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5 looming positional battles for Patriots 06.08.15 at 9:59 pm ET
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New Patriot Travaris Cadet could have the inside track for the job of third-down back. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

New Patriot Travaris Cadet could have the inside track for the job of third-down back. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The 2015 Patriots roster is starting to come into sharper focus, and as a result, there are some positional battles starting to take shape. With the understanding that there’s a lot of football left before the start of training camp at the end of July, here are four positions that bear watching as New England’s mandatory minicamp approaches later this month and camp begins in July.

Backup outside linebacker/defensive end: This spot demands some versatility in that defenders have to show an ability to not just get after the quarterback and set the edge, but also play over a tight end and drop into coverage from time to time. There are a bunch of different possibilities when it comes to working behind the likes of expected starters Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones that one of the candidates — Jake Bequette — has apparently spent some of the spring working at tight end in an attempt to get on the field. Opponent, situation and scheme will all play a sizable role as to who is on the field, and while free-agent pickup Jabaal Sheard probably shouldn’t necessarily be labeled as a backup, he will augment the work of Jones and Ninkovich. Sheard will lead a group that includes returnee Zach Moore (more of a defensive end/pass rush type than an outside linebacker, as well as rookies Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom and Xzavier Dickson.

Backup inside/middle linebacker: The release of Brandon Spikes on Monday creates a void at the linebacker spot for New England. While Spikes wasn’t going to unseat any of the three long-term starters (Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower) for work as a three-down linebacker, his run-stuffing ability made him a good situational option on first and second downs. With Hightower’s offseason shoulder surgery leaving him a question mark when it comes to participating over the summer, the Patriots could still try and add someone at the spot. If not, the return of Dane Fletcher creates some depth at the position, and is likely the favorite to see the bulk of the playing time, at least at this point. In addition, James Morris (who was on the shelf all last season with a leg injury) will compete for reps alongside youngster Chris White and rookie Matt Wells.

Third-down back: The Patriots lost one of their most impressive offensive options to free agency this offseason, as Shane Vereen signed with the Giants. However, New England hasn’t been shy about turnover at this spot the last few years, as Kevin Faulk have way to Danny Woodhead, who yielded to Vereen. Now, it’ll be next man up here, and there are plenty of possibilities. The Patriots acquired Travaris Cadet in free agency — the 26-year-old had 38 catches last season out of the backfield with the Saints, and could be the early favorite to win the gig. Cadet will have his challengers, however, with one of them likely being second-year pro James White. White, who fundamentally took a redshirt year last season while sitting behind Vereen and the rest of the backs, has an impressive college resume at Wisconsin (he had 39 catches as a senior, and 73 total as a collegian), and certainly possesses the same sort of size and shiftiness as Vereen. While Brandon Bolden, Jonas Gray and LeGarrette Blount have shown a willingness to catch passes out of the backfield, the wild card here is likely Tyler Gaffney, a 6-foot-1, 221-pounder who was swiped from the Panthers off waivers and spent the whole season on IR because of a knee issue. The Stanford product caught 27 passes his last two seasons at Stanford, and could be part of the conversation as the summer continues.

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Read More: Cameron Fleming, chandler jones, Dan Connolly, Dane Fletcher
Report: Patriots exercise 5th year option on Chandler Jones 04.30.15 at 5:14 pm ET
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In an unsurprising move, the Patriots will pick up the fifth year option on defensive end Chandler Jones’ contract, according to CBS Sports.

Jones was a first round pick in the 2012 draft and taken No. 21 overall out of Syracuse. Jones battled a shoulder injury last year, but finished with 30 tackles and six sacks.

The Patriots reportedly did the same with Dont’a Hightower on Wednesday.

