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Sunday NFL Notes: Rookies figure to face uphill battle for playing time on 2014 Patriots

04.20.14 at 7:00 am ET
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1. While the team-building process for the 2014 season has yet to be completed, it certainly appears that the Patriots roster will be a difficult one for any rookie to crack. Yes, there are some positions where a first-year player could ultimately made an impact, like strong safety, backup linebacker, defensive lineman or tight end. But a quick glance at the nucleus of the roster that’€™s already been assembled shows that it will be an uphill battle for any rookie to make a serious dent in the New England starting lineup.

Here’€™s a look at the expected starters, as well as some key backups who have already put in extended time in the system and could be considered entrenched members of the roster.

OFFENSE (23)
Quarterback: Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett
Running backs: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, James Develin
Tight ends: Rob Gronkowski, Michael Hoomananwanui
Offensive line: Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, Josh Kline, Chris Barker
Wide receivers: Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce, Brandon LaFell, Matthew Slater

DEFENSE (23)
Defensive linemen: Tommy Kelly, Vince Wilfork, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, Michael Buchanan, Jake Bequette, Armond Armstead
Linebackers: Jamie Collins, Dont’€™a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Steve Beauharnais
Safeties: Devin McCourty, Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner, Duron Harmon
Cornerbacks: Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan (there’€™s already been a lot of talk about Ryan at safety in 2014).

SPECIAL TEAMS (3)
Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Danny Aiken

That’€™s 49 players who already figure to be fairly well-established in the New England system, and doesn’t include players like Kanorris Davis, who made an impact on special teams last season, or veteran pickups like Pat Chung, who could make a dent if he proves himself worthy of hanging around.

No one is suggesting this could be a similar scenario to the one that played out in 2007 (no rookies had any real impact on the roster that year). But with the understanding that there always are injuries — as well as the fact that some established veterans don’€™t always meet expectations — at first glance there doesn’t appear to be a lot of room for rookies when it comes to cracking the 2014 roster.

2. Teams have until May 3 to exercise the fifth-year option on the first-round picks of the 2011 draft class, and while some teams already have picked up the option, the Patriots have yet to announce what might happen with their first-round pick from that year, tackle Nate Solder.

Per various reports — including our friend Miguel Benzan of Patscap.com — that option would be worth the average value of the third through the 25th-highest cap numbers for offensive linemen in 2014. According to Benzan, that would put Solder’€™s option at about $7.3 million.

It’€™s important to remember that the free agent market fluctuates from year to year — just ask Aqib Talib, who went from a one-year, $5 million deal last offseason to a six-year, $57 million deal this offseason with $26 million guaranteed. But it was a robust market for offensive linemen this year. Branden Albert got $25 million guaranteed from Miami, Rodger Saffold got $21 million guaranteed from Oakland, Eugene Monroe got $19 million guaranteed from Baltimore, Austin Howard got $15 million guaranteed from Oakland and Jared Veldheer got $10.5 million guaranteed from Arizona.

Given Solder’€™s ability the last three years and considering he could be in line for a far greater payday if he did hit the market, the idea of giving him a one-year deal between $7 million and $8 million for 2015 seems like money well spent, at least in the current marketplace.

3. When it comes to unique insight on professional football, Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Media has been a great resource in the past. The former scout has never been shy about offering an opinion on the state of the game, and more often than not he’s been spot on in his analysis.

On a conference call with the media Thursday afternoon, two things stood out about Jeremiah’€™s pre-draft comments at it relates to the Patriots. First, New England’€™s draft board is usually noticeably smaller than most teams. According to Jeremiah, who initially was asked about Philly’€™s approach under Chip Kelly, this is a function of the Patriots’ philosophy and how it relates to certain positions. More often than not, Belichick and New England know exactly the type of player they need.

“Most draft boards — when you talk to guys around the league and the teams I worked for — you have about 150 players on your board,”€ Jeremiah said. “And New England, they’re kind of famous for being much less than that, well below 100. There’€™s only a certain amount of guys they feel like fits what they want to do, and I think that’s kind of what Philadelphia is going to with Chip Kelly when he’s around.”€

Second, he surprised some by hinting he wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots went after a running back in the first round. Jeremiah said that with all the talk of the running back position being devalued, he wouldn’t be surprised if a team like New England goes after a “pretty good group”€ of backs who are available, and mentioned Carlos Hyde and Jeremy Hill as possibilities.

‘€œThe Patriots are always kind of one step ahead of the curve and trying to be creative,”€ he said. “I wouldn’t be shocked if they just sit there and said, ‘€OK, everybody else wants to pass on all these running backs; Carlos Hyde is a really good player. LeGarrette Blount is not here anymore, we’re going to pluck him, and we’ve got ourselves a back of the future,’ because I believe both Vereen and Ridley are up after this year. That’€™s one potential team I’d say in the first round keep an eye on.”

