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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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Countdown to camp: Linebacker 07.22.14 at 3:36 pm ET
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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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Countdown to camp: Defensive Line 07.21.14 at 7:00 am ET
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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 examine the state of the defensive line.

Roster (stats taken from coaches film review): Defensive ends Jake Bequette (1 quarterback hit), Michael Buchanan (3 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 quarterback hits), Rob Ninkovich (93 tackles, 8 sacks, 18 quarterback hits), Chandler Jones (82 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 22 quarterback hits), Will Smith; defensive tackles Joe Vellano (48 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 quarterback hits), Chris Jones (56 tackles, 6 sacks, 8 quarterback hits), Sealver Siliga (21 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 quarterback hits), L.T. Tuipulotu; defensive linemen Vince Wilfork (10 tackles, 1 quarterback hit), Dominique Easley, Tommy Kelly (23 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 6 quarterback hits), Marcus Forston, Zach Moore

Overview: This was a position of strength entering the 2013 season — with Wilfork, Kelly, Chandler Jones and Ninkovich up front, this group was one of the best in the league. A month into the season, both Wilfork and Kelly were sidelined with season-ending injuries, and the New England defensive line struggled to replace them. While the replacements (Chris Jones, Vellano, Siliga) did as well as could be expected, it was a sizable drop-off, and the Patriots suffered as a result. New England brought Andre Carter back midway through the season and swung a deal for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga at the deadline. And while Carter was able to give them some quality snaps, the veterans were unable to prevent teams from exploiting the Patriots woes up front. While Ninkovich and Chandler Jones were able to provide strong support off the edge — and Jones showed some positional versatility when he kicked inside on a few occasions to work as a long, lean defensive tackle on passing downs — it was an effort to keep things together throughout the year. The most damning evidence came in the AFC title game when New England’s defensive front was unable to get a hand on Peyton Manning.

Going forward, the Patriots addressed some of the depth issues up front with the addition of Easley at the end of the first round, and while there are some questions about his health and how quickly he can get up to speed at the next level, he could provide support sooner rather than later at a variety of positions. In addition, Moore is a small-school prospect who could have an impact relatively early on as a backup to either Chandler Jones or Ninkovich at defensive end. But ultimately, it comes down to Wilfork, and, to a lesser extent, Kelly. If they return to the same level they were at when they went down last year — and both are able to stay injury-free — then New England’s defensive line could again become a massive position of strength.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Vince Wilfork is the leader of the defensive line.

Like Logan Mankins on the other side of the ball, Wilfork remains the centerpiece of the New England defensive front, a leader who has a voice that cuts across all lines in the locker room. From an on-field perspective, when he went down with his Achilles injury last year, it left a gaping hole up front. Down the stretch, Bill Belichick said on several occasions, ‘You don’t just replace Vince Wilfork,’ and even though those who walked in his shoes weren’t short on effort, his absence was a major reason this team fell short of its final goal. (As was the case with Matthew Slater, it wasn’t a surprise to see him on the road with the team, as it was clear Belichick has a level of respect for him that transcends simple X’s and O’s.) A borderline Hall of Famer who has an ability to play multiple spots along the defensive line at a high level well into his 30s, he is not always the elite presence he once was. But like Mankins, Wilfork at 75 percent is still better than most of the rest of the league. He’ll be a compelling individual this summer for several reasons, including the fact that it will be interesting to chart his progress as he works his way back after the Achilles injury. But removed from the rehab work, he’s had an eventful offseason on two fronts: one, one of his most trusted advocates, Pepper Johnson, is no longer with the team, having departed to become an assistant in Buffalo. And two, a contract situation in the spring between Wilfork and the team got a little heated. It’s not expected that either of those things will affect his ability to do his job, but the 32-year-old will start an interesting new chapter of his football career with the Patriots when he takes the field at camp later this month.