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

Read More: chandler jones, Dont'a Hightower,
Resetting Patriots depth chart: Defensive line 04.28.15 at 1:57 pm ET
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Dominique Easley

Dominique Easley

With the majority of free agency completed and the draft looming, we’re going to take a look at the Patriots depth chart by position, and try and assess the level of need going forward. We’ve broken down each position on the offensive side of the ball. Now, it’s defense, and we start with the defensive line:

Current depth chart: (2014 regular-season stats via coaches film review and Pro Football Reference): Chandler Jones (43 tackles, 6 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, 2 passes defensed), Alan Branch (14 tackles, 2 quarterback hits, 1 pass defensed), Sealver Siliga (27 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4 quarterback hits), Chris Jones (27 tackles, 3 sacks, 7 quarterback hits), Rob Ninkovich (56 tackles, 8 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, 1 INT, 2 passes defensed, 1 fumble recovery), Joe Vellano (6 tackles, 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit), Zach Moore (4 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery), Michael Buchanan (1 tackle), Dominique Easley (9 tackles, 1 sack, 3 quarterback hits). Jake Bequette remains on the practice squad, while the Patriots added DE/OLB Jabaal Sheard and defensive tackle Antonio Johnson in free agency.

Lost in free agency: Vince Wilfork (47 tackles, 1 quarterback hit, 1 INT, 2 passes defensed) signed with the Texans after the Patriots did not pick up his option. While he was able to bounce back following a season-ending Achilles injury in 2013 and go wire-to-wire in 2014, his off-field guidance as a pillar of the franchise could be a greater loss. DE/OLB Akeem Ayers (15 tackles, 4 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, 1 INT, 1 pass defensed) who was acquired midway through the year, ended up signing with the Rams.

Gained in free agency: Sheard. The 6-foot-3, 264-pounder has played in all 16 games in three of his four seasons in the league, and he recorded 44 tackles and two sacks last year. The 25-year-old has 23 career sacks. Meanwhile, the 30-year-old Johnson has posted 98 tackles and 4.5 sacks in six seasons in the league with the Titans and Colts.

Other changes: The Patriots re-signed versatile vet Branch to a new deal, and while he should be an important part of the rotation along the defensive line in 2015, the real guy to watch will be Easley, who was shelved for the season with a knee injury in December. The first-round pick in 2014 certainly showed himself to be a disruptive presence when he was able to play, but can be step in and be a big part of the New England defense in 2015? It’s unclear where he might line up along the defensive front — based on his size, skill set and what we saw from him in 2014, he’s strength is probably working as a 4-3 defensive tackle, with some time at end. But his progression and his health (specifically, his knees) will certainly be worth monitoring this spring and summer. (It’s also worth mentioning that Buchanan is coming back after a season-ending injury derailed his 2014 campaign, and figures to be a part of the conversation at the backup defensive end spot.)

Is this an area of need going into the draft? It is, at least from this perspective. While the Patriots do have a talented defensive front, there’s still the need for a sizable, run-stuffing type in the middle who can at least try and replicate what Wilfork was able to bring from an on-field perspective. (Maybe the 6-foot-3, 328-pound Johnson will get that chance?) Whether the Patriots try and go after a big body in the draft or for one of the remaining veteran free agents left on the market, it’s something New England figures to address between now and the start of camp.

Read More: Akeem Ayers, Alan Branch, chandler jones, Chris Jones
Trip to White House only small part of Thursday’s journey for Patriots 04.24.15 at 7:41 am ET
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President Barack Obama walks with Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick prior to Thursday's ceremony at the White House. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama walks with Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick prior to Thursday’s ceremony at the White House. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The chance to be feted at the White House and meet President Barack Obama was just one part of the Patriots trip to Washington, D.C. on Thursday. Another part of the trip is the annual journey to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, something the team did before the trip to Pennsylvania Avenue. It was a tradition the team began doing that after winning Super Bowl XXXVI.

“Look, those are the real heroes; those guys are out there fighting and dying for our country and protecting our freedom, so we all have a lot to be thankful for,” said coach Bill Belichick. “Without them, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. They make what we do possible. There’s no way to express the gratitude that I feel for what they do.”

“That was a great experience,” said tight end Rob Gronkowski. “To see the soldiers that were in Afghanistan and Iraq, having a visit with them and a couple of the players, Mr. Kraft, coach Belichick, so that was a great experience too and put some perspective on how great we have it as athletes. It’s an honor meeting the President and all of the troops that we met at the Walter Reed Hospital too.”

“It was a great time, a tremendous time,” defensive end Chandler Jones said of the Reed visit. “Like coach said, those guys are the real heroes. I was shocked at how many Patriots fans were in there, those guys, Gronkowski and Edelman and Jones jerseys in there, not even knowing that we were coming. It gives you a different outlook on life, and I just want to thank those guys if they’re watching; they really are the true heroes.”

