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10 things to keep an eye on at Patriots training camp

07.22.14 at 6:00 am ET
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With the Patriots set to open camp this week in Foxboro, here are 10 things we’ll be keeping an eye on as things get underway:

1. How Darrelle Revis does as he continues to get acclimated to the Patriots system.

Revis is an elite defender — it’s a safe bet he’d be able to excel in just about any system. But with any new player on a new team, it takes some time to get used to new schemes, responsibilities and expectations. When it comes to Revis, it’s presumed he will act in much the same fashion as Aqib Talib did for the last year-plus — that is to say, he’ll be deployed most of the time in man coverage against the oppositions’ No. 1 option in the passing game. (Remember, Talib wasn’t necessarily utilized on wide receivers, as he also spent time shadowing tight ends like Jimmy Graham and Charles Clay.) It was clear Talib was going to have a pretty good 2013 when he first surfaced in camp and was shutting down anyone and everyone who dared to line up across from him. However, his real expertise was seen in the joint practices, when he was able to take his skills to the next level. Revis against Philly’s Jeremy Maclin and Washington’s DeSean Jackson will be fun to watch during the joint practices next month.

2. Tom Brady‘s relationship with his younger receivers.

To paraphrase Reggie Jackson, Brady remains the straw that stirs the drink. The quarterback, who turns 37 next month, went through a trying 2013 as he attempted to get on the same page with several new teammates on offense. While it was a rocky road at first, the passing game was able to road into form as the season went on. It will be interesting to see if the bonds that were forged between Brady and young receivers like Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins last season will pay off with big numbers in 2014. One thing that’s worth mentioning in this context — while Brady had absolutely zero continuity in the passing game between the 2012 and 2013 season, there’s no such concern this time around. The Patriots lost 305 catches between the 2012 and 2013 season — 75 percent of the output in the passing game. From a percentage standpoint, when comparing New England’€™s 2013 lineup with the 2014 roster, the Patriots have a retention rate of 97 percent when it comes to catches (370 of 380) and receiving yards (4,226 of 4,343), and 96 percent (24 of 25) when it comes to touchdown receptions.

3. The backup quarterback spot.

At this point, Ryan Mallett is expected to serve as the primary backup to Brady, while rookie Jimmy Garoppolo will work as the third stringer. (For what it’s worth, the last time the Patriots entered the regular season with three quarterbacks was 2011, when Brady, Mallett and Brian Hoyer were all kept around.) But the in-game progress of Garoppolo will certainly be worth monitoring as the preseason rolls along. Will this be the last summer in Foxboro for Mallett, who is going into the final year of his rookie deal?

4. The interior of the offensive line, specifically center and right guard.

Incumbent center Ryan Wendell has been near the top of the league in snaps played the last two seasons, and suffered some dropoff in 2013. Is it the start of a trend, or just because he’s been going up against the likes of Haloti N’gata on a regular basis? He’ll likely be challenged by rookie Bryan Stork, who did about a million laps for perceived infractions over the course of the spring workouts. (OK, so it wasn’t a million, but it sure seemed like every time we looked up, he was circling the field.) Stork arrives in Foxboro with an impressive resume, having won the Rimington Award as college football’s best center for a national championship team — he’s also got a beard that makes him look like Logan Mankins’ younger brother. As for starting right guard Dan Connolly, he could also be pushed by Jon Halapio, a sixth-rounder by way of Florida who put together an impressive college career with the Gators.

5. Rob Gronkowski.

The knee. The forearm. The back. All health issues that have dogged the big tight end over the last year-plus. When it comes to the 2014 season, you can look at it one of two ways: if you’re an optimist, you can point to the fact that it sounds like he won’t open training camp on the PUP list, as well as the fact that not too long ago, he was considered as durable as any tight end in the league. (He had a consecutive games played streak of 46 to open his professional career.) However, if you’re a pessimist, there’s the fact that he’s only played in nine of a possible 26 games since he his arm was crunched while blocking on that fateful extra-point attempt against the Colts in November 2012. He spent the spring sessions working with a rehab group in the corner of the field, and then retreated to the practice bubble to continue his attempt to get back to action sooner rather than later. He’s indicated a desire to play all 16 games in 2014, but if he can get back in time for Week 1, it would represent a seismic turnaround from a potentially devastating knee injury — maybe not as epic as Wes Welker‘s return in 2010, but not too far removed.
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Report: Patriots add Dominique Easley to NFI list, while Alfonzo Dennard and Aaron Dobson will start camp on PUP

07.21.14 at 5:27 pm ET
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With camp looming later this week, the Patriots reportedly made some procedural roster moves Monday designed to allow some of players who are injured or coming off offseason surgery more time to rehab before they get on the field.

