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Most Important Patriots of 2016: No. 4, Malcolm Butler

07.18.16 at 11:11 am ET
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Malcolm Butler and Odell Beckham had a memorable battle last season. (Jim O'Connor/USA Today Sports)

Malcolm Butler and Odell Beckham had a memorable battle last season. (Jim O’Connor/USA Today Sports)

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.

4. Cornerback Malcolm Butler

Height: 5-foot-11
Weight: 190 pounds
Age: 26 (will turn 27 on March 2)

Resume: In two years, the undrafted free agent out of West Alabama has gone from roster afterthought to one of the most important players on the team. His signature moment came in Super Bowl XLIX, but he managed to build on that in wildly impressive fashion in 2015. With more on his shoulders after the departures of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington, Butler earned the job as the new No. 1 corner, and while there was an occasional rough patch, he managed to rise to the occasion on a pretty consistent basis against some of the best receivers in the league. (It’s also worth mentioning that, other than a misstep when it came to getting back for spring workouts, he handled the off-the-field transition from JAG to Super Bowl hero — and all that went with it — as well as could be expected, keeping the focus on his work.) Last year, Butler recorded two interceptions and 14 pass defenses last season, fourth-most in the NFL per Pro Football Focus. It was good enough to land him a Pro Bowl nod, the first of his career.

Why we ranked him here: Butler won the coin flip over linebacker Dont’a Hightower for the fourth spot for a couple of reasons, with the biggest being that in a pass-first league, the high-level cornerback wins out over the steady and consistent linebacker. The numbers are one thing, but when measuring Butler’s importance, the eye test is perhaps even more vital. While there are better pure corners, no one goes harder on a more consistent basis than the guy teammates call Straps; simply put, he approaches every play like it’s his last. It says something that the former undrafted free agent continues to approach the game the same way now he did when he was simply trying to make the roster in the summer of 2014. Last year’s win over the Giants was a perfect microcosm of who he is as a player — facing one of the best receivers in the league in Odell Beckham, there were times where he was burned, but his ability to put those plays behind him and his combative nature allowed him to make the big play at the perfect time. When you consider his technique, guts, his financial situation (which could change sooner rather than later) and the incredible importance of really good corners in the league these days, he’s earned a spot here in our top five. In the end, Butler remains the most combative cornerback in the league, a guy who will never yield an ounce to any receiver, no matter the pedigree.

Quote: “I would definitely say Malcolm – one of the things that he definitely is – is competitive. I think that was pretty evident for us going back to last year, just coming in as a free agent and knowing that you’ve got to go out and compete every day in practice and show up and make plays [and] try to stand out a little bit. That was something we definitely saw from him early, his ability to compete, his desire to compete, his intensity with that, which served him well.” — Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia on Butler, 11/17/15

Random Note: Butler played a higher percentage of defensive snaps (98.9 percent) than anyone else on the New England roster last season. In addition, he was the only player on the roster to top 1,000 defensive snaps. Remarkably, he played almost 24 percent of the special teams snaps (117 total) last year as well.

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Report: Tom Brady has authorized NFLPA to proceed with Deflategate appeal

07.18.16 at 10:56 am ET
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Tom Brady

Tom Brady

Well, Deflategate isn’t officially over.

After Tom Brady announced last Friday he won’t proceed any further with the legal process, some thought the case would be over and done with for good, but shortly after that announcement the NFLPA released a statement which read: We will continue to review all of our options and we reserve our rights to petition for [appeal] to the Supreme Court.

According to Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, filling in for Peter King on MMQB, Brady has authorized the NFLPA to proceed with the appeal on his behalf. Florio says if Brady truly wants it to be over, there would be no further appeal.

Brady will still miss the first four games of the season, but Florio says there’s a chance he gets back his $253,000 he will lose during the suspension, “reduce the Commissioner’s power in player disciplinary cases, and provide Brady with genuine vindication.”

Ultimately, Brady not proceeding with the legal process was about the Patriots and having some clarity on his situation knowing he will miss the first four games instead of potentially having to miss four games in the middle or end of the season.

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

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Nate Ebner officially selected for 2016 U.S. Olympic men’s rugby team

07.18.16 at 8:10 am ET
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Nate Ebner

Nate Ebner

After months of training, Patriots special teamer Nate Ebner has made the U.S. Olympic men’s rugby team, USA Rugby announced early Monday morning.

Ebner was the youngest-ever player to represent the Men’s Sevens at age 17 and continued his rugby career at Ohio State before joining the football team and subsequently being drafted into the NFL. At the beginning of the year Bill Belichick and the organization gave Ebner the opportunity to fulfill his Olympic dream.

Ebner’s dad was a collegiate rugby player and after being murdered in 2010, he wanted to honor his late father and attempt to give the Olympics a shot.

The team will continue to train at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista before heading to Florida for a week where they will continue to train, which includes scrimmages against New Zealand.

Finally, the team will travel directly to Brazil Aug. 1. Friday’s side will begin play at the XXXI Olympic Games Aug. 9-12 at Deodoro Stadium. The USA are seated in Pool A alongside host nation Brazil, Argentina and 2015-16 Sevens Series Champions Fiji.

