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What does history tell us about Patriots and pre-draft contact with elite prospects? 04.16.14 at 3:14 pm ET
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Tackle Nate Solder had a pre-draft visit to Foxboro scrubbed at the last minute, but the Patriots still made him a first-round pick. (AP)

Tackle Nate Solder had a pre-draft visit to Foxboro scrubbed at the last minute, but the Patriots still made him a first-round pick. (AP)

With the pre-draft process longer now than it’s been in year’s past, there’s more time for speculation, and official visits, workouts and attendance at Pro Days are all ways fans and the media try and gauge a team’s interest in a prospect. Some of the pre-draft work can be a smokescreen, some of it can be done for intel down the road and some of can be for practical scouting purposes. Here’s a look at the pre-draft connections the Patriots have made with some of their top draft picks over the last few years.

Linebacker Jamie Collins (taken with New England’s first pick in 2013, a second-round selection at No. 52 overall): Bill Belichick flew South to work out Collins before the draft, but the linebacker later indicated that he did not have much pre-draft contact with New England when compared to other teams.

Defensive end Chandler Jones (first-round pick 2012, 21st overall): Jones recalled a conversation with the Patriots at the combine in Indy the year he was drafted. “I talked to the Patriots — I talked with them at the combine,” he said. “That was the most formal thing we did. That’s basically it — we talked at the combine.”

Linebacker Dont’a Hightower (first-round pick 2012, 25th overall): He didn’t work out for Patriots, but he said he “had a small (idea)” the Patriots were interested. “I met with those guys at the combine and I met them at one of the Pro Days,” Hightower recalled, “so I knew that they were kind of interested in some of the defensive players that we had at Alabama.”

Tackle Nate Solder (first-round pick 2011, 17th overall): Solder had what he called “fairly limited contact” with the Patriots throughout the pre-draft process. He met with offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia the Monday before the draft in Colorado, but also had a scheduled visit to Foxboro cancelled at the last minute. “I don’t know exactly what happened,” Solder later explained. “I was scheduled to visit (but) the minute before I left it was cancelled. That’s all I know.”

Defensive back Devin McCourty (first-round pick 2010, 27th overall): McCourty met with Belichick prior to the draft, where the two had a film session on campus at Rutgers. “Bill Belichick had come to my school for a coaches’ clinic, and he was going to fly right out after the clinic to see his son play in a lacrosse game,” McCourty recalled. “But we had an hour, we watched some film and we spoke for a little while. We had a real generic conversation, but he showed me some things on film, just watching and helping me out as far as being a player.”

Linebacker Jerod Mayo (first-round pick, 2008, 10th overall): Mayo had 11 visits with teams during the pre-draft process, and remembers his visit to Foxboro fondly. “I had a great visit when I came down there,” he said. “The coaches and I sat down and talked football for a long time. Like I said, I just had a great visit and I felt like we clicked.”

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At this point in offseason, where are Patriots personnel priorities? 04.04.14 at 9:55 pm ET
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Will Smith remains a free agent possibility for the Patriots. (AP)

Will Smith remains a free agent possibility for the Patriots. (AP)

With the offseason now one-third of the way done — and most of free agency now complete — the Patriots still have to address a few specific areas of need as part of the team-building process. Here’s a look at four personnel questions that have to be dealt with between now and the start of training camp.

Backup linebacker: Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher departed as free agents this offseason, with Spikes heading to Buffalo and Fletcher signing with Tampa Bay. Neither were starters, but over the last two seasons, both were called upon to play significant snaps for the Patriots. As a result, New England is a little thin when it comes to their linebacker depth. Currently on the roster, the Patriots have a few possibilities when it comes to backing up the expected starting trio of Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, including Steve Beauharnais, who just finished his rookie season. But their pursuit of veteran free agent Wesley Woodyard was likely a sign they believe they need more help when it comes to depth at the spot.

