle (and playing a little tight end for good measure), but will now be the primary protector of Tom Brady‘€™s blind side. Last season, he did very well for a rookie who had no offseason work because of the lockout. Barring injury, there’€™s no reason to think he won’€™t be one of their starting tackles for the next 10 years.

Marcus Cannon is one of the most interesting players on the Patriots’€™ roster. Not expected to contribute much last season as a rookie after recovering from cancer treatment, the rookie out of TCU did play well when called upon, playing 168 snaps (including 77 in a late-season game against the Dolphins where the Ne England offensive line was shorthanded because of injury) according to Pro Football Focus. Right now, he sits behind Solder and Vollmer on the depth chart, but could be an important piece if either one of them goes down this season.

If there’€™s a problem, the Patriots are happy with their offensive line depth. That was proven last season, when New England was forced to use four different starting centers (Dan Koppen, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly and Nick McDonald) and go with multiple youngsters at tackle and guard because of injury over the course of the season. History tells us that at least one projected starter will miss some time over the course of the season, and when that happens, Dante Scarnecchia will have a backup ready to go. ‘€œDante is by far one of the best coaches in that staff,’€ former Patriots offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi said of Scarnecchia, who will be entering his 31st season in the league and his 13th straight year as New England’€™s offensive line coach. ‘€œYou can give him five guys off the street and he’€™ll get them ready to play at a high level.’€

THREE QUESTIONS

How will the center position shake out? Dan Koppen, starting his 10th season in the NFL, spent almost all of last season on the sidelines, as he fractured his ankle in the regular-season opener against the Dolphins and ended up on season-ending injured reserve. He will likely open camp as the starter, but he’€™ll likely be pressed by Dan Connolly, who was re-signed as a free agent in the offseason and was paid like a starter. One of the better positional battles on the roster.

Will any of the injury worries for the linemen be long-term? Logan Mankins suffered a knee injury in the Super Bowl, and a back issue made Sebastian Vollmer look like a 70-year-old man when he was running sprints during spring workouts. Both were put on active/PUP to start the season, and their overall health certainly bears watching throughout camp and into the preseason. If they’€™re healthy, both are certainly capable of playing at a All-Pro level.

Does Robert Gallery have anything left in the tank? If there are long-term injury problems along the offensive line, the massive (6-foot-7, 320 pounds) Gallery could be asked to step in and provide support. The 31-year-old veteran, who signed with New England as a free agent this offseason, does have some positional versatility — he’€™s played both guard and tackle in the NFL — and saw action at both positions throughout spring practices. He might not have the same sort of impact that Waters had last season (it’s worth mentioning that Waters is expected back for another year with New England), but if he can give the Patriots something if their offensive line is in trouble, it’€™ll validate his signing.

By the numbers: Per Pro Football Focus, Brian Waters played 1,340 snaps last season, the second-most offensive snaps on the team behind quarterback Tom Brady (1,350).

The skinny: Under Scarnecchia’€™s tutelage, the Patriots offensive line has always been a steady and consistent presence. (As we’€™ve previously stated, this team turns out NFL-ready offensive linemen at a dizzying rate.) There are some questions, including the overall health of the interior and whether or not Vollmer can hold up. But if Mankins and Vollmer are OK for the long haul, New England shouldn’€™t worry about things up front.

Read More: Countdown to Camp,

Countdown to Patriots Camp: Wide receiver

07.24.12 at 8:46 pm ET
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In the days leading up to the start of Patriots training camp, we’€™ll take a quick look at how each position shakes out. We’€™ve looked at quarterback, tight end and running back. Now, it’€™s the wide receivers:

Roster (2011 stats): Brandon Lloyd (70 catches, 966 yards, five touchdowns with Denver and St. Louis), Wes Welker (122 catches, 1,569 yards, nine touchdowns), Deion Branch (51 catches, 702 yards, five touchdowns), Jabar Gaffney (68 catches, 947 yards, five touchdowns with Washington), Donte Stallworth (22 catches, 309 yards, two touchdowns with Washington), Julian Edelman (four catches, 34 yards), Matthew Slater (one catch, 46 yards), Jeremy Ebert, Britt Davis, Jesse Holley (seven catches, 169 yards for Dallas).

