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Sunday NFL Notes: Patriots still seeking depth charge at linebacker

05.18.14 at 6:00 am ET
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1. From this viewpoint, the news that the Patriots added veteran linebacker Darius Fleming to the roster this week is a clear indication that the team is still seeking depth at the spot. The 24-year-old Fleming missed his first two seasons in the NFL with the Niners because of injury, but the 6-foot-2, 255-pounder projects as an end-of-the-line pass rusher who could give New England some depth on the outside. (At this point, he figures to battle with backup defensive ends like Jake Bequette and Michael Buchanan and veteran additions like Will Smith, at least from an overall responsibility standpoint.)

But it’€™s not just Fleming. Our friend Aaron Wilson noted late Friday that New England kicked the tires on three linebackers this week — James Anderson, Marvin Mitchell and Stevenson Sylvester. Anderson, 30, is a 6-foot-2, 235-pounder out of Virginia Tech who is known for being versatile in that he can drop into coverage (he had nine passes defensed for the Panthers in 2011 and nine sacks the last four seasons). The 29-year-old Mitchell is a 6-foot-3, 249-pounder out of Tennessee who had 42 tackles last season for the Vikings. The former Saints draft pick has 171 career tackles, two sacks and one career pick. And the 25-year-old Stevenson is a little-used backup who had a dozen tackles in nine games with the Pittsburgh Steelers last season. The 6-foot-2, 231-pounder has 34 career tackles for the Steelers in four NFL seasons.

(In addition, undrafted free agent linebacker James Morris could also figure into the mix, with a skill set that suggests he could have the inside track on potentially replacing Dane Fletcher.)

One specific thing that could give an edge to Anderson is his ability to get after the passer and work in coverage, albeit in a limited role. He’€™s not an All-Pro by any means, but he’€™s carved out a nice niche over the course of his career as a likable, intelligent veteran who has shown an ability to tutor younger players. For more on his background, check out this story from the Chicago Sun-Times last year.

2. Here’€™s a quick look at how the rest of the AFC East is shaping up a week after the 2014 draft.

a) Jets: Thought to be chasing after offense, New York surprised some by making safety Calvin Pryor its first-round pick. A second-round pickup of tight end Jace Amaro broke some hearts around New England who believed he would have been a nice complimentary piece to Rob Gronkowski, but Patriots fans will get a chance to see him twice a year. In all, the Jets went with six offensive players and six defensive players, with the most intriguing pickup likely coming in the sixth round with the acquisition of Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, a signal-caller once thought to be a first-round talent but who had some slippage this past season.

b) Bills: Buffalo was very aggressive, going all in to acquire wide receiver Sammy Watkins. The Bills sent the ninth overall pick along with their first- and fourth-round selections in 2015 to Cleveland in the trade which netted them Watkins, considered to be the best wide receiver in the draft. But it’€™s created a win-or-else atmosphere already for the current Buffalo regime, and GM Doug Whaley acknowledges that the move to get Watkins ‘€œwas a calculated risk.’€ If it doesn’€™t work out — that is to say, if the Bills aren’€™t competitive with New England in the AFC East — it could be a risk that Whaley comes to regret.

c) Dolphins: Miami went for need and picked up offensive linemen with two of their first three picks (Ja’€™Wuan James at No. 19 and Billy Turner at No. 67), sandwiched between speedy LSU wide receiver Jarvis Landry at No. 63 overall. Look for James to pair with free agent Pro Bowler Branden Albert to give the Dolphins a significant upgrade along the offensive line in 2014. One other interesting pickup was Bay State native Arthur Lynch, a tight end out of Georgia in the fifth round. And with the leadership issues nagging the Dolphins in the wake of the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin scandal, it was interesting to see Miami draft college captains with five of its first selections.

3. In that same vein, it’€™s always interesting to see what sort of import the Patriots put in drafting college captains. While first-year players aren’€™t asked to do much when it comes to team-wide leadership, the experience of serving as a captain can be useful in many aspects when it comes to both rallying fellow rookies and learning how to communicate with veterans. Overall, the last five years, 24 of the last 45 players the Patriots selected in the draft were college captains. That includes five of the nine members of the 2014 draft class, including Dominique Easley, Jimmy Garoppolo, Bryan Stork, Jon Halapio and Zach Moore. (In addition, Iowa’s Morris was a two-time captain for the Hawkeyes.)

