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Countdown to camp: Running back

07.16.14 at 7:00 am ET
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Stevan Ridley is heading into the last year of his contract. (AP)

Stevan Ridley is heading into the last year of his contract. (AP)

As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We opened wide receiver and tight end. Now, it’s running back.

Depth chart: Stevan Ridley (178 carries, 773 rushing yards, 7 TDs), Shane Vereen (44 carries, 208 rushing yards, 1 TD; 47 catches, 427 receiving yards, 3 TDs), Brandon Bolden (55 carries, 271 rushing yards, 3 TDs; 21 catches, 152 receiving yards), James Develin (4 carries, 10 rushing yards, 1 TD), James White, Stephen Houston, Jonas Gray, Roy Finch

Overview: While the passing game occasionally stalled out in 2013, the running game became one of the positions of strength down the stretch last season. While Ridley struggled with fumble issues (so much so he was benched for a December game against the Texans) and Vereen had health problems, it was LeGarrette Blount who provided a boost midway through the year. And after Vereen returned to full health and Ridley bounced back from his ball security issues, that trio formed an impressive group that powered the Patriots late in the regular season and into the divisional playoffs against the Colts. In particular, it was Blount who led the way — after being hooked up to the rejuvenation machine, he produced 431 yards in a three-game stretch (two at the end of the regular season and one playoff game), including 189 yards in the regular-season finale against the Bills. Bolden and Develin did well providing depth, with Bolden seeing an uptick in snaps when Vereen was on the shelf. And Develin provided one of the highlights of the season with his Csonka-esque TD run against the Texans. Going forward, Blount left for Pittsburgh as a free agent, but the Patriots used a fourth round pick on White, a Wisconsin product who fumbled just twice in 754 career touches as a collegian. In addition, they picked up Houston, Gray and Finch, with at least one of them likely ticketed for the practice squad.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. When healthy, Shane Vereen is one of the most dynamic playmakers in the league.

Vereen played in just eight games last season because of a thumb injury, and while there were some ill-timed drops in the second half of the year, was still able to finish with 47 catches and 44 carries. It’s one thing to become a 40-40 guy — Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead were the last New England running backs to turn the trick. However, it was made all the more impressive by the fact that Vereen did it in just eight games. The full range of his impressive abilities were on display in the 2013 opener against the Bills where he had 14 carries and seven catches, and averaged 7.57 yards every time he touched the ball. If he can ever stay healthy for a full 16-game season, he has the potential to reach Sprolesian levels.

2. The Patriots believe in the fullback.

The last few years, New England had occasionally added part-time fullbacks to the roster, but players like Lousaka Polite and Lex Hilliard usually only ended up sticking around Foxboro for a few weeks before moving on. But in 2013, for the first time since they had Heath Evans on the roster in 2008, the Patriots employed a full-time fullback in Develin. He was one of 11 fullbacks to finish the year with at least 325 snaps over the course of the regular season, per Pro Football Prospectus. And while he didn’t post crazy offensive numbers — four carries, 10 yards and a touchdown — he was an effective member of the offensive game plan. In perhaps a nod to Develin’s effectiveness in 2013, according to Football Outsiders, the Patriots were one of the few teams to run better from two-back formations (5.0 yards per carry) than from single-back formations (4.6 yards per carry).

3. At running back, the Patriots are planning for the future.

The Patriots entered the offseason as one of the deeper teams at the running back position — at least before the departure of Blount — but that didn’t stop them from using a fourth-round pick on White this offseason. In addition, they added three rookie free agents, including an intriguing prospect in Finch who impressed many in spring workouts. With Ridley and Vereen heading into the final years of their respective rookie deals, it’s hard not to look at the collection of youngsters and wonder if New England is guarding itself against the potential loss of one of both of them following the 2014 season. That’s not to suggest that White or any of the rest of the rookies aren’t capable of providing support this season. It just seems that in a perfect world, the Patriots might have their eye on White, Finch and the rest of the backs as potential contributors in 2015 and beyond.
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Michael McCann on D&C: ‘I don’t think there’s anything in those [Aaron Hernandez] text messages that implicates the Patriots or Bill Belichick’

07.15.14 at 11:10 am ET
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Sports Illustrated legal expert Michael McCann joined Dennis & Callahan on Tuesday to discuss the latest on former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. To hear more from D&C, go to the Dennis & Callahan audio on demand page.

Michael McCann

Michael McCann

Court documents on Monday revealed evidence that prosecutors turned over to Hernandez’s defense in the Odin Lloyd murder case. The documents included interviews with Patriots personnel including Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft, and 33 pages of text messages between Belichick and Hernandez from February 2013 to May 2013.

