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Dane Fletcher free of cast, says he’s fully recovered from thumb injury 04.12.12 at 7:38 pm ET
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Dane Fletcher (AP)

PROVIDENCE — After undergoing multiple surgeries on a thumb injury sustained in the preseason, Patriots linebacker Dane Fletcher has finally removed the cast that had been on his hand for much of the offseason.

Fletcher took part in a charity event at Hasbro Children’s Hospital Thursday in Providence along with teammates Kevin Faulk and Matthew Slater, bringing smiles and signed memorabilia to patients before taking part in a charity radiothon. While speaking to media after visiting patients, Fletcher also had news that should bring smiles to the faces of Patriots fans.

“We’re good baby,” Fletcher said, cheerfully waving his unencumbered hands in the air in front of a gaggle of reporters. “No worries there.”

The thumb injury had limited Fletcher for much of the regular season and forced him to miss six games entirely before returning against the Redskins on Dec. 11. Now, though, Fletcher is back where he wants to be, healthwise, and ready to get back on the field, telling reporters that he is pleased with his offseason preparation.

“It’s been good,” Fletcher said. “I’ve been progressing just like I wanted to and I just hope to continue there and enjoy my time a little bit back in Montana and relax.”

Now that he’s back at full capacity, Fletcher is now itching to get back on the field. His timing couldn’t be better, with the Patriots’ OTAs beginning next week.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Fletcher said. “A lot of the same faces, a lot of new faces, just get to know everybody again and start from scratch.”

Slater and Fletcher spoke about participating in charity functions like this one and how giving back was just another part of being a player in the NFL.

“As players, we’ve been extremely blessed with all the opportunities that we’ve been afforded and I think the least we can do is come back and visit these kids and try to put a smile on their face,” Slater said. “So, me and Dane, we’re excited about coming out here and visiting these kids and trying to make their day. What they get through on an everyday basis is real life and they’re going through some real struggle and hopefully we can give them a pick-me-up.”

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The Slater family finds important lessons in rewatching Super Bowl defeat 04.11.12 at 6:43 pm ET
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At the urging of his father, Matthew Slater went back and rewatched Super Bowl XLVI. (AP)

Patriots special teamer Matthew Slater was asked Tuesday if he had a chance to watch the Super Bowl loss to the Giants.

‘‘I watched a little bit of it, only because my dad made me watch it,” he said with a rueful smile. “But, it was tough to watch it. We got so close. We were winning with four minutes left in the game. You could taste victory. A lot of effort and heart and soul was put into that [game], to get to that point. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out. But we can’t dwell on that. It’s time for us to look to 2012.’’

Slater was unsure why his father – former Rams offensive lineman Jackie Slater — made him watch the game again.

“I don’t know — you’ll have to ask him,” he said. “I think he wanted me to really relish what we were able to do, get into that stage, and it was something to be proud of. At the same time, learn from that experience and try to improve.’’

When reached by phone on Wednesday, his father had a simple explanation for the mandatory viewing.

“It wouldn’t make a lick of sense to reach the pinnacle of your chosen profession and not look at the things that you and your teammates did well, and then also see the things that ultimately foiled you,” Jackie said. “If you can do that, you’ll have even more of a clear vision when you start to try and pursue that same goal again.”

When it comes to taking another look at a Super Bowl loss, Jackie can speak from experience. He was part of a Rams’ 31-19 loss to the Steelers in Super Bowl XIV, and said going back and watching it again (as painful as it might be) helped his development as a player — particularly, the insight on his game from analyst John Madden.

It certainly paid dividends for Jackie, who would go on to a 20-year career in the NFL and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“Experience is the very best teacher,” Jackie said. “For me personally, after playing in Super Bowl XIV and having John Madden make the comments that he made about my performance — which were all positive – that helped keep me driven and focused in an attempt to try and get back to the zenith of my profession.”

According to Matt, the goal going forward is to shake off any feeling that the 2012 Patriots are a Super Bowl team. The process of climbing the mountain toward the summit will begin again soon enough.

‘‘I think it’s important for us as a team to understand: we’re not a Super Bowl team at this point. This is a new team. This is not the 2011 team,” he said. “We shouldn’t come in there expecting for teams [to say] ‘Oh, that’s the Patriots. They were in the Super Bowl last year.’ We have to re-establish an identity. There are new players. We have to create an identity for this 2012 team. We’re going to have to earn everything all over again. So we’re back at ground zero now. We have a lot of work to do.’’

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Taking a look at a six-pack of Patriots’ free agent decisions from Thursday 03.16.12 at 12:41 am ET
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The Patriots made some noise in free agency on Thursday, picking up a pair of new players in defensive lineman Marcus Harrison and safety Steve Gregory; re-signing a pair of their own free agents in offensive lineman Dan Connolly and special teamer Matthew Slater; and apparently kicking the tires on safety LaRon Landry and defensive end/outside linebacker Trevor Scott. Here’s a quick look at what it all means for the franchise.