“It’s unbelievable to see these young men and women serving their country and going out there and seeing the things that you see there,” said wide receiver Julian Edelman. “It definitely puts life in perspective, and like coach said, those are the true heroes.”

Read More: Barack Obama, Bill Belichick, chandler jones, Julian Edelman
Jabaal Sheard: Familiarity with Patriots, Mike Lombardi made it easy to settle on New England as free agent 03.20.15 at 3:45 pm ET
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Pass rusher Jabaal Sheard joins the Patriots via Cleveland. (Brian Kersey/Getty Images)

Pass rusher Jabaal Sheard joins the Patriots via Cleveland. (Brian Kersey/Getty Images)

He signed as a free agent with the Patriots last week, but Jabaal Sheard has been on New England’s radar for a long time.

The Patriots’ interest in the edge rusher dates back to 2011 when he was coming out of college. That’s when he took a visit with New England, and in that time, he was struck by how the Patriots handled their business.

“It was real business-like, real focused; you could tell that it was going to be all business once you get there,” he said Friday on a conference call with reporters. “I mean, it was a bit nerve-wrecking, I can’t lie. I was a bit nervous.”

That previous visit — combined with Sheard’s background with former Browns GM Mike Lombardi, who is now with the Patriots — set the stage nicely for him signing with New England earlier this month as a free agent.

Sheard, who also drew interest from Seattle and Tampa Bay, said his stint with Lombardi “definitely” play a role in his new deal with the Patriots.

“I think that was huge. I think that’s what got New England interested in me right away,” Sheard said. “Obviously, he believed in me coming out as a rookie into the league and seeing what I could do. I think that’s going to translate to this year.”

One thing the Patriots hope translates is an ability to consistently get after the quarterback. Sheard’s pass rush numbers have dipped every year he’s been in the league, going from 8.5 sacks as a rookie in 2011 to two last year. Sheard pulled no punches when asked to assess his game the last few years: It wasn’t a switch in Cleveland’s scheme or injury, but his own level of execution.

“It was just me not executing, me not sticking to the game plan,” he said. “But I’m more focused; I’m hungrier than I’ve ever been. Like I said, I look forward to getting with these coaches and learning new things. Pass rushing is about learning new things, getting comfortable and coaches helping you out along the way. I just can’t wait to get started.”

The 25-year-old Sheard has played both outside linebacker and defensive end, and said Friday he feels like he “can play anywhere up front.”

He added: “I think my main strength is knocking guys back and creating penetration in the line of scrimmage, ultimately stopping the run and being a big factor there and getting after the quarterback or dropping, whatever else may come with it. Ultimately my strength, personally I think, is knocking guys back and creating penetration.”

Sheard is also looking forward to enjoying a level of consistency in New England that wasn’t necessarily there in Cleveland.

“I envision that they have some great plan for me, just knowing the system that they run,” he said of the Patriots coaching staff. “I’ve been around three different systems in my last three years so I’m ready for whatever. I’m always ready to embrace something new and something different and I’m up for the challenge, whatever it is.”

“I definitely look forward to working with Chandler [Jones] and Rob [Ninkovich]. Those guys are definitely excited, just talking to them a little bit. I think we’ll make a nice three-[man] tandem. We’ll get after guys and create a lot of [havoc] in the backfield and on quarterbacks.”

Read More: chandler jones, Jabaal Sheard, Mike Lombardi, Rob Ninkovich
A brief history of Patriots and their pre-draft contact with recent top picks 03.16.15 at 1:50 pm ET
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Before he was drafted by the Patriots last spring, Dominque Easley had an inkling New England was interested in his service. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Before he was drafted by the Patriots last spring, Dominque Easley had an inkling New England was interested in his service. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

With the pre-draft process now in full swing — and private workouts and visits looming for each team starting later this month — fans and media alike will undoubtedly try and gauge the level of the Patriots’ interest in a player through visits, contact and workout sessions. With the understanding that some of the pre-draft conversations 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 New England has made with some of their top draft picks over the last seven years.

Defensive lineman Dominique Easley (taken with New England’s first pick in 2014, 29th overall): Easley was brought in to Foxboro for a pre-draft visit with the Patriots. He later recalled that Bill Belichick showed up at his pro day, and they “talked a whole lot and got to know each other,” according to the Florida product.