Strong safety: Steve Gregory was cut loose earlier this offseason, and Adrian Wilson was released on Friday. And while the Patriots did bring back Patrick Chung on Thursday, there’s some uncertainty as to what New England plans on doing at the position. Two things to remember: one, the Patriots like their defensive backs to be versatile, and so shuffling DBs from one spot to another wouldn’t be a surprise. And two, on that same vein, there are some possibilities on the roster, including Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan, the latter of whom has been the subject of much speculation this offseason when it comes to a possible move to free safety. In addition, there’s Tavon Wilson, who slid down the depth chart in 2013 to more of a special teams role, one that’s also occupied by fellow safeties Kanorris Davis and Nate Ebner. (And there’s always the possibility that Gregory could return on a reworked deal — he said this week despite the fact that he was cut by New England, “it would definitely be a place I would love to go back to.”) Regardless of whether or not New England decides to address the position in the draft, right now, it’s shaping up to be one of the more intriguing camp battles this spring and summer.

Situational pass rusher: The Patriots were believed to be at least partially in the mix for Jared Allen in free agency before he signed with the Bears, and while New England does currently have youngsters Jake Bequette and Michael Buchanan on the roster as backup defensive ends, it’s a fair dropoff at this point from the starting duo of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. In terms of free agents who could still be on the market, Will Smith remains a possibility, but his recent injury woes leave him questionable at this stage of his career. When it comes to other in-house possibilities, Andre Carter could return for at least part of the season if New England struggles to find help — he sure sounds open to the possibility of returning. In addition, Armond Armstead could also be in the mix as an interior pass rushing presence at some point if he ever does get healthy. It’s also expected that if veteran Tommy Kelly can stay on the field, he’ll offer some support as another interior pass rushing presence in 2014.

Depth at tight end and running back: While New England appears to be set when it comes to starters at the two positions, it could really use some depth at both spots, and both will likely be addressed in some form or fashion come the second and/or third day of the draft. Despite the fact the Patriots might be more inclined to move away from the two-tight end sets they ran over the last few seasons, another tight end to compliment Rob Gronkowski could be had in this draft, especially given the fact that this year appears to be a pretty good one for tight ends. In addition, the fact that the Patriots made a serious play for veteran free agent running back Maurice Jones-Drew could be taken as a sign they feel like they need someone to replace LeGarrette Blount in the backfield.

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Report: Veteran defensive end Will Smith visiting with Patriots 04.01.14 at 2:55 pm ET
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The Patriots are hosting defensive end Will Smith on a free agent visit, according to ESPN.

The 32-year-old veteran, who was cut loose as part of the great New Orleans salary purge of 2014, has 67.5 career sacks, but has struggled over the last few seasons, and is coming off a torn ACL that left him sidelined for the 2013 season.

New England is likely be in the market for a low-cost answer at defensive end/situational pass rusher behind starters Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones — youngsters Michael Buchanan and Jake Bequette have been underwhelming to this point in their careers, while 34-year-old veteran Andre Carter is an unrestricted free agent.

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Free agent snapshot: Arthur Jones 02.04.14 at 6:00 am ET
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Arthur Jones has played the first four years of his career with the Ravens. (AP)

Arthur Jones has played the first four years of his career with the Ravens. (AP)

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 and Jacoby Jones. Now, we go to the defensive side of the ball, and Arthur Jones.

Position: Defensive end
Age: 27 (will turn 28 on June 3)
Height: 6-foot-3
Weight: 315 pounds

The skinny: The older brother of Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones, Arthur was taken in the fifth round of the 2010 draft out of Syracuse, and has developed into one of the more underrated parts of Baltimore’€™s front seven over the last two years. He started 13 games this past season for the Ravens, and has 8.5 sacks since the start of the 2012 season. Not as long and lean as his brother (Chandler is 6-foot-5, 265 pounds), he’€™s able to generate pressure with his size, and has also a rep as a quality run-stuffer. A penetrating lineman, he had 38.5 tackles for a loss as a collegian, the most in Syracuse history for an interior lineman, and he had five this year with the Ravens to tie for the team lead. He has some positional versatility, as the Ravens have kicked him inside as needed, and has provided a boost with a consistent interior pass-rushing presence. A smart and versatile defender who has been able to flourish as a complementary part of the Baltimore defense, he would make a solid addition to most rosters at the right price.

By the numbers: 15. The number of quarterback hurries Pro Football Focus awarded Jones this past season, good enough to tie for third on the team. (For some perspective, that would put him third on the Patriots, behind Rob Ninkovich, who had 39 last year, and his brother Chandler, who had 39.)

