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As expected, new Texans coaching staff has heavy New England influence

02.05.14 at 5:39 pm ET
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The Texans and new head coach Bill O’Brien announced Houston’s new coaching staff on Wednesday, and it’s hardly a surprise that it has a heavy New England influence.

Joining O’Brien — who spent five seasons on Bill Belichick‘s staff with the Patriots — will be Romeo Crennel (former New England defensive coordinator who will also serve as DC in Houston) and George Godsey (who was the Patriots’ tight ends coach, but will be quarterbacks coach with the Texans). In addition, Patriots players Mike Vrabel (linebackers) and Anthony Pleasant (assistant strength and conditioning) will join O’Brien’s staff as assistants.

‘€œWe’€™ve put together a great staff of enthusiastic and passionate coaches with good character who have successful backgrounds in coaching,’€ O’€™Brien said in a statement issued by the team. ‘€œIt was important to put together a group who will be great teachers and I’€™m excited to begin our preparations for the 2014 season.’€

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

Crennel comes to Houston following a three-year stint with the Kanas City Chiefs (2010-12) where he served as defensive coordinator (2010-11), interim head coach (2011) and head coach (2012). Prior to Kansas City, Crennel spent four seasons as head coach of the Cleveland Browns (2005-08) following a highly successful stretch as defensive coordinator with the Patriots from 2001-04, where he helped the team win three Super Bowl titles. His first role as a defensive coordinator came in 2000 with Cleveland after stints with the New York Jets (1997-99), New England (1993-96) and New York Giants (1981-92).

Godsey joins the Texans after three years with the Patriots, first as offensive assistant in 2011 and then as tight ends coach the past two seasons. Prior to joining the Patriots, Godsey spent the previous seven seasons (2004-10) at Central Florida under head coach George O’€™Leary, who O’€™Brien coached with at Georgia Tech from 1995-01. Godsey played quarterback at Georgia Tech from 1998-01, where he first crossed paths with O’€™Brien, the running backs coach from 1998-00 and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in 2001.

Pleasant was the defensive line coach for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2010-13 after working with the team as part of the NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship in 2009. The former defensive lineman played 14 seasons in the NFL, including separate stints under Crennel’€™s guidance with the New York Jets (1998-99) and Patriots (2001-03)

Vrabel served as defensive line coach at Ohio State for the 2012-13 seasons after starting his coaching career as the linebackers coach for the Buckeyes in 2011. A former NFL linebacker for the Patriots, Vrabel was a part of three Super Bowl victories (2001, 2003, 2004) in his 14-year NFL career.

Read More: Anthony Pleasant, Bill Belichick, Bill O'Brien, George Godsey

Thoughts on Julian Edelman, Aqib Talib and franchise tag

02.05.14 at 5:20 pm ET
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We’€™re now less than two weeks away from the start of the franchise tag window — it begins on Feb. 17 and lasts for two weeks — and while New England has a dozen free agents, it’€™s believed the Patriots have two seriously taggable possibilities this year in wide receiver Julian Edelman and cornerback Aqib Talib.

Both were essential elements to the success of the 2013 team, but both were playing on one-year contracts. While the deal Talib signed this past offseason was more of a “show-me” contract (one signed in the wake of a depressed market for free-agent cornerbacks), Edelman was more or less forced to take New England’€™s one-year offer, as it was one of the only ones that was extended to him.

However, as a result of their work in 2013, the pair could enter the market poised to make a sizable piece of change. But would the Patriots be inclined to let them walk without a new deal to keep them in place? The franchise tag is a hammer the teams have over potential players when it comes to retaining their services, and history tells us that the Patriots have never been shy about using it, whether it’€™s a way to keep the player around Foxboro for one more season, a way to keep a player under their umbrella while still negotiating a deal, or as a sign-and-trade maneuver. And it could certainly come into play when talking about Talib and Edelman.

