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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
Lucky Seven: Taking a look at how some possible fits for Patriots did at combine 02.25.14 at 4:28 pm ET
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Tight end Jace Amaro makes a grab while working out at the combine. (AP)

Tight end Jace Amaro makes a grab while working out at the combine. (AP)

Earlier this month, we presented a list of seven players for Patriots fans to keep an eye on at the combine. With the combine now in the rearview mirror, here’€™s a look at how each one of them did, as well as how it all relates to New England:

Tight end Jace Amaro, Texas Tech: Amaro, regarded as one of the best tight end prospects in the draft, checked in at 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds. His arm length was 34 inches and his hand size was nine inches. He finished with a 4.74 in the 40, 28 reps in the bench press (in the top five at his position), and 118 inches in the broad jump. Amaro appeared to be a little sloppy in the pass catching drills, but there appeared to be no reason why he wouldn’€™t be a solid first-rounder as the pre-draft process kicks into high gear.

While it’€™s questionable whether or not he’€™d last until No. 29 — when the Patriots are on the board — he still met with New England while in Indianapolis:

“€œIt was good — they broke my tape down. They look like they like me a lot. They said I fit their system very well so I guess we’€™ll see how it goes,”€ he said when asked about his meeting with the Patriots. “I think that starting [with] maybe one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game would be a great start for me, especially in a system like that. Yeah, I’€™ve taken notice of teams like that. I think that would be an ideal place for me.”

Tight end Eric Ebron, North Carolina: The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Ebron ran a 4.6 40, the second highest among tight ends (behind the 4.50 of Tennessee State’€™s A.C. Leonard). He tweaked his hamstring and was unable to participate in the pass-catching drills, but still managed 10 feet in the broad jump (tied for third among TEs), as well as 24 reps on the bench (tied for sixth among TEs). He doesn’€™t lack for confidence, but that should bear itself when the draft rolls around in May, as he’€™s expected to be the first tight end picked, at least as it stands right now. That means it would be a stretch for him to last until New England’€™s first pick at No. 29.

Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa: Fiedorowicz checked in at 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, and will likely be a second-day pick come May. (It’€™s debatable because of Oregon’€™s Colt Lyerla, a talented prospect who has had some off-field issues that could take him off New England’€™s draft board, regardless of his numbers.) Regardless, Fiedorowicz was consistently with the combine leaders at his position across the board, as he posted a 7.1 in the 3-cone (best among TEs) and 4.26 in the 20-yard shuttle (best among TEs). In addition, he had 25 reps in the bench press (fifth-best) and a 4.76 in the 40 (sixth best) and 110 inches in the broad jump (sixth-best).

Fiedorowicz has some New England connections: one, Iowa’€™s offensive line coach the past two seasons was Brian Ferentz, who spent the previous season as the Patriots tight end coach, working with both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. And two, D.J. Hernandez –€” the brother of ex-Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez‘€” was a graduate assistant with the Hawkeyes last year.

He was asked about watching Gronkowski while in college.

“€œI was watching him on film. I always used to watch him in games, but when you see it break down as film it’€™s even more impressive,”€ Fiedorowicz said. “He plays hard every down, every play. He finishes guys. He uses his body in the passing game. He’€™s just an impressive guy. It’€™s the way he plays the game.”

Offensive lineman Zack Martin, Notre Dame: Martin was 6-foot-4 and 308 pounds. He wasn’€™t overwhelming — he was 14th among offensive linemen in the vertical jump (28 inches) and 11th in the bench press (29 reps). He also had a broad jump of 106 inches, a 3-cone time of 7.65 and a 4.59 in the 20-yard shuttle. But pedigree and versatility indicate that while he might not be a first-round pick, he’€™s probably not too far off, at least at this point. If the Patriots would be interested, they’€™d probably have to take him at No. 29.

