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Countdown to camp: Defensive back 07.24.14 at 7:00 am ET
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As training camp approaches, we’ve gone through each position and offered a spot by spot breakdown. With camp set to open Thursday, here’s our last positional preview, defensive back. (Check out the complete list here.)

Roster (stats taken from coaches film review): cornerbacks Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Alfonzo Dennard (42 tackles, 1 interception, 8 passes defensed), Kyle Arrington (60 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, 1 interception, 12 passes defensed), Logan Ryan (41 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, 5 interceptions, 1 touchdown, 10 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble), Malcolm Butler; safeties Devin McCourty (75 tackles, 1 interception, 8 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery), Duron Harmon (30 tackles, 2 interceptions, 4 passes defensed), Tavon Wilson (2 tackles, 1 interception, 1 touchdown, 1 pass defensed), Kanorris Davis, Nate Ebner, Travis Hawkins, Shamiel Gary; defensive backs Jemea Thomas, Daxton Swanson, Justin Green

Overview: This was a pretty good group last year when everyone was where they were supposed to be: Aqib Talib as the alpha dog, Dennard as the No. 2 corner, Arrington in the slot, McCourty roaming center field and Steve Gregory at strong safety. The problems arose when Talib went down and everyone at corner had to take a step forward — instead of relying on depth, the whole house of cards came crashing down. Never was this more the case than in the AFC title game, when Talib went out early on and Peyton Manning scorched the New England secondary. (No one preaches team defense more than the Patriots, but Talib’€™s absence was the beginning of the end for New England.) After losing Talib in the offseason, the Patriots fundamentally approached the cornerback position using the same approach they did at wide receiver between 2006 and 2007, pushing all their chips to the middle of the table and going after Revis. Provided they stay healthy, the addition of Revis and Browner create an impressive layer of depth at corner — New England can now utilize Dennard as a nickel corner while keeping Arrington in the slot. As for safety, McCourty continues to play free safety at an elite level, but he will be forced to learn how to play alongside a new strong safety after Gregory was cut loose over the offseason. But despite the questions about strong safety, the secondary has become one of the positions of strength on the team, and allow the Patriots to stare down the rest of the top-shelf passing games across the league.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Darrelle Revis changes everything.

It is impossible to overstate the impact of Revis on the New England defense. At several points over the course of the spring, his new teammates (on both sides of the ball) commented on his approach to the game, his overall fitness as a teammate and his ability to affect almost every level of play on the defensive side of the ball. (Our favorite came from wide receiver Brandon LaFell, who gave a weary shake of the head when asked about Revis’ cover skills. ‘Man, Revis is … he’s a guy who has seen it all. None of your tricks are going to work on him.’ It might be unfair to say he’s going to be Revis, circa 2009, who had one of the great seasons for any cornerback in the recent history of the NFL. But if he can effectively take away the lead pass-catcher on a weekly basis and allow the pass rushers to get an extra two seconds to get after the quarterback, he’s done his job.

2. Brandon Browner will be sidelined for the first four games of the regular season.

The new corner will sit out the first month as part of a suspension for violating the league’s PED rules last season. As a result, the Patriots will likely push Dennard back into a starting role, at least on a temporary basis. One of the things New England has to feel good about is the fact that the ban comes at a time where it won’t be facing what could best be described as a top-shelf passing game — of the Dolphins, Vikings, Raiders and Chiefs, the biggest challenge might come from Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith. At the same time, provided Dennard is completely healthy at the open of the regular season, the Revis-Dennard corner combo should be enough to hold the fort until Browner returns to action.

3. Devin McCourty remains the leader of the secondary.

While no one dispute the fact that the Patriots added an elite cornerback in Revis, McCourty will still hold sway as the unquestioned head of the defensive backs. He hasn’t had the most seniority in the system — remarkably, that honor goes to Arrington, who arrived in 2009, one year before McCourty. But the rest of the defensive backs defer to McCourty, who has evolved from an All-Pro corner (second team) as a rookie to one of the better free safeties in the league.
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Rob Gronkowski ‘super excited’ to be back on practice field 07.23.14 at 6:38 pm ET
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Bill Belichick said Wednesday that Rob Gronkowski was cleared to play, and the tight end Tweeted the following Wednesday afternoon.

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Patriots sign WR Greg Orton and release WR Tyler McDonald 07.23.14 at 4:13 pm ET
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The Patriots announced Wednesday they re-signed first-year wide receiver Greg Orton and released rookie wide receiver Tyler McDonald.

Here’s a portion of the release issued by the team.

Orton, 28, was originally signed to the Patriots practice squad on Dec. 31, 2013, and was released by the team on May 22. The 6-foot-3, 199-pounder spent part of 2011 and all of 2012 on the Denver practice squad and went to training camp with Denver in 2013. He originally entered the NFL as a rookie free agent with the Cincinnati Bengals out of Purdue in 2009. Orton had stints with the Arena Football League’€™s Spokane Shock and the United Football League’€™s Omaha Knights before joining the Denver practice squad.

