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With Vince Wilfork gone, Patriots defense looks to likes of Devin McCourty and Rob Ninkovich to fill leadership void 08.01.15 at 1:12 pm ET
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FOXBORO — While much of the offseason focus is on how the Patriots’ defense will survive the offseason departure of cornerback Darrelle Revis, from an off-field perspective, the loss of defensive lineman Vince Wilfork looms just as large.

The veteran, who was an absolutely essential part of the Patriots success since he arrived as a first-round pick in 2004, left for the Texans in the offseason. And while it’s one thing to talk about his departure from a purely statistical standpoint, his leadership skills were just as valuable. Now, it will fall to a new generation of defensive players to guide younger players in the same fashion that Wilfork did for the last decade.

Two of the likely candidates to assume more of a leadership role on the defensive side of the ball in 2015 are safety Devin McCourty and defensive end/outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich. McCourty arrived in 2010, while Ninkovich was picked up as a street free agent in 2009, making them two of the senior members of the New England defense. (Linebacker Jerod Mayo is the only one with more service time with the Patriots. having first shown up in 2008.) Both talked this week about facing an increased level of expectations with Wilfork no longer in the locker room.

“The key to being a leader is just being yourself,” McCourty said. “I continue to just do that — be myself. I think obviously, there’s a big hole with Vince being gone, but I think we have good leaders on this team. Obviously there’s myself and Mayo. Guys like (Dont’a) Hightower, Jamie (Collins), Chandler (Jones), Rob (Ninkovich). Those guys have been playing for awhile, along with (Patrick) Chung. So we just have to keep trucking and keep going forward.”

“Vince was obviously a great figure in the organization, and I have tons of respect for him. But the way that the business works, there will always be turnover — you’ll always lose guys. That just happens across the league,” Ninkovich said.

He added: “For us, it’s continuing to do what we’ve done in the past, and that’s coming to work hard every day and setting a good example for the young guys of how to prepare and how to practice and get ready for the football season. For me, it’s not going to be rah-rah, speeches here and there. It’s going to be coming to work every day and doing my job at a high level and leading by example.”

Read More: Devin McCourty, Rob Ninkovich, Vince Wilfork,
Rob Ninkovich remains committed to helping family of former Wellesley High football star 07.31.15 at 1:15 pm ET
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FOXBORO — In his six years with the Patriots, defensive end Rob Ninkovich has managed to put down some pretty deep roots, so it was no surprise to see him become so close with the Perdoni Family of Wellesley. Joe Perdoni, who played football at Georgia Tech, opened Old School Pizzeria in Wellesley in 2011, and it quickly became a Ninkovich favorite.

Following Joe’s death this past May, Ninkovich has maintained close ties with the Perdoni’s. He attended the funeral, and continues to do whatever it takes to help the rest of the Perdoni family — they were Ninkovich’s guests at training camp on Friday.

“I met him about three years ago — a beautiful person who would do anything for anybody,” Ninkovich said of Perdoni, who played football at Wellesley High. “One of those people who is hard to find. A true person who, if you were in a jam, you could call him and he’d be there to help you out. Unfortunately we lost him this year. I’m just doing the best that I can to be there for his family — I know he has two young kids. He was a beautiful person with a big heart and he would give you the shirt off his back.

“Anything I could do to help their family, I will. I know Old School Pizzeria in Wellesley is his business — it’s a great place,” he added. “Their chicken parm is the best around. Anything I could do to help them, I’ll try to do my best.”

To learn more about Perdoni and his family or to help donate, check out this Go Fund Me page.

Read More: 2015 Patriots Training Camp, Rob Ninkovich,
Countdown to camp: Defensive line 07.29.15 at 3:51 pm ET
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How will the Patriots replace Vince Wilfork? (Elsa/Getty Images)

How will the Patriots replace Vince Wilfork? (Elsa/Getty Images)

As training camp approaches, we’€™€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2015 Patriots. We started with the offensive side of the ball and now we’€™ve shifted to defense with the cornerbacks, linebackers and safeties, now we take a look at the defensive line.