Why it would work: The opportunity to play alongside a brother can be a powerful lure — the chance to have someone you know watching your back at all times might be the sort of thing that could attract the older brother to Foxboro. His versatility would allow the Patriots to do multiple things, including work him as a defensive tackle who could occasionally kick out to defensive end in relief of his brother Chandler or fellow defensive end Ninkovich. (There’€™s also the possibility New England could take advantage of Ninkovich’€™s versatility and move him to an outside linebacker spot if Arthur is needed as a defensive end.)

Why it might not work: While the Ravens aren’t expected to franchise him, Jones is expected to be one of the better free-agent defensive linemen on the market this year, and will almost certainly command serious money that could put him out of New England’€™s reach. In addition, playing alongside your brother can be an occasional double-edged sword — the questions for both would likely get tiresome pretty quickly. There’€™s also a semi-checkered injury history — he missed the 2013 season opener due to an irregular heartbeat, and knee and pectoral injuries that kept him out of much of the 2009 season as a collegian.

Quote: “I can’€™t say enough complimentary things about him as a person and as a pro. I think he’€™s one of the most improved guys that we have. From where he’€™s come to where he is now, he’€™s just vastly improved. There’€™s really not a time when we come out of a game saying, ‘€˜Boy, I don’€™t know about that game.’€™ He’€™s had great performances every week.” — Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees on Jones’€™ 2013 season

Our take: It would likely take a good chunk of cash, but the idea of the Jones brothers together in New England would be intriguing. The Patriots need some help when it comes to building depth up front — Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Sealver Siliga are good short-term fixes, but represent a considerable step down from the Vince Wilfork-Tommy Kelly combo that started the 2013 season for New England. Jones would represent a significant upgrade, and could work in relief of one of the defensive tackles and also spend time at defensive end. He’€™s already on New England’€™s radar, as he had a visit with the Patriots shortly before the 2010 draft. While that was a while ago, all the front office would need to do to update their files would be to ask Chandler for an update.

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Penalty phase: Patriots, Dolphins two of league’s least-flagged teams 12.11.13 at 2:51 pm ET
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Despite playing almost every defensive snap the better part of the last two seasons, Rob Ninkovich has only been called for two penalties in that span. (AP)

Despite playing almost every defensive snap the better part of the last two seasons, Rob Ninkovich has only been called for two penalties in that span. (AP)

FOXBORO — Don’t expect a lot of stoppages in play Sunday.

This weekend’s game between the Patriots and Dolphins in South Florida will feature two of the least-penalized teams in the league. Not including penalties that were declined or offset, New England comes into the contest with 57 penalties — second fewest in the NFL — while the Dolphins are the least-penalized team in the league with 55. In addition, the 534 penalty yards against the Patriots is 30th in the league. Only Miami (502) and Indy (499) have been hit with fewer penalty yards.

Both the Dolphins and Patriots have played two games this season where they didn’t get hit with a single penalty. New England wasn’t flagged once in an October loss to the Bengals, as well as a win over the Texans earlier this month. Meanwhile, Miami wasn’t hit with a single penalty in a September win over Indy, as well as last week against the Steelers.

To put that sort of smart, disciplined play into proper perspective, there are teams like the Buccaneers (106), Seahawks (104) and Rams (100) that already are into triple digits when it comes to total penalties. Tampa Bay leads the league with 1,000 penalty yards, while Seattle is close behind at 966.

In truth, through the first 13 games, it’s been a good season for New England when it comes to penalties. Through 13 games last season, the Patriots had been hit with 79 penalties for a total of 680 yards. In the same span in 2011 (the first 13 games of the year), the Patriots had 74 penalties and 658 yards. While they won’t set the regular-season mark under Bill Belichick for fewest penalties and least penalty yardage — that came in 2008 with 57 penalties and 501 yards — this year’s total represents nearly a 20 percent reduction in penalties and penalty yardage from the previous two seasons.

“It’s just about playing smart football,” said defensive lineman Rob Ninkovich, who has been flagged for just one penalty this year and two dating back to the start of the 2012 season. “You can’t win football games and expect to win games by having a lot of penalties. It just comes down to basic fundamentals. If you’re a defense, you’re trying to do your best to stay onsides and not jump off — that’s huge for the D-line. Giving up free five-yard plays every time, that hurts eventually.”