To be clear, there are two types of franchise tags:

The non-exclusive franchise tag: The most common designation. Under this agreement, the player must be offered a one-year deal based on the average of the non-exclusive franchise numbers at his position over the last five seasons and their percentage of that year’€™s salary cap or 120 percent of his prior year’€™s base salary, whichever is greater. If a player does get a non-exclusive franchise tag, they can talk with other teams, but if he signs an offer sheet with another club, his team has five days to match the offer. If the offer is not matched, his team will receive two first-round picks as compensation from the signing team.

The exclusive franchise tag: With this designation, the player receivers a one-year offer from his own team that’€™s the greater of the average of the top five salaries at his position once the restricted free-agent signing period has ended or 120 percent of his prior year’€™s salary. A player cannot negotiate with other teams with the exclusive franchise tag.

Here’€™s a look at how New England has utilized the franchise tag, and what has happened as a result:

2002: Adam Vinatieri, contract extension
2003: Tebucky Jones, traded
2005: Adam Vinatieri, played it out and later departed as a free agent
2007: Asante Samuel, played it out and later departed as a free agent
2009: Matt Cassel, traded
2010: Vince Wilfork, contract extension
2011: Logan Mankins, contract extension
2012: Wes Welker, played it out and later departed as a free agent

As we said, the tag can be a relatively easy way for a team to retain the services of a player, even for a year, but in the case of both Talib and Edelman, it would come at a serious price. While the franchise tag numbers are not expected to be announced until after the 2014 cap number is officially set (usually in late February or early March), according to former agent Joel Corry — who is an excellent follow on Twitter for all things cap related — the projected franchise tag value for cornerbacks in 2014 will be $11,256,000 million. At wide receiver, the price is even steeper — $11,539,000. (For a complete look at Corry’€™s projections click here.)

With all this in mind, we want to get your take: If you could only use the franchise tag on one — Talib or Edelman — who would you tag and why?

If you had to choose between franchising Julian Edelman or Aqib Talib, who would it be?

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Read More: Adam Vinatieri, Aqib Talib, Julian Edelman, Logan Mankins

Bill Belichick, Peyton Manning have joined forces … on the golf course

02.05.14 at 3:26 pm ET
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Just a few weeks after Peyton Manning and Bill Belichick parted ways at the AFC championship game, the two have reunited. Wednesday, the pair teamed up to play a practice round together at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am tournament. Here’s here’s the proof:

And in case you were wondering, Tom Brady is a better golfer than Belichick. According to PGA.com, Brady is an 8 handicap while Belichick is at 14. (Click here to see a list of celebrities who will be participating.)

Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Linebacker

02.05.14 at 11:45 am 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’€™ve focused on special teams, wide receivers, tight ends, running backs, quarterbacks, offensive line and defensive line. Now, it’€™s the linebackers.

Roster (stats taken from coaches film review): Steve Beauharnais (1 tackle), Jamie Collins (38 tackles, 3 quarterback hits, 3 passes defensed), Ja’€™Gared Davis, Dane Fletcher (19 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 quarterback hits), Dont’€™a Hightower (137 tackles, 1 sack, 5 quarterback hits, 3 passes defensed), Chris White (1 tackle), Jerod Mayo (66 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, 1 pass defensed), Brandon Spikes (134 tackles, 1 INT, 2 passes defensed) (Taylor Reed is on the practice squad.)

Overview: It was an eventful year for the linebackers. Considered one of the positional strengths for the Patriots, the linebacking corps lost veteran Mayo to a season-ending pectoral injury after just six games. In Mayo’€™s absence — and by his own admission — Hightower tried to do too much in hopes of replicating Mayo’€™s impact. As a result, he got outside his comfort zone and had to be benched as a result. He rebounded nicely and played very well down the stretch. Meanwhile, Collins showed steady improvement over the course of his rookie year, so much so that he was going wire to wire by the end of the season and into the playoffs. He still needs to continue to improve — he did about as well as could be expected in the AFC title game against Julius Thomas — but at this point he could become the coverage linebacker the Patriots have lacked for so many years. Fletcher (who is a free agent) did a nice job providing depth and working on special teams, while Beauharnais, Davis and White were mostly special teamers who also got their feet wet in 2013 with minimal playing time.

