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Catching up with … the Steelers

06.09.12 at 2:55 pm ET
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Part of a continuing series that takes a look at what some of the Patriots’€™ biggest competition in the AFC is doing this offseason. We’€™ve already looked at the Jets and Ravens. Today, it’€™s the Steelers:

The last time we saw the Steelers, they were evaporating in overtime in the thin air of Denver, the last victim of Tim Tebow‘€™s amazing run with the Broncos. It was Pittsburgh finished the 2011 regular season at 12-4 — which included a 25-17 win over New England at Heinz Field — but lost out to the Ravens for the AFC North title.

Who they added: The Steelers offensive line has struggled the last couple of years when it came to protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and so they went after help up front with their first two picks, landing guard David DeCastro (believed by many to be the best interior offensive lineman in the draft) in the first round and Mike Adams (a premiere left tackle, but one who comes with some character questions). And while they didn’€™t necessarily add him, Pittsburgh beat the odds and managed to hold on to wide receiver Mike Wallace. They placed a first-round tender on the speedy wideout, which means the Steelers will keep the standout wide receiver for 2012 at a $2.7 million salary.

Who’€™s gone: The Steelers lost a few veteran bodies of note in the offseason. Pittsburgh cut linebacker James Farrior, defensive end Aaron Smith and cornerback Bryant McFadden — all 2011 opening-day starters — while longtime wide receiver Hines Ward and backup nose tackle Chris Hoke retired and cornerback William Gay signed with Arizona.

How they feel about the Patriots: ‘€œThe Patriots sat back and did nothing on defense in that game.’€ Troy Polamalu on New England’€™s defensive game plan against the Broncos in the playoffs

Analysis: The very definition of a steady-as-she-goes franchise underwent a relatively eventful offseason, and it will be interesting to see how they react to the changes. Longtime pillars Ward and Farrior are gone, and Todd Haley is the new offensive coordinator. Haley is reportedly a big believer in running the ball, and in that context, the running back spot will also be worth watching, as starter Rashard Mendenhall suffered an ACL tear in Week 17. There’€™s some question as to whether or not he’€™ll be able to go at the start of the season — if not, it looks like Isaac Redman will get the call. Ultimately, there’€™s little reason to think that the Steelers won’€™t be a playoff team, but the offseason moves certainly bear watching, especially when it comes to overall continuity.

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Who will be the next under-30 Patriot to get a new contract?

06.09.12 at 12:02 am ET
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With the news that the Patriots and tight end Rob Gronkowski have agreed to a six-year $54 million deal, here’€™s a look at some of the other players under 30 who might be next up when it comes to a new contract:

Patrick Chung: The 24-year-old safety is entering the final season of a four-year contract he signed as a rookie, and despite running into a pretty bad injury stretch last year, he remains an important part of the New England defense. (It was no coincidence that the Patriots were playing their best defensive football of 2011 when Chung and Brandon Spikes returned to the lineup at the end of the season.) While it’€™s unlikely that the Patriots would give him a new deal before his current one expires, he’€™s a safe bet to sign a second contract next offseason.

Sebastian Vollmer: Vollmer’€™s rookie deal is also set to expire following the 2012 season, and despite the fact that he was dogged by injury in 2011, he remains one of New England’€™s best options at tackle. (His bargaining power likely increased, albeit ever so slightly, when Matt Light retired this offseason.) The Patriots have traditionally taken very good care of their starting tackles — remember when they gave Nick Kaczur a new four-year extension in 2009? — and while the 27-year-old Vollmer won’€™t likely get a new deal before he current contract is done, if he shows well in 2012 and returns to a level of consistency he displayed his first two seasons in the league, like Chung, he’€™s a good bet to get a new deal sometime next offseason.

Aaron Hernandez: The tight end — who has two more years left on the contract he signed as a rookie — now faces an interesting future, as there’€™s some question as to whether or not the Patriots will be able to gift both of their talented young tight ends with big deals. When Hernandez and his team return to the bargaining table, this might be an excellent opportunity for the team to use the franchise tag. (That would also set up an interesting debate, as Hernandez is one of the more versatile options in the New England offense, and could make an argument that if he does get hit with the franchise tag, he should get paid like a wide receiver instead of a tight end — which would almost certainly cost the Patriots more dough.)

Brandon Spikes: The linebacker, who will turn 25 before the start of the regular season, signed a four-year deal as a rookie, which will be up after the 2013 season. Like Chung, when he’€™s been healthy, he’€™s been a key to the success of the defense: problem is, he likely hasn’€™t been healthy enough over his two seasons in the league to warrant a new deal. The 2012 season will be a key one for Spikes for several reasons, including the fact that the Patriots picked up Dont’€™a Hightower in the first round of the draft, a linebacker who can do many of the same things that Spikes does. As our pal PatsPropaganda points out, Hightower could serve as insurance for Spikes in case he struggles with injury. The battle for playing time (and how the Patriots deploy both of them) between the two in 2012 will be fascinating to watch.

