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5 positional battles looming for Patriots this offseason 05.05.16 at 9:26 am ET
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Cyrus Jones could contribute on defense and special teams as a rookie. (Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

Cyrus Jones could contribute on defense and special teams as a rookie. (Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

Training camp is still a ways off — roughly three months — but with the moves the Patriots have made this spring in free agency and the draft, the lines have been draw for some clear positional battles. At this point on the calendar, here’s our pick for the top 5 positional battles looming in Foxboro:

Outside wide receiver: Draft picks Malcolm Mitchell and Devin Lucien join an already crowded picture on the outside, as they are added to a conversation that includes (in no particular order) Nate Washington, Keshawn Martin and Aaron Dobson, as well as back-end-of-the-roster types like Chris Harper. Complicating things are the versatility of guys like veteran Danny Amendola and newcomer Chris Hogan, two pass-catchers who have also spent time inside and outside the numbers over the course of their careers. With the departure of Brandon LaFell this past offseason, the opportunities will be there for someone to make an impact as a moderate to occasional deep threat in the receiving game. It’ll be interesting to see who steps up over the course of the spring and summer sessions to claim the gig.

Nickel corner: The Patriots put several different candidates through their paces at this position last year, but never really seemed to find a long-term solution. (Frequently, New England relied on the position versatility of the likes of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon as safeties in coverage, which managed to offset some of the issues.) The selection of Cyrus Jones will put him smack dab in the middle of the action this spring, and given his body of work, his pedigree and his skill set, it suggests he could have the inside track on a handful of other candidates. (As a collegian, Jones also has experience on the outside. That, as well as his special teams value, make him one to watch this spring.) Justin Coleman and E.J. Biggers could be the primary competition for Jones at the position.

Backup defensive end: The likelihood is that the Patriots will utilize Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard as the primary end-of-the-line edge types, but there will be some chances to fill in at that spot as a backups. Newcomer Frank Kearse and youngsters Geneo Grissom, Trey Flowers and Rufus Johnson will all square off in the fight for playing time to serve as the primary backups. One of our favorites in this fight is Johnson, an intriguing but raw prospect who flashed all sorts of potential before he went on season-ending injured reserve last year.

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Read More: Chris Long, Cyrus Jones, Devin Lucien, Frank Kearse
Following Tuesday’s moves, resetting Patriots depth chart at defensive end/outside linebacker 03.15.16 at 9:44 pm ET
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Former Rams defensive end Chris Long reportedly agreed to a one-year deal with the Patriots on Tuesday. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Former Rams defensive end Chris Long reportedly agreed to a one-year deal with the Patriots on Tuesday. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

With the Tuesday trade of Chandler Jones and acquisition of veteran free agent Chris Long, it’s worth taking a look at how the Patriots depth chart looks when it comes to defensive end/edge types right now.

Chris Long: The 6-foot-4, 275-pounder out of Virginia, who is set to turn 31 later this month, has managed to carve out an impressive career for himself: in eight seasons (all with the Rams), he has 54.5 career sacks, including four years where he ended with at least 8.5 sacks. Released by the Rams in a salary purge earlier in the offseason, it will be fascinating to see how he fits into the New England defense and what Matt Patricia and Bill Belichick might have in store for him. Is he still an every down player? How would that mesh with the current lineup of edge rushers? Or is he more of a situational pass rusher at this stage of his career, someone who would thrive purely on third down and other long yardage situations? (An Andre Carter for a new generation.) It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out.

Rob Ninkovich: The 6-foot-3, 251-pounder is going to be one of the oldest players on the roster going into the 2016 season — he’s currently just one of four guys on the roster who have been in the league for at least 10 seasons — and it’s reasonable to wonder how much longer he can continue at his current pace. One of the sturdier players in recent league history (his current string of 102 straight starts is second-best in the league among all defensive ends), he’s coming off a year where he started all 16 regular-season games and finished third on the team with 6.5 sacks. Even with the acquisition of Long, the 31-year-old figures to enter the year as the unquestioned leader of the DE/OLB types.