According to Field Yates of ESPN, defensive lineman Dominique Easley, running back Roy Finch, linebacker Deontae Skinner and tackle Chris Martin have been placed on the non-football injury list.

Meanwhile, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard; wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Jeremy Gallon; defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and special teamer Matt Slater were placed on the physically unable to perform list. Most of the players in this grouping were either limited (working with a rehab group) or not present during the media portion of the spring workouts.

In both cases — the active/physically unable to perform list as well as the active/non-football injury list — they can come off the list and return to practice at any time after they have been cleared by the team’s medical staff.

One thing worth noting is that both lists do not include tight end Rob Gronkowski, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo, all of who suffered season-ending injuries last year.

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Patriots sign DL Eathyn Manumaleuna, release DL Seali’i Epenesa

07.21.14 at 4:38 pm ET
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The Patriots announced Monday they have signed rookie free agent defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna and released rookie free agent defensive lineman Seali’i Epenesa.

Here’s a portion of the statement from the team on the moves.

Manumaleuna, 25, was originally signed by the New York Giants as a rookie free agent out of Brigham Young on May 12. The 6-foot-2, 305-pounder, was released by the Giants on June 19. He played as a true freshman for BYU in 2007 and then served a two-year mission. He returned to the starting lineup in 2010. After suffering an injury early in the year as senior in 2010, Manumaleuna was granted a medical redshirt year after suffering an injury early in the year as a senior in 2012 and came back to start all 13 games in 2013. He finished his college career playing in 56 games and finishing with 143 total tackles and 5.5 sacks.

Epenesa, 22, was signed by the Patriots as a rookie free agent out of UCLA on June 17. The 6-foot-1, 310-pounder, played in 41 games and finished with 46 total tackles and one sack during his four year college career. He played in 12 games with seven starts as a senior in 2013 and was credited with 16 tackles and one sack.

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Countdown to camp: Defensive Line

07.21.14 at 7:00 am ET
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As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We looked at the offensive side of the ball, as well as special teams. To open things up on defense, we examine the state of the defensive line.

Roster (stats taken from coaches film review): Defensive ends Jake Bequette (1 quarterback hit), Michael Buchanan (3 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 quarterback hits), Rob Ninkovich (93 tackles, 8 sacks, 18 quarterback hits), Chandler Jones (82 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 22 quarterback hits), Will Smith; defensive tackles 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), L.T. Tuipulotu; defensive linemen Vince Wilfork (10 tackles, 1 quarterback hit), Dominique Easley, Tommy Kelly (23 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 6 quarterback hits), Marcus Forston, Zach Moore

Overview: This was a position of strength entering the 2013 season — with Wilfork, Kelly, Chandler Jones and Ninkovich up front, this group was one of the best in the league. A month into the season, both Wilfork and Kelly were sidelined with season-ending injuries, and the New England defensive line struggled to replace them. While the replacements (Chris Jones, Vellano, Siliga) did as well as could be expected, it was a sizable drop-off, and the Patriots suffered as a result. New England brought Andre Carter back midway through the season and swung a deal for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga at the deadline. And while Carter was able to give them some quality snaps, the veterans were unable to prevent teams from exploiting the Patriots woes up front. While Ninkovich and Chandler Jones were able to provide strong support off the edge — and Jones showed some positional versatility when he kicked inside on a few occasions to work as a long, lean defensive tackle on passing downs — it was an effort to keep things together throughout the year. The most damning evidence came in the AFC title game when New England’s defensive front was unable to get a hand on Peyton Manning.