2. Rob Ninkovich remains one of the most underrated players in the league.

From this viewpoint, Ninkovich has never gotten the credit he deserves. A perfect fit in New England, he’s managed to provide support while working as a 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker, as well as seeing action on special teams. Whether it’s been dropping into coverage, working as part of the pass rush or setting the edge, he’s been consistent and steady ever since showing up as a backup linebacker/long snapper in the summer of 2009. In his five years in New England, he’s accumulated 27.5 sacks (including back-to-back eight-sack seasons the last two years), four interceptions and an absurd 12 fumbles recovered. (Ninkovich’s 11 fumble recoveries the last four years are more than anyone else in the league in that time.) The 6-foot-3, 251-pounder also has a streak of 79 straight games played (including the playoffs), having suited up for the Patriots every week since Nov. 30, 2009, against the Saints.

3. If everyone stays healthy up front, then Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga and Joe Vellano could do a nice job providing depth in 2014.

After Wilfork and Kelly went down early in the year, the trio was thrown into the deep end of the pool last season and forced to swim. As previously stated, they did as well as could be expected, with Jones showing a knack for working on passing downs (his six sacks were as many as Demarcus Ware and Nick Fairley), while Siliga was particularly stout against the run. Going forward, their body of work suggests that they could see work as backups in 2014.
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Countdown to camp: Special teams 07.19.14 at 9:30 am ET
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As training camp approaches, we’€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We’ve examined the wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, running back and quarterback positions. Now, we take a look at special teams.

Depth chart: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski; punter Ryan Allen; long snappers Danny Aiken and Tyler Ott; special teams captain Matthew Slater; punt returner Julian Edelman

Overview: It was a good 2013 for the specialists. With the exception of one glaring misstep (a late kickoff against the Dolphins in Miami caromed out of bounds, setting the stage for a Dolphins comeback), Gostkowski was very good all year, while Allen was a solid if unspectacular presence at punter. Meanwhile, the return games were mostly good and occasionally great at times, as LeGarrette Blount went from special teams punchline to quality return man — among his highlights was an 83-yard return against the Bills in the regular-season finale. In addition, Edelman had another good year as punt returner, and his 12.3 career return average now is tied for seventh on the all-time list. Going forward, there are questions as to who will replace Blount as kick returner, as well as the possibility of some of last year’s core special teamers (like Tavon Wilson) being squeezed out of back-of-the-roster spots because of positional battles. But if the health of Gostkowski, Edelman and Slater (and some others) holds, Scotty O’Brien‘s crew appears poised for another good year.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Stephen Gostkowski is one of the best kickers in the game.

Setting aside the previously mentioned botched kickoff in a loss to Miami (a game in which he also missed a 48-yard field goal in the second half), Gostkowski had the best season of his career in 2013. He had game-winners to beat the Bills and Broncos, as well as big late kicks against the Jets and Texans, one that led to overtime and other that ended up clinching a road victory. He also successfully executed an onside kick in the dramatic win over the Browns. In all, he finished the year 35-of-38 on field-goal attempts, as well as 65 touchbacks. He led the league in scoring — his 158 points were a career best, as well as best in the league in 2013 and 10th in NFL history.

2. Matthew Slater is one of the best pure special teamers in the league.

We’ve said it roughly 3,000 times over the last few years, but spend the $70 and get the All-22 film. That’s likely the only way you’ll get a real sense of just how good Slater is when it comes to speed, strength and ability to work as a disruptive presence. Belichick was effusive in his praise of Slater’s work as a gunner last year, saying he’s “one of the best in the league” in that department, adding that he always seems to draw double teams when he’s on the outside. Good for two or three targets a season at wide receiver, he is a pure special teamer and has carved out a nice niche for himself on the roster. (One more thing worth noting: The fact that the team took Slater — one of the most respected players in the locker room — on the road last season after he went down with an injury is a good sign of how highly regarded he is by Bill Belichick, as well as the rest of the franchise.)

3. The kick returning job is wide open.

The Patriots have found good kick return performances sporadically over the last five years — including the work offered by Blount over most of the second half of 2013 — but since Ellis Hobbs was dealt to the Eagles following the 2008 season, New England has struggled to find consistency at the position. Now, with Blount gone, the job is available again. A variety of faces rotated through the position throughout the spring, but no one was able to distinguish themselves during OTA’s and minicamp.