Devin McCourty: McCourty, who will turn 25 in August, signed a five-year deal as a rookie that will expire after 2014. He had a tremendous rookie season, which was followed up by a rough 2011. Whether he works at corner or safety going forward (he was at corner almost exclusively during the latest round of OTA’€™s that were open to the media), he’€™ll have to return to the All-Pro form he flashed as a rookie before there’€™s any serious talk about a new deal.

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Zoltan Mesko rounds up teammates for this weekend’s ‘ZoliOke’

06.08.12 at 10:56 am ET
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FOXBORO — Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko is so straightforward and earnest, he makes Miami’€™s ‘€œgood job, good effort’€ kid seem like a hard-bitten cynic. So when he announced plans to put together a celebrity karaoke event to help benefit Boston Children’€™s Hospital, many of his teammates found it hard to refuse him.

‘€œIt just shows you that’€™s what true teammates are about,’€ Mesko said after Thursday’€™s OTA session at Gillette Stadium. ‘€œShowing up when they have some free time to relax, but they choose to give back to charity and the community. That’€™s awesome.’€

Several teammates have pledged their support to ‘€œZoliOke,’€ set for Saturday from 7 to 10 p.m. Taking place at Royale in Boston, it will benefit for Boston Children’€™s Hospital, with net proceeds including raffle and live auction contributions being donated to the hospital. (For ticket information, CLICK HERE.)

It’€™s a continuation of a Patriots’€™ tradition — former New England linebacker Larry Izzo held a ‘€œLarry-Oke’€ fundraiser every year. Mesko said he reached out to Izzo (currently an assistant special teams coach with the Giants) for some tips on how to make it all come together.

‘€œHe was more than welcoming to tell me about the logistics of how it went down, and guys who were here when he had it and remember how everything ran, they filled me in on it,’€ Mesko said. ‘€œAnd we kind of tweaked it a little bit — maybe made some things coordinate more with the Children’€™s Hospital. It’€™ll be a phenomenal event, if it goes as planned. But right now, I’€™m stressing.’€

The event is another sign that Mesko, who will be entering into his third season in the NFL, continues to ensconce himself in the community. The likable punter continues to be at the forefront of community service efforts with the team — he’€™s worked in a number of New England Patriots Charitable Foundation community events his rookie year and last season as a part of the team’€™s ‘€œCelebrate Volunteerism’€ campaign. Along with hospital visits, Mesko has participated in numerous events including Patriots Gifts from the Gridiron, Hunger Awareness and Health Care Volunteerism, and a playground build in Providence.

At the same time, he’€™s quickly developed a rep as one of the best young punters in the league. The 26-year-old Mesko — who has one of the best backstories of anyone in the NFL — set an NFL rookie record in 2010 with a 38.4 net average, the highest of any rookie punter since net punt tracking began in 1976.

With OTA’€™s now behind him and training camp less than two months away, the 6-foot-5, 231-pounder feels good heading into his third season with the Patriots.

‘€œI feel like mentally, 90 percent of this game is mental at this point — there aren’€™t many physical strides you can make at this level,’€ he said. ‘€œYou can still tweak some things, but mostly, it’€™s mental. I took the adjustments I made last year and I added them to my repertoire this year, and we keep building off that. That’€™s what this period is for — it’€™s to kind of introduce those things and get them in line and maybe learn some new things as well.’€

In his words, he and the rest of the specialists (kicker Stephen Gostkowski and long snapper Danny Aiken) are ‘€œgelling as a group,’€ but you can’€™t afford to get too comfortable with where you are.

‘€œWe’€™re always striving for perfection,’€ Mesko said. ‘€œYou never feel quite comfortable. And you should never really feel comfortable, because that’€™s when you stop getting better.’€

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ESPN’s ‘NFL Live’ crew dissects the decision to cut Chad Ochocinco

06.07.12 at 8:34 pm ET
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Tedy Bruschi, Chris Mortensen and Damien Woody of ESPN’s “NFL Live” break down the Patriots’ decision to part ways with wide receiver Chad Ochocinco:

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Three is the magic number: Old friend Jabar Gaffney happy to be back in New England

06.07.12 at 8:18 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Over the last year or so, both Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick waxed nostalgically about what Jabar Gaffney brought to the table when he was in New England between 2006 and 2008: solid, smart and utterly dependable, the Patriots have has enjoyed success in the passing game since he left, but never could replace Gaffney as a No. 3 receiver.

So when the opportunity to pick him up again came around this offseason, the idea of Gaffney back with the Patriots almost made too much sense, to both New England and Gaffney.

‘€œYou go other places and you realize what you had, what you had here with coach Belichick,’€ Gaffney said after Thursday’€™s OTA session in Foxboro. ‘€œHe’€™s a one of a kind coach, and coming back here, he reminded me of that real quick.’€

Gaffney was cut loose by the Redskins earlier this spring — he called it a ‘€œshocker,’€ especially after he finished the 2011 season with career-highs in catches (68) and yards (947) with Washington — but said that when it came to finding a new place to play, there wasn’€™t much of a debate.