4. Left guard Logan Mankins addressed a number of topics when he met the media this week — for more on that, check out our story here. One of the things he discussed was the fact that he considers himself to be “truly lucky”€ to have had the lengthy career he’s already enjoyed since he first arrived in the NFL in 2005.

“€œI think I’ve been truly lucky,”€ Mankins said Thursday. “€œNo catastrophic injuries. I’ve been lucky enough to stay with one team this entire time, and play for a great head coach, great organization, a lot of great teammates.”€

Setting aside the fact that he played through a partially torn ACL in 2011, Mankins’ durability has been impressive. He made 80 straight starts to begin his professional career, and the 32-year-old can already boast of the fact that he’s played in 130 regular-season games over the course of his first nine years in the NFL. That already puts him 31st overall on the franchise list of all-time games played.

Assuming that Mankins plays another three years — the rest of his current deal — and if he stays healthy, that would put him at 178 regular-season games in 12 years in the league. That would be ninth best in franchise history, and third most among all offensive linemen in franchise history, behind only Bruce Armstrong (212 games) and John Hannah (183).

Here’€™s the team’€™s all-time top 10 in regular-season games played.

1. Bruce Armstrong, 212 games, 1987-2000
2. Julius Adams, 206 games, 1971-87
3. Mosi Tatupu, 194 games, 1978-90
4. Tom Brady, 193 games, 2000-present
5. Troy Brown, 192 games, 1993-2007
6. Ray Clayborn, 191 games, 1977-89
7. Tedy Bruschi, 189 games, 1996-2008
8. John Hannah, 183 games, 1973-85
9. Stanley Morgan, 180 games, 1977-89
10. Steve Nelson, 174 games, 1974-87

(As a postscript, Mankins explained why he was able to play with the ACL injury, one that would have hobbled lesser individuals. “€œI think I was lucky that year, too, just to have the type of body that could handle it,”€ Mankins said with a shrug. “€œI’€™m lucky in a lot of aspects to have a lot of things that have happened to me happen.”)

5. Ty Law, Ray Clayborn and Bill Parcells were announced as finalists for the Patriots Hall of Fame this year, and one of the things that Clayborn indicated was the fact that Law not only deserves a spot in the Patriots Hall of Fame but in Canton as well.

“€œBill’€™s already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame,”€ Clayborn said, “€œand I believe Ty will definitely get there one day himself.”€

So is Law a Pro Football Hall of Famer? It’€™s certainly an interesting debate. Law had a knack for making big plays on the big stage (his picks of Peyton Manning in the playoffs and Kurt Warner in the Super Bowl were certainly proof of that), and ended up as a two-time All-Pro while evolving into one of the best corners of the era. In addition, his physical play sparked rules changes when it came to pass defense. His 53 career picks are tied for 24th all-time with Deion Sanders, but that might not be enough to get him in. Nine other retired players on this list have at least 50 career picks and haven’€™t been fitted for the gold jacket. (While voters traditionally have been a little squirrelly when it comes to voting modern era corners into the Hall, it appears that 60 interceptions are the football equivalent of 300 wins for a pitcher, as only three retired defensive backs who finished with at least 60 picks aren’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Ken Riley, Darren Sharper and Dave Brown.)

Ultimately, Law’€™s candidacy may come down to whether or not fellow modern-era defensive backs like Charles Woodson and Champ Bailey (who are still playing) merit serious consideration. But it’€™s certainly worthy of a debate.

6. Here’€™s the latest roundup of mock draft information as it relates to the Patriots and the 29th overall pick.

Rob Rang, CBS Sports (updated April 14): Missouri DE Kony Ealy
Dane Brugler, CBS Sports (updated April 14): Alabama ILB C.J. Mosley
Pete Prisco, CBS Sports (updated April 17): Minnesota DL Ra’€™Shede Hageman
Pat Kirwan, CBS Sports (updated April 18): Minnesota DL Ra’€™Shede Hageman
Will Brinson, CBS Sports (updated April 10): Texas Tech TE Jace Amaro
Daniel Jeremiah, NFL.com (updated April 9): Minnesota DL Ra’€™Shede Hageman
Bucky Brooks, NFL.com (updated April 15): Minnesota DL Ra’€™Shede Hageman
Charles Davis, NFL.com (updated March 18): Notre Dame DL Louis Nix
Mike Huguenin, NFL.com (updated April 10): Auburn DE Dee Ford
Mel Kiper, ESPN: Minnesota DL Ra’€™Shede Hageman
Todd McShay, ESPN (updated April 10): Notre Dame DL Louis Nix

(For what it’€™s worth, our latest mock draft — published on March 30 — has the Patriots taking Hageman if they stick at No. 29.)