Jabaal Sheard: The best free agent deal in the league last season, Sheard had eight sacks off the edge in 13 regular-season games for New England. The 6-foot-2, 254-pounder, who will turn 27 in May, also held up well against the run. If the depth chart stays as is, it’s reasonable to assume that Sheard will be leaned on heavily in 2016 to fill the same role he had last year. For what it’s worth, Sheard is entering the second year of a two-year, $11 million contract he signed prior to the start of 2015. If he produces as the same level in 2016, the Patriots will be able to boast of getting (relatively) the same level of production out of Sheard that they likely would have gotten from Jones, but at a reduced rate.

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Read More: Chris Long, Geneo Grissom, Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich
Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Defensive line 02.21.16 at 12:29 pm ET
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Jabaal Sheard provided a boost for the Patriots pass rush in 2015. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Jabaal Sheard provided a boost for the Patriots pass rush in 2015. (Maddie Meyer/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’ve looked at  the quarterbacks, secondary, the running backs, the linebackers, the wide receivers and offensive line. Now, it’s the defensive line:

Depth chart (stats per coaches game film):

Defensive linemen: Alan Branch (33 tackles, 1 sack, 2 quarterback hits, 2 forced fumbles), Malcom Brown (48 tackles, 3 sacks, 5 quarterback hits), Dominique Easley (15 tackles, 2 sacks, 10 quarterback hits), Trey Flowers, Ishmaa’lly Kitchen, Sealver Siliga (28 tackles), Joe Vellano, Akiem Hicks (22 tackles, 3 sacks, 7 quarterback hits), Chris Jones.

Edge rushers: Jabal Sheard (37 tackles, 8 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, 4 forced fumbles), Chandler Jones (44 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 17 quarterback hits, 4 forced fumbles), Rob Ninkovich (51 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, 6 passes defensed), Geneo Grissom (5 tackles, 1 sack).

Overview: There were plenty of question marks for the Patriots’ defensive line heading into the first year of the post-Vince Wilfork era, and while there were moments where they stumbled, all in all, it was a successful season. Working with an elite run-stopper like linebacker Dont’a Hightower, New England was 11th in the league in fewest yards per carry allowed (4.0) and ninth in rushing yards allowed per game (98.8). While part of the pressure was due to some good team defense on the back end by the defensive backs, the group was also consistent when it came to getting after the passer with 49 sacks, sixth-most in team history. (The 2015 team fell just short of becoming the first 50-sack team of the Bill Belichick era.)

There are questions about the group going forward — namely, the fact that the team will have to make some difficult personnel decisions in the next 18 months, including Chandler Jones, Sheard and Ninkovich. (The conversation around Jones’ future with the Patriots became far more complicated after this late-season incident.) And health will always be an issue with any positional grouping. But right now, this is a sturdy bunch with a nice mixture of veterans and young faces that appear to be well-positioned for success in 2016 and beyond.

Who will stay? You will basically see the same group in 2016 as you did in 2015, albeit with a few tweaks. Akiem Hicks is the Patriots’ highest-rated free agent, and could draw some attention on the open market after a year where he surprised many with his play. But the nucleus of the defensive one figures to be the same heading into next year as it was this season.

Who will go? If he gets the level of interest that many believe he’s capable of generating, Hicks is a possibility to depart — the 6-foot-5, 318-pounder, who arrived in a trade with the Saints last season, opened some eyes. As we referenced earlier, the Patriots are scheduled to face some big questions along the defensive line at the end of the 2016 season: right now, Sheard, Ninkovich, Branch and Chandler Jones are all among those who have expiring deals after 2016. It wouldn’t be a shock to see the Patriots address one of these situations some time in the next six months.

By the numbers: The Patriots have a streak of 29 straight games with at least one sack, the longest streak in the NFL. The last time the Patriots did not have a sack was vs. Oakland on Sept. 21, 2014.

Read More: 2016 position-by-position breakdown, Akiem Hicks, Alan Branch, chandler jones
Darius Fleming proves to his teammates that he understands ‘the important things in life’ 01.20.16 at 9:57 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Those inside the Patriots locker room were not surprised by the heroics of Darius Fleming two days before the game with the Chiefs.