‘€œIt’€™s one of the only places I’€™d like to be,’€ Gaffney said. ‘€œI loved it here during my time and when I got cut and [the Patriots] called and Coach Belichick called and told me that we could work it out. This is where I wanted to be.’€

Considering his experience in New England, it’€™s no surprise the 31-year-old was anxious to return. Gaffney caught 85 passes for 1,059 yards and eight touchdowns in three seasons with the Patriots, and provided depth as the No. 3 receiver. While others struggled in that role (Joey Galloway, Chad Ochocinco), Gaffney was able to flourish, and became the best and most consistent pass-catcher the Patriots have had at that spot since Brady assumed the starting quarterback job in 2001.

Back in his familiar No. 10 with the Patriots, he said Thursday he’€™s a different guy than the one who left New England following the 2008 season — both on and off the field.

‘€œ[I’€™ve] grown up a little bit more. Learned a lot more about football — the more you play, the more you learn,’€ he said. ‘€œI’€™ve been able to put what I’€™ve learned in other places and bring it back here and hopefully, it can turn into a lot of success here as well.’€
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A closer look at the Patriots’ decision to release Chad Ochocinco

06.07.12 at 4:42 pm ET
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All you really needed to know about Chad Ochocinco’s time with the Patriots could be summed up in an OTA session late last month. New England’s first-team offense broke the huddle, and Ochocinco went to the line of scrimmage … only to be redirected to where he needed to be by teammate Deion Branch. Even after spending nearly a year in the system, the 34-year-old Ochocinco still had issues with the New England offense.

Despite a professed desire to play for Bill Belichick and alongside Tom Brady that went back several years, Chad Ochocinco never seemed to fit with the Patriots. There were some interesting moments, including a touchdown catch against the Broncos and a 53-yard surprise reception against the Jets in November, but those were few and far between. Instead, there was talk of his inability to learn the playbook, and speculation as to why New England had someone on the roster who was making a base salary of $6 million who had slipped so far down the depth chart that Tiquan Underwood was taking snaps from him.

In the end, the Ochocinco experiment — which resulted in 15 catches, 276 yards, one touchdown — just never seemed to coalesce with the Patriots. As a new receiver, it’s not so much about learning the playbook and assimilating to the “Patriots’ Way.” Instead, it’s about gaining the trust of the quarterback, and that never really happened. (Watching newcomer Brandon Lloyd work with Brady in the three OTA sessions the media has had access to, it’s clear Lloyd already has far more of a rapport with Brady than Ocho ever did.)

It’s not complicated: Listen to Jabar Gaffney, who spoke to the media Thursday, on the subject of working with Brady. “We have a great relationship, on and off the field,” Gaffney said. “On the field, we just have that rapport with each other and he knows where I’m going to be and I know he’s going to put it right there. I have all the confidence in him, he has all the confidence in me. That’s a great thing.” It was clear that as the 2011 season went on, there was none of that trust between Brady and Ochocinco. In truth, there were several moments late in the year where Ochocinco was open, but the quarterback went in another direction.

Ochocinco will get a job somewhere else for several reasons, not the least of which is that he remains a masterful self-promoter — even in the twilight of his career, few athletes can still move the needle like Ochocinco. But history will show that in the end, the receiver may have wasted his last best opportunity to win a championship.

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Jerod Mayo’s Q&A with the media from Thursday at Gillette Stadium

06.07.12 at 2:57 pm ET
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Here’€™s the complete Q&A from linebacker Jerod Mayo‘€™s session with the media today at Gillette Stadium:

How are things going with all the new guys? ‘€œEveryone is coming out here and working hard. That’€™s all you can ask for during this time of the season.’€

There was a lot of barking on the sidelines about concentration. Is it different at this time of year compared to when you guys get going in the fall as far as that’€™s concerned? ‘€œWe try to practice just as hard now without pads as we do with pads. Even though we’€™re not actually hitting each other, we’€™re out there going hard. We’€™re out there being safe but at the same time trying to get those looks and making sure everyone is on the same page, especially when people get tired.’€

What is the attitude of the defense heading into the new season? You guys took a lot of heat in the media last year ‘€“ what’€™s the attitude now? ‘€œJust take it one day at a time; get better each and every day and that’€™s what we’€™re doing.’€

Can you talk about some of the new guys coming in? They obviously have a learning curve with the system. Can you talk about how they’€™re doing? ‘€œYeah, there’€™s a learning curve but those guys are coming in each and every day, working hard in the classroom and on the field. Hopefully when the season comes, they’€™ll be ready to go.’€

What do you envision for this defense and how it will change for the upcoming year? ‘€œI’€™m not even trying to look that far out. I’€™m looking to now. I’€™m looking toward watching this film from today and going out tomorrow and improving on that.’€

Is it exciting when you leave the draft and the team has six new guys ready to go? ‘€œIt’€™s always exciting when we get guys on our side of the ball. I always love new faces, new talent. It’€™s like different tools you get to work with and those guys are good players.’€
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