|Five early thoughts on free agency and the Patriots||03.13.12 at 6:52 pm ET|
After the first few hours of NFL free agency, here are five incredibly early Patriots’-related thoughts:
1. Devin McCourty is a happy man. The deal that sent wide receiver Brandon Marshall from Miami to Chicago for draft picks gets one of the premiere receivers in the division out of the AFC East, which should make life considerably easier for the New England secondary, and McCourty in particular. Marshall absolutely hammered McCourty and the Patriots last season, going for seven catches and 139 yards in the season opener and adding six catches for 143 yards and a touchdown when the two teams met again in December.
2. Wes Welker is a happy man. Before the start of free agency, the Patriots hit Welker with the franchise tag, which will likely mean the veteran wide receiver will get a $9 million payday for the 2012 season. But the next time the two sides sit down at the negotiating table, the landscape will be far different, especially after the Redskins reportedly signed fellow receiver Pierre Garcon to a five-year, $42.5 million deal, including $21.5 in guaranteed money. While Welker is a full five years older than Garcon, his numbers over the last three years have been demonstrably better than the former Colts’ pass catcher. So that effectively changes the market for Welker, who will likely look for something north of that when the two sides do decide to revisit talks.
3. BenJarvus Green-Ellis could be a happy man soon. There’s apparently some movement with Green-Ellis. The veteran running back was one of New England’s 16 unrestricted free agents who hit the market on Tuesday afternoon, but according to Jason Cole of Yahoo Sports, there are two “unknown teams” involved in a possible pursuit of the free agent, while the Patriots “want him back.” (In the past, the Chiefs have been mentioned as a possible suitor for Green-Ellis.) Cole says to look for a deal in the $3 million to $4 million range, which is probably a little too much for New England. Not saying the Patriots would be completely against signing him at that price — only that it would make New England take a long look at their in-house options at running back going forward and what might be available in free agency.
4. No Red Bryant for the Patriots. The talk about the defensive tackle possibly heading to New England hit a fever pitch Tuesday afternoon, but it was quickly squelched when the Seahawks locked up Bryant with one of the first big deals in free agency. The 6-foot-4, 332-pounder started all 16 games for Seattle last season, the team that drafted him in the fourth round out of Texas A&M in 2008. (As for another big defensive body, Mario Williams is making a visit to the Bills on Tuesday night, who appear to be very aggressive in their pursuit of what is likely the premiere defensive player on the market.)
5. As for the Patriots, they were mostly quiet. The one bit of news that did pop up specifically relating to the franchise was the report that New England was expected to re-sign special teams ace Matthew Slater some time on Tuesday, per Michael Lombardi of the NFL Network. Slater, who made the Pro Bowl this past season, just finished up his fourth season with the Patriots, having worked as a wide receiver, defensive back and special teamer. The 6-foot, 200-pounder, an unrestricted free agent, caught one pass for 46 yards this season, and also saw extensive time at safety.
The Patriots are expected to re-sign special teams ace Matthew Slater some time on Tuesday, according to Michael Lombardi of the NFL Network. Slater, who made the Pro Bowl this past season, just finished up his fourth season in New England, having worked as a wide receiver, defensive back and special teamer. The 6-foot, 200-pounder, an unrestricted free agent, caught one pass for 46 yards this season, and also saw extensive time at safety.
|Target Practice: Who was Tom Brady’s favorite (and most dependable) target this past postseason?||02.09.12 at 9:08 am ET|
Targets have been compiled by the NFL since the start of the 2009 season, and while it remains an imperfect stat — a badly thrown ball from a quarterback can often go against the record of the receiver as opposed to the quarterback — it remains a good indication of the confidence level a passer might have in his pass catcher. We had the target breakdown for the New England passing game for the 2011 regular season — here’s what the postseason breakdown looks like:
Chad Ochocinco: 1 catch on 1 target (100 percent)
Wes Welker: 19 catches on 23 targets (83 percent)
Danny Woodhead: 5 catches on 6 targets (83 percent)
Rob Gronkowski: 17 catches on 23 targets (74 percent)
BenJarvus Green-Ellis: 3 catches on 5 targets (60 percent)
Deion Branch: 8 catches on 13 targets (62 percent)
Aaron Hernandez: 19 catches on 31 targets (61 percent)
Julian Edelman: 2 catches on 5 targets (40 percent)
Stevan Ridley: 0 catches on 1 target (0 percent)
Matthew Slater: 0 catches on 1 target (0 percent)
Wide receiver: 30 catches on 43 targets (70 percent)
Tight end: 36 catches on 54 targets (67 percent)
Running back: 8 catches on 12 targets (67 percent)
The sample size for the postseason is smaller, but it’s interesting to note that when you compare the regular-season percentages against the postseason number that Gronkowski’s percentage was almost the same (74 percent in the playoffs, 73 percent in the regular season). And among the receivers who see the most passes, Welker’s numbers increased dramatically between the regular season (71 percent) and postseason (83 percent), while Hernandez saw a sharp drop in his percentage from the regular season to the postseason (70 to 61 percent).
|Matthew Slater gets some big game advice from dad||01.21.12 at 1:45 pm ET|
FOXBORO — Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jackie Slater played in exactly one Super Bowl.
