|The Hot List: Best opening acts by Patriots rookies||09.12.12 at 12:42 am ET|
The performance of rookies Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower and Tavon Wilson in the season-opener against the Titans on Sunday got us to thinking: What were some of the best performances by Patriots first-year players in openers? And so this edition of “The Hot List” looks at the five best debuts by New England rookies.
It’s measured solely on first impressions a rookie makes in his initial game as a professional. (It has to be with the Patriots.) As a result, some of the most impressive members of the franchise, like Tom Brady (who technically became a star in his second season) and Wes Welker (who broke into the league with the Chargers and Dolphins before signing with the Patriots) are ineligible. With that understood — and with some help from our friends on Twitter — here’s a look at New England’s five favorite rookie debuts:
5. Defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower: Sept. 9, 2012, vs. Titans – The two rookies provided the oomph for a New England defense that carried the day in a 34-13 win over the Titans. Jones had five tackles (three solo) and a strip sack of Titans quarterback Jake Locker in the first half, his first as a pro. Hightower, who added five tackles (four solo) of his own, was the beneficiary of Jones’ forced fumble, coming away with the ball and rumbling into the end zone from six yards out for his first touchdown as a pro. (Defensive back Tavon Wilson also gets some credit for his work — he picked off one Locker pass in the end zone, and added a pair of passes defensed in the win.)
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|Analysis: What it means for Wes Welker to get the franchise tag||03.05.12 at 3:26 pm ET|
A decade or so ago, when the Patriots hit a guy with the franchise tag, it was usually the first step in the eventual dissolution of the relationship — like one person telling the other: “We have to talk.” Tebucky Jones, Adam Vinatieri (the second time around), Asante Samuel and Matt Cassel all weren’t around Foxboro soon after they were hit with the franchise tag. In the case of Vinatieri and Samuel, they eventual left via free agency, or as a trade chip like Jones and Cassel.
But when the last two players — Vince Wilfork (in 2010) and Logan Mankins (in 2011) — were hit with the franchise tag, it was seen as part of the negotiation process. Neither individual was particularly happy about it, but it was done as a way of extending the negotiating window between the player and the team. And in both cases, despite some early acrimony, both players ended up signing big new deals with the Patriots.
When it comes to Welker, early indications are that his situation is a lot closer to the latter than the former. The wide receiver, who is expected to receive a roughly $9.4 million contract as the result of the tag (the league has yet to officially announce the tag numbers), has a very good working relationship with the franchise since he signed a five-year, $18 million deal prior to the start of the 2007 season. That was reflected in the overall optimistic tone of the statement issued by the franchise shortly after the news became official: “Wes Welker is a remarkable football player for our team and has been a vital component to our offense and special teams since we traded for him in 2007. Utilizing the franchise designation allows both sides more time to try to reach an agreement, which is the goal. Wes remains a contractual priority and we are hopeful that he will remain a Patriot for years to come.”
When it comes to Welker, despite the fact that he’s been wildly underpaid when compared to his output against other receivers (no one has caught more passes over the last five seasons), he has never publicly feuded with management. In addition, his representation (Athletes First) has had a very good working relationship with the Patriots: This was the agency that helped make Drew Bledsoe the richest player in the history of the league with a 2001 contract. They also represent several current members of the roster, including tight end Aaron Hernandez, running back Shane Vereen, offensive lineman Nate Solder and punter Zoltan Mesko.
So if/when Welker and the team can reach a long-term deal, what sort of numbers are we talking about? Reports indicate that the two sides have been working together to find some common ground for some time — a Boston Globe report says the Patriots offered Welker a two-year, fully-guaranteed contract for $16 million during the 2011 season, which was declined. Now, if the team did decide to franchise him for back-to-back seasons, he would get the equivalent of a two-year deal worth roughly $20 million.
Ultimately, early indications certainly appear that a four-year deal worth $8 million to $9.5 million annually would be about right, especially when you consider the market and Welker’s production. One analyst offered this as a model, which seems to make a lot of sense.
|Patriots can officially begin their game of tag Monday with Wes Welker||02.20.12 at 11:21 am ET|
Let the tagging begin.
The window to hit potential free agents with the franchise tag opens Monday and runs through March 5. While enjoying exclusive negotiating rights until free agency opens on March 13, each team has the option to choose one player with an expiring contract who will receive a one-year deal in lieu of a long-term deal or becoming a free agent.
