|Eight things we’re going to be looking for at Patriots OTAs||05.20.13 at 3:18 pm ET|
The Patriots opened organized team activities Monday — NFL-speak for full-squad, low-intensity get-togethers that will give us an opportunity to see the rookies and (many of the) veterans on the field together for the first time. (The media will have access to Tuesday’s workout.)
With the understanding that it will be impossible to make any wide, sweeping judgments of substance on any player because of the slow-speed nature of things (and with the knowledge that, at least according to reports, linebacker Brandon Spikes isn’t there), here are eight things we’re going to be keeping an eye on when we hit Foxboro Tuesday morning.
Tom Brady: The whole thing begins and ends with the quarterback, and while we don’t expect to necessarily be surprised by anything he might be doing, it’s always interesting to see where he is, both physically and mentally. One thing to watch will be how he does when it comes to working with the new faces, particularly at wide receiver. Another will be to keep an eye on his mechanics and any sport of tinkering he’s done with his delivery, something he discussed at great length with Peter King.
The rookies, specifically, Jamie Collins and Josh Boyce: We want to get a look at both of these guys because they’re both such athletic freaks, but Collins intrigues because he may end up playing more of a role in coverage, at least right out of the gate. As for Boyce, he missed rookie minicamp because of a foot issue, and as a result, this should mark his first time on the field with the rest of his teammates in an organized setting.
The tight ends, specifically, Jake Ballard: With Rob Gronkowski expected to be on the shelf at least through the spring, Ballard should certainly get plenty of reps at Gronkowski’s spot in the next month as he works his way back from spending the 2012 season on the sidelines because of a knee issue. It’s important to have a set of realistic expectations for Ballard — he not only spent the entire year on the shelf because of a knee injury he sustained in Super Bowl XLVI, he’s also joining a new system. Regardless, he’ll be interesting to watch. (In that same vein, we’ll also be watching linebacker Dane Fletcher and cornerback Ras-I Dowling, two other players who ended their season on injured reserve.)
|10 most intriguing veterans on Patriots roster||05.07.13 at 12:43 pm ET|
This spring, there are several notable names on the Patriots roster who are starting an important period in their careers for one of four reasons. One, because they might be on the hot seat this year as part of a looming positional battle. Two, they’ve been on the shelf for an extended stretch and are a question mark when it comes to how much they might be able to contribute. Three, they have yet to take a snap in the Patriots system, which makes it difficult when it comes to gauging how they might fit in Foxboro. And four, they are entering a contract year and could have their fortunes down the road tied to their performance in 2013.
With that in mind, here’s our list of this spring’s 10 most intriguing veterans on the New England roster.
Cornerback Aqib Talib: Talib, who was acquired from the Bucs in a November trade, wasn’t an elite corner by any stretch, but his presence allowed the Patriots to move Devin McCourty to safety and install Kyle Arrington in the slot. With that personnel combination in the secondary, the Patriots pass defense had great improvement across the board. (The continuity of having the same five guys at the same spots in the defensive backfield also helped, and with his return, should help going forward.) Despite some injury issues — his departure in the AFC title game, combined with New England’s lack of a coverage linebacker, left the Patriots struggling to defend against Joe Flacco — Talib became a key part of the defense. He re-signed with the Patriots on a low-cost, one-year “prove it” deal that creates incentives for both him and the team. If he has a terrific year, he gets to return to the open market with a chance to really cash in, and the team gets a top-level corner for a year at relatively low cost.
Tight end Jake Ballard: The former Giant was plucked off the New York roster last June and spent the entire 2012 season on the shelf after suffering a knee injury in Super Bowl XLVI against the Patriots. A 6-foot-6, 275-pounder, he was undrafted out of Ohio State in 2010 but turned himself into an effective downfield threat in 2011 with New York (38 receptions for 604 yards and four touchdowns). Ballard is intriguing for a couple of reasons. One, he hasn’t been on the field for a year, and remains a bit of an unknown commodity because of his inactivity. And two, if Rob Gronkowski is on the shelf for any amount of time, Ballard (provided he’s healthy) should see an increase in reps, as his game has some elements of Gronkowski.
Defensive lineman Armond Armstead: One of the most intriguing veteran prospects the Patriots have brought in this spring, this CFL import — who stands 6-foot-5, 300 pounds — could provide a boost to the New England pass rush. The 22-year-old, a USC product, was a three-year star for the Trojans in college. After a junior year spent at defensive end — where he had 43 tackles, six of which were for a loss (three sacks) — he was set to open his senior year at defensive tackle but suffered a heart attack before his senior season and never was cleared to practice. As a result, he went undrafted last spring and ended up with Toronto of the Canadian Football League, where he led the team with 44 tackles and six sacks to help the Argonauts to a Grey Cup championship. (Armstead and Jason Vega are the two CFL imports who joined the New England roster this offseason.)