Harrison: A guy who has been in New England before — he was on the roster for a day last October — Harrison is a 6-foot-3, 316-pound defensive tackle who projects as a backup along New England’s defensive front. The 27-year-old was a third-round pick of the Bears in 2008 (90th overall) out of Arkansas, but in 37 career games over three seasons with the Bears, Harrison has done little to distinguish himself: he’s amassed 55 tackles, 3.0 sacks and three passes defensed. (He had previously failed a physical with the Panthers in September because of a knee problem.)

Gregory: This is probably the biggest signing of the day. New England gets itself a safety who some believe was playing out of position with the Chargers — next to Eric Weddle, San Diego had him in more of a strong safety position. (Pro Football Focus had him graded out as a -10.8 for the 2011 season.) With the Patriots, the 29-year-old could find a home at free safety, challenging James Ihedigbo for snaps. In addition, the presence of Gregory on the roster (and the possible acquisition of Landry) could mean Devin McCourty will make a full-time return to corner in 2012. Regardless, the 5-foot-11, 185-pounder does have some positional versatility — he has worked as a safety, and also spent time in the slot and on special teams, bringing the positional flexibility that they crave in Foxboro. According to reports, it’s a three-year deal worth roughly $8 million.
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Five thoughts on the second day of NFL free agency and how it all relates to the Patriots 03.14.12 at 2:44 pm ET
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Steve Gregory has attracted the attention of the Patriots. (AP)

Here are five thoughts on what’s gone on during Day 2 of NFL free agency and how it relates to the Patriots:

1. Per a league source, the Patriots will host safety Steve Gregory on a visit Wednesday afternoon. Gregory is a 29-year-old undrafted free agent out of Syracuse who has spent six years in the NFL, all with the Chargers. The 5-foot-11, 185-pounder does have some positional versatility — he has worked as a safety, and also spent time in the slot and on special teams. Hard-nosed and versatile, Gregory (who was suspended for PEDs in 2010) had 67 tackles and one interception in 2011. As some have already noted, there’s a belief that Gregory was out of position playing alongside free safety Eric Weddle in San Diego, and could be better suited playing more of a free safety role next to someone like Patrick Chung. (It tells you something about the state of the safety position that Gregory is starting to develop a following — a league source indicates that Gregory has at least four other teams who are interested in his services, including the Broncos and Panthers, with a few more teams poised to inquire about him by the end of the day.)

2. In addition, the Patriots have reportedly expressed interest in safety LaRon Landy, late of the Redskins. The five-year veteran was plagued with injuries last season, including an Achilles tendon problem that forced him to injured reserve in mid-December. The 6-foot, 220-pound Landry is a really interesting case — he has some working knowledge of a Bill Belichick-type of system, as he played in college for Nick Saban when Saban was at LSU. Because he’s coming off an injury, he’s likely to come at a discounted price. And with the depressed safety market, he could be the best value out there, especially when you consider the fact that he played very well over the first three years of his career (including a 90-tackle season in 2009). But the 27-year-old has had major injury problems over the last two years — he’s played in just 17 games the last two seasons, and fair or not, there are concerns about him being able to stay on the field. (According to Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports, the Jets, Eagles, Lions and Bears have also apparently expressed interest in Landry.) And I’m not even sure what to make of his arms.

3. BenJarvus Green-Ellis continues to be the biggest name available among current Patriots’ free agents. The running back, who was attached to two “unknown teams” on Wednesday at a price of roughly $3 million to $4 million a year, will reportedly take a visit with Cincinnati, according to Cole. (It’s not known if the Bengals were one of those two teams that were previously listed on Tuesday.) Cincinnati would be a good landing spot for Green-Ellis — the Bengals have a lot of room under the cap, and the running back would give a playoff team a positive, dependable presence in the backfield. It’s also interesting to see the feedback from Patriots’ fan on Twitter regarding Green-Ellis’ situation. When faced with the prospect of losing Green-Ellis to a bigger deal somewhere else, almost everyone has wished him well. Speaks to his likeability among the New England fan base.
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Five early thoughts on free agency and the Patriots 03.13.12 at 6:52 pm ET
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Brandon Marshall is out of the AFC East, which will make the New England cornerbacks very happy. (AP)

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.

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Report: Patriots expected to re-sign special teamer Matt Slater on Tuesday at 5:31 pm ET
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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.

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Target Practice: Who was Tom Brady’s favorite (and most dependable) target this past postseason? 02.09.12 at 9:08 am ET
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Wes Welker tied for the team lead in targets this postseason and led the team in receptions. (AP)

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)

By position
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).

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