However, under the new collective bargaining agreement, which was signed last offseason, the franchise tag rules have changed slightly. Now, a tagged player will no longer receive the average of the five highest-paid players at his position. Instead, the salary for each tagged player will be determined by a formula that factors franchise tags for the previous five years.
According to NFL.com, the numbers are down across the board. Here’s the position-by-position difference:
•Quarterback: $14.4 million in 2012; down from $16.1 million in 2011
•Running back: $7.7 million in 2012; down from $9.6 million in 2011
•Wide receiver: $9.4 million in 2012; down from 11.4 million in 2011
•Tight end: $5.4 million in 2012; down from $7.3 million in 2011
•Offensive lineman: $9.4 million in 2012; down from $10.1 million in 2011
•Defensive end: $10.6 million in 2012; down from $13 million in 2011
•Defensive tackle: $7.9 million in 2012; down from $12.5 million in 2011
•Linebacker: $8.8 million in 2012; down from $10.1 million in 2011
•Cornerback: $10.6 million in 2012; down from $13.5 million in 2011
•Safety: $6.2 million in 2012; down from $8.8 million in 2011
In New England, the Patriots have several key free agent decisions, including running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, wide receiver Deion Branch, offensive linemen Dan Connolly and Dan Koppen and defensive ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson. However, the likeliest candidate for the franchise tag is wide receiver Wes Welker, who just completed a five-year deal he signed just prior to the 2077 season. Welker, who finished with 122 catches for 1,569 yards this year, maintained over the course of the 2011 season that he wanted to return to the Patriots.
“Well, of course I want to stay here,” Welker said when asked about his future during the season. “But as of right now, I don’t really think about it. I just try to focus on this year and everything I can do to help the team this year.”
“Well, I think Wes wants to be here, and we want him here,” said Patriots owner Robert Kraft in January. “He’s pretty special. Anytime there’s a player on this team I can look eye to eye and be at the same level, he’s an important guy.”
The Patriots used the tag on defensive lineman Vince Wilfork in 2010 while they were negotiating a long-term deal with the All-Pro. They eventually reached an agreement on a long-term deal, and rolled that money forward into a new contract.
History would certainly seem to favor the receiver staying in New England. In 2009, Welker changed representation, leaving Vann McElroy and aligning himself with David Dunn of Athletes First. Known primarily as an agency that reps bigger name quarterbacks — Dunn hammered out a $103 million agreement between the Patriots and Drew Bledsoe back in 2000 — Dunn and Athletes First have represented Patriots like Aaron Hernandez and Zoltan Mesko, and historically have had a good working relationship with New England.
|Robert Kraft on The Big Show: ‘I hope for something special’||02.03.12 at 6:59 pm ET|
Days before his teams fifth Super Bowl appearance in the last 11 seasons, Patriots owner Robert Kraft joined The Big Show for his annual pre-Super Bowl radio appearance.
Mr. Kraft used the opportunity to touch on a number of subjects, the most notable among them being the Patriots’ performance as a team this season and the impact that the memory of his deceased wife Myra Kraft has had on this team.
When asked about his preseason expectations for the Patriots, Mr. Kraft acknowledged that he didn’t think his team would have made it as far as they did, but that playing in honor of Mrs. Kraft has given this season a whole new meaning and purpose.
“I had a chance to say what values were important to her – the mental toughness, the honesty, the sense of teamwork, letting other people get the credit, but doing acts of kindness and being a team player,” Mr. Kraft said of meeting with his team before the season. “She represented everything that a good football player represents and she was very intelligent. We just hoped that the players would conduct themselves in a certain way on and off the field in honor of her.”
Based on feedback he received from fans across New England after the Patriots’ win over the Ravens in the AFC Championship, the legacy of Mrs. Kraft has continued to help the team on the run to the Super Bowl.
“I’ve gotten tons of letters and emails from people suggesting she was smiling down with that kick, blowing it left,” Mr. Kraft said. “I want to thank the fans, really, for the great emotional support they’ve given to our family this whole year. It’s been very kind.”
It was noted in the interview that Mr. Kraft, upon buying the team in 1994, had said that he wanted to model his franchise after the San Francisco 49ers. He wanted the Patriots to always be among the teams in championship contention on an annual basis and with that goal realized in the last decade, Mr. Kraft said that the key for the Patriots has been putting good, skilled and knowledgeable people in the right positions.
“It’s always important in every business to know what you’re don’t know and then get the smartest people you can to do the job, and smart people attract other smart people,” Mr. Kraft said. “Then give them autonomy, encourage them to be bold and then when they do things in the best interest of the franchise, even if it’s a mistake, don’t Monday Morning Quarterback. Support them.”
