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What does history tell us about Patriots and pre-draft contact with elite prospects? 04.16.14 at 3:14 pm ET
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Tackle Nate Solder had a pre-draft visit to Foxboro scrubbed at the last minute, but the Patriots still made him a first-round pick. (AP)

Tackle Nate Solder had a pre-draft visit to Foxboro scrubbed at the last minute, but the Patriots still made him a first-round pick. (AP)

With the pre-draft process longer now than it’s been in year’s past, there’s more time for speculation, and official visits, workouts and attendance at Pro Days are all ways fans and the media try and gauge a team’s interest in a prospect. Some of the pre-draft work can be a smokescreen, some of it can be done for intel down the road and some of can be for practical scouting purposes. With that in mind, here’s a look at the pre-draft connections the Patriots have made with some of their top draft picks over the last few years.

Linebacker Jamie Collins (taken with New England’s first pick in 2013, a second-round selection at No. 52 overall): Bill Belichick flew South to work out Collins before the draft, but the linebacker later indicated that he did not have much pre-draft contact with New England when compared to other teams.

Defensive end Chandler Jones (first-round pick 2012, 21st overall): Jones recalled a conversation with the Patriots at the combine in Indy the year he was drafted. “I talked to the Patriots — I talked with them at the combine,” he said. “That was the most formal thing we did. That’s basically it — we talked at the combine.”

Linebacker Dont’a Hightower (first-round pick 2012, 25th overall): He didn’t work out for Patriots, but he said he “had a small (idea)” the Patriots were interested. “I met with those guys at the combine and I met them at one of the Pro Days,” Hightower recalled, “so I knew that they were kind of interested in some of the defensive players that we had at Alabama.”

Tackle Nate Solder (first-round pick 2011, 17th overall): Solder had what he called “fairly limited contact” with the Patriots throughout the pre-draft process. He met with offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia the Monday before the draft in Colorado, but also had a scheduled visit to Foxboro cancelled at the last minute. “I don’t know exactly what happened,” Solder later explained. “I was scheduled to visit (but) the minute before I left it was cancelled. That’s all I know.”

Defensive back Devin McCourty (first-round pick 2010, 27th overall): McCourty met with Belichick prior to the draft, where the two had a film session on campus at Rutgers. “Bill Belichick had come to my school for a coaches’ clinic, and he was going to fly right out after the clinic to see his son play in a lacrosse game,” McCourty recalled. “But we had an hour, we watched some film and we spoke for a little while. We had a real generic conversation, but he showed me some things on film, just watching and helping me out as far as being a player.”

Linebacker Jerod Mayo (first-round pick, 2008, 10th overall): Mayo had 11 visits with teams during the pre-draft process, and remembers his visit to Foxboro fondly. “I had a great visit when I came down there,” he said. “The coaches and I sat down and talked football for a long time. Like I said, I just had a great visit and I felt like we clicked.”

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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.

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Brandon Spikes: I’d be ‘shocked’ if Vince Wilfork isn’t with Patriots in 2014 03.07.14 at 1:35 pm ET
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Brandon Spikes, who likely has seen his career with the Patriots come to a close, said Friday morning that he’d be “shocked” if New England decides to cut ties with veteran defensive lineman Vince Wilfork this offseason.

Wilfork has been rumored to be a salary cap casualty because of his cap hit for the upcoming season, as well as the fact that he’s going to be coming back from an Achilles injury. But Spikes would be “shocked” if Wilfork isn’t with the Patriots in 2014.

“€œI haven’€™t spoken with him, but it definitely hurt me a lot to see him go down,” Spikes told NFL Network’s “NFL AM” on Friday. “He’€™s definitely a big factor in the inside and the run game — he does it all. He’€™s very disruptive like myself, but if he hits the free-agent [market], I’€™ll be shocked. The Patriots love him, the organization up there, Boston loves him. He’€™s been there for a while. Honestly I can’€™t see him leaving.”

Spikes reflected on the 2013 season, a year when New England suffered through an amazing run of injuries but still managed to make the AFC title game.

“We just fought through adversity and I think every great team has to overcome some things throughout the season,” Spikes said of the Patriots defense. “Even though we were young, a lot of new guys in and out, I think we did a great job just holding it together and just keep fighting.