(When it comes to making the transition from the CFL to the NFL, Marc Trestman — a former CFL coach who was named coach of the Bears this offseason — thinks it can be done. “There are some players up there certainly that have shown they can play in the NFL, that’s been proven over time. There haven’t been many, but the guys who have shown up down here did a pretty good job of fitting in,” he said. “Players up there are very similar to the guys down here in terms of their character. They want to master their craft, they want to be the best they can be, and some of them have had the opportunity south of the border and have done well. These guys love football up there and have dreams of wanting to do it down here, and those who can, will give it a try. Those who can’t have experienced a lot of exciting football up there.”)
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|If Rob Gronkowski is sidelined, Jake Ballard could be in line for more work||04.07.13 at 10:23 am ET|
If the Patriots are going to be without Rob Gronkowski for any stretch of the 2013 season — and if he’s over his own injury issues that landed him on the shelf for the entire 2012 season — expect Jake Ballard to see an uptick in reps.
Gronkowski might not be available for the start of the 2013 season, according to reports, and as a result, the Patriots could find themselves relying on the former Giant they picked up prior to the start of the 2012 season. Ballard, a 6-foot-6, 275-pounder, was undrafted out of Ohio State in 2010, but turned himself into an effective downfield threat in 2011 with the Giants (38 receptions for 604 yards and four touchdowns).
When it comes to replicating Gronkowski in the New England offense, as was the case with Wes Welker, no one individual will be able to offer the same level of production. However, at least when it comes to playing style, physical presence and overall skill set, Ballard is the closest you’re going to get, at least on the current roster. Like the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski, Ballard is more of a physical type who can also offer you some ability as a pass catcher and blocker — a combo that Aaron Hernandez, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui do not necessarily possess. (In 2011, our pals at Pro Football Focus had Ballard graded at -0.1 when it came to pass blocking and +1.1 when it came to run blocking. By way of comparison, that same season, PFF had Gronkowski with a -1.0 grade as a pass blocker and +10.9 as a run blocker in 2011; Hernandez got a -0.3 grade as a pass blocker and -0.5 as a run blocker.)
However, the biggest question about Ballard right now is his own health. He suffered a serious knee injury in Super Bowl XLVI against the Patriots, and was waived by New York the following June. Despite the fact that he failed a physical, the Giants had every intention of bringing Ballard back. However, the Patriots swooped in and claimed him off waivers, much to the consternation of New York coach Tom Coughlin. New England stashed him on IR all season, and while he reportedly hasn’t had any problems with his rehab, there has to be a set of realistic expectations in place when it comes to Ballard in 2013. A year away from the game for anyone — even if he’s in perfect shape — means an extended transition time when it comes to getting back into the game and staying on the field.
Regardless of Gronkowski’s health, the Patriots could always dive back in and try and pick up another tight end in the draft. One intriguing possibility we discussed here is Alabama’s Michael Williams, a combine snub who has an impressive resume. (A reference from Williams’ college coach and trusted Bill Belichick pal Nick Saban might be enough for New England to take a chance on him. The 6-foot-6, 269-pounder had 24 catches for 183 yards and four touchdowns for the national champions.)
|Four forgotten players who could have a sizable role in 2013 for Patriots||01.22.13 at 1:05 pm ET|
Like every team, the Patriots suffered their share of injuries over the course of the 2012 season. Here’s a look at four guys who went down relatively early, and who could play a sizable role in the fortunes of the 2013 team:
Linebacker Dane Fletcher: The 26-year-old inside linebacker was an undrafted free agent who made the 53-man roster out of Montana State in 2010. The 6-foot-2, 244-pounder, who was a defensive end in college was able to carve out on impressive career for himself in his first two seasons in the league, moving from core special teamer to backup linebacker in relatively short order. But a thumb injury slowed him in 2011, and he tore the ACL in his left knee in an August preseason game against the Saints. The knee injury left him on injured reserve for the season, but as long as he recovers, he should be expected to be in the mix as an inside linebacker and special teamer in 2013.
Kick returner/running back Jeff Demps: The former Olympic sprinter showed up relatively late this summer, and left the Patriots with an interesting personnel decision — place him on IR (with the possibility he could return, thanks to the new DFR roster loophole) or have him occupy a roster spot until he was ready to go. The Patriots chose the former, and ended up putting tight end Visanthe Shiancoe on IR (designated for return) while leaving the 23-year-old Demps on the sidelines for the year. That’s a decision the Patriots would probably like to have back, as the team used the DFR-IR designation on Shiancoe before cutting him loose late in the season. (In that same stretch, the Patriots continued to struggle to find consistency in the return game.) Meanwhile, the 5-foot-7. 175-pound Demps got time to get up to speed in the New England system, essentially taking a redshirt season while learning about life in the NFL. Look for him to play a major role on special teams next season, as well as a possible dynamic new wrinkle at running back.