That’s when he saw a woman in distress inside a car that was smoking after an accident. He didn’t wait. He rushed over and kicked in a window and brought her to safety.

Could he have taken another measure that didn’t result in 22 stitches in his leg two days before a game? Maybe, as Devin McCourty related Wednesday.

“We’€™ve got great guys around here. No matter the time – playoffs, regular season, we’€™re always out in the community trying to save people [laughs],” McCourty said, referring to Vince Wilfork’s heroics after the AFC championship last January against the Colts. “Darius was really quiet about it, but once the guys on the team got a hold of it, we forced him to give a speech and everything. I think him, if you ask him about it, he explained it very simply. He saw a woman’€™s car that looked like it was smoking and he just jumped out of his car and he’€™ll admit there was probably some easier solutions he could have done, but I think it was nice. It was nice and dramatic, kick the window in and pull her out [laughs].”

Matthew Slater put a more serious tone to Fleming’s actions, which were finally detailed by the Walpole Police on Wednesday afternoon.

“I truly believe that we have guys around here that understand the important things in life, and they value the right things,” Slater said. “I think you hit it on the head, it really speaks to their character. It really speaks to the things that they value, the way they were brought up, the things that they believe in, and Darius has been a stand-up guy since he’€™s gotten here. When I heard the story, I wasn’€™t surprised at all, because you look at Darius and the way he carries himself, the way he treats people. He’€™s a tremendous young man, and we’€™re obviously all very proud of him. You never know what you’€™d do in that kind of situation, but what he did was pretty remarkable.”

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Read More: 2016 NFL playoffs, Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater, New England Patriots
Danny Amendola, Rob Ninkovich, Devin McCourty officially active vs. Dolphins 01.03.16 at 11:31 am ET
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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The following Patriots players are inactive against the Dolphins: wide receiver Julian Edelman, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, linebacker Jonathan Freeny, cornerback Justin Coleman, defensive end Chandler Jones, defensive tackle Sealver Siliga and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer.

All these players were already ruled out on Friday, except Siliga who was ruled out earlier in the day. He returned home to attend to a family emergency.

This means a few key Patriot players are active in Danny Amenedola, Devin McCourty, Rob Ninkovich and Patrick Chung.

It will be worth monitoring how much these players play, as the team wants to make sure they are as healthy as possible for the postseason.

For more Patriots news, visit weei.com/patriots.

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Read More: Danny Amendola, Patrick Chung, Rob Ninkovich,
DT Sealver Siliga expected to miss Sunday’s game, but DE Rob Ninkovich has made trip to Miami 01.02.16 at 5:54 pm ET
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Sealver Siliga

Sealver Siliga

The Patriots will be without defensive lineman Sealver Siliga on Sunday against the Dolphins, according to multiple reports. Siliga will be out because of a family emergency that kept him away from Friday practice. Siliga is one of several regulars who will be out for Sunday’s game, a group that includes linebacker Dont’a Hightwer, wide receiver Julian Edelman and tackle Sebastian Vollmer.

One player who is expected to be present is defensive end Rob Ninkovich. According to a league source, Ninkovich — who had been hobbled by a shin injury — was in Foxboro on Friday, but still made the trip to South Florida. Ninkovich’s absence would have made news on a number of levels, including the fact that he’s started 101 consecutive regular-season games, third overall among active DEs.

For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

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Read More: Rob Ninkovich, Sealver Siliga,
Dont’a Hightower, Julian Edelman, Rob Ninkovich reportedly not present at Patriots practice 01.01.16 at 1:29 pm ET
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According to reports from Florida Atlantic University where the Patriots are practicing Friday, several key members of the team are not present.

Julian Edelman, Rob Ninkovich, Justin Coleman, Dont’a Hightower, Jonathan Freeny and Sebastian Vollmer were all not spotted at the beginning of practice, which does not bode well for their availability Sunday, as it’s unlikely they made the trip.

It’s been reported already Edelman didn’t make the trip and won’t play.

For more Patriots news, visit weei.com/patriots.

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Read More: Dont'a Hightower, Julian Edelman, Rob Ninkovich,

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