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5 veteran Patriots who need good spring, summer to strengthen roster status 05.29.14 at 11:49 am ET
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Tavon Wilson has slipped down the depth chart. (AP)

Tavon Wilson has slipped down the depth chart. (AP)

With the spring practice sessions now in full swing, there are a handful of players who have spent some time in the system who are on what could be called a preliminary roster bubble. It’s important to remember that there’s a lot of football between now and the start of the regular season, and so these players will have plenty of chances to turn things in their favor. But at first glance, here are five vets who need a good spring and summer to solidify their spot on the roster.

Defensive end Jake Bequette — Bequette has been a non-factor in his first two seasons in the NFL. He’s been a game-day inactive for 25 of a possible 32 regular-season games in that stretch. With the acquisition of veteran Will Smith this spring, there’s more urgency to Bequette’s situation. He needs to take advantage of his reps this spring and summer and display the consistency that made him the 90th overall selection by the Patriots in 2012.

Defensive end Michael Buchanan — While Buchanan might not have the same sense of urgency around his situation as Bequette — Buchanan just completed his first year — he still needs to turn thing up a notch this spring if he wants to be considered a key part of the defense in 2014. The arrival of Smith and the fact that Buchanan dropped off the radar screen at the end of last season combine to make it imperative that the Illinois product has a good spring and summer if he wants to be a part of the regular defensive rotation in the fall.

Defensive back Tavon Wilson — According to Pro Football Focus, Wilson played just 19 defensive snaps in 2013. Nineteen. (As a refresher, he was the 48th overall pick in the 2012 draft.) For a team that was in need of some help at safety over the course of the season, this doesn’t bode well for the Illinois product. To be fair, he did end up being a core member of New England’s special teams unit. And he should get every opportunity to compete for the strong safety position this spring and summer, considering the depth at that spot is woefully thin, at least at this point. Regardless, anyone who ends up playing less than 20 defensive snaps over the course of the whole season and only has two inactives on the year … that doesn’t bode well for their future.

Tight end D.J. Williams — The tight end uttered one of our favorite quotes of 2013. Shortly after he was acquired, he was asked about the New England offense: “It’€™s just the terminology,’€ Williams said. ‘€œThe concepts are pretty much the same. It’€™s just called different. It’€™s like trying to pick up Spanish. This offense is very attractive and if you found a very attractive Hispanic lady, you’€™d pick [her] up pretty quick.” Right now, Williams figures to be on the back end of the depth chart, but if the Patriots do end up picking up free agent tight end Dustin Keller after June 1, he could be trying to woo someone else in some other locale come training camp.

Wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins — We covered many of the reasons that the heat could be on KT going into his second year here, but when it comes to personnel and scheme and packages — as well as measuring overall special teams value — it’s clear that Thompkins could use a couple of good months. New England usually heads into the season with either five or six wide receivers on its roster — if the Patriots choose Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson, that’s four. Matthew Slater is a receiver in name only, but the special teams captain still needs a position, so we’ll award him the fifth spot. The last spot could come down to Thompkins or Josh Boyce, and Boyce has demonstrated special teams value while Thompkins has not. (Things could change if the Patriots tweak their personnel in some other offensive skill position areas — one fewer back or tight end.) Right now, it appears that Thompkins needs a good couple of months to solidify his spot on the roster.

Read More: D.J. Williams, Jake Bequette, Kenbrell Thompkins, Michael Buchanan
At this point in offseason, where are Patriots personnel priorities? 04.04.14 at 9:55 pm ET
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Will Smith remains a free agent possibility for the Patriots. (AP)

Will Smith remains a free agent possibility for the Patriots. (AP)

With the offseason now one-third of the way done — and most of free agency now complete — the Patriots still have to address a few specific areas of need as part of the team-building process. Here’s a look at four personnel questions that have to be dealt with between now and the start of training camp.

