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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.

Read More: Adrian Wilson, Andre Carter, Armond Armstead, Brandon Spikes Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
Resetting Patriots depth chart in secondary 03.18.14 at 1:42 pm ET
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Devin McCourty was a key defensive piece of the puzzle for the Patriots in 2013. (AP)

Devin McCourty figures to be the leader of the New England secondary in 2014. (AP)

To this point in the offseason, no position in New England has undergone more of a change than the secondary. The Patriots have lost cornerback Aqib Talib and strong safety Steve Gregory, but they’ve added Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Here’s a look at New England’€™s current depth in the secondary.

Cornerback
Darrelle Revis: The veteran corner, signed earlier this month, figures to fundamentally step into Talib’s old spot as the No. 1 corner who will face off against the lead pass catcher on the other side of the ball. If Revis is that guy, he will face an impressive roster of receivers over the course of the 2014 season, including Mike Wallace (Miami), Reggie Wayne (Indy), Keenan Allen (San Diego), A.J. Green (Cincy), Demaryius Thomas (Denver) and Brandon Marshall (Chicago).

Brandon Browner: As of this point, the veteran figures to be in the mix for the No. 2 cornerback spot. Because of suspensions and health problems, he’€™s only played 20 games the last two seasons, and so he could be a little rusty out of the gate, especially considering that he’€™ll be getting adjusted to a new team, as well as the fact that he’€™ll sidelined the first four games of the 2014 season because of a ban for violating the league policy on PEDs. However, providing he stays healthy, there’€™s no reason to think he shouldn’t be a part of the rotation by the midway point of the season.

Alfonzo Dennard: He’s currently in the home stretch of his jail term in Nebraska, and his future when it comes to playing time could be fluid, with much of it tied to Browner’€™s situation. With Browner out for the first four games, however, he figures to be the No. 2 corner, at least for the short term.

Kyle Arrington: Many of his critics were hopeful that with the acquisition of Browner and Revis, the Patriots were going to get rid of Arrington. No dice — he remains one of the better slot corners in the game, and the pickup of Revis allows him to stay in the slot, a position he’€™s become suited to over the years. Barring injury, look for him there again in 2014.

Logan Ryan: For the most part, the Rutgers product had a very good rookie season, finishing with five picks (best on the team) and looking very comfortable over the course of the year. (He was overwhelmed a bit in the AFC title game against the Broncos, but even with his maturation, was probably playing a little over his head in that contest anyway.) With Revis and Browner in the picture, he figures to get most of his work as the nickel back and in sub packages, at least early on. The good thing is that the Patriots spent the majority of the season with five defensive backs on the field, so he should still get some significant snaps, even if he is bumped down the depth chart.
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Read More: Adrian Wilson, Alfonzo Dennard, Aqib Talib, Brandon Browner Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
4 things we learned from combine Tuesday 02.26.14 at 12:31 am ET
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Minnesota's Brock Vereen had an impressive day Tuesday at the combine. (AP)

Minnesota’s Brock Vereen had an impressive day Tuesday at the combine. (AP)

Four things we learned from the combine Tuesday:

1. Daniel Sorensen could be this year’s Nate Ebner

On Tuesday, Sorensen — a safety out of BYU — put up some impressive numbers in the on-field workouts, and one thing that could help grab the eye of the Patriots is the fact that he posted a 6.47 in the 3-cone drill — the fifth-fastest of any position since 2006, and the best performance of anyone at the combine this year. He was second in the 60-yard shuttle (10.8) and fifth in the 20-yard shuttle (3.95). The 6-foot-1, 205-pound strong safety (a former linebacker who moved into the secondary after he lost weight on his mission trip) also had a 32-inch vertical and 9-foot-6 broad jump, both impressive numbers. Considered a special teams ace while at BYU, he could be a late-round pickup or undrafted free agent for a team like New England in need of secondary depth and special teams assistance.