Now one win away from the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl championship, all of which have come under his ownership, Mr. Kraft is optimistic his team can capture another title, all while exhibiting the franchise’s core ethos and team-oriented principles.
“I hope for something special,” Mr. Kraft said. “I’ve learned that great players go to the Pro Bowl, great teams go to the Super Bowl and that doesn’t mean you don’t have to have the most talented players. It’s about team.”
|Aaron Hernandez is making a believer of Giants fans in his own family||01.28.12 at 11:47 am ET|
FOXBORO — You would think when your nephew or brother is as successful as Aaron Hernandez is for the Patriots, you would automatically cheer for the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
But then again, Hernandez did grow up right on the border of Giants and Patriots territory in Connecticut.
Some thing he admitted Friday still plays a factor in allegiances as the two team square off in Super Bowl XLVI.
“My uncle is a Giants fan,” Hernandez said. “I have a few Giants fans in the family. D.J. [Hernandez, Aaron’s older brother] hopefully now is a Patriots fan.”
Hernandez played in the national championship in 2008, as the Gators beat Oklahoma and a year later, played in the Sugar Bowl, helping Tim Tebow and company destroy undefeated Cincinnati, 51-24.
“Yeah, big-game experience helps because you know what’s at stake and you know how to go about getting ready,” Hernandez said.
D.J. Hernandez played quarterback and wide receiver for the UConn Huskies before Aaron decided on a change of heart and attended Florida.
But Aaron has been a loyal Patriots fan from the get-go, which makes his first trip to the biggest of big games that much sweeter, though Hernandez said he did have allegiances to another team.
“I think Detroit Lions because of Barry Sanders but both of us kind of liked all teams,” Hernandez said. “I was a fan of the Patriots just because the first jersey I had was [Drew Bledsoe] and his first jersey was Barry Sanders.”
Fan loyalties aside, Hernandez will be ready to put aside family obligations for the week and concentrate on the task at hand when the team arrives in Indianapolis this weekend.
“I don’t think you have to worry about distractions coming into a game like this because if you can’t stay focused for the Super Bowl you probably got a problem but I heard there are a lot of distractions but I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Hernandez said, adding there’s a little more juice in preparations for this game.
“I would say a little more intense but you still have to approach it like it’s just another game and you can’t get too worked up or too excited just got to take it like a regular game and get mentally prepared and come mentally prepared and be ready to play,” he said.
|Setting the scene: Championship Sunday Patriots-Ravens||01.22.12 at 11:02 am ET|
FOXBORO — Mother Nature has cleared her slate while the Gillette Stadium crews have cleared the several inches of snow that fell between Thursday and Saturday, and the stage is set for the Ravens and Patriots to battle for the first ticket to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis.
Partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the low 30s are expected at 3 p.m. ET. Winds out of the northeast between five and 10 MPH will produce a wind chill in the low 20s. Still, it won’t be nearly as cold as last Saturday night when the wind chill dipped near zero.
The Patriots are hosting their fourth AFC championship. They have won their previous three, beating Jacksonville in the 1996 contest at old Foxboro Stadium, beating Indianapolis in 2003 and besting San Diego in 2007.
Overall, the Patriots are making their seventh appearance in the ultimate AFC game, losing only in 2006 when they blew a 21-6 halftime lead in Indianapolis and lost to Peyton Manning and the Colts.
Today, the team will commemorate the 15th anniversary of the 1996 AFC champions when they introduce four members of that squad as honorary captains. Troy Brown, Ty Law, Tedy Bruschi and Drew Bledsoe will head to midfield for the coin flip while baseball hall of famer and Baltimore Orioles legend Cal Ripken will do the honors for the Ravens.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft announced on the Patriots All-Access show on Saturday night that if the Patriots win, Bledsoe will have the privilege of handing off the Lamar Hunt AFC championship trophy to coach Bill Belichick and the team.
A game of hard hitting figures to get off to a rocking start as Aerosmith lead vocal and superstar Steven Tyler will sing the national anthem.
As for the game itself, the inactive list shouldn’t be a big factor as both teams are relatively healthy.
The Patriots took quarterback Tom Brady off their injury report on Friday. He missed practice on Wednesday but was back to full participation on Thursday with a left shoulder injury. The NFL Network’s Albert Breer reported Friday Brady is dealing with a sprained AC joint in the shoulder that will require six weeks of rest and treatment to get back to full strength. Brady – who set an NFL postseason record last Saturday with five first-half TD passes – hasn’t seen his performance fall off. Brady and the team are monitoring the shoulder as Brady deals with the discomfort.