(One more thing: Allen was also one of the best things about the Patriots in the AFC title game, dropping three first-half punts inside the 20 and doing his part to help tilt the field for New England in the early going.)

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Countdown to camp: Quarterback 07.18.14 at 7:00 am ET
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As training camp approaches, we’€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We’€™ve broken down the wide receiver, tight end, offensive line and running back positions. Now, we wrap up the offensive side of the ball with a look at quarterback.

Depth chart: Tom Brady (380-for-628, 61 percent, 4,343 passing yards, 25 TDs, 11 INTs), Ryan Mallett, Jimmy Garoppolo

Overview: It won’€™t go on the mantle alongside the 2007 and 2010 seasons, but as we wrote here, to take Brady’€™s 2013 season as an indicator that he’€™s on his way out is to miss the big picture. With so many of his familiar targets gone, he wasn’€™t at his best over the course of the year — the October loss against the Bengals where he went 18-for-38 for 197 yards and a pick — was one of the worst outings of his long and distinguished career. In addition, he missed plenty of makeable throws last season, including some key shots downfield in the AFC title game. But at the same time, he played some of his best football over the course of the season, with his four-game stretch from Nov. 3 through Dec. 1 serving as his personal peak: Against the Steelers, Panthers, Broncos and Texans, Brady went 115-for-164 (70 percent) for 1,443 yards with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions — a per game average of 29-for-41 for 358 yards, 2.5 TDs and 0.5 INTs. He was at the controls of an offense that actually outscored the Broncos over the second half of the season, and ranked No. 7 in the league in total offense and No. 3 in points scored. All that with Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola, Sebastian Vollmer, and Shane Vereen combining to miss 33 games. (That doesn’€™t take into account Stevan Ridley being repeatedly benched for fumbling.) All in all, it wasn’€™t his best season, but considering everything around him, still not bad.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Brady has moved into a different phase of his football career.

The quarterback wants to always remind people he’€™s no bigger or more important than the 52 other guys on the roster. But Brady, who will turn 37 next month, is no longer a contemporary of his teammates. He will be the older guy on the team for the third straight season, and while he’€™s always been in a leadership role, that really became evident in 2013. Last year, he commanded a group of receivers who were young enough to watch him win Super Bowls while they were in grade school. (By way of example, Dobson was 10 years old when Brady and the Patriots beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.) There’€™s more deference to Brady than there was in year’€™s past. That doesn’€™t mean he isn’€™t capable of doing some cutting up with teammates behind the scenes. Instead, he’€™s much more inclined to be spending an off day conducting weekly film sessions with the younger receivers.

2. Even though he hasn’€™t taken any significant snaps in the regular season, Mallett has done all he can to try and improve his stock.

It’€™s difficult to remember, but when Mallett came into the league as a third-round pick in 2011, he was a bit of a third rail. Despite the fact that he threw for more than 8,300 yards in three years as a collegian, he was dogged by character issues, which likely caused the draft fall. But since he’€™s arrived in New England, teammates have praised his attitude, work ethic and approach to the game. He may not ultimately get a shot with the Patriots, but he’€™s done well to put any questions about his past behind him.

3. Garoppolo’€™s development has shades of Brady’€™s evolution.

Garoppolo was tutored by quarterback guru Jeff Christiansen, and shortly after the draft, Christiansen told WEEI.com that much of the drills, technique and footwork that Garoppolo went through over the last 10 years all came straight from the book of the late Tom Martinez, who was Brady’€™s quarterbacking guru for nearly 20 years. “This is so surreal to me, it’€™s almost frightening,”€ Christiansen said after being told Garoppolo was drafted by the Patriots. “EVERYTHING we did [with Jimmy] was off Tom Brady. Brady set the standard for perfect technique, and so it just made sense for us to follow everything that Tom Martinez did with Brady.”

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Countdown to camp: Offensive line 07.17.14 at 7:00 am ET
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As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We opened wide receiver, tight end and running back. Now, it’s the offensive line.