2. Shane Vereen‘s brother Brock knocked it out of the park

The safety out of Minnesota finished in the top 5 in the 40 (4.47, best among all safeties), 3-cone (6.9) and short shuttle (4.07). The 6-foot, 199-pounder also bench pressed 225 pounds 25 times (best for all safeties and cornerbacks) and posted a 34-inch vertical and 117 inches in the broad jump. Considered anywhere from a mid-round to a late-round pick entering the combine, he may have solidified his status as a second-day pick based on his work this weekend in Indy. (For what it’s worth, he semi-jokingly talked about wanting to play against his brother instead of on the same team. But at the same time, he noted that he did have a meeting with the Patriots while at the combine.)

3. Justin Glibert is the best corner in the draft, but Darqueze Dennard isn’t far behind

We had Gilbert available to the Chargers at 25 in our first mock draft, but his performance this weekend will likely push him up the draft boards around the league and make him a legitimate top 15 candidate. On Tuesday, the 6-foot, 202-pound Gilbert recorded the fastest time of the day in the 40 (4.37) while also showing impressive explosiveness with a 35.5-inch vertical and 10-foot-6 broad jump. Meanwhile, Dennard (the cousin of Patriots corner Alfonzo Dennard) was also equally as impressive, showing fluidity and good range, running a 4.51. The 5-foot-11, 199-pound Dennard (who we had at No. 14 overall to the Bears) also solidified his first-round status with a really good weekend. (Ohio State’s Bradley Roby and TCU’s Jason Verrett are also likely late first-round possibilities.)

4. It’s going to be a mixed market for bigger corners

For teams looking to replicate the Seattle defensive blueprint of a super-sized secondary, there are a few intriguing possibilities out there, with one big corner doing well on Tuesday (Utah’s Keith McGill) and another struggling a little (Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste). McGill is a 6-foot-3, 212-pounder who moved from safety to corner as a collegian, but really flashed some nice speed (a 4.51 40), as well as some good performances when it came to the rest of the measureables (39-inch vertical leap and 10-foot-9 broad jump). As for Jean-Baptiste, he was a little underwhelming — another big guy who was converted to corner as a collegian, he was relatively slow when compared to the rest of the corners (4.61). He did do well in the vertical (41.5, best among defensive backs and tied for second overall) and the broad (10 feet, 8 inches), but his speed may be a factor when determining where he ultimately ends up in the draft.

Read More: 2014 combine, Bradley Roby, Brock Vereen, Daniel Sorensen Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
Tuesday’s NFL combine schedule 02.25.14 at 6:30 am ET
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Here’€™€™€™€™s what’€™€™€™€™s on tap Tuesday at the combine:

– Media availability is completed for players, coaches and GMs.

– Workouts for defensive backs highlight the last day of the combine. Nationally, the big names worth keeping an eye on are Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard (the cousin of New England cornerback Alfonzo) and Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert, as well as safeties Calvin Pryor (Louisville) and Ha-Ha Clinton Dix (Alabama). It’s not expected that the Patriots will invest heavily in a defensive back in the draft, but from a New England perspective, the biggest drill we’ll be keeping an eye on is the 3-cone, a workout that measures agility and quickness. The Patriots have often shown an affinity for defensive back prospects who pop in the 3-cone — Devin McCourty, Nate Ebner and Logan Ryan have all done well in the drill the last few years.

Read More: 2014 combine, Alfonzo Dennard, Calvin Pryor, Darqueze Dennard Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Safety 02.07.14 at 11:22 pm ET
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Devin McCourty was a key defensive piece of the puzzle for the Patriots in 2013. (AP)

Devin McCourty was a key defensive piece of the puzzle for the Patriots in 2013. (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, defensive line, linebackers and cornerbacks. Now, we finish with the safeties.

Roster (stats taken from coaches film review): Devin McCourty (75 tackles, 1 interception, 8 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery), Steve Gregory (90 tackles, 1 sack, 2 quarterback hits, 2 passes defensed), Duron Harmon (30 tackles, 2 interceptions, 4 passes defensed), Tavon Wilson (2 tackles, 1 interception, 1 touchdown, 1 pass defensed), Kanorris Davis, Nate Ebner.