Going forward, the Patriots addressed some of the depth issues up front with the addition of Easley at the end of the first round, and while there are some questions about his health and how quickly he can get up to speed at the next level, he could provide support sooner rather than later at a variety of positions. In addition, Moore is a small-school prospect who could have an impact relatively early on as a backup to either Chandler Jones or Ninkovich at defensive end. But ultimately, it comes down to Wilfork, and, to a lesser extent, Kelly. If they return to the same level they were at when they went down last year — and both are able to stay injury-free — then New England’s defensive line could again become a massive position of strength.


1. Vince Wilfork is the leader of the defensive line.

Like Logan Mankins on the other side of the ball, Wilfork remains the centerpiece of the New England defensive front, a leader who has a voice that cuts across all lines in the locker room. From an on-field perspective, when he went down with his Achilles injury last year, it left a gaping hole up front. Down the stretch, Bill Belichick said on several occasions, ‘You don’t just replace Vince Wilfork,’ and even though those who walked in his shoes weren’t short on effort, his absence was a major reason this team fell short of its final goal. (As was the case with Matthew Slater, it wasn’t a surprise to see him on the road with the team, as it was clear Belichick has a level of respect for him that transcends simple X’s and O’s.) A borderline Hall of Famer who has an ability to play multiple spots along the defensive line at a high level well into his 30s, he is not always the elite presence he once was. But like Mankins, Wilfork at 75 percent is still better than most of the rest of the league. He’ll be a compelling individual this summer for several reasons, including the fact that it will be interesting to chart his progress as he works his way back after the Achilles injury. But removed from the rehab work, he’s had an eventful offseason on two fronts: one, one of his most trusted advocates, Pepper Johnson, is no longer with the team, having departed to become an assistant in Buffalo. And two, a contract situation in the spring between Wilfork and the team got a little heated. It’s not expected that either of those things will affect his ability to do his job, but the 32-year-old will start an interesting new chapter of his football career with the Patriots when he takes the field at camp later this month.

2. Rob Ninkovich remains one of the most underrated players in the league.

From this viewpoint, Ninkovich has never gotten the credit he deserves. A perfect fit in New England, he’s managed to provide support while working as a 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker, as well as seeing action on special teams. Whether it’s been dropping into coverage, working as part of the pass rush or setting the edge, he’s been consistent and steady ever since showing up as a backup linebacker/long snapper in the summer of 2009. In his five years in New England, he’s accumulated 27.5 sacks (including back-to-back eight-sack seasons the last two years), four interceptions and an absurd 12 fumbles recovered. (Ninkovich’s 11 fumble recoveries the last four years are more than anyone else in the league in that time.) The 6-foot-3, 251-pounder also has a streak of 79 straight games played (including the playoffs), having suited up for the Patriots every week since Nov. 30, 2009, against the Saints.

3. If everyone stays healthy up front, then Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga and Joe Vellano could do a nice job providing depth in 2014.

After Wilfork and Kelly went down early in the year, the trio was thrown into the deep end of the pool last season and forced to swim. As previously stated, they did as well as could be expected, with Jones showing a knack for working on passing downs (his six sacks were as many as Demarcus Ware and Nick Fairley), while Siliga was particularly stout against the run. Going forward, their body of work suggests that they could see work as backups in 2014.
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Patriots sign TE Nate Byham

07.20.14 at 4:51 pm ET
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The Patriots announced Sunday they have signed veteran tight end Nate Byham.

Here’s a portion of the release issued by the team:

Byham, 26, is a veteran of four NFL seasons with the San Francisco 49ers (2010-11) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2012-13). The 6-foot-4, 264-pounder, originally entered the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick by San Francisco out of Pittsburgh in 2010. He was signed by Tampa Bay on Oct. 2, 2012 after being released by San Francisco on Aug. 16, 2012. In his four NFL seasons, Byham has played 29 games with 11 starts and has totaled 11 receptions for 83 yards and one touchdown. Last season in Tampa Bay, Byham was limited to four games and finished with three receptions for 38 yards.

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Jets coach Rex Ryan: Patriots ‘need to worry about us’

07.20.14 at 11:16 am ET
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Sounds like Rex Ryan is back to being old Rex again.