Ebner will return to the Patriots after the Games and is expected to be ready for the start of the season.

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

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Most Important Patriots of 2016: No. 5, Dont’a Hightower

07.17.16 at 11:28 am ET
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Dont'a Hightower has become vital to the success of the New England defense. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Dont’a Hightower has become vital to the success of the New England defense. (Christian Petersen/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.

5. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower

Height: 6-foot-2
Weight: 266 pounds
Age: 26 (will turn 27 on March 12)

Resume: A first-round pick out of Alabama in 2012, Hightower has had a fascinating career arc, one that included some ups and downs over his first year-plus in the NFL which caused him to take a long, hard look at his professional development at a key point in his career. But since the end of the 2014 campaign, he’s proven his bonafides one of New England’s next great defensive players. (The play at the end of Super Bowl XLIX that no one talks about? Hightower tackling Marshawn Lynch on the goal line … right before Russell Wilson’s interception.) In four seasons, he has 14.5 sacks, including a career-best six in 2014. The Patriots leaned heavily on a 4-2-5 set last year, with Hightower and Jamie Collins providing the heart of one of the best young defenses in the league. A thumper in the classic sense, he’s proven himself worthy of his first-round pedigree.

Why we ranked him here: Spoilers ahead … it basically came down to a coin toss for this spot between Hightower and cornerback Malcolm Butler. (Since you haven’t seen Butler to this point on this list, you can pretty much figure out who we have at No. 4. More on that tomorrow.) That being said, as veteran Jerod Mayo saw his role reduced in his last year, it was Hightower who stepped up in his place. He was the one with the green dot on his helmet. He was the hammer in the middle of the defense that slowed opposing running games. And his quiet leadership provided a boost for a young defense looking for guidance in the post-Mayo/Wilfork era. Bottom line? Hightower has emerged as a key part of Matt Patricia’s defensive foundation. While his health is an issue at times — and there’s some uncertainty regarding his future because he’s slated to be an unrestricted free agent after 2016 — it’s hard to argue against the fact that he deserves a spot in the top five entering this season.

Quote: “We come together every year — it’s me and him out there all the time. We have to have that bond. That’s my guy. If there’s anyone I can talk to, it’s him. We’re pretty tight.” — Jamie Collins on Hightower

Random Note: According to NFL Network research, during the 2015 regular season, the Patriots allowed 3.65 yards per carry when Hightower was on the field. When he wasn’t out there, New England allowed 4.5 yards per carry.

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Sunday NFL notes: 10 thoughts relating to Patriots following Tom Brady ending his Deflategate fight

07.17.16 at 6:00 am ET
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How Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo split reps during training camp will be something to watch. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

How Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo split reps during training camp will be something to watch. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

1. With Tom Brady ending his Deflategate fight on Friday afternoon and thus now certainly missing the first four games of the season, there are now a number of things to keep an eye on as it relates to the Patriots. First, at some point the team will likely need to add a fourth quarterback to the roster. With Brady out the first four games, they likely cannot go into the season with rookie Jacoby Brissett backing up Jimmy Garoppolo. Expect the team to add a veteran quarterback between now and the start of the season.

2. In that same realm, it will be interesting to see how the team approaches the reps during training camp, as it is extremely rare for the Patriots to have four quarterbacks on the roster even during training camp. Garoppolo obviously needs to get first-team reps given he will be the starter the first four weeks, but Brady does as well since those will be the players he will be working with when he comes back in Week 5. A realistic expectation is possibly Garoppolo getting 60 percent of the snaps with the first-team offense and Brady the other 40. Brissett will get the majority of the snaps with the second and third teamer’s as it’s important for him to keep developing. Maybe the Patriots would wait until the end of training camp after teams cut down their rosters to add that veteran quarterback, who would come in just as an insurance policy for Garoppolo during the first four weeks.

3. How the quarterback snaps are handled in the preseason games will be fascinating as well. Typically, Brady hasn’t played much at all during the preseason, but that could change this year given his situation and wanting to get some live game reps before his suspension comes into play. On the flip side, the typical way of doing things for the team can’t be altered just for Brady. For instance, the starters likely wouldn’t play in the fourth preseason game just so they can get snaps with Brady. Is it worth Brady playing in preseason games with third and fourth teamer’s? Probably not, but that is a question Bill Belichick and the coaching staff will have to ask themselves. Garoppolo also likely would need more preseason snaps than the average starting quarterback just because of his lack of game experience over his first two years in the league.

4. Brady cannot have any contact with the team during his four-game suspension and cannot be at the Gillette Stadium facility during that time either. This begins Saturday, Sept. 3 and lasts until Monday, Oct. 3 — the day after the Patriots’ Week 4 game against the Bills. There’s no doubt Brady will work as hard as he can on his own during that month, but there will be a rust factor when he returns purely because of not being able to work with his receivers. While it’s unlikely this will have much impact on his timing with players such as Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola — Brady hasn’t worked much with new players Chris Hogan and Martellus Bennett, so that is something to keep in mind for when Brady does come back in Week 5.