Backup linebacker: Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher departed as free agents this offseason, with Spikes heading to Buffalo and Fletcher signing with Tampa Bay. Neither were starters, but over the last two seasons, both were called upon to play significant snaps for the Patriots. As a result, New England is a little thin when it comes to their linebacker depth. Currently on the roster, the Patriots have a few possibilities when it comes to backing up the expected starting trio of Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, including Steve Beauharnais, who just finished his rookie season. But their pursuit of veteran free agent Wesley Woodyard was likely a sign they believe they need more help when it comes to depth at the spot.

Strong safety: Steve Gregory was cut loose earlier this offseason, and Adrian Wilson was released on Friday. And while the Patriots did bring back Patrick Chung on Thursday, there’s some uncertainty as to what New England plans on doing at the position. Two things to remember: one, the Patriots like their defensive backs to be versatile, and so shuffling DBs from one spot to another wouldn’t be a surprise. And two, on that same vein, there are some possibilities on the roster, including Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan, the latter of whom has been the subject of much speculation this offseason when it comes to a possible move to free safety. In addition, there’s Tavon Wilson, who slid down the depth chart in 2013 to more of a special teams role, one that’s also occupied by fellow safeties Kanorris Davis and Nate Ebner. (And there’s always the possibility that Gregory could return on a reworked deal — he said this week despite the fact that he was cut by New England, “it would definitely be a place I would love to go back to.”) Regardless of whether or not New England decides to address the position in the draft, right now, it’s shaping up to be one of the more intriguing camp battles this spring and summer.

Situational pass rusher: The Patriots were believed to be at least partially in the mix for Jared Allen in free agency before he signed with the Bears, and while New England does currently have youngsters Jake Bequette and Michael Buchanan on the roster as backup defensive ends, it’s a fair dropoff at this point from the starting duo of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. In terms of free agents who could still be on the market, Will Smith remains a possibility, but his recent injury woes leave him questionable at this stage of his career. When it comes to other in-house possibilities, Andre Carter could return for at least part of the season if New England struggles to find help — he sure sounds open to the possibility of returning. In addition, Armond Armstead could also be in the mix as an interior pass rushing presence at some point if he ever does get healthy. It’s also expected that if veteran Tommy Kelly can stay on the field, he’ll offer some support as another interior pass rushing presence in 2014.

Depth at tight end and running back: While New England appears to be set when it comes to starters at the two positions, it could really use some depth at both spots, and both will likely be addressed in some form or fashion come the second and/or third day of the draft. Despite the fact the Patriots might be more inclined to move away from the two-tight end sets they ran over the last few seasons, another tight end to compliment Rob Gronkowski could be had in this draft, especially given the fact that this year appears to be a pretty good one for tight ends. In addition, the fact that the Patriots made a serious play for veteran free agent running back Maurice Jones-Drew could be taken as a sign they feel like they need someone to replace LeGarrette Blount in the backfield.

Read More: Adrian Wilson, Andre Carter, Armond Armstead, Brandon Spikes
Report: Veteran defensive end Will Smith visiting with Patriots 04.01.14 at 2:55 pm ET
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The Patriots are hosting defensive end Will Smith on a free agent visit, according to ESPN.

The 32-year-old veteran, who was cut loose as part of the great New Orleans salary purge of 2014, has 67.5 career sacks, but has struggled over the last few seasons, and is coming off a torn ACL that left him sidelined for the 2013 season.

New England is likely be in the market for a low-cost answer at defensive end/situational pass rusher behind starters Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones — youngsters Michael Buchanan and Jake Bequette have been underwhelming to this point in their careers, while 34-year-old veteran Andre Carter is an unrestricted free agent.

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

Read More: 2014 nfl free agency, Andre Carter, chandler jones, Jake Bequette
Five thoughts on the first wave of cuts the Patriots made on Friday afternoon 08.30.13 at 4:00 pm ET
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Daniel Fells

Daniel Fells

1. As we wrote in our final preseason edition of “What We Learned,” the decision to cut ties with Daniel Fells and Jake Ballard wasn’t a big surprise, given the fact that they were on the field late into Thursday’s contest against the Giants. If you look at the totality of Ballard’s work since he stepped on the field this spring, it was clear that he was still hampered by the knee problem he sustained in Super Bowl XLVI as a member of the Giants. He had his moments, but they were few and far between. Look for him to sign elsewhere, and soon.