Tight end Jake Ballard: Hey, another tight end. Why not? The 25-year-old Ballard, who suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in Super Bowl XLVI against the Patriots while playing for New York, was acquired this past summer by the Patriots (he was signed off waivers from the Giants, much to the consternation of New York coach Tom Coughlin). Undrafted out of Ohio State in 2010, he turned himself into a effective downfield threat in 2011 with the Giants (38 receptions for 604 yards and four touchdowns), and could provide the same sort of presence in 2013 with the Patriots. The 6-foot-6, 275-pound Ballard compares with Rob Gronkowski in his bulk and his overall playing style, and the idea of deploying a three-tight end set with Ballard, Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez would be an intriguing matchup problem for opposing defensive coordinators. Figures to weigh heavily in the Patriots’ plans for 2013.
Cornerback Ras-I Dowling: Dowling, who was the 33rd overall pick of the 2011 daft, has seen his two-year career with the Patriots has been marked by injury. After a strong opening to his rookie year in 2011 where he started his first two games as a professional, he landed on season-ending injured reserve on Oct. 29 because he needed hip surgery. And 2012 started poorly when he suffered a hamstring injury early in camp and missed nearly three weeks. As a result, he slipped down the depth chart, and began the season as a nickel back. This past season, he made it all the way to late October before suffering a thigh injury in an overtime win over the Jets, which sent him to IR again. When he’s been healthy, the 24-year-old has been an intriguing physical presence in the secondary — at 6-foot-1 and 210-pounds, he brings a size that New England had been lacking in the defensive backfield for several years, at least until Aqib Talib came along. But Dowling, who had struggled with injury in college, has to prove that he can stay healthy for an entire season before the Patriots start to lean on him seriously. This will be a key offseason for the youngster out of Virginia.
|Countdown to Patriots Camp: Tight end||07.24.12 at 12:26 am ET|
In the days leading up to the start of Patriots training camp, we’ll take a quick look at how each position shakes out. We broke down quarterback and running back. Now, we take a look at the tight end position.
Roster (2011 stats): Rob Gronkowski (90 catches, 1,327 yards, 17 receiving touchdowns), Aaron Hernandez (79 catches, 910 receiving yards, seven receiving touchdowns), Daniel Fells (19 catches, 256 receiving yards, three receiving touchdowns for Denver), Jake Ballard (38 catches, 604 receiving yards, four touchdowns with the Giants), rookie Tyler Urban.
THREE THINGS WE KNOW
The Patriots have the best tight end combo in the league. Duh. The Gronkowski/Hernandez duo creates matchup nightmares for opposing defenses, and only figure to get better as they spend more time in the league. (It’s hard to believe that even after two years in the NFL, Hernandez is still one of the younger players on the roster — he’s almost nine months younger than rookie defensive lineman Jake Bequette).
Coming off ankle surgery, Gronkowski will take it slow at the start of camp. It’s worth noting that when the list of players that will start camp on the active/PUP list was released Monday, Gronkowski wasn’t on it. That’s a good sign for a player who didn’t participate in any of the on-field drills throughout the spring, instead working off to the side as the ankle healed. He won’t be going half-speed out there, but his health will be monitored very closely throughout the summer.
When it comes to defending Gronkowski, teams might follow Oakland’s lead. One interesting breakdown on how teams might be able to contain the big fella comes from our pals at Pro Football Focus, who looked at the job the Raiders did on Gronk early in the 2011 season. A great read, and one other clubs on the Patriots’ 2012 schedule might want to consider.
1. Will the Patriots utilize a third tight end? While it’s unlikely Ballard plays this season (he had offseason knee surgery for an injury he suffered in the Super Bowl), New England has been active on the free agent market this offseason. They signed Fells and kicked the tires on Visanthe Shiancoe. (They even had Bo Scaife in for a quick visit.) It’s not realistic that any of them will have a serious statistical impact on what New England does, but would likely mean that the days of the occasional rep at tight end for Nate Solder could be coming to a close. (On Fells, it’s also worth mentioning that he learned what it takes to be a mentor from Alge Crumpler when the two were together in Atlanta, and talked about the Crump HERE. Crumpler, who took the two young tight ends under his wing when they were rookies, could help continue the maturation process this year.)