Depth chart (regular-season stats via Pro Football Reference): Rob Ninkovich (53 tackles, 8 sacks), Jabaal Sheard (25 tackles, 2 sacks), Chandler Jones (37 tackles, 6 sacks) Dominique Easley (6 tackles, 1 sack), Sealver Siliga (21 tackles, 2.5 sacks), Alan Branch (14 tackles), Jake Bequette, Chris Jones (16 tackles, 3 sacks), Joe Vellano (4 tackles, 1 sack), Zach Moore, Malcom Brown (rookie), Trey Flowers (rookie)

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. It’s a different group than a year ago. While they may have lost only one player, it was their leader Vince Wilfork. Without Wilfork it will surely be a different group and they will need someone to step up and take on a leadership role, which will likely be Ninkovich. The team also went out and signed Sheard, who was a free agent after spending last season with the Browns. While they will be without the biggest guy in the middle, the talent is still there to keep up the success.

2. Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard will be good. The Patriots could have one of the best outside pass rush grouping in the entire league with these three. Ninkovich has had eight sacks in three straight seasons, Jones had six in an injury-plagued 2014 season and Sheard will benefit from having the other two players with him. These three rotating in-and-out will likely create matchup problems for opposing defenses and allow the Patriots to get constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks when they choose.

3. They will need to make more of an impact. Last season the secondary was the group which led the defense and this year it will be the front-seven with the departures of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington in the secondary. It will likely be the opposite of things from last year, as this year it will be the front-seven taking some pressure off of the secondary rather than the other way around like last season.

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Read More: Alan Branch, chandler jones, Countdown to Camp, Dominique Easley
5 looming positional battles for Patriots 06.08.15 at 9:59 pm ET
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New Patriot Travaris Cadet could have the inside track for the job of third-down back. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

New Patriot Travaris Cadet could have the inside track for the job of third-down back. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The 2015 Patriots roster is starting to come into sharper focus, and as a result, there are some positional battles starting to take shape. With the understanding that there’s a lot of football left before the start of training camp at the end of July, here are four positions that bear watching as New England’s mandatory minicamp approaches later this month and camp begins in July.

Backup outside linebacker/defensive end: This spot demands some versatility in that defenders have to show an ability to not just get after the quarterback and set the edge, but also play over a tight end and drop into coverage from time to time. There are a bunch of different possibilities when it comes to working behind the likes of expected starters Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones that one of the candidates — Jake Bequette — has apparently spent some of the spring working at tight end in an attempt to get on the field. Opponent, situation and scheme will all play a sizable role as to who is on the field, and while free-agent pickup Jabaal Sheard probably shouldn’t necessarily be labeled as a backup, he will augment the work of Jones and Ninkovich. Sheard will lead a group that includes returnee Zach Moore (more of a defensive end/pass rush type than an outside linebacker, as well as rookies Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom and Xzavier Dickson.

Backup inside/middle linebacker: The release of Brandon Spikes on Monday creates a void at the linebacker spot for New England. While Spikes wasn’t going to unseat any of the three long-term starters (Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower) for work as a three-down linebacker, his run-stuffing ability made him a good situational option on first and second downs. With Hightower’s offseason shoulder surgery leaving him a question mark when it comes to participating over the summer, the Patriots could still try and add someone at the spot. If not, the return of Dane Fletcher creates some depth at the position, and is likely the favorite to see the bulk of the playing time, at least at this point. In addition, James Morris (who was on the shelf all last season with a leg injury) will compete for reps alongside youngster Chris White and rookie Matt Wells.