Then there’€™s Spikes. One of the best run-stoppers in the league, he was clearly hobbling near the end of the season on what appeared to be a bad knee, and he told Boston.com that he would need surgery as soon as the season was done. But the last University of Florida product in the New England locker room wasn’t around for the end of the year, as he was placed on season-ending IR down the stretch. (Some believe that it was a combination of the knee injury and the fact that he was late for a meeting one day late in the season because of the snow that caused the Patriots to put Spikes on IR.) Whatever the case may be, the pending free agent appears to have played his final game in Foxboro.

Ultimately, Mayo remains the centerpiece of the linebacking corps, and if he returns to full health by the start of the 2014 season, the Patriots can go into 2014 with a combination of Mayo, Hightower and Collins as their starters. That’€™s an impressive group with a versatile skill set.

Best moment: While it was clear Collins was coming on over the course of the regular season, his performance in the divisional round against the Colts was something of a revelation. For the first time in his professional career, the rookie played an entire game, going all 66 snaps at linebacker against Indy and coming away with one sack, six tackles (two for loss), two quarterback hits and a pair of quarterback hurries. He was all over the field, even working split out wide when matched in single coverage on Indy tight end Coby Fleener. A terrific night for the youngster.

Worst moment: The loss of Mayo.

By the numbers: 22 — Spikes had a career high with 22 total tackles in an Oct. 6 loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati. It was the highest tackle total for a Patriots player since Mayo had 23 tackles vs. the Jets in 2008.

Money quote: “I’ve been there, done that — tried to do too much. It didn’t work for me. [But I] fell back, and everything is finally coming back into play.” — Hightower on Jan. 7, assessing his overall evolution as a linebacker over the course of the 2013 season

Read More: Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins

Free agent snapshot: Brent Grimes

02.05.14 at 6:00 am 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. With the understanding that the status of these players could change because of the franchise or transition tag, here are a few 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, Emmanuel Sanders, Dennis Pitta, Eric Decker, Jacoby Jones and Arthur Jones. Now, it’€™s Brent Grimes.

BRENT GRIMES
Position: Cornerback
Age: 30 (will turn 31 on July 19)
Height: 5-foot-10
Weight: 190 pounds

The skinny: Here we are, back again to advocate for Grimes as a Patriot. (If you’€™re just tuning in, we did this the last two years. Hey, you can’€™t say we’€™re not consistent, right?) Anyway, very little has changed when it comes to our feelings on Grimes — a tough, dependable corner who is the sort of underdog story the Patriots love. He was an undrafted free agent out of Shippensburg who battled his way into the Falcons starting lineup and ended up starting 44 games in just over five years in Atlanta, and came away with 13 picks in that stretch, including 11 interceptions in 2009 and 2010. For his efforts, he landed a Pro Bowl spot in 2010. After an Achilles€™ injury sidelined him for almost all of 2012 — his last year with the Falcons — he bounced back to play in all 16 games with the Dolphins last season and had 16 passes defensed and four picks for Miami. (He was one of four Dolphins to reach the Pro Bowl — the second Pro Bowl nod of his career.) While age is becoming an issue, his smarts, durability and versatility (he’€™s played both left and right corner) make him a very good corner in the league.

By the numbers: +16.4 — The final grade given to Grimes for his work this past season by Pro Football Focus. It was second among all corners in the NFL, trailing only Tampa Bay’€™s Darrelle Revis, who was at 18.2.

Why it would work: If the Patriots aren’t able to re-sign Aqib Talib, Grimes figures to be an excellent Plan B. As we said, he’€™s got the underdog approach that certainly would fit in Foxboro. He’€™s a well-respected locker room guy who would also bring a positive attitude to Gillette Stadium. And the chance to swipe the best cornerback from a division rival is something that can’€™t be overlooked.