4. With the Bills pickup of Watkins, it left Buffalo free to deal wide receiver Stevie Johnson to the Niners. Johnson had a great deal of production over much of his six seasons with the Bills, catching at least 52 passes a year the last four years, but the 27-year-old now gets a chance to show his skills on the big stage with San Francisco. While Johnson was always one of Buffalo’€™s leading pass catchers, he could also be counted on to keep things interesting around the AFC East. Last year, he took a shot at then-Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, saying New England didn’€™t have anyone who could cover him. (Talib responded by saying, “I don’€™t watch NFL Network.”) There was the touchdown celebration against the Patriots in the 2011 regular-season finale when he pulled up his game jersey to reveal a t-shirt that read, “œHappy New Year!” In addition, there was another celebration where he pretended to fire the musket of one of the end zone Minutemen. And we haven’€™t even mentioned his love of unique birthday cakes. From this viewpoint, the AFC East will be a lot less interesting with Johnson not around for twice-a-year battles with New England.

5. No surprise to see the news out of Houston that new coach (and former Patriots offensive coordinator) Bill O’€™Brien has instituted the same policy for rookies in the locker room that has been present for the better part of the last decade in Foxboro. At rookie minicamp this week, the Texans rookies no names on the backs of their practice jerseys, and were set up in temporary blue lockers in the middle of the locker room — not the large ones the veterans used. (Defensive lineman Louis Nix III told reporters he wasn’€™t sure when rookies would “graduate” to the regular lockers, while highly-touted quarterback Tom Savage is sharing a rookie locker with tryout receiver Lacoltan Bester. Yes, the Lacoltan Bester.)

One player who is getting used to the spotlight is No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, who acknowledged that it’€™s a “relief”€ to have the draft circus behind him and start in on football. In Houston, Clowney will have plenty of ex-Patriots in his ear: In addition to O’€™Brien, he’€™ll be working closely with defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, and he’€™ll also be spending plenty of time with his new position coach, former New England linebacker Mike Vrabel.

“€œI think he’€™s a good coach. He’€™s really trying to teach us a lot. He wants us to learn. Other coaches are going to throw you out there, but he really wants us to learn the playbook and just get good at it and see what we’€™ve got,”€ Clowney said of his first exposure to Vrabel.

Clowney was asked if Vrabel’€™s three Super Bowl rings were impressive: “€œDefinitely. Just learning form him — he’€™s a good coach. He’€™s been there and done that.”

“€œ(Vrabel) is working with all the linebackers, and I think the linebackers are being coached very well,”€ O’€™Brien said when asked about Clowney’€™s first workout. “We’€™re throwing a lot at these guys. Linebackers, quarterbacks — really all the positions get a lot thrown at them within the first two practices and two meetings and all those things. It looked like everybody was being attentive and staying focused and working very hard.”

6. Going back and looking at the news from last May, one thing that really stands out is the fact that even though free agency and the draft is done, the team-building process is nowhere near complete. Between mid-May and mid-June last year, the Patriots released veteran defensive linemen Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick and added quarterback Tim Tebow. In addition, veteran receivers Mike Jenkins and Donald Jones were still on the roster, while the health of tight end Rob Gronkowski caused many to speculate that Jake Ballard could have an expanded role in 2013. (That doesn’€™t even begin to take into account the situation involving Aaron Hernandez.) By the end of the year, names like Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones had become important parts up front instead of Love and Deaderick, while Jenkins, Jones and Tebow were out of the game. Meanwhile, Gronkowski came back in October, but Ballard never took a significant snap for the team. In the end, it goes to show that considering the roster to be a completed product in mid-May — at least from a personnel standpoint — can be a dangerous proposition.

7. With the draft being pushed back two weeks, there’€™s a rush to get the rookies into the system as fast as possible, and one of the things that helps move that transitional process along as fast as possible is to get their contracts done. The Patriots have now finalized deals with five of their nine picks, as fourth-round draft choices Cameron Fleming and James White, sixth-round draft choices Zach Moore and Jemea Thomas and seventh-round draft choice Jeremy Gallon are all officially signed. With the rush, it would seem pretty quick, but in truth, it’€™s about the same rate as last year’€™s picks. By May 18, 2013, the Patriots had signed four of their seven draft picks, including third-rounders Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan, as well as second-round pick Jamie Collins and seventh-rounder Steve Beauharnais.

8. According to the Patriots web site, the Patriots rookie class has been assigned the following numbers. Here’€™s some history on each one of their new digits:

10: Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo — Wide receivers Tiquan Underwood and Jabar Gaffney both wore No. 10 in their stints in New England.

21: Defensive back Jemea ThomasRas-I Dowling last had the digits before he was cut loose after the 2012 season. Fred Taylor also had it when he was with the Patriots in 2009 and 2010. (Not the healthiest history there…..)

28: Running back James WhiteCorey Dillon was probably the most notable No. 28 in recent years. On more than one occasion, he warned reporters ‘€œDon’€™t come by 28′€™s locker.’€ Steve Gregory had the digits the last two seasons, and Darius Butler before that.

