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Have Patriots regained their special teams’ mojo? 09.13.16 at 7:31 pm ET
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Stephen Gostkowski and the rest of the Patriots' special teamers played a sizable role in Sunday's win. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Stephen Gostkowski and the rest of the Patriots’ special teamers played a sizable role in Sunday’s win. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

After an occasionally down 2015, the Patriots’ special teams enjoyed a terrific start to 2016 on Sunday.

Whether it was the work of the kick coverage team in pinning Arizona deep in its own end on the last kickoff of the game, or Stephen Gostowski’s 3-for-3 night on field goal attempts, or Ryan Allen and the punt coverage unit accounting for an impressive 40.5 net yards per punt, it was a good night all around. (That doesn’t even take into account the fact that Patrick Chung apparently came close to blocking what would have been a game-winning field goal attempt from Arizona that was ultimately off the mark.)

Winning the field position battle is always key, but the margin for error with a young quarterback at the controls is even slimmer. The Patriots held the edge all night on the Cardinals — in non-turnover situations, the average starting field position for Arizona was its own 22-yard line, including six times at its own 25 or worse.

The ability to tilt the field paid off on several occasions for New England on both sides of the ball. It allowed Jimmy Garoppolo a little more leeway on offense, while the defense found itself in plenty of optimal situations all night long.

Chung has described the art of special teams as a “legalized, 40-yard fistfight,” a phrase he picked up from a college coach while at Oregon. If that’s the case, the Patriots soundly beat the Cardinals on points Sunday night.

“I think we did a good job of just playing together,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater, one of several special teamers’ singled out by coach Bill Belichick earlier this week. “Understanding how we were going to be played and how we were going to execute and giving ourselves a chance to win the field position battle.”

He added: “Every man that went out there knew what he needed to do and we played together. It wasn’t guy just running around and trying to make plays on his own. It was everybody playing together.”

Their work as a group stands in stark contrast to some of last year’s low points. A franchise that prides itself on peerless special teams play came up lacking in many big moments: Slater himself said the special teams was to blame for the surprising loss to the Eagles, a defeat that played a role in the Patriots losing home-field advantage. And Gostkowski’s missed extra point in the AFC title game was an awful gaffe that came back to haunt New England. Because of those misfires — as well as a few others — the Patriots fell from third to 11th in the annual special teams rankings from Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News.

But Sunday’s performance certainly sparked some optimism that New England’s special teams unit will be able to bounce back in 2016. On a conference call with reporters earlier this week, Belichick mentioned several names as being key to their success against the Cardinals, including Slater, Nate Ebner, Brandon Bolden and Jonathan Freeny.

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Read More: Bill Belichick, Matthew Slater, Patrick Chung, Stephen Gostkowski
Tom Brady, Jabaal Sheard, Patrick Chung return to Patriots practice 08.23.16 at 3:29 pm ET
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Tom Brady

Tom Brady

FOXBORO — The Patriots got some good news out on the practice field Tuesday afternoon as Tom Brady, Patrick Chung and Jabaal Sheard all returned.

Brady missed the last two days with an “excused” absence not related to his thumb. Sheard hasn’t been seen since the first preseason game well over a week ago and Chung missed Monday’s session.

There were six players missing from the practice all together: Dion Lewis (PUP), Jonathan Cooper (foot), Shaq Mason (hand), Sebastian Vollmer (PUP), Rob Gronkowski (unknown injury) and Alan Branch (reported team suspension).

After stretching the following players went down to the lower fields to work on their conditioning: Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, Shea McClellin, Malcolm Mitchell, Tre’ Jackson and Danny Amendola. It would appear these players will not be ready to play in Friday’s preseason game in Carolina.

As it relates to Brady, he didn’t appear to be impacted by his thumb at all as he was throwing like usual to open the practice.

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Read More: Jabaal Sheard, Patrick Chung, Tom Brady,
Tom Brady, Patrick Chung, Jabaal Sheard among those absent from Patriots practice 08.22.16 at 3:45 pm ET
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Patrick Chung

Patrick Chung

FOXBORO — The following players were absent from Patriots practice Monday afternoon on the backfields of Gillette Stadium: V’Angelo Bentley, Tom Brady, Patrick Chung, Dion Lewis, Jonathan Cooper, Shaq Mason, Sebastian Vollmer, Rob Gronkowski, Jabaal Sheard and Alan Branch.

The media was only permitted to view 20 minutes of the session as training camp is now over.

There were only a few surprises, with the biggest being Chung. The other being Sheard, as he hasn’t been at practice in over a week. Chung played in Thursday’s preseason game against the Bears and didn’t appear to be injured.