His son is one game away from his first.
Matthew Slater acknowledged Friday that his dad did offer some advice this week as Slater gets ready to play the Ravens in the AFC championship at Gillette Stadium.
“I got almost an email every day from him this week, just telling me to really not take this opportunity for granted,” Slater said. “He played 20 years and he only played in one Super Bowl. You realize that this is why we all play the game. Everybody has been brought here for games like this, to win games like this. He just keeps telling me, ‘You can’t let anything come between you and what you have to do on the field on Sunday. You have to be extremely focused.’ Obviously that message has been echoed around here all week. He knows what’s at stake, I know what’s at stake, we all do.”
That one Super Bowl for the elder Slater was Super Bowl XIV in Pasadena, when Jackie’s Rams lost to the Steelers.
Before last Saturday night, the younger Slater had played in two playoff games, losing both. Both like the team, Slater feels like a weight has been lifted.
Adding to the confident feeling is the chemistry in the locker room, which Slater said came from overcoming midseason adversity. That’s when the Patriots were 5-3 and had a porous secondary, contributing to the worst defense in terms of yards allowed, in the NFL.
“I think during the middle of the season we really went through some adversity,” Slater said. “Adversity can do one of two things – it can either tear a team apart or really bring a team together. I think looking back on it now and when we lost those two games back-to-back and everyone was counting us out, we really rallied together and showed some resiliency. I think in hindsight that might have been a good thing for our team. It’s never a good thing to lose football games, but we really responded and we really showed some mental toughness down the stretch being able to string together wins.
“You don’t find that often, that takes something special and this team has it. We realized that as we went along in the season that you know, we have something here, we think we have a chance to do something special. The guys on this team really get along so well. We all just have that same singular focus and we all just want to win. Any of us are willing to do what it takes for the man next to us so we can go out there and achieve our ultimate goal.”
What was the biggest thing that had to change?
“I think our mindset definitely,” Slater said. “We had to start believing that this team is a good football team, meaning us, and we can do something here, we have something here but we had to believe it. Physically everybody has talented players, but I think it’s the chemistry and the mindset that puts you over the top. Once you started believing and buying in and kind of ignoring what was going on outside our team and just focusing on the guys in that locker room and the coaches, then I think we started to see things turn around and it’s brought us all the way to this point.”
|A closer look at the Patriots’ inactives against the Broncos||01.14.12 at 7:27 pm ET|
FOXBORO — The following players were listed as inactive by New England for Saturday night’s game between the Patriots and Broncos: quarterback Ryan Mallett, running back Shane Vereen, tackle Sebastian Vollmer, guard Donald Thomas, defensive lineman Ron Brace, linebacker Gary Guyton and cornerback Nathan Jones.
•The decision to sit Vollmer is perhaps the biggest move, at least from a personnel standpoint. The right tackle, who returned to practice this week after an extended stretch on the shelf, has been hobbled all season long by back and foot problems, and will likely be spelled at the position by rookie Nate Solder. Solder, a rookie out of Colorado, has actually played serious snaps all season long because of Vollmer’s injuries, and has performed well at tackle (as well as an occasional snap here and there at tight end). He’ll be making his playoff debut, and will likely play a ton of snaps.
•One banged up offensive lineman who will give it a go tonight is guard Logan Mankins. Mankins suffered a knee injury in the penultimate regular-season game, but appears to be good to go against the Broncos. (The decision to deactivate Thomas is likely tied to Mankins’ availability.)
•Guyton and Jones are two healthy scratches that are interesting, as Guyton has slid down the depth chart all season long (there has been at least one occasion this year where he has dressed but hasn’t played). Meanwhile, Jones has added depth in the secondary, but hasn’t been what you might call an integral part of the roster. Jones’ absence could lead to more playing time at defensive back for Julian Edelman and/or Matthew Slater. In fact, the secondary is an extremely fluid situation. Devin McCourty could see time at corner and/or safety, while Kyle Arrington, and Antwaun Molden the top options at cornerback. Meanwhile, Patrick Chung is apparently feeling good enough to play, while James Ihedigbo, Sergio Brown, and Sterling Moore are available safety.
