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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: Dan Connolly will visit with Tampa Bay 03.30.15 at 11:58 pm ET
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Offensive lineman Dan Connolly is scheduled for a visit with the Bucs later this week, according to a report from ESPN. The 32-year-old free agent is one of the longest-tenured member of the New England roster, having been with the Patriots since 2007. The 6-foot-4, 311-pounder has played all three interior positions along the offensive line, and has started 43 regular-season games the last three seasons for New England.

There are plenty of Patriots’ ties in Tampa for Connolly to consider — fellow offensive lineman Logan Mankins was dealt to the Bucs late last August. In addition, the Tampa Bay front office features GM Jason Licht and assistant GM Jon Robinson, both of who made their bones in the New England system.

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Read More: 2015 NFL free agency, Dan Connolly,
Free-agent reset: Rundown of Patriots players set to hit market 03.07.15 at 9:06 am ET
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It will be interesting to see what the market will be for Shane Vereen this offseason. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

It will be interesting to see what the market will be for Shane Vereen this offseason. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

With free agency set to kick off, here’s a reminder of which one of the Patriots are set to hit the market:

(One quick note: For the record, cornerback Darrelle Revis is technically not a free agent. While his massive cap number means his contract will likely be addressed in some form or fashion this offseason, his current deal runs through the 2015 season. As a result, he won’t be included on this list.)

Safety Devin McCourty: Other than Revis, likely the Patriots No. 1 priority this offseason. The defensive back is likely to draw interest from several teams during this weekend’s legal tampering period, as the safety market is expected to be weaker than usual in free agency and the draft.

Offensive lineman Dan Connolly: The veteran, who can play both guard and center, will be 33 years old before the start of the 2015 season, but has held up well in the past.

Running back Shane Vereen: A bit of a wild card at this point. Vereen is coming off the finest season of his young career, as he was only one of five backs in the league to finish with at least 50 catches and 50 carries. But with teams paying less and less for backs than ever these days — even multidimensional types like Vereen — what will the market bear for the 5-foot-10, 200-pounder?

Running back Stevan Ridley: Like Vereen, trying to discern the 26-year-old Ridley’s worth on the open market will be a challenge. He rushed for 1,263 yards in 2012, but a season-ending knee injury last October put his future earnings in doubt as a free agent.

Linebacker Chris White: A nice special teamer who added depth at linebacker, his background in the system could certainly help his cause when it comes to him re-upping with New England.

Long snapper Danny Aiken: The decision to sign long snapper Tyler Ott this week is either a message to Aiken that he shouldn’t get too comfortable in his gig or the beginning of the end for the 6-foot-4, 250-pounder, who has been with the Patriots since 2011.

Linebacker Akeem Ayers: We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again — Ayers appears to be on a similar career path to Mark Anderson, who spent the one season with the Patriots and had a very good year, helping New England get to the Super Bowl before departing as a free agent. Ayers has done a nice job within the New England system, working to rehab what was a slightly damaged reputation. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him pop up at another address.

Linebacker Jonathan Casillas: The midseason pickup did very well as a depth addition and special teams standout. The Patriots would certainly love to have him back in the same role in 2015.

Defensive end Alan Branch: Another mid-year pickup, if the price is right, the Patriots might be more inclined now to bring the 30-year-old back for 2015 in the wake of their apparent decision to move on from Vince Wilfork. If he wants to continue to be a part of the Patriots rotation upfront and the money is commensurate with that of a situational player, then expect the relationship to continue.

Wide receiver Brian Tyms, defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, fullback James Develin, wide receiver Greg Orton and linebacker James Morris: We’re grouping all five of these guys together because they’re all exclusive rights free agents. By definition, an ERFA is a player who isn’t under contract but has two or less years of NFL experience. As a result, his team essentially holds the hammer over their careers — they cannot sign with anyone else, and if they do not sign the contract offered to them by the team, the player has to quit. Look for Patriots to bring back all of them.

Read More: Akeem Ayers, Alan Branch, Chris White, Dan Connolly
What to look for when it comes to NFL’s legal tampering window at 12:48 am ET
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Devin McCourty should expect to hear from some other teams this weekend. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Devin McCourty should expect to hear from some other teams this weekend. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Saturday afternoon marks the start of the NFL’s legal tampering period, a vague window that allows teams to contact potential free agents and enter into negotiations with them — but doesn’t allow them to sign a deal before the start of free agency on Tuesday afternoon.

For the Patriots, that means a handful of their players will likely get calls from reps around the league, including Devin McCourty, Shane Vereen and Dan Connolly, all of whom are set to hit free agency.

One player who can’t take calls is cornerback Darrelle Revis — while it’s debatable whether or not the Patriots will pick up his option for 2015, it’s important to note that he’s still under contract to New England. As a result, if he does become a free agent before the start of business Tuesday, he’ll have to wait until then to talk with other teams.