Why it might not work: Grimes enters the market as one of the best corners available, and as a result he’€™ll likely be in line for a pretty good payday. While he fits the Patriots’ traditional body type when it comes to cornerbacks, if New England is interested in following in the Seahawks‘€™ footsteps when it comes to the secondary, the slightly undersized Grimes probably won’€™t measure up. And there’s always the possibility he’s franchise by the Dolphins — it happened to him once when he was with the Falcons, and given the state of the market and Miami’s need at corner, it certainly could happen again.

Quote: “I like it here. I like the coaches, I like the players and it’€™s a good team. Obviously, we didn’t finish how we wanted to and close out the season well. But I just let my agents handle everything. If [the Dolphins] want to keep me here, they’€™ll see how it goes.” — Grimes to ESPN following the end of the 2013 season

Our take: As we stated, Grimes would be a good fallback plan if the Patriots are unable to come to terms with Talib, but he certainly wouldn’t come cheap. Several folks around the league regard Grimes as the No. 1 corner available this spring in free agency — and that’€™s even if he reaches the market. (The Dolphins might be forced to franchise him.) If he is available and Talib walks, New England should make Grimes a priority. And if they don’t, we’€™ll likely be back here once again next year.

Read More: Aqib Talib, Brent Grimes, free agent snapshot,

Pepper Johnson wanted to get out ‘from under the shadows’ of Bill Belichick

02.04.14 at 11:42 pm ET
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Pepper Johnson said the reason he decided to leave the Patriots and take a new job with the Bills was because he was interested in “getting up from under the shadows of coach [Bill] Belichick.”

In an interview with Buffalo’s WGR 550, Johnson — who left the Patriots the week after New England’s loss in the AFC title game to the Broncos — talked about the chance he was given to become the defensive line coach of the Bills.

“My legs are still shaking a little bit. But I’m excited. I’m so excited,” Johnson told WGR 550, via the Bills website. “I always have been a fan of Doug [Marrone] and the Buffalo Bills [and it’s] just getting the opportunity to spread my wings and getting up from under the shadows of coach Belichick. So it’s a good thing and a good opportunity.”

Johnson joined the Patriots as assistant linebackers coach in 2000. He was the team’€™€™s inside linebackers coach from 2001-03, the defensive line coach from 2004-11 and the linebackers coach the past two seasons. However, one day after New England lost to the Broncos in the AFC title game, he announced he was leaving the organization, saying he was going to “embrace this new chapter in my life.”

It was believed one of the reasons Johnson left New England was because he was passed over for the defensive coordinator position when it was open following Dean Pees‘ departure following the 2009 season. Instead, the job went to Matt Patricia.

“I would love to [be a defensive coordinator],” Johnson said. “In a sense, those 13 years that I played in the NFL, I graduated to calling a lot of the defenses and having the responsibility of running our defense and being an extension of the coach from the sideline. It’s a dream of mine, a goal of mine.”

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

Read More: Bill Belichick, Pepper Johnson,

Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Defensive line

02.04.14 at 1:58 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, wide receivers, tight ends, running backs, quarterbacks and offensive line. Now, we flip it and go to the defensive line.

Depth chart (stats taken from coaches film review): Vince Wilfork (10 tackles, 1 quarterback hit), Tommy Kelly (23 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 6 quarterback hits), Jake Bequette (1 quarterback hit), Andre Carter (5 tackles, 2 sacks, 7 quarterback hits), Chandler Jones (82 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 22 quarterback hits), Rob Ninkovich (93 tackles, 8 sacks, 18 quarterback hits), Joe Vellano (48 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 quarterback hits), Chris Jones (56 tackles, 6 sacks, 8 quarterback hits), Sealver Siliga (21 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 quarterback hits), Isaac Sopoaga (2 tackles, 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit), Michael Buchanan (3 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 quarterback hits), Cory Grissom (Marcus Forston is on the practice squad, and ex-CFL star Armond Armstead is out there … somewhere.)

Overview: The story of the defensive line can be divided into two distinct parts — the first three-plus weeks of the season when the Patriots had a fully healthy combo of Wilfork and Kelly up front at the defensive tackle spot, and the wholly underrated pairing of Chandler Jones and Ninkovich at defensive end.