2. Will there be any hangover from the Summer of Gronk? He was America’s Guest all offseason, engaging in a rollicking, Zubaz-clad ride from one event to another, punctuated by the news that he had signed an eight-year, $55.23 million contract with $13.17 million guaranteed. We know he’s already received at least one reminder that it’s time to put his focus back to football, and past history tells us that the franchise usually has a pretty good track record when it comes to making sure stars are able to keep their eyes on the prize. (It’s also worth mentioning that he’ll almost certainly be reminded on a daily basis about his offseason fun by his teammates, but to his credit, he was never photographed holding a goat.)
3. What else can you do with Hernandez? The Florida product was used as an offensive chess piece by the Patriots last season: He was split wide, in the slot, flush against a tackle and in the backfield. The only thing you probably can’t have him doing on a regular basis is work as a blocker. Not many places left on the field for him to line up, but you never know.
By the numbers, courtesy of Nuggetpalooza: Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez each caught 40-plus passes in each of the past two seasons. They are only the second pair of tight ends since 1958 to do that in consecutive seasons. The other? San Diego’s Eric Sievers and Pete Holohan in 1984-1985. They had this Kellen Winslow guy too, but he only managed 25 catches in 1985 or the Chargers would have had THREE tight ends with 40-plus catches in both of those seasons.
The skinny: What more can you say? While some around the league will argue the merits of Gronkowski vs. Jimmy Graham, there’s no denying the fact that the Patriots have the best young tight end duo in the league. Barring injury — or if some opposing defensive coordinator finds some sort of kryptonite for one or both of them — there’s no reason to think that these two shouldn’t again be dominant.
|Highlights from Bill Belichick’s press conference Wednesday||06.13.12 at 1:20 pm ET|
At his press conference before the second day of mandatory minicamp Wednesday afternoon, Bill Belichick spoke about practicing in the rain, the acquisition of Jake Ballard, Joseph Addai‘s work ethic, Shane Vereen‘s progress going into his second season, defensive lineman Alex Silvestro playing tight end, and hosting Tony La Russa and Tom Thibodeau at practice.
On practicing in the elements: “Rain, wind, hot — we’ve had a little bit of everything. Sooner or later, we’ll play in those conditions. It’s a learning experience for us, some guys had played in it more than others. But look, this is where we live and this is where we play, whatever we get, we’ll deal with it.”
On signing Ballard after the Giants tried to clear him through waivers: “He obviously had a real productive year last year. We’ll see how that goes. There aren’t any unwritten [rules]. I’m sure you are aware you can’t negotiate a contract with a player while he’s under contract. You can’t negotiate a contract, release him, then renegotiate another contract with him that was already done in advance. I’m sure the Giants weren’t doing that. If a player is on waivers, he’s on waivers. Any time you put a player on waivers, you know there are 31 other teams out there that can take them if they want them. We all know that, there are no secrets about that. I don’t know when [Ballard] will be ready, but we wouldn’t comment on injuries even if we did.”
On Addai’s transition to the Patriots’ system: “Joe is a veteran player that has obviously been in some big games. He’s been in a system that has had some multiples in terms of changing plays, audibles and things like that. But I think our system is different from probably any other system the way it’s formulated. So it’s an adjustment for any new player or coach, just like if we went anywhere it would be an adjustment for one of our players or coaches to go somewhere else. I don’t think that is anything unusual. Joe’s worked hard at it, he’s a very conscientious guy that wants to know what you want to do, and wants to get it right. I respect that.”
On Vereen’s sporadic playing time last season: “We were trying to get him active last year. He did play and then he missed a little bit of time at the end of the season, but he was more ready to play in the playoffs even though he didn’t play.”
On Silvestro’s versatility: “He [played tight end] last year on the scout team for our defense running plays for the other team’s offense, so he was able to give us some snaps there. He’ll still work on defense and offense, we’ll see how it goes. That’s what this spring is for — to evaluate that and make a decision on that going into training camp, whether it’s one or the other or maybe a combination of both.”
On hosting La Russa and Thibodeau: “It’s great to have them here. I have all the respect in the world for Tom and Tony. They are great coaches in their respective sports. Tony has won 2,000-and-how-many-it-is games, [he's won] more games in a month than I’ve won in my career. Tom has done a great job, I respected him with what he did here in Boston with his defensive patterns, and obviously what he has done in Chicago. There’s a lot of questions I want to ask them about running the team, getting ready for the season, things like that, and I think they’ll be able help me out.”
|Agent: Patriots claim former Giants TE Jake Ballard||06.12.12 at 5:27 pm ET|
According to agent Blake Baratz via twitter, the Patriots have claimed former Giants tight end Jake Ballard. The Ohio State product, who is recovering from a torn ACL and micro fracture knee surgery, was waived after failing a physical on Monday.
Ballard went undrafted in 2010 and was signed by Giants before eventually becoming a starter in 2011. He had 38 receptions for 604 yards and four touchdowns in the regular season last year. He suffered his knee injury during New York’s victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.
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