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Most Important Patriots of 2016: No. 2, Rob Gronkowski

07.21.16 at 10:30 am ET
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Rob Gronkowski is already one of the best tight ends in the recent history of the game. (Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images)

Rob Gronkowski is already one of the best tight ends in the recent history of the game, and he’s only 27. (Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images)

As the countdown to training camp begins later this month, we’re looking at the 20 most important members of the Patriots heading into 2016.

2. Tight end Rob Gronkowski

Height: 6-foot-6
Weight: 265 pounds
Age: 27 (will turn 28 on May 14)

Resume: Where to start? When Gronkowski been healthy, this second-round pick out of Arizona has been one of the most dominant offensive options in the game since he arrived in the NFL in 2010. Over the course of his six-year career, he has 380 catches for 5,555 yards and 65 touchdowns, which includes a career-high 90 catches in 2011 and 82 in 2014. As a red-zone threat, a blocker or as a pass catcher with one of the largest catch radiuses in the NFL, he’s the best and most complete tight end in the game today, and is well on his way to becoming one of the best at his position in the history of the game. The big fella had a nasty two-year stretch where he struggled with injury, but aside from an occasional scare as of late, he’s held up well since the start of the 2014 season, playing in 30 of a possible 32 regular-season games in that span. He’s been named a first-team All-Pro by the AP on three different occasions (2011, 2014. 2015), and four times by Pro Football Focus.

Why we ranked him here: Everything is different when he’s not on the field. Everything. When he’s healthy, the field tilts in New England’s favor. He’s an elite offensive option who can put pressure on opposing defenses from multiple spots, including split wide, in the slot, flush against the tackle or even out of the backfield. If they double- or triple-team him, it opens things up for the likes of Julian Edelman, Dion Lewis or any one of the other pass catchers. When he’s not out there, Tom Brady loses a target with a world-class catch radius, an extraordinary football IQ (more on that in a second) and the sort of occasionally nasty streak that has helped make him an underrated blocker. There are about eighty billion examples of his importance over the last six years, but maybe the best one is last year’s AFC title game. His whole game was a clinic, but his catch on fourth down to keep the chains moving late in the contest and his astounding touchdown reception with less than two minutes left were the sorts of game-changing plays Gronkowski has become known for. Frankly, he’s not just one of the two most important players on the New England roster, he’s one of the faces of the league, and someone who will be fitted for a gold jacket in Canton before it’s all said and done.

Quote: “He’s a smart football player. He understands leverage, he understands position, he understands technique. He understands the concept of what you’re trying to do. … Probably other than the quarterback, the tight end position on our offense is the hardest to play. You have all the protections, all the [work in the] running game, and you have routes from sideline to the middle of the field to occasionally even in the backfield. There are really no plays off mentally for that position. His work ethic, his ability to work with his teammates, whether it’s the quarterback, the offensive tackles, the other tight ends or even with the defensive players, is good.” — Bill Belichick on Gronkowski, 9/23/15

Random Note: Gronkowski ended 2015 with 379 career regular-season catches via Brady, which now puts him second on the all-time list of receptions from New England’s veteran quarterback. (Gronkowski is 184 catches behind the all-time leader, Wes Welker, who finished his time in New England with 563 catches from Brady). Deion Branch is third overall with 328 career catches from Brady, while Troy Brown is fourth with 323 receptions via No. 12.

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Pittsburgh RB DeAngelo Williams: ‘I’m glad’ Patriots have their problems

07.21.16 at 9:35 am ET
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DeAngelo Williams does not care about the Patriots' problems. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

DeAngelo Williams does not care about the Patriots’ problems. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams doesn’t care who is under center for the Patriots for the first four games of the season.

“I am glad they got problems. I don’t care,” Williams told TribLive when he was asked for his thoughts on what the Patriots are going to do during Tom Brady’s four-game ban. “Everybody has their problems, and I’m glad they have theirs.

“I don’t know why everybody thinks that affects us,” Williams added. “We don’t care. You think [Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger] wants to beat a [Tom] Brady-less team? That proves nothing to him.”

Williams has been an outspoken critic of New England for several years, with one school of thought saying that it goes back to the Patriots’ decision to pass on him in favor of Laurence Maroney in the 2006 draft.