For the record, here’s a look at a portion of the directive that was sent out to the league a few years ago when it comes to rules and regulations the next few days, courtesy of

Clubs were advised in PP-26-13 that during the three-day negotiating period for prospective Unrestricted Free Agents, they are permitted to contact, and enter into contract negotiations with, the certified agents of players who will become Unrestricted Free Agents upon the expiration of their 2012 Player Contracts at 4:00 p.m., New York time, on March 12, and that no contract can be executed with a new club until 4:00 p.m., New York time, on March 12.

Clubs are further advised that prior to the beginning of the new League Year it is impermissible for a club to enter into an agreement of any kind, express or implied, oral or written, or promises, undertakings, representations, commitments, inducements, assurances of intent or understandings of any kind concerning the terms or conditions of employment offered to, or to be offered to, any prospective Unrestricted Free Agent for inclusion in a Player Contract after the start of the new League Year. Any announcement of an agreement or an agreement in principle by a club or another party, including, but not limited to, a certified agent, player, or media organization may subject the club to a tampering investigation.

Read More: Dan Connolly, Darrelle Revis, Devin McCourty, NFL free agency 2015
Report: Patriots to decline $20 million option on Darrelle Revis, team ‘confident’ of reaching long-term deal 03.06.15 at 3:41 pm ET
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When it comes to his future in New England, Darrelle Revis is facing an important stretch. (Getty Images)

When it comes to his future in New England, Darrelle Revis is facing an important stretch. (Getty Images)

One day after making a really bad joke about Darrelle Revis‘ travel plans to an expo on the West Coast, Jason Cole of Bleacher Report is reporting more serious news about what the Patriots plan to do with his $20 million option.

Cole reported Friday afternoon that the team plans to decline the option and avoid the $25 million cap hit. Cole says the Patriots should know by Monday if Revis indeed plans on hitting the open market or negotiating with the team. Revis and his representatives are not technically allowed to negotiate with the Patriots during the three-day so-called “legal tampering” period that begins Saturday at noon since Revis is technically under contract for 2015.

If the Patriots were to decline the option beforehand, making him a free agent, that could change. Players eligible to negotiate with the Patriots during the “legal tampering” window including Devin McCourty, Shane Vereen, Akeem Ayers and Dan Connolly, since they are not under contract for next season.

Cole characterized the Patriots as “confident” a new deal could be reached and that the Jets would be ready to “swoop in” if it falls through.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported earlier in the week that there was little doubt among industry insiders that Revis would be hitting the open market, and that the Patriots would also be declining the $20 million option.

Patriots owner Jonathan Kraft told WEEI’s Dennis and Callahan in the days after the Super Bowl win over Seattle that the team considered the second-year option to be a place-holder all along, as the team hoped to work out a long-term extension.

Read More: Akeem Ayers, Dan Connolly, Darrelle Revis, Devin McCourty
Stepping up: 5 relatively unheralded Patriots who could hold key to postseason success 01.08.15 at 12:35 am ET
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If teams try and take away Rob Gronkowski this postseason, Tim Wright could be in for more work. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

If teams try and take away Rob Gronkowski this postseason, Tim Wright could be in for more work. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

While Saturday’€™s matchup will be a showdown between some of the more high-profile players in the AFC, there are more than a few individuals who are under-the-radar types who will likely play a sizable role in the outcome of the contest. When it comes to New England players who could be asked to rise to the occasion on Saturday –€” and beyond –€” here are our five choices:

Cornerback Kyle Arrington: Before he went down with an injury late in the season, the slot corner had become one of the most durable defensive backs in the league — his streak of 83 consecutive regular-season games played was one of the best on the team, a mark that stretched all the way back to 2009. Because no quarterback wants to risk targeting Darrelle Revis or Brandon Browner on a regular basis, when the Patriots have faced elite passing games — as they will in the postseason –€” this New England pass defense is only as it as its third corner. Regardless of who has been in the game, when the Patriots have been in their sub defense, we’€™ve already seen several really good quarterbacks go after the third or fourth option at corner. While Arrington has demonstrated an ability as one of the better slot corners in the league, he also brings nice depth to the secondary, and could potential cover over any deficiencies that could pop up in the playoffs. Look for him to have a central role this postseason, especially with a handful of intriguing matchups possibly looming. (Denver’€™s Wes Welker? Indy’€™s Reggie Wayne? Seattle’€™s Doug Baldwin? Green Bay’€™s Randall Cobb?)