2. As for Fells, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him on the Deion Branch Plan — that is to say he could be that veteran who is cut shortly before the start of the regular season, only to return a week or two into the regular season in an attempt to give the Patriots some financial flexibility (his money for the 2013 season isn’t guaranteed) and some roster flexibility as well. When it comes to Fells, it wasn’t so much that he struggled over the course of the summer, but in some cases, when all things are equal when it comes to the on-field product, the team is almost always more inclined to go with the cheaper alternative. In the end, I’m not saying Fells wouldn’t have potential suitors, but his age, value and financial situation certainly make him a candidate to be a part of the shadow roster.

3. You can’t talk about the release of Fells and Ballard without mentioning what it all means for Rob Gronkowski. For what it’s worth, I still believe that Gronkowski will take roughly a half-season to round back into his old form — as I wrote here the other day, it’s not so much the injury at this point, but the rehab and recovery process, as well as the fact that he still needs to get back to his playing weight. There’s also the possibility that the Patriots make some sort of deal for another tight end between now and the start of the season. (They’ve made a few trades at this time of the year.) Ultimately, it’s important to remember that even though New England has released Fells and Ballard, it’s still a position that’s in a state of flux at this point in the summer, and can change before the start of the regular season.

4. Defensive lineman Marcus Benard was a guy who flashed very positively through the initial stages of training camp, and played well in the first preseason game against the Eagles. And while the Patriots shuffled him a bit along their defensive front — he played his natural position as a pass-rushing defensive end, but also gave him a shot as an interior pass rushing presence — he ultimately didn’t show the consistency needed to survive in the NFL. His release likely bodes well for some of the other backup defensive end types on the roster, including Jake Bequette and Michael Buchanan, the latter of whom played very well in the preseason finale Thursday night against the Giants.

5. Of the guys who were cut loose on Friday, the one most likely to land on the Patriots practice squad is Matt Stankiewitch, an interior offensive lineman out of Penn State. He’s one of a handful of guys in that situation who have practice squad eligibility, and depending on what New England decides to do with Marcus Cannon, the Patriots could be looking for more depth at guard and center going into the regular season. His time with former Patriots offensive coordinator Billy O’Brien at Penn State proably doesn’t hurt either.

Read More: cuts, Daniel Fells, Jake Ballard, Jake Bequette
Updating Patriots positional battles: LeGarrette Blount, Tommy Kelly and Adrian Wilson all starting strong 08.10.13 at 1:28 pm ET
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LeGarrette Blount

LeGarrette Blount

In May, we took a look at some of the positional battles we were most excited to see in Patriots training camp. Now, almost two weeks into camp and with one preseason game already in the books, we take a look at how some of those battles are shaping up.

Running back: Brandon Bolden, LeGarrette Blount. We didn’t include Stevan Ridley Shane Vereen and Leon Washington on this list because it’s pretty clear their spots are secure at this point. While the battle between Bolden and Blount was a little underwhelming through the first two weeks of camp (due in large part to the fact that there has been relatively little hitting, and physical, between-the-tackles yardage is the presumed specialty of the Bolden-Blount combo), Blount really opened some eyes on Friday night with a team-high 101 rushing yards — including a 51-yard touchdown run on a slo-mo reverse — and now appears to have the edge on Bolden. Bolden did get some reps late in the game (and also picked up a questionable running-into-the-kicker penalty) and finished with four carries for 14 yards. Bolden is coming back slowly from offseason surgery, but he does need to have a good week to answer Blount’s strong performance in the preseason opener.