29: Running back Roy Finch — Running back LeGarrette Blount had it last season. It was also recently worn by defensive back Sterling Moore and veteran corner Shawn Springs.

31: Defensive back Shamiel GaryAqib Talib‘€™s old number — he had it for most of the last two years. Before that, it belonged to Sergio Brown and Brandon Meriweather.

36: Running back Stephen Houston — Safety Lawyer Milloy was probably the most notable No. 36 in recent memory. Before that, it was veteran defensive back James Sanders. Fullback Lousaka Polite also had it for the 20 minutes or so he was in New England.

42: Cornerback Travis HawkinsBenJarvus Green-Ellis did No. 42 proud when he was in New England.

45: Linebacker Cameron GordonDont’€™a Hightower had the number before he switched to No. 54.

55: Linebacker Deontae SkinnerBrandon Spikes had 55 the last few seasons. It’€™s not known if Spencer has the same sort of Twitter game as Spikes, but he certainly has a lot to live up to.

66: Offensive lineman Bryan Stork — Long snapper Lonie Paxton was perhaps the most famous No. 66 in franchise history.

69: Offensive lineman Jon Halapio — Maybe the most anonymous number in franchise history. Offensive linemen Alex Silvestro and Ross Tucker were the last two to wear No. 69.

71: Offensive lineman Cameron FlemingBrandon Deaderick last had No. 71.

71: Defensive lineman Zach Moore — Throughout the spring and summer, Fleming will wear a white No. 71 jersey, while Moore will wear the blue.

74: Defensive lineman Dominique EasleyKyle Love had No. 74. In addition, the massive Terdell Sands (6-foot-7, 340 pounds) had it for the week or so he was with the Patriots in 2009.

83: Wide receiver Jeremy GallonWes Welker had No. 83 before he left as a free agent.

86: Tight end Asa WatsonDaniel Fells last wore No. 86. (For what it’€™s worth, his older brother Benjamin wore No. 84.) Tight end Chris Baker had it before that.

88: Tight end Justin JonesMatthew Mulligan‘€™s old number was also worn by Sam Aiken.

9. The talk this week among rookies was that Garoppolo was taking charge of early practices in Foxboro. Free agent tight end Justin Jones noted that Garoppolo has already been walking up to rookies, giving a play from the playbook and asking them about their responsibilities. In addition, rookies have noted that the coaching staff has charged Garoppolo with keeping the rookies accountable and making sure the group is on time. Part of it is because Garoppolo is the only quarterback among the rookies, but it’€™s also a good sign for Garoppolo’€™s career that he’€™s been willing to take that leadership mantle and run with it.

While Garoppolo’€™s career is still in its’€™ infancy, the quotes harken back to 2000 when Tom Brady was running the scout team, and took ownership of that group of youngsters that went up against the veterans every day in camp. In the closest thing there is to a definitive Brady biography — Charlie Pierce‘€™s “Moving the Chains”€ — Pierce writes about the same sort of leadership skills displayed by Brady when he was a rookie in 2000.

“€œTom Brady moves the chains. It’€™s the first thing the New England Patriots and their coaches saw in him, directing the scout team with players who hadn’€™t been around long enough yet to be considered castoffs. The scout team’€™s job is to simulate the offense of the upcoming opponent. However, after practice, Brady and the scout team would practice the New England offense. He led, and they went with him. ‘€˜They’€™d go through the plays, and, if somebody got something wrong, he’€™d correct them,”€™ recalls [Bill] Belichick. “€˜You could see them getting better and better. They moved on you.”

10. With good weather (finally) looming on the horizon, there are three local Patriots-related events worth passing along that should give fans a chance to connect with current and former players.

a) Because of inclement weather, the Kevin Faulk Celebrity Softball Game was rescheduled to Saturday, June 7. Backed by the Kevin Faulk Foundation, this year’€™s game is set for Campanelli Stadium in Brockton, and tickets are $10 for general admission. (All proceeds go to the Kevin Faulk Foundation.) Faulk always makes sure a bunch of current and former players appear at the game, and this year should be no exception. For more information, check out KevinFaulkCelebritySoftball.com.

b) Cornerback Kyle Arrington will host ‘€œKamp Kyle,’€ set for July 19 in Plainfield, CT. Arrington is expected to be joined by fellow New England defensive backs Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung for a day of coaching. For more information, check out www.kampkyle.sportssignup.com.

c) Hosted by former Patriots offensive lineman and cancer survivor Joe Andruzzi, local athletes and celebrities will tee off to raise money for cancer patients and their families at Pinehills Golf Club in Plymouth, MA on Monday, June 30 for the Sixth Annual Joe Andruzzi & Friends Golf Tournament. For those interested in joining Andruzzi, check out http://joeandruzzifoundation.org.

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