Guard Dan Connolly: When he’€™s been healthy, Connolly has been one of the most consistent offensive linemen on the New England roster. (Ryan Hannable had an excellent breakdown here of what it’€™s meant to have a healthy Connolly –€” as well as the other four starters — up front this season for the Patriots.) But the veteran has struggled with injury over the course of the season, and has missed three games this year with a variety of issues, including a concussion and an ankle injury. He was not in the lineup for the final two games of the year, and left tackle Nate Solder appeared to struggle at times as a result. A healthy Connolly would go a long way toward stabilizing the offensive line, and provide more time in the pocket for quarterback Tom Brady. If he’€™s not at 100 percent, it could make for a dicey situation for Brady’€™s blind side.

Defensive lineman Sealver Siliga: Siliga has performed very well as a complimentary piece along the defensive line, working alongside the likes of veterans like Vince Wilfork and Alan Branch, becoming an integral part of New England’€™s rotation of defensive linemen. The Utah product is versatile, and just as adept at getting after the passer as he is to two-gapping and holding up offensive linemen to allow linebackers and fellow defensive linemen to make plays. Ever since he came back from designated for return-injured reserve in Week 14 against the Chargers, he’€™s been a steady and consistent presence, playing 61 percent of the defensive snaps over the last three weeks. Look for that role to continue to expand going forward into the postseason.

Special teamer Matthew Slater: This isn’€™t so much Slater, but more of a nod to special teams as a whole. (From this viewpoint, using the special teams captain only seems fitting.) As a grouping, they’€™ve managed to distinguish themselves as one of the best and most impactful group of special teamers in the league. Every week, there’€™s some sort of momentum-changing play. Whether it’€™s been a blocked field-goal attempt, blocked punt, punter kick return or a big coverage tackle, they have become a sizable part of New England’€™s success, and a big reason the Patriots have gotten as far as they have this year. It’€™s not just the potential high-impact plays, but the work of grunts like Nate Ebner, Brandon Bolden and Tavon Wilson that has continued to allow New England the success that it has had on special teams.

Tight end Tim Wright: Wright has distinguished himself as the most dependable pass-catcher in recent Patriots’€™ history, having caught 79 percent of the passes that were sent his way over the course of the season — a high for any offensive skill position player who was targeted at least 20 times in a single season. The tight end broke the previous mark of 77 percent, set by five different pass catchers, most recently Danny Woodhead (who caught 34 of 44 passes in 2010). Of course, that sure-handed skill is nothing new for Wright, who now has a two-year total as a pro (with the Buccaneers and Patriots) of 73 percent, a remarkable total for any receiver. With the focus of opposing defenses likely to be on fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski, Wright will almost surely have his opportunities in the passing game.

Read More: 2015 playoffs, Dan Connolly, Kyle Arrington, Matthew Slater
Patriots offensive line at full strength vital to offense, Tom Brady’s success 01.07.15 at 7:00 am ET
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Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman — three very important pieces to the Patriots’ offense, but are they the most important?

Not be to overlooked is the Patriots’ offensive line, especially with the group likely getting back to full strength this week against Baltimore, as Dan Connolly is set to return. This will be especially important going against a Ravens defense, which finished second in the regular season in sacks with 49.

“I’€™m just excited to be back at practice,” Connolly said Tuesday after missing the last two games with a knee injury. “I’€™m going to do my best to work in and try to get as healthy as I can. But it’€™s good to be back out.”

All indications are the Patriots will get their starting offensive line back this week — (left tackle to right tackle) Nate Solder, Connolly, Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell and Sebastian Vollmer.

Just how important is a healthy offense line for the Patriots offense and Brady to be successful?

  • Solder, Connolly, Stork, Wendell, Vollmer (7-1 record) — Weeks 5, 8-14: Brady: 214-320 (66.9 percent), 2,433 yards, 21 TDs, 6 INTs, 103.6 QB rating, 4 sacks
  • Any combination besides above (5-3 record) — Weeks 1-4, 6, 7, 15, 16: Brady: 160-263 (60.8 percent), 1,675 yards, 12 TDs, 3 INTs, 89.8 QB rating, 17 sacks

It’s pretty clear having the starting offensive line together makes a huge difference for the offense, as well as Brady in a number of different ways. The biggest difference is sacks. In the same number of games (eight) there is a 13 sack difference between when the starting offensive line is playing and when they are not. In games not started by the regular offensive line, Brady has been sacked multiple times in five of the eight, and four times twice. In games started by the starting offensive line, they haven’t allowed a multiple sack game and had four games allowing zero sacks, which will be especially important this weekend against a strong Ravens defense.

“They’€™re great,” Connolly said of the Ravens’ pass rush. “[Elvis] Dumervil has got 19 sacks. They do a great job of getting to the quarterback. We’€™ve faced a lot of good D-lines this season. That’€™s nothing new in the NFL. It’€™s a lot of pressure on us to do a good job. That’€™s what we try to do every week. It’€™s our job to make sure Tom [Brady] stays upright, so that’€™s what we’€™re going to try to do this week, too.”

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Read More: 2015 playoffs, Bryan Stork, Dan Connolly, Nate Solder
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