The only positional grouping for the Patriots that hasn’t been flagged over the course of the first 13 games of the season is the running backs. In fact, the last two seasons, the running backs consistently have been one of the lowest-penalized positional groupings on the team. In 2012, they were the least-penalized group with two penalties and five yards, and in 2011 they had one penalty for five yards.

At the other end of the spectrum, the cornerbacks have been hit with 128 yards worth of penalties, including a team-high six for Aqib Talib. That high yardage total is no surprise — with pass interference and defensive holding calls coming into play, cornerbacks are the most likely position to rack up higher penalty yardage. (To that point, this year the Patriots have been hit with six defensive holding penalties — four of them against Talib — and four pass interference calls.)

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Tom Brady, Chandler Jones capture AFC honors 11.27.13 at 10:11 am ET
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Tom Brady

Tom Brady

FOXBORO — Wednesday was a good day in the awards department for the Patriots: Tom Brady was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week, while Chandler Jones was named AFC Defensive Player of the Month.

Brady completed 34-of-50 passes for 344 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 107.4 passer rating against Denver. The 344 yards are Brady’s second-highest total in 2013, trailing only his 432-yard performance against Pittsburgh on Nov. 3. Brady totaled 1,072 passing yards and eight touchdowns in his three November games, averaging 357 yards and 2.7 touchdowns per game.

Jones registered 16 total tackles and four sacks in the team’s three November games to push his season total to 10 ½ sacks. The Patriots have now had a player finish with 10 or more sacks in a season 15 times. Jones has 16 ½ sacks (6 in 2012 and 10 ½ in 2013) in his first two NFL seasons, which ranks third in team history for most sacks in a player’s first two seasons. Garin Veris had 21 and Chris Slade had 18 ½.

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Chandler Jones loves the ‘guys that Bill Belichick has put on this team’ 11.25.13 at 9:08 pm ET
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Chandler Jones was catching up rest Monday after a late night Sunday. (Mike Petraglia/

Chandler Jones was catching up rest Monday after a late night Sunday. (Mike Petraglia/

Sometimes it takes more than just pure toughness to get back into a game when all hope appears lost.

Chandler Jones reminded everyone of that Monday in the hours after he and the Patriots defense limited Peyton Manning to one second-half touchdown and held steady as Tom Brady got the team back in the game.

“I feel like it’s more than the mental toughness,” Jones told’s Chris Price. “It’s just the kind of guys that Bill Belichick has put on this team. I feel like we have guys that are willing to put 110 percent on every snap on every play. You can talk about Brandon Spikes. He had a great game. He went out there and he recovered a fumble. It’s certain things, just the camaraderie and the brotherhood and how we work so well together and that’s the progression you’re going to get.”

Jones was one of five defensive players to play all 90 snaps. Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Rob Ninkovich and Chris Jones) were the other four and are certainly among the “guys” to whom Jones was referring.

After playing 73 minutes of draining football, including a sack and six total tackles, what was the day after like?

“First thing I’ll say, I’m very sleepy, to be honest with you,” Jones said, after tweeting “goodnight!” at about 3 a.m. on Monday. “But I feel great to go out there and get a good win and to see our team battle like that for more than 60 minutes, actually. I looked at the snap count, we played 90 snaps defensively, so [inaudible] and have to keep moving forward.”

Does Jones feel good about where his team is right now with the post-Thanksgiving stretch looming?

“Personally, I feel like we have to take it one game at a time, one play at a time and try to execute and be perfect that one play or that one game – never look back, never look forward, just take it where you are now,” Jones said. “That’s my take on that.

“Just go – just keep going, don’t stop. No matter what the score is, just keep going. That should be the motto for everyone not just the rookies, but for any team and not just for our team. Any team that saw us play the other night, I’m pretty sure that there are other players that watched that game and it just goes to show don’t stop, just keep going.

“It was an emotional win but it’s over. I would say take some time off and celebrate but I celebrated it last night in my dreams when I was asleep. That’s about it and we’re moving on to Houston.”

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