“I think Hernandez is interested in developing some type of — at least potentially — some type of defense where maybe he lacked the mental capacity to commit first-degree murder, that he doesn’t have the sophistication or there are other mental defects, if you like, that would have prevented him from engineering the murder of Odin Lloyd,” McCann said.

“I don’t think there’s anything in those text messages that implicates the Patriots or Bill Belichick. I have a feeling that they’re going to be — and again, I’m speculating — something more along the lines of conversations about plays or other teams’ players that the Patriots may have interest in. I don’t think there’s going to be anything in there that damns the Patriots.”

The content of the text messages haven’t been made public, but McCann said he doesn’t expect there to be anything in the texts that would put the Patriots in a dicey legal situation.

“I think we would have already seen the Patriots, if not charged with a crime, some indication that that would happen,” he said. “It’s now been over a year; I would be surprised that Belichick would have been able to just continue to coach without any charges if he’s in any way implicated in this case. I could be wrong, there could be something in there, but I have a feeling it’s not going to be, again, as damning of Belichick.

“Now, there is a clause in the collective bargaining agreement, Article 21, that prohibits meetings between coaches and players during the offseason. Maybe that was broken through these texts, but that’s really an NFL issue, not a legal issue.” Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Bill Belichick, Michael McCann, Robert Kraft

Countdown to camp: Tight end

07.15.14 at 7:00 am ET
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In 2014, Rob Gronkowski will attempt to play a full season for the first time since 2011. (AP)

In 2014, Rob Gronkowski will attempt to play a full season for the first time since 2011. (AP)

As training camp approaches, we’€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We opened with a look at wide receiver. Now, it’€™s tight end.

Depth chart: Rob Gronkowski (39 catches, 592 yards, 4 TDs in 7 games), Michael Hoomanawanui (12 catches, 136 yards, 1 TD), D.J. Williams, Asa Watson, Justin Jones

Overview: The Patriots have gone from a team that relied heavily on tight ends to one for whom the position became a relatively ancillary part of the passing game. (In 2011, New England tight ends had 169 catches on 237 targets. Last year, the Patriots got 53 catches on 92 targets from the same positional group.) That’€™s not to suggest that — when healthy — Gronkowski isn’t an absolutely vital part of the offense. In one impressive four-game stretch last year (from Nov. 3 through Dec. 1), he had 27 catches for 419 yards and four touchdowns. It’€™s just that with the removal of Aaron Hernandez and the injury issues suffered by Gronkowski, the Patriots have been forced to adapt. Hoomanwanui was a trusted piece of the puzzle in 2013, while New England also got quality snaps from Matthew Mulligan, who has since departed as a free agent to Chicago. Going forward, Hoomanawanui will help pick up the slack if Gronkowski is out for another stretch, while the possibility remains the Patriots will reach out to one of the available veteran free agents still on the market in Dustin Keller and Jermichael Finley. In addition, Williams is still on the roster, but was seen sparingly in workouts this spring, so it’€™s hard to get a handle on just where he is at this point. In addition, rookies Watson and Jones present themselves as possibilities as depth additions and possible practice squad pickups.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. When healthy, Rob Gronkowski is a difference maker.

When he’€™s at 100 percent, there are few offensive players who are more dominant at their respective positions than Gronkowski is at tight end. (Calvin Johnson? Adrian Peterson?) Despite the on-again, off-again 2013 season, his campaign was highlighted by the aforementioned four-game stretch that was highlighted by a nine-catch, 143-yard performance against the Steelers (both season-highs) that included a touchdown grab. In addition, there was a six-catch, 127-yard game against the Texans that featured a sweet fingertip touchdown catch on a ball from Brady that was off the mark. When he’€™s healthy, no tight end in the game brings the skill set that Gronkowski can deliver.

2. Michael Hoomanawanui isn’€™t an elite tight end, but he’€™s an eminently reliable type of player you need on your roster.

Hooman doesn’€™t bring the thunder like Gronkowski, but he’€™s a better-than-average blocker and has some positional versatility (he can play some H-back in addition to tight end). Throw in a 63 percent catch rate (12 receptions on 19 targets) and a good level of familiarity with the offense, and it’€™s easy to see why the Patriots signed him to a two-year deal in the offseason. (He also had one of the prettiest catches of the 2013 season.) He figures to be a quality No. 2 tight end behind Gronkowski in 2014.