Linebacker Jamie Collins (taken with New England’s first pick in 2013, a second-round selection at No. 52 overall): Belichick flew South to work out Collins before the draft, but the linebacker later indicated he didn’t talk much with the Patriots throughout the pre-draft process, at least when compared to other teams.

Defensive end Chandler Jones (first-round pick 2012, 21st overall): Jones said the only substantive contact he had with New England prior to being drafted was a conversation at the combine that winter in Indy. “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, he indicated following the draft. “I met with those guys at the combine and I met them at one of the pro days,” Hightower recalled, “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 “fairly limited contact” with the Patriots throughout the pre-draft process. He met with former 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 as he was preparing to leave for New England. “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 after the draft. “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.”

Read More: 2015 NFL Draft, chandler jones, Devin McCourty, Dominique Easley
Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Defensive line 02.17.15 at 8:00 am ET
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Bill Belichick, Vince Wilfork and Matt Patricia celebrate at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Bill Belichick, Vince Wilfork and Matt Patricia celebrate at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

With the Patriots done for the season, we’ve got an end-of-the-year position-by-position breakdown of where the Patriots stand. We’ve looked at special teams, wide receivers, running backs, tight ends, quarterback, offensive line, safety and cornerback and linebacker. Now, we wrap it up with defensive line:

Depth chart (regular-season stats via coaches film review): Chandler Jones (43 tackles, 6 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, 2 passes defensed), Alan Branch (14 tackles, 2 quarterback hits, 1 pass defensed), Sealver Siliga (27 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4 quarterback hits), Vince Wilfork (47 tackles, 1 quarterback hit, 1 INT, 2 passes defensed), Chris Jones (27 tackles, 3 sacks, 7 quarterback hits), Rob Ninkovich (56 tackles, 8 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, 1 INT, 2 passes defensed, 1 fumble recovery), Joe Vellano (6 tackles, 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit), Zach Moore (4 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery), Michael Buchanan (1 tackle), Dominique Easley (9 tackles, 1 sack, 3 quarterback hits) and Akeem Ayers (15 tackles, 4 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, 1 INT, 1 pass defensed). Jake Bequette remains on the practice squad.

Overview: The heart of the New England defense, the line was able to hold strong after a sluggish start and really one together nicely as the year developed and into the playoffs. At the center of it all was a resurgent Wilfork. The veteran had to knock a little rust off at the start of the season, but he was a huge part of the defensive success enjoyed by the Patriots over the course of the 2014 season, not only from an on-field perspective but as a leader and mentor to a group of younger defensive linemen. Along the interior, Wilfork was ably backed by youngsters Siliga and Jones, who returned to their roles as mostly complementary players.

On the edge, Ninkovich and Chandler Jones weren’t an overwhelming pass rush duo, but Ninkovich became the first member of the Pats to register three straight seasons of at least eight sacks since Hall of Famer Andre Tippett. Jones struggled with a hip injury and missed roughly two full months in the middle of the year, but Ayers — acquired from Tennessee in October — was able to provide relief as a pass rusher while holding up relatively well against the run. And Branch, who was plucked off the street in October, managed to find a role as a run-stopper and steadying part of the rotation up front.

Ultimately, it wasn’t an overwhelming defensive front, but in the spirit of good complementary football, it was more than enough to lift the Patriots over the top: In six of their final 11 games (including the playoffs), the Patriots held opposing teams under 100 yards rushing, and finished ninth in the league in rush defense (104.3 yards per game allowed).

Going forward, one of the offseason storylines worth monitoring will be what happens with Wilfork and his contractual situation. The veteran could be one of several players who might be asked to have his deal restructured in hopes of creating more financial flexibility. At the same time, most of the rest of the key parts are under contract for 2015, including 2014’s first-round selection Dominique Easley, who had recurring knee issues through the year and ended the season on injured reserve. Count on him to be a major part of New England’s defensive plans in 2015.

Best moment: Lots of moments to choose from here, but it’s hard not to be impressed by the work that the defensive front did over the course of the six-game gauntlet against (mostly) division leaders that would come to define the Patriots as the physical bunch they turned out to be. In that series, New England yielded an average of 81 rushing yards per game and just one rushing touchdown.

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Read More: Alan Branch, chandler jones, Dominique Easley, New England Patriots
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