|Five thoughts on the first wave of cuts the Patriots made on Friday afternoon||08.30.13 at 4:00 pm ET|
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.
|Updating Patriots positional battles: LeGarrette Blount, Tommy Kelly and Adrian Wilson all starting strong||08.10.13 at 1:28 pm ET|
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.
|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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|Revisiting Patriots’ rookies: Measuring overall impact of this year’s group||01.22.13 at 9:04 pm ET|
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.
|In the wake of Jermaine Cunningham’s suspension, who will have to step their game up?||11.26.12 at 3:22 pm ET|
The four-game suspension of defensive end Jermaine Cunningham for violating the NFL’s policy on performance enhancing substances will put more responsibility on the shoulders of veteran Trevor Scott, and perhaps rookie Jake Bequette, going forward into the final month of the season. In addition, it could hasten the return of rookie defensive end Chandler Jones, who went down with an ankle injury in a Nov. 18 win over the Colts and sat out Thursday’s victory against the Jets. Regardless, it will leave the Patriots’ pass rush thin as New England heads into an important four-game stretch.
The 6-foot-3, 255-pound Cunningham, who had been moved around some over the course of the 2012 season from defensive end to the interior, had six quarterback hits and 2.5 sacks over the first 11 games of the season. However, because of the suspension, he’ll now be sidelined for the next four games, which means he’ll sit out upcoming contests against the Dolphins (Dec. 2), Texans (Dec. 10), 49ers (Dec. 16) and Jaguars (Dec. 23). He’ll be eligible to return to the team on Dec. 24.
Here’s a look at the three who will be asked to step their game up in his absence.
•Scott is in his first season with New England, and has seen occasional work in relief of Jones and Rob Ninkovich at defensive end. According to Pro Football Focus, the 28-year-old has played 110 snaps this season, most of which came against the Colts after Jones went down with his injury. The 6-foot-5, 265-pounder, who had a career-high seven sacks in 2009 with the Raiders, will see a bump in playing time over the next four games for New England.
•Bequette was a third-round pick out of out of Arkansas who has fundamentally taken a redshirt season this year. The 6-foot-5, 265-pounder has mostly sat — he’s only gotten into two games this year and has no stats — while others like Scott, Cunningham, Francis and Jones have gotten the bulk of the reps. (He was named a Practice Player of the Week in late October.) But with Cunningham’s ban, Bequette will likely get bumped up the depth chart, and could see some situational work over the next four games as a result.
•While the Patriots don’t want to try and rush the 6-foot-5, 220-pound rookie back, they’d love to have him return to the field sooner rather than later. One of the two best pass rushers on the team, he has nine quarterback hits and six sacks through the first 11 games of the season (second only to Ninkovich).
|Nick Caserio talks about introducing flexible rookies into the system||07.28.12 at 6:50 pm ET|
FOXBORO — On the heels of a story from Friday on rookie linebacker Dont’a Hightower and trying to balance how to best take advantage of his versatility against his overall professional development, Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio weighed in on the idea that you have to manage your expectations your expectations when you’re faced with a rookie that has Hightower’s skill set.
“Certain players learn at different rates,” Caserio said before Friday’s practice. “It’s really whether or not they can take … really, you start let’s say day one of training camp or the first day in pads, the installation goes in, you go out there, you practice that, you make the corrections, you come back the next day and there’s going to be another installation that goes in.
“Are they able to retain the information from the previous day? Can they carry that over when you add multiples in? It’s a matter of how the player handles that. If the player can handle more, then you can give him more. If he can’t handle as much, then you give him less. You just try to find that balance between giving the player too much and letting him also go out there and be able to play and execute at an optimum level.”
When it comes to introducing versatile guys into the New England system — and the Patriots brought in several this offseason, including Hightower, defensive lineman Jake Bequette and defensive back Tavon Wilson — there are different rules for different players.
“If they’re in a specific role, the more multiples they can handle — whether it’s in the kicking game, whether it’s in pass coverage, whether it’s run defense — then it’s going to enhance their ability to get on the field,” Caserio said. “Troy Brown was out at practice the other day. There probably isn’t a better example of a versatile player really in all three phases of the game. Not everybody can do that. You start with a foundation, you introduce some concepts and some different things and see who can handle what. Maybe one player can handle more relative to another so that’s just part of putting the team together and seeing who can handle what.”
|A pre-camp look at the status of the Patriots’ rookie contracts||07.17.12 at 12:16 pm ET|
We’ve run some of this info a few times over the last couple of months, but it’s always worth revisiting, especially with camp looming (rookies are scheduled to report to Gillette Stadium on Thursday). Here’s another look at the status of the Patriots’ rookies and their contracts:
First round — Chandler Jones: The defensive end out of Syracuse inked a four-year deal with a team option for a fifth year. Per Rotoworld, the entire deal is for $8.173 million, with $7.42 million guaranteed. (That includes a $4.384 million signing bonus.) Per NFLPA documents, his base salaries for the duration of the contract are as follows: $390,000 (2012), $761,522 (2013), $1.133 million (2014), $1.504 million (2015).
Dont’a Hightower: The only unsigned member of New England’s rookie class. The Alabama linebacker, taken with the 25th overall pick, is represented by Pat Dye, Jr., of SportsTrust Advisors. Hightower is one of 14 first-round picks who remain unsigned, a group that includes the top eight picks. (Per ESPN Boston, the deal is being held up because of fourth-year guarantees.)
Second round — Tavon Wilson: The defensive back out of Illinois was the first Patriots’ draftee to sign, agreeing to a four-year, $4.217 million contract that includes a $1.507 million signing bonus, according to Aaron Wilson of Scout.com. Wilson reports that the first two years of the deal have base sslaries of $390,000 and $581,722, and are fully guaranteed, while the last two years (at $773,444 and $965,166), aren’t fully guaranteed.
Third round — Jake Bequette: The defensive lineman out of Arkansas, taken with the 90th overall pick, inked a four-year, $2.654 million contract. Bequette has base salaries of $390,000 (2012), $480,000 (2013), $570,000 (2014) and $660,000 (2015), per NFLPA documents. Per a league source, he got a $539,800 signing bonus. And according to Wilson, Bequette received annual workout bonuses of $5,000 over the last three years of the deal.
Sixth round — Nate Ebner: The defensive back/former rugby star has signed a four-year deal that includes base salaries of $390,000 (2012), $480,000 (2013), $570,000 (2104) and $660,000 (2015), per NFLPA documents. In addition, a league source indicates Ebner received a $96,600 signing bonus.
Seventh round — Alfonzo Dennard: Dennard signed a four-year, $2.157 million contract that includes $57,848 signing bonus, according to a league source. The former Nebraska cornerback will have base salaries of $390,000, $480,000, $570,000 and $660,000 over the course of the deal.
Jeremy Ebert: The wide receiver out of Northwestern signed a four-year contract worth a total of $2.148 million, according to Wilson. (Ebert’s deal includes a $48,200 signing bonus.) He also has the same base salaries of Bequette, Ebner and Dennard: $390,000 (2012), $480,000 (2013), $570,000 (2014) and $660,000 (2015).
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