Defensive tackle Ra’€™Shede Hageman, Minnesota: Hageman was one of several versatile defensive lineman who worked out in Indy, a group that included Timmy Jernigan and Aaron Donald. The 6-foot-6, 310-pounder posted a 35.5 in the vertical jump (seventh-best among defensive linemen) and had 32 reps on the bench (ninth-best among the defensive linemen). He’€™s known for his high level of athleticism — he bulldozed an offensive lineman onto his back during one-on-one drills at the Senior Bowl — as well as the fact he played several spots along the defensive line over the course of his career.

“€œIt’€™s 32 teams –€” it’€™s a lot to take in,”€ he said when asked specifically about New England’€™s defense against the rest of the league. “I’€™m pretty sure they run either a 3-4 or a 4-3. I’€™m capable of playing both positions. Just the fact if I had the chance to play for New England, I’€™d be ready.”

Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska: Jean-Baptiste could be the beneficiary of the Richard Sherman Effect — at 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds, he’€™s the biggest corner in the draft, and if teams are trying to replicate the Seattle defensive blueprint, Jean-Baptiste would allow them to super-size their secondary. Considered a second-day prospect, on Tuesday he led all defensive backs with a vertical jump of 41 1/2 inches, and his broad jump of 10-feet-8 inches was tied for third at his position. It appears unlikely that the Patriots would be in the market for a cornerback, particularly through the first two days of the draft. But it will be interesting to see if Jean-Baptiste’€™s draft stock rises simply because of the success of the Seattle secondary of if his rise is tied to his good work at the combine and Pro Day.

Defensive lineman Louis Nix III, Notre Dame: Nix had an eventful combine. He got off one of the best lines of the combine when he was asked about his recent weight loss, saying that dropping more than 20 pounds made him “€œfeel sexier.”€ He checked in at 6-foot-2 and 331 pounds, and ran a 5.42 in the 40. (He struggled to stick the landing on the broad jump, falling backwards.) Despite the drop in weight, he’€™s still considered a space eater of Wilforkian proportions, someone who is able to work consistently as a run stopper at either defensive tackle spot. With the Patriots having to thinking about the post Vince era sooner rather than later, it would be ideal to see him drop into the twenties, as his size and versatility might allow some Wilfork comparisons. But we had Nix going to the Steelers with the 15th overall pick in our first mock draft, and his performance in Indy did nothing to dissuade us from moving him off that spot.

Read More: 2014 combine, Aaron Hernandez, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Colt Lyerla Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
Brock Vereen leaning on big brother Shane during pre-draft process 02.23.14 at 1:57 pm ET
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Minnesota's Brock Vereen has leaned on big brother -- -- and Pats running back -- Shane throughout the pre-draft process. (AP)

Minnesota safety Brock Vereen has leaned on big brother — and Pats running back — Shane throughout the pre-draft process. (AP)

INDIANAPOLIS — The last few years, the Patriots have had the Gronkowski brothers (Dan and Rob) and the McDonald brothers (Chris and Nick).

How about the Vereens? Older brother Shane was taken out of Cal in the second round of the 2011 draft by New England, and has become one of the better third-down backs in the league. And now, younger brother Brock is poised to enter the NFL — the strong safety out of Minnesota just finished a senior season where he posted 56 tackles, one interception, six passes broken up, one forced fumble and 2.5 tackles for loss. As a result, he was named a first team All-Big Ten selection by the coaches, and was an honorable mention pick by the media.

However, the 6-foot, 199-pound Brock (who was a teammate of his brother for a year in high school) isn’€™t so sure about the idea of being on the same team with his big brother. When asked if there was a part of him who wanted to be taken higher than Shane, he quickly replied.

“I think the biggest part of me wants to hit him,”€ Brock said with a smile. “€œI just can’€™t wait until we meet on the field.

“€œBoth of us want to play against each other so much, that we really haven’€™t talked about being on the same team,”€ he added. “But if that were the case, it’€™d be a blessing.”

Having a brother around who has been through the pre-draft process — as well as a few seasons in the league — can be a real benefit.