McDonald, 23, was signed by the Patriots as a rookie free agent on July 18, out of South Carolina State. The 6-foot-3, 190-pounder, had a career-best 51 receptions for 956 yards as a senior in 2013. McDonald finished his college career with 159 receptions for 2,389 receiving yards.

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

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Bill Belichick: Rob Gronkowski ‘cleared to play’ 07.23.14 at 8:50 am ET
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FOXBORO — Bill Belichick said Wednesday that Rob Gronkowski has been in the facility in the days leading up to training camp, and has been “cleared to play.”

As a result, the tight end — who ended last year on injured reserve after a knee injury against the Browns — apparently will not start the year on the physically unable to perform list.

“Rob has always worked hard. He worked hard as a rookie,” Belichick said of the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski. “He’s been consistent.”

In four seasons with the Patriots, Gronkowski has 226 catches for 3,255 yards and 42 touchdowns. However, he’s been dogged by injury issues, including problems with his knee, back and forearm.

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

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Countdown to camp: Linebacker 07.22.14 at 3:36 pm ET
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Jerod Mayo is one of the clear leaders of the New England defense. (AP)

Jerod Mayo is one of the clear leaders of the New England defense. (AP)

As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We looked at the offensive side of the ball, as well as special teams. To open things up on defense, we examined the state of the defensive line. Now, it’s the linebackers. (For the complete series, click here.)

Roster (stats taken from coaches’ film review): Steve Beauharnais (1 tackle), Jamie Collins (38 tackles, 3 quarterback hits, 3 passes defensed), Ja’Gared Davis, 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), Darius Fleming, Cameron Gordon, Josh Hull, Taylor McCuller, Deontae Skinner, James Anderson

Overview: The New England linebackers had quite a season last year — the indestructible Mayo was lost for the year after going down with a pectoral injury after just six games. Hightower was up, and then down/benched, and then up again. Collins came on like gangbusters down the stretch and revealed himself to be an athletic freak of a defender who is capable of multiple things (working in coverage, rushing the passer) at the NFL level. And Brandon Spikes went out in the most “Brandon Spikes” way possible, falling out of favor with the team after missing a meeting because he couldn’t get out of his driveway after a snowstorm. (After leaving town, he compared his time in New England to slavery.) In the midst of all of it, the Patriots were able to survive with a combo of Spikes-Hightower-Collins-Dane Fletcher. But they really missed the multiple abilities of Mayo, who had could work in coverage, rush the passer and operate with the green dot on the back of his helmet, all effectively. Going forward, while there are serious questions about depth beyond the starters, Anderson might be in position to work as a nickel linebacker on third down and other passing situations. There also appears to be some snaps open for one of the youngsters (Beauharnais? Fleming?) to fill the role of special teamer/backup that Fletcher did so well over the last few seasons. (Hull, who made his bones as a special teamer with the Rams and Redskins, could also figure in the mix there as well.)

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Jerod Mayo makes everyone around him better.

Mayo’s critics have roundly derided him as not being an elite-level linebacker on the same plane as someone like, say, Patrick Willis. But Mayo’s absence for the better part of last season really exposed the deficiencies of the group as a whole — no one on the roster has a skill set like Mayo. He can run with tight ends in coverage, occasionally rush the passer or work as the defensive leader. If you think of him as a student, he’s not necessarily the type who would garner A’s across the board. But at the same time, he rarely drops below a B- level of work. Just a steady, dependable, reliable presence who is fundamentally an extension of Bill Belichick on the field. And when Vince Wilfork decides to call it a career, this will become his defense. (It will be interesting to see if his responsibilities are altered at all this season — particularly against the run — now that Spikes is gone to Buffalo and the Patriots are left without a top-shelf run-stopper.)
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10 things to keep an eye on at Patriots training camp 07.22.14 at 6:00 am ET
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Darrelle Revis will be in the spotlight during his first training camp with the Patriots. (AP)

Darrelle Revis will be in the spotlight during his first training camp with the Patriots. (AP)

With the Patriots set to open camp this week in Foxboro, here are 10 things we’ll be keeping an eye on as things get underway:

1. How Darrelle Revis does as he continues to get acclimated to the Patriots system.

Revis is an elite defender — it’s a safe bet he’d be able to excel in just about any system. But with any new player on a new team, it takes some time to get used to new schemes, responsibilities and expectations. When it comes to Revis, it’s presumed he will act in much the same fashion as Aqib Talib did for the last year-plus — that is to say, he’ll be deployed most of the time in man coverage against the oppositions’ No. 1 option in the passing game. (Remember, Talib wasn’t necessarily utilized on wide receivers, as he also spent time shadowing tight ends like Jimmy Graham and Charles Clay.) It was clear Talib was going to have a pretty good 2013 when he first surfaced in camp and was shutting down anyone and everyone who dared to line up across from him. However, his real expertise was seen in the joint practices, when he was able to take his skills to the next level. Revis against Philly’s Jeremy Maclin and Washington’s DeSean Jackson will be fun to watch during the joint practices next month.