For what it’s worth, Brady is expected to be back at quarterback when the Patriots travel to Pittsburgh to meet Williams and the Steelers on Oct. 23.

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

Read More: deangelo williams, Deflategate, Tom Brady,

Julian Edelman has ‘itch’ to get back on field, has been training to get in ‘football shape’

07.20.16 at 5:38 pm ET
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Julian Edelman is itching to get back on the football field. (WEEI.com photo)

Julian Edelman is itching to get back on the football field. (WEEI.com photo)

One of the biggest question marks entering Patriots training camp next week will be if wide receiver Julian Edelman will be on the field.

The wide out had offseason foot surgery after breaking his foot during the year, but did return for the postseason possibly doing more damage to the foot.

Edelman didn’t specifically address his foot, but sounded like a player who has been working hard in the offseason and is ready to get back out on the field with less than a week left in his offseason.

“You enjoy it, but you have the itch to get back,” Edelman said at Fenway Park Wednesday where he took batting practice, including hitting several homers over the Green Monster. “It’s not like you haven’t been doing anything. You’ve been training and get your body and yourself in football shape. That’s kind of where my focus has been.”

Edelman was asked about Tom Brady and him missing the first four games, but he didn’t want to get into it.

“I’m not here to talk about that, I am here to enjoy America’s pastime,” he said.

The Patriots’ first official training camp practice is July 28.

For more Patriots news, visit weei.com/patriots.

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Video: Julian Edelman hits home run over Green Monster at Fenway Park

07.20.16 at 5:25 pm ET
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Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman was at Fenway Park on Wednesday and took batting practice on the field where he was able to hit several balls over the Green Monster.

“I don’t know, I couldn’t count,” Edelman said. “Six or seven. I think seven.”

Edelman was asked what he was thinking when looking out at the Monster from home plate.

“Taking it down,” he said. “I don’t know. It’s all fun. I played baseball growing up and to get to come out to a big league park and see these guys it puts in perspective how good these guys are. These guys are studs.”

He got advice from longtime friend, Red Sox third base coach Brian Butterfield, who actually worked Edelman out in Toronto when he was with the Blue Jays. Bench coach Torey Lovullo also gave encouragement from behind the cage.

The wide receiver grew up a Giants fan, but said he’s now a Red Sox fan. He added it will be cool to get to see the teams on opposite coasts and leagues face off.

“I was a Giants fan growing up, Sox fan now,” Edelman said. “This is my NL team. It’s going to be cool to stay here and watch the game. You never really see East Coast versus West Coast like this. It’s going to be a fun game to watch.”

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Forbes: Patriots are second-most valuable NFL team

07.20.16 at 3:14 pm ET
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The Patriots are the second-most valuable NFL team at $3.2 billion, trailing only the Cowboys, according to Forbes.

Overall, New England is ranked as the sixth-most valuable professional sports franchise. Dallas is first at $4 billion, while Real Madrid ($3.65 billion), Barcelona ($3.55 billion), the New York Yankees ($3.4 billion) and Manchester United ($3.32 billion) round out the top 5.

This year, NFL franchises comprise 27 of the top 50, and with the Cowboys on top, it’s the first time a non-soccer club has been ranked No. 1 since 2011.

Per Forbes, this marks the third straight year the Patriots have been second in the NFL list to the Cowboys. Last year, Forbes listed New England as the third-most valuable sports franchise on the planet behind Dallas and Real Madrid.

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

Report: Tom Brady second in jersey sales over last three months

07.20.16 at 12:55 pm ET
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Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski were among the top five best-selling NFL jerseys over the last three months.

According to ESPN’s Darren Rovell, Brady was second, trailing only rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott of the Cowboys. Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton were third and fourth, while Gronkowski finished fifth overall.

The totals are based on sales from April 1-June 30 on NFLShop.com, the league’s official online site.

Read More: Ezekiel Elliott, Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady,

Tom Brady wishes Happy Birthday to ‘love of my life’ Gisele Bundchen on Facebook

07.20.16 at 11:07 am ET
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Tom Brady took to Facebook Wednesday morning to wish his wife Gisele Bundchen a Happy Birthday as she turned 36 years old.

The quarterback wrote: Happy Birthday to the love of my life. May this year be your best and brightest and most fulfilling. We love you!

Read More: Tom Brady,
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