“I’€™ve been very fortunate as to always to have an older brother at the level I was trying to get to,”€ he said. “€œWhen I was in high school, he was already in college, and now, the situation here. Just to have that insight, and to understand the ins and outs of certain things that some people might not find out until they’€™re actually in the NFL, it’€™s definitely a blessing.

“I think the biggest thing is that nothing’€™s personal. That you [have to] understand you’€™re not here to go to school. This is a business, and there’€™s a change of mindset that comes with that.”

Brock, who said he’€™s heard everything from third-round pick to free agent when it comes to his draft status, did acknowledge that he met with the Patriots on Saturday. But it’€™s all been part of a whirlwind schedule as he gets acclimated to the pre-draft process.

“€œIt’€™s been chaos, but it’€™s been such a blessing to even be here in the first place,”€ he said. “Just trying to make the most of it. Obviously, the goal is to impress a couple of people and turn some heads, but at the same time, you have to have fun with it.

“€œI was told how chaotic and fast-paced it would be, but I never expected this. Drug tests as three in the morning, breakfast and I haven’€™t slept since. But like I said, it’€™s fun. I wouldn’€™t trade it for anything.”

Read More: 2014 combine, Brock Vereen, Chris McDonald, Dan Gronkowski Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
Logan Mankins, Rob Gronkowski providing blueprint for new generation of college prospects 02.20.14 at 10:41 pm ET
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UCLA's Xavier Su'€™a-Filo has found a model in Patriots offensive lineman Logan Mankins. (AP)

UCLA’s Xavier Su’a-Filo has found a model in Patriots offensive lineman Logan Mankins. (AP)

INDIANAPOLIS — Two members of the Patriots who have managed to carve out impressive careers over the last few seasons are offensive lineman Logan Mankins and tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Their work hasn’t gone unnoticed by the next generation of college prospects. UCLA offensive lineman Xavier Su’a-Filo name-checked Mankins on Thursday at the combine, calling Mankins a “bad-ass” who provides a perfect blueprint for any aspiring offensive lineman.

“I watch a lot of Logan Mankins, left guard from the New England Patriots. I think Logan, he was a high draft pick, but he’€™s physical. He’€™s a bad-ass,’€ Su’€™a-Filo said when asked if there was anyone he models his game after. ‘€œHe started from Day 1 in New England, and I love how nasty he is — something about his game that I really try to implement.’€

Mankins is a good model for the 6-foot-3, 304-pound Su’a-Filo for a couple of reasons. One, Mankins has established himself as one of the best offensive linemen in the league because of his longevity, technique and all-around bad-assery. And two, Su’a-Filo started his college career as a tackle, has moved to guard, a position he’€™ll have to master at the NFL level. Mankins was a tackle in college, but has made his bones as an elite-level guard in the NFL.

“You know, it wasn’€™t too bad,” Su’a-Filo said of the transition he’€™s already undergone. “My offensive line coach, with our young offensive line, he had me take a lot of reps just to stay fresh. When I was a true freshman in 2009, I started at left tackle. So it wasn’t real foreign to me. After a little while of not playing it, all it took was a few extra reps in practice for me to feel comfortable there again, and I think it felt good playing both positions.”

As for Gronkowski, he’€™s served as a model for Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, a 6-foot-5, 265-pounder who had 75 catches the last two seasons with the Hawkeyes. Fiedorowicz has a couple of New England connections working for him: one, Iowa’€™s offensive line coach the past two seasons was Brian Ferentz, who spent the previous season as the Patriots tight end coach, working with both Gronkowski and Hernandez. And two, D.J. Hernandez — the brother of ex-Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez — was a graduate assistant with the Hawkeyes last year.

Fiedorowicz said Thursday he’€™s watched a lot of tape of Gronkowski and Hernandez.

“I like watching Rob Gronkowski, someone I look up to. He can dominate both the line of scrimmage and down the field. That’s who I kind of want to be like,” Fiedorowicz said of Gronkowski. “I was watching him on film. I always used to watch him in games, but when you see it break down as film it’€™s even more impressive.