Third-down back: The Patriots lost one of their most impressive offensive options to free agency this offseason, as Shane Vereen signed with the Giants. However, New England hasn’t been shy about turnover at this spot the last few years, as Kevin Faulk have way to Danny Woodhead, who yielded to Vereen. Now, it’ll be next man up here, and there are plenty of possibilities. The Patriots acquired Travaris Cadet in free agency — the 26-year-old had 38 catches last season out of the backfield with the Saints, and could be the early favorite to win the gig. Cadet will have his challengers, however, with one of them likely being second-year pro James White. White, who fundamentally took a redshirt year last season while sitting behind Vereen and the rest of the backs, has an impressive college resume at Wisconsin (he had 39 catches as a senior, and 73 total as a collegian), and certainly possesses the same sort of size and shiftiness as Vereen. While Brandon Bolden, Jonas Gray and LeGarrette Blount have shown a willingness to catch passes out of the backfield, the wild card here is likely Tyler Gaffney, a 6-foot-1, 221-pounder who was swiped from the Panthers off waivers and spent the whole season on IR because of a knee issue. The Stanford product caught 27 passes his last two seasons at Stanford, and could be part of the conversation as the summer continues.

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Read More: Cameron Fleming, chandler jones, Dan Connolly, Dane Fletcher
Rob Ninkovich ‘excited’ for Brandon Spikes’ return: ‘I saw him this morning and almost lost it’ 05.18.15 at 10:28 pm ET
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Brandon Spikes is back with the Patriots. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Brandon Spikes is back with the Patriots. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Although Deflategate has dominated the talk surrounding the team, the Patriots have made some on-field decisions, including signing free agent linebacker Brandon Spikes.

The signing reunites him with his former teammates, and the team that drafted him after spending just one season in Buffalo, as New England signed him to a one-year deal Monday.

The 27-year-old will surely boost the Patriots’ run defense, as he’s considered one of the best run stoppers in the league. Veteran Rob Ninkovich is glad to have his former teammate back.

“I’m excited for that,” Ninkovich said Monday night at his charity event, “€œNinko’€™€™s Ping Pong Challenge”€ at Blazing Paddles next to Fenway Park Monday night. “I saw him this morning and almost lost it. I love Brandon. He’s a great friend of mine. Great teammate. Unfortunately, he went away for a year and now he’s back.

“That tenacity, that toughness at the linebacker spot — running backs really don’t want to run in his way.”

Spikes played in 51 total games with the Patriots recording 296 tackles from 2010-13.

Another big on-field story this offseason was the departure of long-time defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, when his contract wasn’t picked up by the team and he signed with the Texans. With Wilfork gone, Ninkovich is now the oldest member of the defense. That is something Ninkovich knows comes with increased responsibility when it comes to being a leader.

“I am the old man of the defense,” he joked. “For me, going on my 10th year now, it’s really a blessing. A lot of guys, they aren’t able to play that long. For me I take it one year at a time and I look at last year, I look at my game, trying to improve in some aspects to be better in year 10 than I was in year nine.”

The Patriots will continue their OTA workouts next week at Gillette Stadium.

Read More: Brandon Spikes, Rob Ninkovich,
Rob Ninkovich: ‘From Robert Kraft all the way down, we all support [Tom Brady]’ at 8:13 pm ET
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The general theme over the past week from within the Patriots organization has been support.

Despite the findings of the Wells Report and the penalties that have come down against them, the organization is standing by one another, led by owner Robert Kraft, who voiced his displeasure Monday to MMQB’s Peter King, calling the handling of Deflategate “very disturbing.”

Veteran defensive end/outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich was another to defend his team, especially quarterback Tom Brady. Ninkovich was speaking prior to his charity event, “Ninko’€™s Ping Pong Challenge” at Blazing Paddles next to Fenway Park Monday night.

“We all support Tom,” Ninkovich said. “Again, I’ve been with him seven years now. He’s an unbelievable person. He’s an unbelievable  competitor. He’s a great person to be around and a great teammate. We all support Tom. From Robert Kraft all the way down, we all support him.”

“For me, we support each other, we’re teammates, we’re all teammates,” he added. “We support each other. It’s just like family. For me, I am going to support my teammates, and I don’t want to get into what was said because I really don’t know, so for me I am here to support my teammates and they are here to support me to raise money for charity and we all support Tom. He’s my teammate. I’ve been with him a long time. He’s a great person.”

As for the ping pong event, Ninkovich said Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola are two of the better players on the team, saying Amendola is “really good.”

“I figured ping pong is a sport we all play, and yes it is a sport, so I figured we’d put that on and try and raise some money,” Ninkovich said.

