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Free agent snapshot: Dennis Pitta

01.29.14 at 6:56 pm ET
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When free agency begins in early March, there are a handful of players across the league who could appeal to New England. Over the next two weeks –€” with the understanding that the status of these players could change because of the franchise or transition tag –€” we’€™ll look at 10 possibilities for the Patriots to consider. We have to stress that these guys aren’€™t necessarily considered the elite of the free agent class –€” instead, they are players we think would be a good fit in New England. We started our series with looks at Anquan Boldin and Emmanuel Sanders. Today, it’€™s Dennis Pitta:

Position: Tight end
Age: 28 (will turn 29 on June 29)
Height: 6-foot-4
Weight: 245 pounds

The skinny: Pitta is a big and bulky tight end more in the Rob Gronkowski mold — a good blocker who also has a dependable set of hands. A fourth-round pick of the Ravens in 2010, he came along slowly when compared to the other high-level tight ends who were taken in that draft (Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Jimmy Graham and Jermaine Gresham), as he played behind veteran Todd Heap and fellow rookie Ed Dickson — he had just one catch in his first year in the league. He ended up catching 40 passes for 405 yards and three touchdowns in 2011. He took it to a new level in 2012, as he finished the regular season with a career-best 61 passes for 669 yards and seven touchdowns (not to mention a terrific performance against the Patriots in the AFC title game, part of a late push that saw him finish with eight touchdowns in his final 12 games, including the playoffs.) At that point, it was clear he was establishing himself as Joe Flacco‘€™s security blanket, but a nasty hip injury in training camp landed him on IR for the first 12 games of the 2013 season. When he returned, he was able to contribute as much as possible, but it was tough to get up to speed so late in the year. He ended 2013 with 20 catches for 169 yards and one touchdown in four games, and heads into the open market as an intriguing prospect.

By the numbers: Per Pro Football Focus, Pitta was in the slot for 79 percent of his snaps in 2013.

Why it would work: The Patriots have been patient when it comes to rehabbing tight ends in the past — witness the Great Gronkowski Watch of 2013, as well as the Jake Ballard Odyssey. So even if Pitta wasn’€™t quite back to 100 percent, if the Patriots believe in him and his ability to contribute in New England, they would certainly be willing to wait on him. If both are fully healthy, a Pitta-Gronk combo figures to be a tremendous duo.

Why it might not work: There’€™s the very real chance that the Ravens think so highly of him and his skill set that they hit him with the franchise tag between now and the start if free agency, which would render the whole thing moot.

Quote: “€œI think those other guys did a good job ‘€“ Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark ‘€“ they filled in and they did a really good job, but something you can’€™t take away is chemistry between a quarterback and a receiver. I think [Joe] Flacco and Pitta, they have that. When he is out there, I think he is targeted more, and I know Flacco probably thinks that if I throw this guy the ball, there’€™s a good chance he’€™s going to come down with it.”€ — Patriots safety Devin McCourty on Pitta last December.

Our take: Despite the yeoman’€™s work done by Michael Hoomanwanui and Matthew Mulligan when Gronkowski was on the shelf in 2013, it’€™s clear the Patriots need to add a little oomph to the tight end position. New England does have some options — in addition to Pitta, there are some other interesting names in free agency, including Jimmy Graham, Jermichael Finley and Scott Chandler. There are also a few high-level tight ends who could be around come draft weekend, including Jace Amaro, an elite pass catcher who apparently has speed to burn and great positional versatility. But if Pitta is available at a reasonable rate, the Patriots would be crazy to not at least kick the tires. The chance to add another 60-catch presence at tight end and weaken a conference rival might be too great a possibility for New England to pass up.

Read More: Dennis Pitta, free agent snapshot,

Bill Romanowski on M&M: Patriots need to ‘have more talent around Tom Brady’

01.29.14 at 2:08 pm ET
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Former NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski joined Mut & Merloni on Wednesday to talk about the Patriots offense moving forward, the NFL trying to make the game safer, and Super Bowl story lines. To hear the interview, go to the Mut & Merloni audio on demand page.