“€œWe just had some guys that really cared, they wanted to step up,” he added. “I was devastated to have captains like [Jerod] Mayo and Vince go down, and guys were looking around [for] who [they were] going to look to and I think guys looked at me. I felt I played a big role in that, even though I was nicked, too. I was able to fight through that, and we just battled through adversity the entire time.’€
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Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Linebacker 02.05.14 at 11:45 am ET
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Jerod Mayo is one of the clear leaders of the New England defense. (AP)

Jerod Mayo is one of the clear leaders of the New England defense. (AP)

With the Patriots done for the season, we’€™ve got an end-of-the-year position-by-position breakdown of where the roster stands. We’€™ve focused on special teams, wide receivers, tight ends, running backs, quarterbacks, offensive line and defensive line. Now, it’€™s the linebackers.

Roster (stats taken from coaches film review): Steve Beauharnais (1 tackle), Jamie Collins (38 tackles, 3 quarterback hits, 3 passes defensed), Ja’€™Gared Davis, Dane Fletcher (19 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 quarterback hits), Dont’€™a Hightower (137 tackles, 1 sack, 5 quarterback hits, 3 passes defensed), Chris White (1 tackle), Jerod Mayo (66 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, 1 pass defensed), Brandon Spikes (134 tackles, 1 INT, 2 passes defensed) (Taylor Reed is on the practice squad.)

Overview: It was an eventful year for the linebackers. Considered one of the positional strengths for the Patriots, the linebacking corps lost veteran Mayo to a season-ending pectoral injury after just six games. In Mayo’€™s absence — and by his own admission — Hightower tried to do too much in hopes of replicating Mayo’€™s impact. As a result, he got outside his comfort zone and had to be benched as a result. He rebounded nicely and played very well down the stretch. Meanwhile, Collins showed steady improvement over the course of his rookie year, so much so that he was going wire to wire by the end of the season and into the playoffs. He still needs to continue to improve — he did about as well as could be expected in the AFC title game against Julius Thomas — but at this point he could become the coverage linebacker the Patriots have lacked for so many years. Fletcher (who is a free agent) did a nice job providing depth and working on special teams, while Beauharnais, Davis and White were mostly special teamers who also got their feet wet in 2013 with minimal playing time.

Then there’€™s Spikes. One of the best run-stoppers in the league, he was clearly hobbling near the end of the season on what appeared to be a bad knee, and he told Boston.com that he would need surgery as soon as the season was done. But the last University of Florida product in the New England locker room wasn’t around for the end of the year, as he was placed on season-ending IR down the stretch. (Some believe that it was a combination of the knee injury and the fact that he was late for a meeting one day late in the season because of the snow that caused the Patriots to put Spikes on IR.) Whatever the case may be, the pending free agent appears to have played his final game in Foxboro.

Ultimately, Mayo remains the centerpiece of the linebacking corps, and if he returns to full health by the start of the 2014 season, the Patriots can go into 2014 with a combination of Mayo, Hightower and Collins as their starters. That’€™s an impressive group with a versatile skill set.

Best moment: While it was clear Collins was coming on over the course of the regular season, his performance in the divisional round against the Colts was something of a revelation. For the first time in his professional career, the rookie played an entire game, going all 66 snaps at linebacker against Indy and coming away with one sack, six tackles (two for loss), two quarterback hits and a pair of quarterback hurries. He was all over the field, even working split out wide when matched in single coverage on Indy tight end Coby Fleener. A terrific night for the youngster.

Worst moment: The loss of Mayo.

By the numbers: 22 – Spikes had a career high with 22 total tackles in an Oct. 6 loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati. It was the highest tackle total for a Patriots player since Mayo had 23 tackles vs. the Jets in 2008.

Money quote: “I’ve been there, done that — tried to do too much. It didn’t work for me. [But I] fell back, and everything is finally coming back into play.” — Hightower on Jan. 7, assessing his overall evolution as a linebacker over the course of the 2013 season

Read More: Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
For Dont’a Hightower, ‘everything is finally coming back into play’ 01.07.14 at 3:32 pm ET
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Dont'a Hightower

Dont’a Hightower

FOXBORO — Dont’a Hightower acknowledged Tuesday that he may have lost his focus earlier in the season, but the second-year linebacker is back to where he needs to be.

After the Patriots lost Jerod Mayo earlier in the year to a season-ending injury, Hightower’s role expanded, and he admitted he tried to do too much to try and make up for the losses in personnel.

“I’ve been there, done that — tried to do too much. It didn’t work for me,” he said Tuesday after practice. “[But I] fell back, and everything is finally coming back into play.”