3. Brady trusts Gronkowski more than just about any pass catcher he’€™s ever had.

Gronkowski was on the field for just seven games last season, but according to NFL gamebooks, Brady targeted him a total of 66 times, an average of 9.4 targets per game, tied with Julian Edelman (151 targets over 16 games) for most average targets per game. By way of comparison, Shane Vereen was next on the list with an average of 8.6 targets per game, while Danny Amendola was fourth with an average of 6.9 targets per game and Aaron Dobson was fifth with an average of at 6.58 targets per game. He’€™s far and away the leader at tight end — Gronkowski was targeted 17 times in his first game of the 2013 season, an Oct. 20 loss to the Jets (the seventh contest of the regular season). Through the first six games of the year, the entire group of New England tight ends had been targeted a total of 15 times.
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Reports: Detectives have interviewed Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft regarding Aaron Hernandez

07.14.14 at 3:57 pm ET
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Detectives working the Aaron Hernandez murder cases have interviewed Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft and Nick Caserio about the former Patriots tight end, according to multiple media reports.

The revelations were unearthed in documents filed in Fall River Superior Court. The filings, which were made public on Monday, list the evidence prosecutors in the Odin Lloyd murder case have turned over to Hernandez’s defense lawyers in advance of the trial. It includes the fact that Belichick and Kraft have made statements to authorities, as well as the fact that detectives have also interviewed director of football Berj Najarian and strength coaches Harold Nash and Moses Cabrera.

In addition, the filings revealed that prosecutors have turned over 33 pages of text messages between Belichick and Hernandez from February 2013 to May 2013.

Hernandez, who played for the Patriots from 2010 through 2012, faces two more murder counts in a July 2012 drive-by shooting in Boston.

For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Berj Najarian, Bill Belichick, Harold Nash

Countdown to camp: Wide receiver

07.14.14 at 7:00 am ET
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Julian Edelman had 105 catches in 2013. (AP)

Julian Edelman had 105 catches in 2013. (AP)

As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We open with a look at wide receiver.

Depth chart: Julian Edelman (105 catches, 1,056 yards, 6 TDs in 2013), Danny Amendola (54 catches, 633 yards, 2 TDs), Brandon LaFell (49 catches, 627 yards, 5 TDs with Carolina), Aaron Dobson (37 catches, 519 yards, 4 TDs), Kenbrell Thompkins (32 catches, 466 yards, 4 TDs), Josh Boyce (9 catches, 121 yards), Jeremy Gallon, Jeremy Johnson, Wilson Van Hooser, Reese Wiggins

Overview: The wide receiver position was in a massive state of flux last year, as quarterback Tom Brady faced the challenge of incorporating a ton of new faces into the mix, all while Rob Gronkowski shuffled in and out of the starting lineup because of injury. Edelman did the best job stepping into the void, putting together one of the finest seasons of recent vintage — his first month was as good statistically as almost any receiver Brady has ever had. Amendola struggled with health, and while he had two terrific games (the opener against Buffalo and the loss against the Dolphins in Miami), there were times when he dropped off the radar screen. Meanwhile, Dobson, Thompkins and Boyce progressed about as well as could be expected — but while they had their moments early, all three had problems down the stretch: Dobson played in two games after Dec. 1, due in large part to a foot injury that has cast his availability for training camp into doubt. Meanwhile, Thompkins caught just nine passes after Halloween, and Boyce’s season ended prematurely with a foot injury. Going forward, the group is joined by newcomer LaFell, a versatile presence known for his dependability and blocking skills, as well as a host of younger possibilities.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Julian Edelman is the closest thing the Patriots have to a No. 1 receiver.

Edelman caught a combined 69 passes his first four years in the league, then had 105 in 2013, becoming just the third receiver to catch at least 100 passes in a single season from Brady. (Troy Brown and Wes Welker ae the other two.) He was absolutely integral to the success of the New England offense last season, and the passing game in particular. While Edelman should get more help this season than last because of the addition of LaFell and the (presumed) development of the second-year receivers like Dobson, Thompkins and Boyce, he’ll be lead option in the passing game, at least until Gronkowski is back to something approximating 100 percent.

2. Danny Amendola is a bit of a mystery.

Amendola was terrific in some games, and absolutely nowhere to be seen in others. The Patriots probably wouldn’t have beaten Buffalo in the opener if he didn’t come away with 10 catches (almost 20 percent of his total for the season) against the Bills in September. He was banged up in that one, and a groin issue plagued him for much of the rest of the year. After a really impressive 10-catch outing in a December loss to the Dolphins in South Florida, he had six catches over the final four games of the season — three in the last two regular-season games and three in the postseason. (In the AFC title game, Matthew Slater was targeted as many times as Amendola.) It sparked questions as to whether or not the quarterback had lost faith in him. A strong summer, good health and a good start to the season would make a lot of those questions disappear, and give Brady another dependable target.