Romanowski, a former Boston College star, believes the Patriots winning ways have led to a reputation that it’€™s Super Bowl or bust for the team, making Wes Welker‘€™s departure in free agency slightly perplexing.

“To let Wes Welker get away, mind-boggling to me,”€ Romanowski said. “That really is, that move. But you have to be able to make tough decisions as a head coach. … You may have an off [year], do you call the AFC championship an off year? On some level, when you’€™re the New England Patriots, you do. OK, not winning and getting to the Super Bowl is an off year. And it should be that way because you built a reputation of being one of the best organizations, you clearly have, still, one of the best quarterbacks.”

Despite the Patriots not making the Super Bowl, Romanowski was impressed with what they did with a shorthanded squad.

“€œThey had a lot of injuries, and you take away those injuries, and even one of the big injuries in the game, we all know the matchup with Demaryius Thomas, and them losing [Aqib] Talib, that right there,” Romanowski said.

Looking at next season, Romanowski said New England needs to take a page out of what Denver did this year and load up at wide receiver.

“€œThe game is about the horses,”€ Romanowski said. “€œYou’ve got to have the talent, bring in the talent and make sure you have more talent around Tom Brady and to me, look at what the Denver Broncos did. They made sure they were deep at receiver and they win games by outscoring people. That’€™s usually what New England does. Hats off, though, to New England with what they were able to do, change things and turned themselves into more of a conventional offense, phenomenal coaching.”

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Read More: Bill Belichick, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Peyton Manning

Patriots hire Brendan Daly as defensive assistant

01.29.14 at 1:29 pm ET
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The Patriots announced Wednesday Brendan Daly has been hired as a defensive assistant coach.

The following is a portion of the release issued by the team on the move:

Daly is a 17-year coaching veteran, including eight seasons in the NFL as an assistant. Daly had two stints with the Minnesota Vikings (2006-08) as a defensive assistant/defensive line coach and (2012-13) as a defensive line coach, sandwiched between a three-year stint with the St. Louis Rams (2009-11) as a defensive line coach.

Daly worked in the college ranks as the defensive line coach at Villanova in 2005 and tight ends coach at Illinois State in 2004. From 2001-03, Daly was on the staff at Oklahoma State, where he worked on both sides of the ball and in strength and conditioning. Daly’€™s first exposure to major Division I football came as an offensive graduate assistant at Maryland in 2000, where he worked with the tight ends. He got his coaching start at Ridgewood High in New Port Richey, Fla., in 1997 before moving to his alma mater, Drake, in 1998 and Villanova in 1999.

Daly was a tight end during his college career at Drake.

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Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Tight ends

01.29.14 at 1:06 pm ET
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With the Patriots done for the season, we’ve got an end-of-the-year position-by-position breakdown of where the roster stands. We started with special teams and the wide receivers. Now, it’€™s the tight ends.

Depth chart: Rob Gronkowski (39 catches, 592 yards, 4 TDs), Matthew Mulligan (2 catches, 16 yards, 1 TD), Michael Hoomanawanui (12 catches, 136 yards, 1 TD), D.J. Williams.

Overview: For the Patriots, the tight end position went from one of strength to one of uncertainty over the last 12 months. Aaron Hernandez was removed from the picture, while Gronkowski’s health produced a roller-coaster effect that the team struggled to adjust to over the course of the year. As a result, a New England offense that had been constructed around one of the best young tight end combos in recent NFL history was forced to readjust.

The Gronk Watch consumed most of late summer and into early fall, but when he was truly healthy — pretty much the month of November — the big fella was his usual dominant self. In one four-game stretch (from Nov. 3 through Dec. 1), he had 27 catches for 419 yards and four touchdowns, and was a game-changing presence for the New England offense.