2. Tom Brady‘s relationship with his younger receivers.

To paraphrase Reggie Jackson, Brady remains the straw that stirs the drink. The quarterback, who turns 37 next month, went through a trying 2013 as he attempted to get on the same page with several new teammates on offense. While it was a rocky road at first, the passing game was able to road into form as the season went on. It will be interesting to see if the bonds that were forged between Brady and young receivers like Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins last season will pay off with big numbers in 2014. One thing that’s worth mentioning in this context — while Brady had absolutely zero continuity in the passing game between the 2012 and 2013 season, there’s no such concern this time around. The Patriots lost 305 catches between the 2012 and 2013 season — 75 percent of the output in the passing game. From a percentage standpoint, when comparing New England’€™s 2013 lineup with the 2014 roster, the Patriots have a retention rate of 97 percent when it comes to catches (370 of 380) and receiving yards (4,226 of 4,343), and 96 percent (24 of 25) when it comes to touchdown receptions.

3. The backup quarterback spot.

At this point, Ryan Mallett is expected to serve as the primary backup to Brady, while rookie Jimmy Garoppolo will work as the third stringer. (For what it’s worth, the last time the Patriots entered the regular season with three quarterbacks was 2011, when Brady, Mallett and Brian Hoyer were all kept around.) But the in-game progress of Garoppolo will certainly be worth monitoring as the preseason rolls along. Will this be the last summer in Foxboro for Mallett, who is going into the final year of his rookie deal?

4. The interior of the offensive line, specifically center and right guard.

Incumbent center Ryan Wendell has been near the top of the league in snaps played the last two seasons, and suffered some dropoff in 2013. Is it the start of a trend, or just because he’s been going up against the likes of Haloti N’gata on a regular basis? He’ll likely be challenged by rookie Bryan Stork, who did about a million laps for perceived infractions over the course of the spring workouts. (OK, so it wasn’t a million, but it sure seemed like every time we looked up, he was circling the field.) Stork arrives in Foxboro with an impressive resume, having won the Rimington Award as college football’s best center for a national championship team — he’s also got a beard that makes him look like Logan Mankins’ younger brother. As for starting right guard Dan Connolly, he could also be pushed by Jon Halapio, a sixth-rounder by way of Florida who put together an impressive college career with the Gators.

5. Rob Gronkowski.

The knee. The forearm. The back. All health issues that have dogged the big tight end over the last year-plus. When it comes to the 2014 season, you can look at it one of two ways: if you’re an optimist, you can point to the fact that it sounds like he won’t open training camp on the PUP list, as well as the fact that not too long ago, he was considered as durable as any tight end in the league. (He had a consecutive games played streak of 46 to open his professional career.) However, if you’re a pessimist, there’s the fact that he’s only played in nine of a possible 26 games since he his arm was crunched while blocking on that fateful extra-point attempt against the Colts in November 2012. He spent the spring sessions working with a rehab group in the corner of the field, and then retreated to the practice bubble to continue his attempt to get back to action sooner rather than later. He’s indicated a desire to play all 16 games in 2014, but if he can get back in time for Week 1, it would represent a seismic turnaround from a potentially devastating knee injury — maybe not as epic as Wes Welker‘s return in 2010, but not too far removed.
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Report: Patriots add Dominique Easley to NFI list, while Alfonzo Dennard and Aaron Dobson will start camp on PUP 07.21.14 at 5:27 pm ET
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With camp looming later this week, the Patriots reportedly made some procedural roster moves Monday designed to allow some of players who are injured or coming off offseason surgery more time to rehab before they get on the field.

According to Field Yates of ESPN, defensive lineman Dominique Easley, running back Roy Finch, linebacker Deontae Skinner and tackle Chris Martin have been placed on the non-football injury list.

Meanwhile, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard; wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Jeremy Gallon; defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and special teamer Matt Slater were placed on the physically unable to perform list. Most of the players in this grouping were either limited (working with a rehab group) or not present during the media portion of the spring workouts.

In both cases — the active/physically unable to perform list as well as the active/non-football injury list — they can come off the list and return to practice at any time after they have been cleared by the team’s medical staff.

One thing worth noting is that both lists do not include tight end Rob Gronkowski, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo, all of who suffered season-ending injuries last year.

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

Read More: Aaron Dobson, Alfonzo Dennard, Chris Martin, Deontae Skinner
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