“He plays hard every down, every play. He finishes guys. He uses his body in the passing game. He’s just an impressive guy. It’€™s the way he plays the game,” he added. “That’s what I’€™m shooting out to be. I proved it a little bit in the Senior Bowl and some of my times — maybe Saturday, I can show them my speed.”

Read More: 2014 combine, Aaron Hernandez, Brian Ferentz, C.J. Fiedorowicz Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
Mike Mayock says RaShede Hageman, Jace Amaro potential first-round fits for Patriots 02.18.14 at 4:56 pm ET
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Mike Mayock likes RaShede Hageman as a possibility for the Patriots. (AP)

Mike Mayock likes RaShede Hageman as a possibility for the Patriots at No. 29. (AP)

In a marathon conference call with reporters on Tuesday, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock was asked about what sort of direction the Patriots might go in when it comes to this year’s draft, and the possibility New England addresses defensive line and tight end.

Mayock mentioned a few different names as possible first-round fits for the Patriots, who have their first overall selection at No. 29.

“Depending how you look at this thing and what type of defensive tackle you’re looking for, [Louis] Nix and [Timmy] Jernigan are probably gone,” Mayock said when talking about defensive tackles who could be available to New England. “Then (Dominique) Easley, the kid I really like from Florida, tore an ACL, a second ACL, so he’s not going to go (early). He’s one of those picks that the Patriots tend to get in like the third or fourth round for value — a first-round guy later on.

“I think (RaShede) Hageman from Minnesota is kind of the big question mark there,” he added. “If he’s still on the board — because he’s an explosive kid — he could play a couple different spots, and coach Belichick likes those versatile guys. He’s had some off-the-field questions attached to him, but he’s got a ton of ability and talent. So if Hageman was sitting there, I think he’d be really interesting.”

At tight end, he pointed to Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins or Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro as possible fits in Foxboro.

“(Eric Ebron) is going to be long gone [but] there’s a lot of different varying opinions on what you’re looking for,” he said. “Seferian-Jenkins, for lack of a better term, is built like (Rob) Gronkowski, whereas Amaro from Texas Tech is built more like (Aaron) Hernandez. So there are a lot of people that like Amaro and point to Hernandez as that, quote, kind of guy.

“Depending on what you’re looking for — and that’s probably the kind of guy they are looking for — if Amaro is sitting there and they like him, he’d be logical at 29, and I think the other guy would be Hageman. Outside of that, I think the other top guys would be gone.”

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Dominique Easley, Jace Amaro Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Tight ends 01.29.14 at 1:06 pm ET
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Everything changed for the Patriots offense when Rob Gronkowski went down for the season. (AP)

Everything changed for the Patriots offense when Rob Gronkowski went down for the season. (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 started with special teams and the wide receivers. Now, it’€™s the tight ends.

Depth chart: Rob Gronkowski (39 catches, 592 yards, 4 TDs), Matthew Mulligan (2 catches, 16 yards, 1 TD), Michael Hoomanawanui (12 catches, 136 yards, 1 TD), D.J. Williams.

Overview: For the Patriots, the tight end position went from one of strength to one of uncertainty over the last 12 months. Aaron Hernandez was removed from the picture, while Gronkowski’s health produced a roller-coaster effect that the team struggled to adjust to over the course of the year. As a result, a New England offense that had been constructed around one of the best young tight end combos in recent NFL history was forced to readjust.

The Gronk Watch consumed most of late summer and into early fall, but when he was truly healthy — pretty much the month of November — the big fella was his usual dominant self. In one four-game stretch (from Nov. 3 through Dec. 1), he had 27 catches for 419 yards and four touchdowns, and was a game-changing presence for the New England offense.

Of course, all of that changed when he went down early against the Browns — he was carted off the field, and in part because of his injury, the Patriots offense downshifted from a pass-first game to a run-heavy approach. The loss of Gronkowski was felt across the board, but never more than in the red zone, where the Patriots struggled for a few weeks trying to find the right formula to score from inside the 20. They were able to hit on it with a suddenly resurgent running game, but without Gronkowski, other targets needed to raise their game. Some did. Others did not.