7. The idea of Donald Trump buying the Bills already has been addressed in this space, but it was interesting to hear Trump talk about himself as a potential buyer with our pal Tim Graham this week in the Buffalo News. Trump said he’€™d do whatever it takes to make it happen, include selling his shares in his casinos. (The NFL prohibits all personnel from having involvement with gambling.) He also pledged to keep the Bills in Buffalo and not move them to Los Angeles or Toronto.

“€œI’€™m going to give it a heavy shot,”€ Trump told told Graham. “€œI would love to do it, and if I can do it I’€™m keeping it in Buffalo.”€

But from this viewpoint, a marriage of Trump and the Bills feels like it would be a mistake. Trump’€™s failure with the USFL — combined with a business record that seems to run counter to the NFL’€™s long-held belief that a rising tide lifts all ships — are two colossal black marks against him. While he could have a key advocate on his behalf in Patriots owner Robert Kraft — the two have been friends for a long time — it still feels like something of a long shot, at least right now.

Two other reported possibilities for the Bills? One group includes the Jacobs family, but it is worth mentioning that Jeremy Jacobs has said he won’€™t sell the Bruins to buy the Bills (as would be required under the NFL’€™s cross-ownership rules). However, that doesn’t mean another member of his family couldn’t get involved.

Meanwhile, rock star Jon Bon Jovi reportedly has emerged as the front man for Toronto’€™s Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, but no one from that group has made a public statement about the Bills one way or another.

Regardless, the process apparently will move very quickly, as Graham is reporting that a sale could be finalized by early October.

8. Since he was cut loose by the Patriots prior to the 2013 season because of a major kidney issue, wide receiver Donald Jones has had an interesting journey. The former Bills receiver set up a workout with the Colts shortly after cutting ties with New England but saw his blood test skyrocket during a stress test that ultimately convinced him to retire. It turns out he was suffering from Berger’€™s disease — he required a transplant or kidney dialysis, and his father ended up giving him a kidney.

Now, four months after the transplant, Jones is trying his hand again at professional sports — this time, baseball. He has been working out with the Somerset (N.J.) Patriots and hopes to make the team. The 26-year-old, who spent three seasons in the league (all with the Bills) had 82 career receptions.

In his relatively short time with the Patriots, Jones distinguished himself as a hard worker and high-character guy, and as a result, it was no surprise to hear him say what he did about his father and what he did for him.

“€œThere no way to put it into words,”€ Jones said. “€œHe always says, ‘I brought you into this world, and I’ll take you out,’ joking around like most parents do with their kids. But he brought me into this world, he raised me and he’€™s given me a second chance at life.”€

For more on Jones and his amazing journey, check out this story.

9. The Jets’ decision to sign running back Chris Johnson to a two-year deal was an interesting move, and one that certainly bears watching for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it means he’ll have to face the Patriots twice a year.

For all his drawbacks, Johnson is one of only a handful of runners to top 1,000 yards each of the last six years, including a 2,006-yard effort in 2009. However, he’€™s not the type of guy who should be depended on to be a feature back anymore. In addition to his impressive yardage numbers, Johnson, who will turn 29 in September, is one of only a few backs who has at least 250 carries a year for the last six seasons, and history tells us that age plus 250 carries a year can be a recipe for disaster for any back, let alone someone like CJ2K.

However, if Johnson is part of a rotation in New York — that is to say, the Jets can find a way to split carries with Johnson, Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell — then the Jets could really have something. Ivory had a career-high 833 yards in 2013, while Powell also had a career-high 697 yards on 176 carries. While no one will ever confuse them with Eric Dickerson, Walter Payton and Earl Campbell, if Johnson and Ivory can complement each other between the tackles, and if Powell continue to work as a third-down option out of the backfield (he had 36 catches last season), then New York could really be on to something when it comes to its running game.

Right now, there are a lot of ifs, and a lot of it ultimately will hinge on whether or not the Jets can pick up a steady receiver in the draft (in addition to free agent addition Eric Decker), which certainly would loosen up defenses. But New York clearly has made some intriguing offensive additions this offseason.

10. Good luck to all the members of the Patriots Marathon Team who will be taking part in the Boston Marathon on Monday. It’€™s a crew that includes former linebacker Eric Alexander, PR staffers Cecily Faenza and Christy Berkery and Patriots Football Weekly assistant editor Andy Hart, a great group dedicated to raising money for a variety of causes. This year’€™s team has raised $375,475 and counting, with the money going to support the Myra Kraft Community MVP Awards program, which awards grants to nonprofit organizations through nominations of deserving volunteers in the New England region as part of the Patriots’ ongoing Celebrate Volunteerism initiative.

(And it’€™s also worth wishing good luck to fellow WEEI crew members Kirk Minihane, Rob Bradford and Patricia Yuse. Go get ‘em.)

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