Bentley was released, according to ESPN’s Mike Reiss. Lewis, Cooper, Mason, Vollmer were not surprises as they have known injuries or remain on PUP. Branch reportedly is suspended by the team, Brady reportedly was excused and Gronkowski hasn’t practiced since last week when he left practice early.

Although they were present, Tre’ Jackson and Danny Amendola (PUP) were in shorts and t-shirts, while the rest of the team was in full pads. Logan Ryan had his red, non-contact jersey removed.

Going down to the lower fields after stretching were Shea McClelin (he missed all of last week), Amendola, Jackson, Donald Brown, Rob Ninkovich and Malcolm Mitchell.

Running back D.J. Foster looked to be a full participant for the first time in a few weeks, which is a good sign for him potentially playing on Thursday. The same goes for Keshawn Martin and tight end Bryce Williams.

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Read More: Jabaal Sheard, Patrick Chung, Tom Brady,
Devin McCourty really likes what he’s sees from young DBs: ‘Those guys are really learning’ 06.10.16 at 11:59 am ET
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Devin McCourty speaks Thursday after mini-camp practice at Gillette Stadium. (Mike Petraglia/

Devin McCourty speaks Thursday after mini-camp practice at Gillette Stadium. (Mike Petraglia/

FOXBORO — For Devin McCourty, this is a great time to be a leader in the Patriots’ secondary.

After spending the last several weeks and mini-camp this week with first and second-year members of the defensive backfield, the newlywed veteran safety is pumped up about what he’s seeing.

In addition to working with second-round pick Cyrus Jones, the eight-year pro McCourty has been playing alongside the likes of Darryl Roberts (2015 pick from Marshall), Jordan Richards (2015 pick from Stanford) and Brock Vereen (third year pro from Minnesota). Malcolm Butler and Justin Coleman are also entering just their third NFL season.

The natural question after Thursday’s final day of mini-camp was to get a feel for how Jones, a projected slot corner, has adapted from Alabama to the Patriots secondary.

“He’s another one of the smart guys from Alabama,” McCourty said with his trademark smile. “Between him and [Dont’a] Hightower, he knows his stuff. It’s been good. He’s been out there. He’s been trying to learn. [He’s] a younger guy so things happen fast but I think he’s been able to adjust and adapt. When he makes mistakes, he’s still out there playing hard. He’s correcting them. He’s a young guy that’s really working hard.”

But then unsolicited, McCourty raved about what it’s been like for veterans like Chung and him to work with a new generation of defensive backs, which now includes Butler, Jones, Richards and Roberts.

“The exciting thing is that we have a ton of rookies in that corner group that have been out here making plays, mini-camp, OTAs, those guys are really learning and they’re not making a ton of mistakes,” McCourty added. “I think it’s really exciting to see them as a group, DBs, safeties and corners.”

While Richards garnered a lot of attention last year and Butler stole the show in Super Bowl XLIX, Roberts was someone who caught the eye of McCourty in mini-camp and OTAs last summer before a wrist injury ended his season in training camp.
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Read More: 2016 mini-camp, Cyrus Jones, Devin McCourty, Malcolm Butler
Reports: S Patrick Chung signs 1-year extension with Patriots 04.01.16 at 12:16 pm ET
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Patrick Chung

Patrick Chung

Safety Patrick Chung’s successful second stint with the Patriots landed him a one-year contract extension that will keep him in Foxboro through 2018, according to multiple reports.

Chung, who played for the Patriots from 2009-12 and returned in 2014 after a disappointing season with the Eagles, will get a $2.4 million signing bonus and a base salary of $2 million in 2018, with roster bonuses that could reach $400,000 ($25,000 per game), according to ESPN.

The 28-year-old is due to make $1.4 million in base salary in 2016, with $200,000 in roster bonuses ($12,500 per game) and a cap number of $3.18 million. Then in 2017 he’ll get $2.5 million in base salary with roster bonuses that could total $400,000 ($25,000 per game). His cap hit that season is $4.5 million.

Chung has made a name for himself with his ability to cover tight ends and defend against the run. He was rated as the sixth overall safety last season by Pro Football Focus.

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Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Secondary 02.16.16 at 6:00 am ET
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Devin McCourty is the leader of the Patriots' secondary. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Devin McCourty is the leader of the Patriots’ secondary. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

With the Patriots done for the season, we’€™ve got an end-of-the-year position-by-position breakdown of where the Patriots stand and what figures to be the strengths and weaknesses for the team at that position going forward. We kicked things off at quarterback and now is the secondary.