The key is finding a balance between the Bill Belichick mantra of “Do your job,” and a natural inclination to try and overextend yourself in an attempt to become a playmaker.

Hightower said Tuesday that the solution is simple.

“Do your job. The big plays will come to you if you do your job,” he said. “I don’t need to make a tremendous catch — I just need to do my job. Everybody is lined up and everybody has the right communication, after that, the playmakers will make plays.”

As the Patriots continue their prep work for Saturday’s divisional playoff contest with the Colts, Hightower figures to play a sizable role for New England for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that he’ll be asked to pick up a lot of the slack in the wake of the recent decision to place Brandon Spikes on season-ending injured reserve.

He says he’s ready.
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Patriots defense not planning a pity party after losing Jerod Mayo 10.16.13 at 2:30 pm ET
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Dont'a Hightower

Dont’a Hightower

FOXBORO — Despite the fact that they’ve now lost two of their most indispensable defensive leaders in Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo to season-ending injuries, the Patriots’ defense isn’t going to spend a lot of time sitting around feeling sorry for themselves.

“I think the good thing here is that we have guys who prepare hard and as if they were starting,” said defensive back Devin McCourty, who is now the senior member of the New England defense in terms of games played in a Patriots uniform. “Now, they get the opportunity. Everywhere outside this locker room, guys will be talking about our loss. I think we have some guys in here who are excited about their opportunity. It sucks, because you never want to lose a player, but there are some guys who are excited to get out there and play more.”

Mayo was the acknowledged leader of the linebackers, but with him on the shelf for the rest of the season, some of those leadership responsibilities will shift to second-year Dont’a Hightower. He will likely be the one with the green dot on the back of his helmet — the player with the responsibility of receiving the defensive plays calls from the sideline and relaying them to his teammates. It’s a sizable responsibility, one Hightower takes seriously.

“I look forward to it,” he said after practice on Wednesday. “I talked to [defensive coordinator Matt Patricia], I talked to [linebackers coach Pepper Johnson] about it, so it’s definitely something that I knew down the road that if something ever happened, I knew that I would have to step up and do it. I’m not nervous about it, it’s something that I’ve done before — maybe not in the NFL, but I’ve done it before, so everybody’s behind me and they support me, so it’s all I can ask for.”

One of the interesting things is that both Mayo and Wilfork are defensive captains, and have been powerful voices when it comes to providing leadership in the locker room. Now, it’ll be on a variety of players to step up and offer guidance.

“For me, I think of it as Mayo and Vince are still our captains, and just stepping in and filling a title or a role, but just to keep doing what I’ve been doing. Keep being a leader on the defense,’ McCourty said. “To me, those two will be the captains — they were voted captains earlier this season. My job now is when guys get hurt and they can’t be around, guys have to step up. I’ve been appointed one of those guys to step up, but it’s no different — guys on defense have to step up. Guys like Steve Gregory, who has played a lot of football here already. [Brandon] Spikes, a guy who is a fourth year player as well. We all have to step up and kind of be group captains now. You can’t replace two guys who have already been voted captains.”

“We [lost] a bunch of key guys, with Vince and Mayo and [Tommy Kelly] and all the other guys that are banged up,” Hightower said. “But it’s football. It’s all expected — one guy down, another guy comes up. I feel like everybody that’s here is going to help us win. As long as we communicate and execute the game plan, we’ll be fine.”

Read More: Devin McCourty, Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
Patriots practice Wednesday: Aqib Talib, Danny Amendola among five absent at 11:02 am ET
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Aqib Talib was absent from practice Wednesday in Foxboro. (Mike Petraglia/WEEI.com)

Aqib Talib was absent from practice Wednesday in Foxboro. (Mike Petraglia/WEEI.com)

FOXBORO — The Patriots returned to practice on Wednesday in sweats and shells and had a season-high five players absent.

Leading the group were cornerback Aqib Talib and wide receiver Danny Amendola. Also not in attendance were offensive lineman Dan Connolly, running back Leon Washington and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly.

Washington and Kelly missed all of last week, including the game against the Saints, with ankle and knee injuries, respectively. As for the other three, Talib injured his hip in the second half, came back briefly before leaving for good. Amendola was hit in the head by Saints defensive back Rafael Bush in the second half and Connolly suffered a head injury and did not return. Connolly’s injury occurred in the first half.

The five absentees don’t include linebacker Jerod Mayo, who was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle. Mayo had surgery this week on the injury sustained in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game against the Saints.

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