5. With the quarterback missing the first four games of the season, it will end his 126-game consecutive start streak including the playoffs, which was the seventh-longest streak all-time by a quarterback. He will fall two short his his previous streak of 128 games, which ended in 2008 when he tore his ACL in Week 1. Courtesy of Pro Football Talk, here’s a list of quarterbacks who have started at least 100 games in a row, including the playoffs: 321: Brett Favre, 1992-2010; 227: Peyton Manning, 1998-2011; 194: Eli Manning, 2004-2016 (active); 169: Philip Rivers, 2006-2016 (active); 137: Joe Flacco, 2008-2015; 128: Tom Brady, 2001-2008; 126: Tom Brady, 2009-2016; 123: Ron Jaworski, 1977-1984; 110: Joe Ferguson, 1977-1984; 103: Matt Ryan, 2009-2016 (active).

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Most Important Patriots of 2016: No. 6, Jamie Collins

07.16.16 at 11:45 am ET
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Jamie Collins has been an impact player for the Patriots since he landed in Foxboro. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Jamie Collins has been an impact player for the Patriots since he landed in Foxboro. (Jim Rogash/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.

6. Linebacker Jamie Collins
Height: 6-foot-4
Weight: 250 pounds
Age: 26 (will turn 27 on October 20)

Resume: A second-round pick of the Patriots in 2013 out of Southern Miss, Collins came on strong down the stretch as a rookie, delivering his signature performance in the divisional playoff win over the Colts when he finished with six tackles, one sack and one interception. Lining up next to veteran Jerod Mayo and fellow youngster Dont’a Hightower, he established himself as a starter in 2014 with a career-high 91 tackles, to go along with two interceptions and a pair of sacks. The hyper-athletic Collins ramped things up last year, becoming the most dynamic and versatile playmaker on New England’s defense. Pro Football Focus named him second-team All-NFL in 2014, and he was a second-team All-Pro last season, per the Associated Press.

Why we ranked him here: Collins is capable of running with tight ends and running backs in coverage, and has the hands to pick off off a pass. He also possesses the pass-rush skills needed to get after the quarterback on a consistent basis. The 2015 season ended on a sour note, as he was victimized on a Peyton Manning-to-Owen Daniels touchdown pass in the AFC title game. But in his three seasons, the only thing that has managed to fell the Southern Miss product was a mystery illness that sidelined him for four games last year. Going forward, it’s going to be interesting to see how his contract situation plays out; he and Hightower lead a handful of players who are currently slated to be unrestricted free agents following the season. If he gets to the open market, Collins’ freakish skill set and penchant for big plays, his age and his background with a Super Bowl champion will make him a player in very high demand.

Quote: “The guy is very hard working. He’s a very smart player [and] really tries to improve himself every week and get better. He’s still learning the game, still learning our defense, but really does a great job. [He] has a good mix of athletic ability and power and speed and strength that we try to utilize as much as we can on the field.” — Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia on Collins, 12/29/15

Random Note: We’ve used this stat a half-million times over the last year or so, but it certainly warrants repeating — Collins is the only guy in the league with at least 9.5 sacks and three interceptions since the start of the 2014 season.

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Robert Kraft supports Tom Brady’s decision to stop Deflategate legal proceedings despite ‘unjust and unreasonable’ penalty

07.15.16 at 3:21 pm ET
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Robert Kraft

Robert Kraft

In a statement, Patriots owner Robert Kraft supported Tom Brady’s decision to stop legal proceedings with Deflategate, but that doesn’t mean he’s accepted the NFL’s penalty and what they did to his quarterback and organization as a whole.

Here is the complete statement:

While I was disappointed with the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision not to rehear Tom Brady’s case, I am most frustrated that Tom was denied his right to a fair and impartial process. The League’s investigation into a football pressure matter was flawed and biased from the start, and has been discredited nearly unanimously by accredited academics and scientists.

The penalty imposed by the NFL was unprecedented, unjust and unreasonable, especially given that no empirical or direct evidence of any kind showed Tom did anything to violate League rules prior to, during or after the 2015 AFC Championship Game. What Tom has had to endure throughout this 18-month ordeal has been, in my opinion, as far removed from due process as you could ever expect in this country.

From day one, I have believed in Tom and given him my unwavering support in his pursuit to rightfully clear his name of any wrongdoing. That support extends throughout our organization and has only grown more steadfast as the preponderance of scientific evidence has exonerated Tom. Unfortunately, this stopped being about air pressure a long time ago.

This entire process has indelibly taken a toll on our organization, our fans and most importantly, Tom Brady. His reluctant decision to stop pursuing further action and to put this situation behind him is what he feels is best for the team in preparation for this season and is fully supported by me and our entire organization.

To our devoted fans, your unwavering support for Tom and our organization have only reinforced our longstanding belief that we have the greatest fans in all of sports. We will continue to unequivocally support Tom and know our fans will rally around him and the rest of the team like never before. Our full focus now is on making the upcoming season a memorable one for all of our fans.

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

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