Depth chart: Cornerbacks Malcolm Butler (56 tackles, 2 interceptions), Logan Ryan (58 tackles, 4 interceptions), Justin Coleman (17 tackles), Leonard Johnson (8 tackles), Rashaan Melvin (2 tackles). Safeties Devin McCourty (49 tackles, 1 interception), Duron Harmon (14 tackles, 3 interceptions), Patrick Chung (49 tackles), Jordan Richards (14 tackles), Tavon Wilson (8 tackles).

Overview: For the most part, the secondary played pretty well for the majority of the 2015 season. Overall, the defense ranked ninth in total defense and 10th in points per game, allowing 19.7. Specific to the secondary, the Patriots were 17th in passing defense, allowing 240.7 yards per game, which certainly could be improved upon. It did get better as the season went on, as in the last seven games including the postseason, New England allowed just 208.6 yards passing per game.

The yards the Patriots did allow through the air come down to a few things. One, the Patriots especially at the beginning of the year were playing with a lot of large leads so they were in prevent defense a lot of the second half, which allowed opposing offenses to pick up chunks of passing yards through the air. Second, they had issues finding a consistent third corner and often times opposing quarterbacks would take advantage of that picking on players like Coleman, Johnson and Melvin. If there was one area to improve upon or add to, it would be finding a No. 3 corner to play with Butler and Ryan.

Who will stay? The positive thing for the Patriots is besides McCourty, who is 28 years old, the secondary is very young and will only improve with time. It would seem like the entire secondary will stay in tact for the 2016 season. Butler made the Pro Bowl in his second season in the league and first as the Patriots’ No. 1 corner and Ryan made huge strides going up against some of the best receivers in the league. McCourty is one of the better safeties in the game and Chung and Harmon are nice complements. Richards and Wilson, Richards especially, showed promise when it came to defending opposing tight ends.

Who will go? The only real area of concern is the No. 3 corner/slot corner and that could be where the Patriots try and improve by adding a player or two. They certainly won’t break the bank for it, but maybe bring in a few guys at the league minimum and see how they work out. One name to keep an eye on is Darryl Roberts, the Patriots’ seventh-round pick in 2015, who missed the season due to injury.

By the numbers: 12 — The Patriots finished the year with just 12 interceptions, their fewest since 2005 when they had 10.

Read More: 2016 position-by-position breakdown, Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards
Why Patriots players love hands-on ‘Mean Mug’ Robert Kraft, consider him best owner in sports 01.21.16 at 4:14 pm ET
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Robert Kraft has established himself as the most powerful owner in New England sports history. (Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports)

Robert Kraft has established himself as the most powerful owner in New England sports history. (Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports)

FOXBORO — Robert Kraft is one of the most successful owners in pro sports. He has established himself as the most powerful owner in New England sports history.

Forbes estimates his Patriots to be worth $3.2 billion, second only to the Cowboys in the NFL. Soccer’s Real Madrid ($3.26 billion) is just ahead of the Patriots in net value and the Patriots are tied with the Yankees on the list of valuable worldwide sports franchises.

Kraft has brought four Vince Lombardi trophies home to Foxboro and has been to three other Super Bowls.

But money and hardware aside, his players would tell you Robert Kraft is also the most loyal owner in sports.

“Every morning we see him in the squad meetings just sitting right there in the back just paying attention and that’€™s good to see as a player,” safety Patrick Chung said Thursday. “Most owners aren’€™t really doing that. He’€™s in there just paying attention. He’€™s always walking through the locker room, [I’€™ve] seen him working out and stuff.

“It’€™s good to know that he’€™s working just as hard as we are. We’€™re on the field, he’€™s off the field and it’€™s good to know, good to know that your owner has your back and he’€™s going to be there to make sure that he knows what’€™s going on, also. We like Mr. Kraft. We call him Mean Mug. Mean Mug, that’€™s our little thing that we’€™ve got so it’€™s good. It’€™s very good to see.”

Most successful owners in sports are the ones who are respected by the leaders on the field. That certainly is the case with the Patriots and Tom Brady.

“It’€™s obviously a huge impact on our team and our organization,” Brady said. “His expectations for us and how he sets the tone for us, he sits in almost every squad meeting that we have [and] I think he’€™s always got a pulse for how the team is doing, how the coaches feel about the particular week, how the players are feeling. He’€™s always involved, so I would say he’€™s very hands on. He used to come out to practice a lot more, but not as much lately. So, yeah, he really sets the tone for us.”

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Read More: 2016 NFL playoffs, Mean Mug, New England Patriots, Patrick Chung
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