As a group, it was a rock-solid positional grouping that looked to be one of the strengths of the 2013 team. Then Wilfork and Kelly went down in back-to-back weeks, and everything changed. While youngsters like Chris Jones and Vellano stepped in and did as well as they could given the circumstances, New England became a team you could run on fairly easily. The Patriots tried to stem the tide with the midseason trade for Sopoaga and the promotion of Siliga off the practice squad, but it was a far cry from the work of Wilfork and Kelly. Siliga, Chris Jones, Siliga and Vellano certainly did enough to warrant consideration as depth players in 2014, but the loss of Wilfork really shone a light on the fact that with the All-Pro closer to the end of his career than the beginning, New England would be well-served to start thinking about the post-Wilfork era sooner rather than later.

As for the rest of the group, the Patriots had a good season on the edges, as Ninkovich continued to emerge as one of the most underrated defenders in the league. Despite the fact that he occasionally had issues with some of the league’€™s elite left tackles, Chandler Jones became the first member of the Patriots to finish a season with double-digit sack totals since Carter and Mark Anderson had 10 each in 2011. At the age of 34 — he’€™ll be 35 before the start of next year — Carter might be unlikely to return for 2014, but if any one of the younger defensive ends struggle (particularly Bequette and Buchanan), he could be recalled on an emergency basis.

As is the case with the offensive line and Logan Mankins, it’€™s Wilfork who sets the tone for this group. His leadership skills, blue-collar attitude and unmatched skill set make him one of the most valuable members of the roster. If he returns to full health in 2014, figure that there will be better days ahead for the defensive front.

Best moment: It was a relatively quiet play, but it was hard not to acknowledge the recognition displayed by Chandler Jones when he was able to trip up Saints quarterback Drew Brees late in the dramatic 30-27 win over New Orleans in October. Jones was able to stop Brees for a 5-yard loss, which allowed the Patriots to continue their memorable comeback. As we wrote at the time, it interesting the way it came about — in the days following the play, Jones confessed that Ninkovich tipped him off to the fact that such a play might be coming. It was impressive for reasons: one, it speaks to the level of film study that Ninkovich engages in every week. (Everyone studies film, but to see it pay off in a big moment speaks to Ninkovich and his overall approach to the game.) And two, it displayed the level of communication between Ninkovich and Jones. The two clearly have mastered the art of playing good, complementary football, something that opposing defensive ends really need if their are going to succeed when it comes to playing good team defense.

Worst moment: The sight of Wilfork getting carted off during the Falcons game and the ensuing news that he would be lost for the season was a colossal loss for the team on both sides of the ball. From a defensive perspective, the on-field loss was huge, but at the same time, the veteran is a tremendous presence in the locker room across the roster. It says something about his stature within the organization that he continued to travel with the team even after he was done for the season.

By the numbers: It’€™s a small sample size, but for comparisons sake, the loss of Wilfork and Kelly was sizable when it came to run defense. Through the first four games — with Wilfork and Kelly — the Patriots yielded an average of 105 rushing yards per game, 13th in the league. By the end of the season, that number had jumped to 134.1 rushing yards per game allowed, 30th in the league.

Money quote: “You just don’€™t replace Vince Wilfork. We’€™ll still have his presence around the team and in the locker room and those types of things, which he’€™s great at. On the field, we’€™ll miss him, but whoever is out there, those other 11 guys that are out there, we’€™re all going to have to pull a little bit harder, including the coaching staff and all that. It’€™s a big loss, but we’€™re just going to have to find a way to do it. That means everybody doing their job. Obviously somebody is going to have to replace him and whoever those people are, they’€™re going to have to answer the bell. But collectively as a team, we’€™re all going to have to pull together. There’€™s no one person that can replace Vince Wilfork.” –€” Coach Bill Belichick on the loss of Wilfork, Oct. 2

Read More: position-by-position breakdown,
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