The Patriots listed 14 players as questionable in their final injury report on Friday, including Patrick Chung (knee), Wes Welker (knee), Deion Branch (knee), Aaron Hernandez (concussion) and Nate Solder (concussion). All are expected to play.
The Ravens, meanwhile, listed just one player – Ed Reed – on their injury report all week. The perennial Pro Bowl safety injured his left ankle on Houston’s “Hail Mary” at the end of the game last Sunday. He was limited on Wednesday and Thursday but returned to full participation on Friday and was listed as probable. He will almost certainly will start today for the Ravens at free safety.
Here’s the full rundown of the Patriots in the AFC championship game:
1/12/86 Patriots 31, Dolphins 14 in Miami
1/12/97 Patriots 20, Jaguars 6 in Foxboro
1/27/02 Patriots 24, Steelers 17 in Pittsburgh
1/18/04 Patriots 24, Colts 14 in Foxboro
1/23/05 Patriots 41, Steelers 27 in Pittsburgh
1/21/07 Colts 38, Patriots 34 in Indianapolis
1/20/08 Patriots 21, Chargers 12 in Foxboro
Some other notes:
|Drew Bledsoe ready to return to Foxboro for a chance to help his old team||01.20.12 at 10:42 pm ET|
FOXBORO — All things being equal, it’s good to be Drew Bledsoe.
When he was reached by phone on Friday, the former Patriots quarterback was out skiing, hanging out on a chair lift in between runs. He’ll climb down off the hill sometime this weekend and return to Foxboro, as he will join former teammates Troy Brown, Tedy Bruschi and Ty Law as honorary captains for the AFC championship game Sunday against the Ravens on Sunday.
“One of my very best buddies from grade school is turning 40 [years old] tomorrow,” Bledsoe said. “I had to call and apologize, but I told him I would wave to him during the coin toss. Hopefully, he’ll forgive me.”
Bledsoe is enjoying something of a renaissance with Patriots’ fans. The last guy to be a regular starting quarterback in New England before Tom Brady, he was inducted into the Patriots’ Hall of Fame last year, and was cheered loudly at the ceremony. And when he was honored at halftime of the home opener against the Chargers, he received a sustained ovation from the Gillette Stadium crowd. It’s clear that any enmity that existed between Bledsoe and the franchise or the fans and the former quarterback has disappeared.
“It’s been a real honor this year to, first of all go through the Hall of Fame thing, and then to get the call the other day from Mr. Kraft to have me come back and be an honorary captain,” Bledsoe said. “It’s been a real honor and a lot of fun.”
Bledsoe certainly holds no ill will toward Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the man who handed his starting job to Brady. On Friday, he had nothing but kind words for Belichick, saying that if he wasn’t one of the top NFL coaches in history, “he certainly has to be in that conversation.”
“I don’t know who you put up there with him in terms of his record with the Patriots, and what he did as a defensive coordinator with the Giants prior to that,” Bledsoe said. “Then coming back and being a defensive coordinator with the Patriots in ‘96. Obviously the run he’s had as the head coach of the Patriots has been unmatched. If he’s not the greatest, I like to meet whoever else is in that conversation.”
Bledsoe played in two AFC championship games over the course of his career in New England. His first came in 1996 as part of a team that made an unlikely Super Bowl run. The quarterback still has fond memories of that game, an icy cold afternoon where the Patriots beat the Jaguars to go to Super Bowl XXXI.
“It was a really special time for everyone involved and I know it was for our fans as well,” Bledsoe said of that postseason run for New England, which hosted two home playoff games that year for the first time in franchise history. “The Patriots had been through a lot of years that hadn’t been much fun and then to have not just one, but two home games in that run was really neat.”
Being around the game at this time of year will almost certainly be bittersweet for Bledsoe. Like Brown said earlier in the week, Bledsoe said Friday he really misses being a player when the postseason rolls around. But he figures he’ll get a little taste of how things used to be right before they kick the ball off.
“I certainly don’t miss training camp and preseason football and all of those things that you have to do to get to this time of year,” he said. “When you have the privilege of playing playoff football, it’s a really exciting time.
“I’ve found that my body had a very physical reaction to the National Anthem. That was always ‘go’ time. I always found myself standing there with my hair standing up and my body told me that it was time to go again. So I know it’s going to be like that this week, and it’s going to be very fun to be part of it.”
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2013 NFL DRAFT
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