After sounding chastened the last few years, in a series of interviews Saturday, the Jets coach sounded off about the state of the NFL, his own legacy, and where the Jets stand in relation to the Patriots.

“Somebody asked me if we focus on New England. Bull[expletive],” Ryan told the New York Post. “We’re focused on us. We’re focused on us and how are we going to be better. I have to be honest, I don’t worry about them. They need to worry about us. I think that’s really where we’re at now.”

Ryan didn’t make any Super Bowl predictions, but still sounded confident in his abilities as a head coach.

“Do I think that I’m a great coach? I absolutely know I’m a great coach,” Ryan told Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News. “But it’s not just about me. What makes a great coach is the people that surround you, the people that are with you every day.”

Ryan, who has a 46-40 career record as a head coach and has seen his team fall short of the postseason the last three years, will lead the Jets against the Patriots twice this season — Oct. 16 in Foxboro and Dec. 21 in North Jersey.

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Countdown to camp: Special teams

07.19.14 at 9:30 am ET
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As training camp approaches, we’€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We’ve examined the wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, running back and quarterback positions. Now, we take a look at special teams.

Depth chart: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski; punter Ryan Allen; long snappers Danny Aiken and Tyler Ott; special teams captain Matthew Slater; punt returner Julian Edelman

Overview: It was a good 2013 for the specialists. With the exception of one glaring misstep (a late kickoff against the Dolphins in Miami caromed out of bounds, setting the stage for a Dolphins comeback), Gostkowski was very good all year, while Allen was a solid if unspectacular presence at punter. Meanwhile, the return games were mostly good and occasionally great at times, as LeGarrette Blount went from special teams punchline to quality return man — among his highlights was an 83-yard return against the Bills in the regular-season finale. In addition, Edelman had another good year as punt returner, and his 12.3 career return average now is tied for seventh on the all-time list. Going forward, there are questions as to who will replace Blount as kick returner, as well as the possibility of some of last year’s core special teamers (like Tavon Wilson) being squeezed out of back-of-the-roster spots because of positional battles. But if the health of Gostkowski, Edelman and Slater (and some others) holds, Scotty O’Brien‘s crew appears poised for another good year.


1. Stephen Gostkowski is one of the best kickers in the game.

Setting aside the previously mentioned botched kickoff in a loss to Miami (a game in which he also missed a 48-yard field goal in the second half), Gostkowski had the best season of his career in 2013. He had game-winners to beat the Bills and Broncos, as well as big late kicks against the Jets and Texans, one that led to overtime and other that ended up clinching a road victory. He also successfully executed an onside kick in the dramatic win over the Browns. In all, he finished the year 35-of-38 on field-goal attempts, as well as 65 touchbacks. He led the league in scoring — his 158 points were a career best, as well as best in the league in 2013 and 10th in NFL history.

2. Matthew Slater is one of the best pure special teamers in the league.

We’ve said it roughly 3,000 times over the last few years, but spend the $70 and get the All-22 film. That’s likely the only way you’ll get a real sense of just how good Slater is when it comes to speed, strength and ability to work as a disruptive presence. Belichick was effusive in his praise of Slater’s work as a gunner last year, saying he’s “one of the best in the league” in that department, adding that he always seems to draw double teams when he’s on the outside. Good for two or three targets a season at wide receiver, he is a pure special teamer and has carved out a nice niche for himself on the roster. (One more thing worth noting: The fact that the team took Slater — one of the most respected players in the locker room — on the road last season after he went down with an injury is a good sign of how highly regarded he is by Bill Belichick, as well as the rest of the franchise.)

3. The kick returning job is wide open.

The Patriots have found good kick return performances sporadically over the last five years — including the work offered by Blount over most of the second half of 2013 — but since Ellis Hobbs was dealt to the Eagles following the 2008 season, New England has struggled to find consistency at the position. Now, with Blount gone, the job is available again. A variety of faces rotated through the position throughout the spring, but no one was able to distinguish themselves during OTA’s and minicamp.

(One more thing: Allen was also one of the best things about the Patriots in the AFC title game, dropping three first-half punts inside the 20 and doing his part to help tilt the field for New England in the early going.)

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