The money raised from the event, which attracted a number of local stars including, Gronkowski, Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron, Tuukka Rask, Chandler Jones, Stephen Gostkowski, Leon Powe and many more, will benefit the Celebrities For Charity Foundation.

Ninkovich is looking to move on from Deflategate and focus on the 2015 — a season in which he expects the team to have a target on their backs following winning Super Bowl XLIX.

“We have another year to worry about — 2015,” said Ninkovich. “The Patriots always have a target on them for being a very good franchise for a very long time and when you win a Super Bowl that gets bigger. We know the importance of the offseason and working hard. Building a team is now. I’ve done it for awhile.”

Read More: Deflategate, Rob Ninkovich, Robert Kraft, Tom Brady
Resetting Patriots depth chart: Defensive line 04.28.15 at 1:57 pm ET
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Dominique Easley

Dominique Easley

With the majority of free agency completed and the draft looming, we’re going to take a look at the Patriots depth chart by position, and try and assess the level of need going forward. We’ve broken down each position on the offensive side of the ball. Now, it’s defense, and we start with the defensive line:

Current depth chart: (2014 regular-season stats via coaches film review and Pro Football Reference): Chandler Jones (43 tackles, 6 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, 2 passes defensed), Alan Branch (14 tackles, 2 quarterback hits, 1 pass defensed), Sealver Siliga (27 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4 quarterback hits), Chris Jones (27 tackles, 3 sacks, 7 quarterback hits), Rob Ninkovich (56 tackles, 8 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, 1 INT, 2 passes defensed, 1 fumble recovery), Joe Vellano (6 tackles, 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit), Zach Moore (4 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery), Michael Buchanan (1 tackle), Dominique Easley (9 tackles, 1 sack, 3 quarterback hits). Jake Bequette remains on the practice squad, while the Patriots added DE/OLB Jabaal Sheard and defensive tackle Antonio Johnson in free agency.

Lost in free agency: Vince Wilfork (47 tackles, 1 quarterback hit, 1 INT, 2 passes defensed) signed with the Texans after the Patriots did not pick up his option. While he was able to bounce back following a season-ending Achilles injury in 2013 and go wire-to-wire in 2014, his off-field guidance as a pillar of the franchise could be a greater loss. DE/OLB Akeem Ayers (15 tackles, 4 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, 1 INT, 1 pass defensed) who was acquired midway through the year, ended up signing with the Rams.

Gained in free agency: Sheard. The 6-foot-3, 264-pounder has played in all 16 games in three of his four seasons in the league, and he recorded 44 tackles and two sacks last year. The 25-year-old has 23 career sacks. Meanwhile, the 30-year-old Johnson has posted 98 tackles and 4.5 sacks in six seasons in the league with the Titans and Colts.

Other changes: The Patriots re-signed versatile vet Branch to a new deal, and while he should be an important part of the rotation along the defensive line in 2015, the real guy to watch will be Easley, who was shelved for the season with a knee injury in December. The first-round pick in 2014 certainly showed himself to be a disruptive presence when he was able to play, but can be step in and be a big part of the New England defense in 2015? It’s unclear where he might line up along the defensive front — based on his size, skill set and what we saw from him in 2014, he’s strength is probably working as a 4-3 defensive tackle, with some time at end. But his progression and his health (specifically, his knees) will certainly be worth monitoring this spring and summer. (It’s also worth mentioning that Buchanan is coming back after a season-ending injury derailed his 2014 campaign, and figures to be a part of the conversation at the backup defensive end spot.)

Is this an area of need going into the draft? It is, at least from this perspective. While the Patriots do have a talented defensive front, there’s still the need for a sizable, run-stuffing type in the middle who can at least try and replicate what Wilfork was able to bring from an on-field perspective. (Maybe the 6-foot-3, 328-pound Johnson will get that chance?) Whether the Patriots try and go after a big body in the draft or for one of the remaining veteran free agents left on the market, it’s something New England figures to address between now and the start of camp.

Read More: Akeem Ayers, Alan Branch, chandler jones, Chris Jones
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