As for the rest of the tight end grouping, the Hoomanawanui/Mulligan combo will never make people forget about Gronkowski, but they both developed a rep as solid and dependable blockers over the course of the season. Williams also does a nice job providing depth. But at the end of the day, it all comes back to Gronkowski — if they can get him back to something approximating 100 percent by the start of the season, he should have his usual transformative presence on the New England passing game. Long-term, the question is whether or not he’ll be able to consistently stay healthy. Only time will tell on that front.

Best moment: Three of them, all scoring plays: One, Gronkowski’s touchdown against the Broncos wasn’t necessarily an aesthetic thing of beauty, but the celebration between the tight end and quarterback Tom Brady transcended any Gronk spike of the last few seasons. Two, the big fella also added a fingertip grab inches off the ground in a win over the Texans in Houston. And three, Hooman’s absolutely ridiculous one-handed touchdown grab against the Dolphins in Miami, one of the prettiest plays of the year

Worst moment: The sight of Gronkowski being carted off after getting hurt against the Browns was far and away the most devastating sight for the New England offense this past season.

By the numbers: Gronkowski was targeted 17 times in his first game of the 2013 season, an Oct. 20 loss to the Jets (the seventh contest of the regular season). Through the first six games of the year, the entire group of New England tight ends had been targeted a total of 15 times.

Money quote: “It hurts to see any of those guys go down, certainly with Gronk. We’ve sustained some pretty big injuries this year with really important, critical players, so we’ve got to just keep bouncing back. … No one feels sorry for the Patriots. I think we all feel sorry for Rob, but I don’€™t think anyone feels sorry for the Patriots.” — Brady after Gronkowski suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Browns

Read More: Michael Hoomanawanui, position-by-position breakdown, Rob Gronkowski, Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
In Patriots passing game, big targets don’t always equal big success 01.22.14 at 1:53 pm ET
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Aaron Dobson

Aaron Dobson

In the wake of Sunday’s playoff loss to the Broncos, one of the more common complaints regarding the state of the Patriots passing game was the fact that New England was lacking big targets. With only Julian Edelman (5-foot-10) and Shane Vereen (5-8) emerging as dependable targets for the Patriots — while the Broncos were having success with big targets like Demaryius Thomas (6-3) and Julius Thomas (6-5) — the contrast was especially jarring.

When it comes to the need for bigger receivers, it’s something we’ve heard several times over the last year, especially since Rob Gronkowski went down with a season-ending knee injury in December. However, it’s important to remember that the Patriots have tried to go big at the skill positions in the past. In the offseason, the Patriots went out and signed Mike Jenkins (6-4), Donald Jones (6-0), LaVelle Hawkins (5-11) and Danny Amendola (5-11). In addition, they added rookies like Aaron Dobson (6-3), Mark Harrison (6-3), Kenbrell Thompkins (6-0) and Josh Boyce (5-11). The addition of so much height was in direct contrast to the fact that they lost Wes Welker (5-9) and Deion Branch (5-9), as well as running back Danny Woodhead (5-8).

For what it’s worth, in the Patriots passing game size doesn’t always equate to success. The two greatest receivers of the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era — Welker and Troy Brown — were undersized targets who made a habit of being great route-runners who knew exactly what the quarterback needed. Branch also shared an uncanny bond with Brady, and Edelman’s 105-catch season in 2013 came as the result of the receiver developing a bond with Brady and showing his dependability over the course of a 16-game season. (And conversely, some of the bigger receivers the Patriots have acquired over the last dozen or so years — Donald Hayes, Chad Jackson and P.K. Sam, all of whom were 6-foot-1 or taller — flamed out, sometimes in spectacular fashion.)

Ultimately, the return of the 6-foot-5 Gronkowski and the continued maturation of Dobson and the rest of the young pass catchers should provide the Patriots with some sizable targets in the passing game come 2014. But as Edelman showed in 2013 — as well as Brown and Welker before him — when it comes to finding success as a pass-catcher in the New England system, size isn’t everything.

Read More: Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
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