Of course, all of that changed when he went down early against the Browns — he was carted off the field, and in part because of his injury, the Patriots offense downshifted from a pass-first game to a run-heavy approach. The loss of Gronkowski was felt across the board, but never more than in the red zone, where the Patriots struggled for a few weeks trying to find the right formula to score from inside the 20. They were able to hit on it with a suddenly resurgent running game, but without Gronkowski, other targets needed to raise their game. Some did. Others did not.

As for the rest of the tight end grouping, the Hoomanawanui/Mulligan combo will never make people forget about Gronkowski, but they both developed a rep as solid and dependable blockers over the course of the season. Williams also does a nice job providing depth. But at the end of the day, it all comes back to Gronkowski — if they can get him back to something approximating 100 percent by the start of the season, he should have his usual transformative presence on the New England passing game. Long-term, the question is whether or not he’ll be able to consistently stay healthy. Only time will tell on that front.

Best moment: Three of them, all scoring plays: One, Gronkowski’s touchdown against the Broncos wasn’t necessarily an aesthetic thing of beauty, but the celebration between the tight end and quarterback Tom Brady transcended any Gronk spike of the last few seasons. Two, the big fella also added a fingertip grab inches off the ground in a win over the Texans in Houston. And three, Hooman’s absolutely ridiculous one-handed touchdown grab against the Dolphins in Miami, one of the prettiest plays of the year

Worst moment: The sight of Gronkowski being carted off after getting hurt against the Browns was far and away the most devastating sight for the New England offense this past season.

By the numbers: 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.

Money quote: “It hurts to see any of those guys go down, certainly with Gronk. We’ve sustained some pretty big injuries this year with really important, critical players, so we’ve got to just keep bouncing back. … No one feels sorry for the Patriots. I think we all feel sorry for Rob, but I don’€™t think anyone feels sorry for the Patriots.” — Brady after Gronkowski suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Browns

Read More: Michael Hoomanawanui, position-by-position breakdown, Rob Gronkowski,

Tom Brady voted most trusted in clutch in poll of NFL players

01.29.14 at 11:07 am ET
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Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was voted the quarterback players would want in the last two minutes of a Super Bowl if the game was on the line. As part of ESPN’€™s NFL Nation Confidential anonymous player survey, the question was asked to 320 players around the league. Brady received 128 votes, 40 percent of the vote. Peyton Manning came in second, receiving 86 votes.

Brady, who has been to five Super Bowls and eight AFC championship games, has put together 30 comeback drives when trailing in the fourth quarter and 41 game-winning drives from a deficit or tie in the fourth quarter. All three of Brady’€™s Super Bowl wins were done by leading the team from a fourth-quarter deficit.

“He’s been there before and done it,” receiver Danny Amendola said. “You just kind of follow him as he takes the lead.”

For Brady’€™s teammates, they aren’t surprised by his calmness in leading comebacks, having been first-hand witnesses.

“He is a very calm guy when the game is on the line,” receiver Kenbrell Thompkins said. “He just says, ‘We live for these moments. Let’s do it.’€™ ”

Michael Hoomanawanui added that his experience in those situations make him trustworthy.

“It just comes from his experience, 14 years, that control he has over pretty much anyone in the huddle. He just takes over,” Hoomanawanui said. “Obviously, the fact he’s done it time and time before helps out a lot, too. That’s pretty much the way he goes out and plays each and every snap.”

Read More: Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins, Michael Hoomanawanui, New England Patriots

Pete Carroll says limitations in New England ‘kept me from being the kind of coach I could be’

01.28.14 at 6:13 pm ET
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NEWARK — His time in New England was brief and not altogether unsuccessful.

Pete Carroll stepped in for Bill Parcells and took his first two teams to the playoffs in 1997 and ’98. But when 1999 ended in 8-8 mediocrity and no playoffs, owner Robert Kraft decided it was time for a change. He was 10-6 in 1997, 9-7 in 1998, a season that ended with Scott Zolak as the starting quarterback against Jacksonville in a 25-10 playoff loss. He was 27-21 in three regular seasons with a playoff win over the Dolphins in his first season.