Overview: While so much of the 2013 New England defense was defined by injury, the safety spot was the one area that stayed relatively healthy over the course of the season. Of course, Gregory missed two games because of a finger injury and McCourty missed one because of a concussion scare at the of the season, but when stacked up against the rest of the defense, the safeties look like iron men when compared to the rest of the group. (According to Pro Football Focus, McCourty was third on the team in defensive snaps with 1,039, while Gregory was sixth with 849.) They are not classic thumpers that many of their critics hope they would be — you can’€™t help but wonder what sort of role the super-sized Adrian Wilson might have had on the 2013 team — but for what they are asked to do in the context of the New England defense, they do it well.

While so many of the Patriots elite defenders went down over the course of the season, it was players like McCourty who stepped them games up and helped provide leadership and consistency, helping the New England defense through some of the roughest times. For his efforts, McCourty was named an All-Pro, and after four years, has the unique honor of reaching All-Pro status at two different positions. McCourty has been the leader of not just the safeties, but the secondary. Ultimately, his off-the-charts football IQ, skill set and attitude all represent a great asset for the Patriots, and it wouldn’€™t be a surprise to see the team sign him to an extension before his deal was up at the end of the 2014 season.

Gregory had a mixed bag — there were a handful of bad angles that continue to stand out on film, a baffling sight given the fact that he’€™s one of the more cerebral players to put on a New England uniform over the last 5-10 seasons. But given the benefit of hindsight, there was more good than bad. Rookie Harmon had his occasional struggles, but he had matured to a point late in the season where he had moved ahead of Wilson and Ebner on the depth chart. And while they’€™re more special teamers than safeties, it’€™s worth mentioning that both Ebner and Davis appeared to throw their bodies around with a near-reckless abandon when working on kick and punt coverage, with Ebner continuing to have a good nose for the ball.

Ultimately, though, McCourty leads this group. For the last few seasons, the assumption was that as Vince Wilfork continued to get older, there would be a time when Jerod Mayo would assume the role of de factor leader on that side of the ball — the heart of the New England defense. If we learned anything about the Patriots’€™ defense in 2013, it’€™s that McCourty has the potential to have just a big a role leading the group going forward into the future.

Best moment: From an aesthetic standpoint, it’€™s hard not to single out the tipped ball play deftly executed by McCourty and cornerback Marquice Cole along the sidelines in a home win over the Dolphins. On a deep ball from Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill intended for wide receiver Mike Wallace, McCourty made a great read on the play — while he was falling out of bounds, he broke up the pass, tipping the ball to Cole, who managed to stay inbounds and come away with the pick.

Worst moment: Much of it came back to team defense, but the loss against the Broncos in the AFC title game represented a low-water mark for not just the safeties, but the defense as a group.

By the numbers: 80 percent. McCourty, who is going into the final year of his rookie deal, earned a $3 million contract bump for the final year because he played 80 percent of his snaps through each of his first four seasons.

Money quote: ‘€œDevin is a great player. ‘€¦ I see that every day in practice. You really have to look Devin off. He’€™s really smart — he sees combinations, and sometimes you try to look him off and he knows you’€™re trying to look him off so he doesn’€™t take it. There are other times he gets great jumps on the ball. The longer he’€™s been at safety, the better he’€™s done. He’€™s really been a consistent player for our team. He knocks balls away, covers guys in man coverage and then has that range in the deep part of the field where he truly plays like a safety.’€ — quarterback Tom Brady on McCourty, Oct. 30

Read More: Adrian Wilson, Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Kanorris Davis Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
Tony Carter on fateful punt: ‘One of those freakish things that happened’ 11.25.13 at 2:18 am ET
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FOXBORO – After 72 minutes and 62 points in another instant classic between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, it appeared the Patriots and Broncos were going to play to the dreaded tie.

Following both teams not doing anything with their first two possessions in the overtime period, with just over three minutes left, Patriots punter Ryan Allen booted one inside the Patriots 20-yard line towards Broncos return man Wes Welker. Of the 170 total plays ran in the game, this particular one, thought as of the simplest ones became the play that ultimately decided the final outcome.