3. Brandon LaFell is a pretty good blocker.

As a member of the Panthers for four seasons, LaFell distinguished himself as a relatively dependable target who was versatile enough to play different spots. (Expect him to do some of that with the Patriots.) But the one thing that really stood out when talking about what he brings to the field are his blocking skills. Speaking at the owners meetings this past spring, Panthers coach Ron Rivera was effusive in his praise of LaFell and his blocking skills. “I love his tenacity. He’s a willing blocker. He’s a want-to blocker. He wants to block,” Rivera said of LaFell, who signed a three-year, $9 million deal with New England. “He won’t block because he has to. He’ll block because he has to. He’ll block because he wants to.” It will be interesting to see how the Patriots utilize that aspect of his game this year.
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Judge allows Aaron Hernandez to switch jails

07.07.14 at 10:10 pm ET
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Aaron Hernandez will be moved from the Bristol County House of Correction in Dartmouth to a jail closer to Boston, a judge ruled Monday.

The former Patriots tight end attended the hearing and gestured to his mother and brother in the courtroom.

Prosecutors revealed last week that they would not object to the request to move Hernandez so that he could be closer to his lawyers. However, they dismissed accusations that Hernandez’s privacy and due process rights were violated by the jail administrator — claims that were not addressed in court Monday.

Bristol County Judge Susan Garsh also said that she was concerned that the tentative trial date of Oct. 6 for the murder of Odin Lloyd is not realistic due to the amount of evidence as well as motions she expects to be filed. She set the next hearing for Aug. 11.

Hernandez also is charged with double-murder for a 2012 shooting in Boston. He has pleaded not guilty.

Read More: Aaron Hernandez,

Giants LB Mark Herzlich on MFB: ‘Kind of ridiculous’ to say Tom Brady no longer an elite QB

07.07.14 at 1:31 pm ET
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Giants linebacker and former Boston College star Mark Herzlich joined Middays with MFB on Monday morning at his charity golf tournament at the Pinehills Golf Club in Plymouth to discuss his battle with cancer, his road to the NFL and the criticism that Eli Manning deals with on an almost daily basis. To listen to the interview, go to the MFB audio on demand page.

Herzlich, who missed the entire 2009 college football season after being diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer known as Ewing’€™s sarcoma, is in his fifth year of hosting the Liberty Mutual Invitational celebrity golf tournament. Proceeds from the event go to Uplifting Athletes, a non-profit that funds sarcoma research.

“€œIt was all kind of a whirlwind,”€ Herzlich said. “€œThe first year I was back, I said, ‘€˜OK, we want to do something to give back,’€™ so Jayme Parker at NESN was very helpful throughout the process and so Jayme said, ‘€˜Let’€™s do a golf tournament.’€™ … Liberty Mutual jumped in and said, ‘€˜OK, we’€™ll be your sponsor,’€™ and since then it’€™s just been rolling and this is our fifth one.”

After his playing days at Chestnut Hill, Herzlich signed with the Giants as an undrafted free agent on July 26, 2011. Herzlich has recorded 84 combined tackles during his three seasons in New York. While the former ACC Defensive Player of the Year has carved out a solid career for himself in the NFL, he admitted that returning to the gridiron after missing a whole year battling cancer was a long and trying process.

“The first year I was back, it was night and day,” Herzlich said. “My brain was saying, ‘€˜You can do this,’€™ and my body was saying, ‘€˜You can’€™t do this.’€™ I was going in drops and breaking and missing tackles and luckily I had Luke Kuechly behind me to make all the rest of the tackles that I was missing. … Now I feel like I’€™m as good or better than I was then.

Tom Brady‘s supposed decline has been a hot topic across New England this season. While Herzlich said he still believes Brady is an elite-level signal caller, he also noted that Giants fans would not come to Eli Manning‘€™s defense the same way Patriots fans have for Brady.

“€œI think that there are Eli lovers and Eli haters. There’€™s no one who’€™s like, ‘€˜Yeah, Eli is pretty good, or whatever.’€™ … He does know when he has a bad game, and the problem is that every single person in New York and across the country knows he has a bad game, too, because they let him know. It’€™s tough, and he’€™s very strong-minded to get over that stuff, but I couldn’€™t imagine.

“Some of the stuff that’€™s on Twitter — he doesn’€™t have Twitter, and I’€™m glad he’€™s not on Twitter. As far as Brady not being an elite quarterback, that’€™s kind of ridiculous to me.”

Read More: Eli Manning, Luke Kuechly, Mark Herzlich, Tom Brady
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