•Mallett has been the victim of a numbers’ game all season, while Vereen has also been sidelined by personnel decisions as well as a nagging hamstring injury he’s battled all season long. Veteran Kevin Faulk is active, and will likely see an uptick in activity because Vereen is out.
|Matthew Slater knows Pats definitely need better returns on playoff investment||01.11.12 at 1:10 pm ET|
FOXBORO — The Patriots defense has received a lot of negative attention this season for spending most of it ranked dead last in the NFL in yards allowed.
But there’s another area the Patriots would desperately like to improve, starting Saturday night in their first playoff game.
Only three teams were ranked lower in average kickoff returns over 2011 than the 21.43 yards per return of the Patriots. All three – Chiefs, Eagles and Colts – missed the playoffs.
The numbers are not pretty.
The Patriots returned 46 kicks for 986 yards and no touchdowns. Their longest was 37 yards, provided by Julian Edelman way back in the season opener in Miami on Sept. 12. The team had only three kickoff returns of over 30 yards all season.
“Definitely not satisfied with our production,” Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater said Thursday. “It’s been too inconsistent. But we can learn from that and, in the postseason, we still believe in the guys back there and we still believe in our scheme and we feel like we have a chance to make some plays to help this team down the stretch.”
The punt return team was slightly better, with again Edelman providing the highlight with his 72-yard TD return against the Chiefs on Monday night, Nov. 21 at Gillette Stadium. The 10.34 yards per return on 38 chances – including 13 fair catches – put them right in the middle of the NFL pack at 16th.
“We can’t get frustrated,” Slater said. “We just have to stay with it, keep practicing. But obviously, we’re not satisfied [given] the standard we’ve set here in the past with what we’ve done this year. But here’s a chance for us to get better in the postseason.”
|Patriots Positional Playoff Preview: Wide receiver||01.05.12 at 1:55 pm ET|
With the Patriots off this weekend and the postseason ready to begin, we’ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a weeklong, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. We’ve already broken down the running backs, quarterback and tight ends. Now, it’s the wide receivers.
Depth chart: Wes Welker (122 catches, 1,569 yards, nine touchdowns), Deion Branch (51 catches, 702 yards, five touchdowns), Chad Ochocinco (15 catches, 276 yards, one touchdown), Tiquan Underwood (3 catches, 30 yards), Julian Edelman (4 catches, 34 yards), Matthew Slater.
Overview: After beginning the season on a record pace, Welker dropped off a bit, but still had one of the best seasons of any receiver in NFL history and arguably the finest year of any slot receiver in the history of the league. He finished the season with 122 receptions, a total that is tied for the fourth-highest single-season total in NFL history. He led the league in yards after catch with 751. The 120-plus catch season was the second time in Welker’s career he has passed the 120-reception mark (123 in 2009 and 122 in 2011), joining Cris Carter (122 in 1995 and 122 in 1994 as the only players to have 120-plus receptions twice in career. In addition, Welker’s 1,569 receiving yards are the most in Patriots history, topping Randy Moss’s previous mark of 1,493 receiving yards in 2007.
The Patriots offense is what drives this team. The passing game drives the offense. And the Tom Brady-to-Welker combination is the primary element of the passing game. While Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have emerged as viable threats, if Brady and Welker cannot connect on a regular basis, the New England offense will struggle. Conversely, if the two are in sync, there are few (if any) defenses in the league that can slow them down.
While he doesn’t have the wheels that he used to, Branch remains an absolutely dependable target for Brady in big situations, and while he’s seen fewer looks lately because of the increase in two-tight end sets for New England, he will almost certainly play a role in the postseason. After that, things drop off dramatically — Ochocinco has had his moments (his touchdown catch against the Broncos, his big play against the Jets), but those have been few and far between this year to expect him to be a reliable threat in the passing game in the postseason. Underwood has had a few looks, while Edelman and Slater have bounced back and forth between wide receiver and defensive back.
Going forward, when it comes to pass defense, three of the top four teams in the league (Pittsburgh, Houston and Baltimore) are possible playoff opponents for New England.
One opposing scouts take on the Patriots’ wide receivers heading into the postseason: “If there has been a chink in the armor, it’s the lack of big, one-shot plays by the wide receivers. All are efficient at the lateral, short to intermediate routes and catch the ball in traffic. They also have some ability after the catch, but lack size and can be disrupted at the line of scrimmage. If delayed off the line and without a proven vertical threat, they could have some issues if they get behind against a team that can run the ball and limit New England’s possessions.”