Tony Carter

Tony Carter

Instead of coming up and making the catch, Welker did not, which allowed the ball to bounce in front of him. On most occasions the ball would seemingly bounce harmlessly dead, but on this particular one it skipped into Broncos cornerback Tony Carter’s leg and Patriots backup safety Nate Ebner pounced on the loose ball, recovering it for the Patriots, which set up Stephen Gostkowski’s game-winning, 31-yard field goal in the Patriots’ 34-31 win over the Broncos.

“I felt like there was a lot of traffic, high ball, and basically I didn’t want to get into a situation where someone is running into me or anything else and we ended up with a situation that I didn’t want to happen in the first place,” Welker said. “I have to do a better job of getting up there and getting those guys out of the way and making sure it doesn’t hit them.”

Welker noted the call to alert his teammates to get out of the way of the ball, as they cannot see the punt since they are blocking and setting up a potential return, is “Peter, Peter” and acknowledged he may have been a bit indecisive when making the call, leading to the ball hitting Carter.

“I have to get to him earlier and tell him,” Welker said. “I need to get those guys out of the way if I am not going to make the catch. I was a bit in between and you can’t be that way.”

For Carter, who is in his fifth season and evidently played for the Patriots in 2010, he heard the call but everything happened so fast there wasn’t much he could do.

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Read More: Broncos, Nate Ebner, Patriots, Ryan Allen Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
Bill Belichick: We’re getting solid, productive play out of all our safeties 11.13.13 at 9:07 pm ET
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Duron Harmon

Duron Harmon

While there’s been plenty of attention paid to the work of Devin McCourtywho is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season through the first nine games of 2013Bill Belichick wants to make sure that the rest of the safeties get their fair share of attention.

On a conference call with the media on Tuesday, Belichick noted that it hasn’t only been McCourty who has stepped his game up. According to the coach, Steve Gregory, Duron Harmon, Nate Ebner and Tavon Wilson have all been “productive” to this point in the season.

“I think overall that we’ve had pretty solid play out of the five guys,” Belichick said. “Tavon and Nate have both missed a little bit of time during the season, but they’ve been good contributors for us in the kicking game and they’ve played a solid role for us there, and continue to, I’d say, work and get reps for us defensively, even though they haven’t had a lot of opportunity there.

“I think they’ve all been productive,” Belichick added. “Harmon has made a few plays on the ball, Devin, I think is having a real good year, Steve has been productive for us. I think that those guys have all worked hard, when they’ve been on the field they’ve all been solid contributors, and we’ve certainly had a lot less problems this year than we had last year, even the last couple of years, with balls getting thrown over our head in the middle of the field and things like that.”

Gregory suffered a thumb injury in the recent win over the Steelers, and was replaced in the lineup by the rookie Harmon. The Rutgers product responded with his second pick of the season.

“It was fun. Just going into the game in that type of atmosphere with the win on the line — it was a very close game when I went in — it was a great feeling,” Harmon said of his first extended taste of NFL game action. “And then to go out there and be prepared to play those types of minutes made it even better. Not going out there scared or nervous because I didn’t prepare, but going out there with confidence because I prepared like I was the starter.”

With several reports indicating that Gregory could be on the shelf for a few weeks — he was the only player not present at the start of practice on Tuesday — it’s likely more responsibility will fall on Harmon’s shoulders at the strong safety position going forward. He said he’s not changing his approach.

“It stays the same, because over the last nine games I’ve been preparing like I was a starter,” he said. “That’s something our coaches do a good job in doing, making sure I know all the checks and all the tendencies — doing all those little things so I can have a fresh mind and a confident mind going out there if Steve were to go down and not nervous and scared.

“At the end of the day this organization, the coaching staff does a great job of preparing everybody like they’re the starter. Coach (Brian) Flores has done a great job with me, telling me, ‘You’re always one play away,’ quizzing me and asking me questions. I think it really paid off last week and I’m just going to continue to do what I’ve been doing and continue to get better and we’ll see where it goes from there.”

Read More: Bill Belichick, Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Nate Ebner Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
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