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

Brandon Lloyd has the most unique skill set of any wide receiver that Tom Brady has ever worked with. We covered this back in the spring, but it bears repeating — Lloyd’€™s ability to work on both intermediate and deep routes, as well as his ability to compete for jump balls, make him a completely different receiver than anyone Brady has worked with. After getting the chance to throw to Lloyd on a regular basis in the spring, Brady bottom-lined it: ‘€œWe haven’€™t had anyone quite like him,’€ the quarterback said of Lloyd, who followed former offensive coordinator and head coach Josh McDaniels back to New England. (For more on their relationship and Lloyd’s potential impact, click HERE.)

Deion Branch doesn’€™t have the wheels that he used to, but his smarts, knowledge of the system and great working relationship with the quarterback should be enough to keep him in Foxboro for another year. The 33-year-old, who probably played more than he should have last season because of Chad Ochocinco‘€™s inadequacies, will still have a role in this passing game. And while shouldn’€™t have the same sort of production he had last year, there will be at least three occasions in 2012 where he comes up with a big play based solely on his background with Brady.

The acclimation process between Tom Brady and the new receivers should be a little easier than it was for No. 85 last season. You figure that with Gaffney and Stallworth already having spent time in the New England offense, the getting-to-know-you timetable should be minimal. As for Lloyd, he was asked this spring if he believes the Patriots system would be a difficult one to pick up. He responded with a quick, one-word answer: ‘€œNo.’€ OK then.

THREE QUESTIONS

Can Wes Welker ignore the noise? No Patriots’€™ player has had a more eventful six-month stretch than Welker. He had 122 catches last year, but ended the 2011 season glassy-eyed and teary after failing to come up with a Brady pass that would have likely closed out the Giants in the Super Bowl. Since that game, he’€™s been hit with the franchise tag, signed his tender, gone back and forth with the franchise about his contract, gotten married, endorsed adult diapers and revealed the most remarkable story involving Larry Izzo you will ever hear. He starts the 2012 season under the microscope — without a long-term deal, there will be speculation that he’€™s starting his final year in New England. However, Welker’€™s track record indicates that he should be able to block out the distractions and focus on the task at hand. Provided he stays healthy, look for another 100-plus catch season from the slot machine.

How many wide receivers can one team carry? Right now, it looks like six or seven, depending on what they want to do with Donte Stallworth: Lloyd, Welker, Gaffney, Edelman, Slater and Branch, with Ebert, Davis and Holley all practice squad possibilities. To his credit, Stallworth spent time this spring working as a returner on special teams, ostensibly to try and increase his overall value to the team. But right now, he would appear to face an uphill battle in a fight for a roster spot.

Why has this team had trouble developing young wide receivers? It’€™s more of a big picture question (perhaps best answered another day), but when you’€™re talking about wide receivers, it’€™s worth mentioning once again that the Patriots haven’€™t been able to develop a young wide receiver since the Deion Branch/David Givens combo nearly 10 years ago. Since then, they’€™ve relied on imports like Welker, Moss, Gaffney and Lloyd … and Ochocinco, Galloway and Donald Hayes. The veterans have been good enough to keep the passing game humming — and maybe the Patriots have found something with their younger receivers Ebert, Davis and Holley — but for a team that’€™s enjoyed so much success in player development in so many other areas (they turn JAGs into starting offensive linemen on an annual basis), it’€™s an odd anomaly.

By the numbers, courtesy of Nuggetpalooza: Wes Welker’€™s passes dropped (including postseason): 2008 — 3; 2009 — 13; 2010 — 14; 2011 — 15.

The skinny: As we discussed earlier, while the passing game might not reach 2007 levels, they might not be far off. And while the tight ends have emerged as a potent force for Brady, the receiving corps is deep, smart and filled with the sort of veterans you can build an offense around. (‘€œThis group that I’€™m working with, they’€™re as professional and as good a group as I’€™ve ever been around,’€ Patriots wide receiver coach Chad O’€™Shea said this spring.) Lloyd appears poised for a monster year, while there’€™s no reason to think Welker won’€™t have a typical Welkeresque season. Gaffney is as underrated as they come, and Branch remains a steady and reliable presence for Brady. They may be getting a little older, but there’€™s no reason to think that this group of receivers won’€™t be one of the best in the league statistically when the season is done.

Read More: Brandon Lloyd, Britt Davis, Chad O'Shea, Chad Ochocinco
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