On Tuesday, at Super Bowl media day, Carroll reflected on those days in Foxboro.

“I never lost sight of what the possible opportunities were,” Carroll said. “I never had a thought where something like this couldn’€™t happen. But after getting immersed in the college world, that was everything. That was my whole life, so I lost sight of it a little bit there. But when opportunities came up, I’€™d revisit the thought and then let it go, because they weren’€™t right until the situation happened with Seattle. As soon as Seattle, when we came together on this thought coaching there, this resurfaced. We know that we’€™re where we’€™re intended to be and we’€™re excited about being here.”

“A lot of things were going on that made it difficult for him to stay, some of which were out of his control,” Kraft said at the time, “and it began with following a legend.”

What did he learn from working with Robert and Jonathan Kraft?

“€œI think I learned a lot. I think I learned a lot of things,” Carroll said. “Robert and his family are a great family to play and coach for. But I also learned what it takes for a person like myself to operate at my highest level and I also realized some limitations that were going on that kept me from being the kind of coach I could be. It allowed me to refocus and formalize some plans that I was able to put in at USC and then at the Seahawks.”

Of course, Carroll bridges the two greatest coaches in Patriots history, with Bill Belichick succeeding him in 2000.

Carroll said goodbye to the NFL for 10 years after the 1999 season with the Patriots. He took over the USC program and left that program just before the bottom fell out in 2009 and the school was hit with sanctions by the NCAA for numerous operations infractions, most centering around Reggie Bush.

Now he’s back in New York, where his NFL head coaching career began in 1994 with the Jets, a run that lasted just one season after his 6-10 record.

“€œYou know, I think I do a pretty good job of not doing that,” Carroll said of looking back. “I don’€™t really care about trying to figure out where we are right now, just keep moving forward. Someday we’€™ll look back and that’€™s when you can kind of make an assessment of what’€™s happening.

“€œIt’€™s very special to be here. Look at this event that our players are having to take part of. The game, the matchup, the culmination of the season, all of this is just extraordinary. It goes deeper than that. It goes way back to when we were little kids. There’€™s a lot to it. All in all, we’€™re just going to enjoy the heck out of it and try and play a good football game.”

Read More: Bill Parcells, Jonathan Kraft, New England Patriots, Pete Carroll

Wes Welker admits to Randy Moss: ‘I don’t care what it takes, you’re going to be out there in this game’

01.28.14 at 4:57 pm ET
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NEWARK — Who said former athletes and teammates can’t ask hard-hitting questions?

Former superstar receiver Randy Moss, who works now for Fox Sports 1, chatted up former teammate Wes Welker at Tuesday’s Super Bowl media day here and asked him if he would play in the Super Bowl with a concussion.

“What do you think? I mean, you want to be out there,” Welker told Moss, both of whom played in the Super Bowl XLII loss to the Giants. “The Super Bowl, this is what you dream about. You’re going to be there, I don’t care what it takes, you’€™re going to be out there in this game.”

Welker has dealt with many concussions over the course of his career, including one this season with the Broncos that forced him to miss the last two games of the regular season. When he returned in the playoffs against the Chargers, he wore an oversized helmet with extra padding, a helmet that prompted many comparisons to a cartoon character.

But concussions are certainly no joke and Welker has served as the poster boy for those critical of the NFL’s attitude toward dealing with concussions.

Moss, who retired this season after playing in last year’s Super Bowl, also asked Welker what he thought of playing against Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” secondary, starring of course Richard Sherman.

“I expect to be effective just by doing what I do and going out there and playing hard. Playing tough and making plays over the middle, trying to move the sticks and put us in position to score some points,” Welker told Moss.

Read More: concussion, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, nfl



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