Depth chart: T Nate Solder, G Logan Mankins, C Ryan Wendell, G Dan Connolly, T Sebastian Vollmer, G/T Marcus Cannon, C/G Bryan Stork, T Cameron Fleming, G Jon Halapio, G Chris Barker, C/G Braxston Cave, G Josh Kline, T Chris Martin, T Jordan Devey

Overview: Traditionally one of the strongest and deepest spots on the roster, in 2013, the Patriots offensive line showed a few cracks. There were times where they had issues, particularly in the early going when it came to pass protection. Some of the problems can also be blamed on the fact that, as a group, the offense as a whole was still searching for an identity and struggling with the acclimation of so many new faces at the skill position slots. (If you think of the offense as a series of chain reactions, Tom Brady has to hold the ball a second longer while a young receiver gains separation. That means an offensive line has to hold his block a second longer. When you are facing some of the most devastating defensive fronts in the league, that can be a challenge for any offensive line.) And some can be blamed on health issues — Vollmer missed eight games because of a leg injury, while Solder was out with a head injury and Mankins suffered several bumps and bruises along the way.

But don’t look for the offensive line to offer any excuses. It’s a proud group that continued to hold itself to an almost impossibly high standard regardless of the opponent and situation. Despite the fact that it lost Vollmer and Solder for a stretch, it’s important to remember Patriots were one of three teams in the NFL last year to rush for at least 2,000 yards and finish with at least 4,000 yards passing. You don’t put up those kinds of numbers without a strong, dependable and versatile offensive line.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Logan Mankins is one of the toughest guys in the NFL.

When it comes to toughness — both mental and physical — Mankins remains the gold standard for anyone who has ever strapped on a New England helmet. (‘I’ve coached a lot of tough guys,’ said Bill Belichick late last season after Mankins came back from injury. ‘I don’t think there’s any that I would put ahead of him. Maybe some on that level, but none ahead.’) Mankins, who played the entire 2011 season on a torn ACL, came back from an ankle injury late in 2013, and ended up playing the second-most snaps of any left guard in the league, according to Football Outsiders (1,164). He also managed to move from his traditional left guard spot out to left tackle after Solder went down with an injury. He may not have been at his best last season — the combination of injury, age and the fact that New England faced some of the most devastating front sevens in the league all contributed to that. But Mankins at 75 percent is still better than most of the rest of the league.

2. The Patriots feel pretty good about their left tackle situation.

If you could pick one spot on the offensive line where stability and consistency are most important, it would likely be left tackle. And when it comes to New England’s situation, they have to feel pretty good about where it stands with Solder, at least at this point in his career. The first-round pick out of Colorado in 2011, he’s done a good job stepping into the shoes of Matt Light. He’s started 44 of a possible 48 regular-games over the course of his career, and has consistently graded out as an above average left tackle. One more thing about Solder — when you consider the going rate for above average left tackles this offseason, the Patriots made the right move in locking him up for another year when they exercised the club option for 2015 on him at a cost of $7 million. In this era, considering Solder’s play in his first three years, it’s money well spent.

3. As camp dawns, there are questions about the interior, specifically right guard and center.

It’s telling that two of the three offensive linemen drafted by the Patriots this year were interior linemen — specifically, a highly-regarded right guard (Halapio) and center (Stork). When it comes to the Halapio/Connolly debate, the issue with Connolly is not so much his level of play. Instead, it’s whether or not he performs to the level of his contract: Entering the final year of a contract that is set to pay him $3 million, he could be a veteran cut if Halapio appears ready for prime time. (For what it’s worth, Kline also played well at guard in his lone start last season against the Ravens.) As for center, Wendell has performed well since taking over on a full-time basis in 2012, but he’s played a ton of snaps the two years. (Per Football Outsiders, he was fourth among all offensive linemen last year with 1,197 snaps, and second in the league with 1,231 in 2012, trailing only Solder.) However, Wendell was second on the team in 2013 with 42.3 snaps per blown block. Has he worn down slightly from overuse? Or is it the stress of having to deal with guys like Mo Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Haloti N’gata on a weekly basis? It’s debatable — the Patriots faced some of the best fronts in the league in 2013 season. But New England’s decision to use a fourth-round pick on Stork, as well as the fact that Wendell drew almost zero attention on the market as a free agent this offseason (he signed a two-year deal to return to New England), might not be completely coincidental.