Defensive tackle opposite Vince Wilfork: Kyle Love, Armond Armstead, Tommy Kelly. We put this list together the day Love was cut, so we can effectively eliminate him. Meanwhile, Armstead has a murky future because of a recent surgery. But even if they were on the field in Foxboro on a regular basis, they’d be hard-pressed to replicate the work of Kelly, who has emerged as the clear leader at the position. Kelly started at the defensive tackle spot opposite Wilfork on Friday and looked impressive, caving in the pocket and even getting to the quarterback (along with Chandler Jones) to force an early sack and a fumble. There might be a temptation to overuse him because he’s playing so well, but the 32-year-old has shown no signs of wear, at least at this point. The only question is who is competing to work as Kelly’s backup, a group that includes Joe Vellano and Marcus Forston. Forston popped up on the radar a few times Friday night, but right now, the job is Kelly’s to lose.

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Read More: Aaron Dobson, Adrian Wilson, Armond Armstead, Brandon Bolden
10 most intriguing veterans on Patriots roster 05.07.13 at 12:43 pm ET
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Aqib Talib. (AP)

Aqib Talib is back with the Patriots on a one-year deal. (AP)

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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Read More: Adrian Wilson, Aqib Talib, Armond Armstead, Brandon Bolden
Revisiting Patriots’ rookies: Measuring overall impact of this year’s group 01.22.13 at 9:04 pm ET
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Chandler Jones was part of an important rookie class for the Patriots. (AP)

Chandler Jones was part of an important rookie class for the Patriots. (AP)

This year’s group of Patriots’ rookies collectively made more of an impact in their first season than any other group of first-year players since the 2003 class. (While the 2010 draft class will likely have a greater long-term impact, the 2012 and 2003 groups were asked to do more in their first full season in the NFL — for more on that breakdown, check out the comparison I did on each draft class here.) With their first season now done, let’s take a player-by-player look at how each one of them did.

Chandler Jones: The 6-foot-5, 220-pound defensive end — the first of two first-round picks made by the Patriots last spring — started out on a great note. With eight games in the books, the Syracuse product was leading the team with six sacks (including two in a loss to the Seahawks) and 11 quarterback hits. He also had three forced fumbles (including one in the first quarter of his first game as a professional), and was named AFC Rookie of the Month and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for September. (We wrote about him as a possible candidate for the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award because of his fast start.) But over the last eight regular-season games, Jones had no sacks, no forced fumbles and one quarterback hit. A sizable portion of that was likely due to an ankle injury he suffered in November that left him on the shelf for a stretch, and probably caused a dip in his play when he did return. (While he wasn’t overwhelming statistically in the regular-season finale against Miami, he did play very well against the Dolphins, looking aggressive while doing a good job setting the edge.) He indicated Monday that he could be facing offseason surgery for his ankle issues.

Dont’a Hightower: After being slowed by a hamstring problem in September and October, the Alabama product became a steady and dependable member of New England defense, and ended his rookie season with 75 tackles (51 solo), four sacks, nine quarterback hits and three passes defensed. He managed to grow into a complimentary piece at linebacker, alongside veterans Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes. No reason to think that the 6-foot-2, 270-pound defender won’t be a consistent presence at linebacker for the Patriots for years to come.

Tavon Wilson: The 6-foot, 210-pounder out of Illinois started strong, with four interceptions in his first 10 games, as well as a 10-tackle performance in an October win over Denver that likely marked the high-water mark of the season for the defensive back, who certainly surpassed the expectations of many who initially called him a second-round reach. However, the acquisition of Aqib Talib affected his playing time maybe more than anyone else — the trade for Talib meant the Patriots moved Devin McCourty from corner to safety, and left Wilson on the sidelines. (Wilson was still part of an occasional rotation in sub packages, but his overall snap count drastically decreased.) Overall, he finished the regular-season with 48 tackles (32 solo), but one of the most impressive things you can say about Wilson and what he brought to the field was a nose for the ball: in addition to his four picks, he had six passes defensed and a pair of fumble recoveries.

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Read More: Alfonzo Dennard, Brad Herman, Brandon Bolden, chandler jones
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