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Countdown to camp: Running back 07.16.14 at 7:00 am ET
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As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We opened wide receiver and tight end. Now, it’s running back.

Depth chart: Stevan Ridley (178 carries, 773 rushing yards, 7 TDs), Shane Vereen (44 carries, 208 rushing yards, 1 TD; 47 catches, 427 receiving yards, 3 TDs), Brandon Bolden (55 carries, 271 rushing yards, 3 TDs; 21 catches, 152 receiving yards), James Develin (4 carries, 10 rushing yards, 1 TD), James White, Stephen Houston, Jonas Gray, Roy Finch

Overview: While the passing game occasionally stalled out in 2013, the running game became one of the positions of strength down the stretch last season. While Ridley struggled with fumble issues (so much so he was benched for a December game against the Texans) and Vereen had health problems, it was LeGarrette Blount who provided a boost midway through the year. And after Vereen returned to full health and Ridley bounced back from his ball security issues, that trio formed an impressive group that powered the Patriots late in the regular season and into the divisional playoffs against the Colts. In particular, it was Blount who led the way — after being hooked up to the rejuvenation machine, he produced 431 yards in a three-game stretch (two at the end of the regular season and one playoff game), including 189 yards in the regular-season finale against the Bills. Bolden and Develin did well providing depth, with Bolden seeing an uptick in snaps when Vereen was on the shelf. And Develin provided one of the highlights of the season with his Csonka-esque TD run against the Texans. Going forward, Blount left for Pittsburgh as a free agent, but the Patriots used a fourth round pick on White, a Wisconsin product who fumbled just twice in 754 career touches as a collegian. In addition, they picked up Houston, Gray and Finch, with at least one of them likely ticketed for the practice squad.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. When healthy, Shane Vereen is one of the most dynamic playmakers in the league.

Vereen played in just eight games last season because of a thumb injury, and while there were some ill-timed drops in the second half of the year, was still able to finish with 47 catches and 44 carries. It’s one thing to become a 40-40 guy — Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead were the last New England running backs to turn the trick. However, it was made all the more impressive by the fact that Vereen did it in just eight games. The full range of his impressive abilities were on display in the 2013 opener against the Bills where he had 14 carries and seven catches, and averaged 7.57 yards every time he touched the ball. If he can ever stay healthy for a full 16-game season, he has the potential to reach Sprolesian levels.

2. The Patriots believe in the fullback.

The last few years, New England had occasionally added part-time fullbacks to the roster, but players like Lousaka Polite and Lex Hilliard usually only ended up sticking around Foxboro for a few weeks before moving on. But in 2013, for the first time since they had Heath Evans on the roster in 2008, the Patriots employed a full-time fullback in Develin. He was one of 11 fullbacks to finish the year with at least 325 snaps over the course of the regular season, per Pro Football Prospectus. And while he didn’t post crazy offensive numbers — four carries, 10 yards and a touchdown — he was an effective member of the offensive game plan. In perhaps a nod to Develin’s effectiveness in 2013, according to Football Outsiders, the Patriots were one of the few teams to run better from two-back formations (5.0 yards per carry) than from single-back formations (4.6 yards per carry).

3. At running back, the Patriots are planning for the future.

The Patriots entered the offseason as one of the deeper teams at the running back position — at least before the departure of Blount — but that didn’t stop them from using a fourth-round pick on White this offseason. In addition, they added three rookie free agents, including an intriguing prospect in Finch who impressed many in spring workouts. With Ridley and Vereen heading into the final years of their respective rookie deals, it’s hard not to look at the collection of youngsters and wonder if New England is guarding itself against the potential loss of one of both of them following the 2014 season. That’s not to suggest that White or any of the rest of the rookies aren’t capable of providing support this season. It just seems that in a perfect world, the Patriots might have their eye on White, Finch and the rest of the backs as potential contributors in 2015 and beyond.
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