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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.

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Patrick Chung: Chance to return to Patriots ‘like a blessing’ at 12:10 am ET
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Patrick Chung returns to the Patriots. (AP)

Patrick Chung returns to the Patriots. (AP)

One year later, veteran safety Patrick Chung is set to return to the Patriots.

Chung, who was signed as a free agent by the Eagles last season after four seasons in New England, was re-signed by the Patriots on Thursday. The 26-year-old, who was a second-round pick of New England in 2009, said the chance to get back to Foxboro “was like a blessing.”

“I’€™m glad to be back,” he said Thursday on a conference call with the media. “It’€™s like family here. It feels like home. I’€™m glad to be back. I love the fans, love the coaches, love the environment, love the city.”

Chung’s finest season with the Patriots came in 2010 when he played in 14 games (13 starts) and finished the year with 96 tackles (72 solo), nine passes defensed and three interceptions, all career-highs. Following the 2012 season, he ended up signing a three-year, $10 million free agent deal with the Eagles. In Philly last year, he played in 12 games and ended with 59 tackles, but struggled at times playing for his old college coach Chip Kelly with the Eagles.

New England figured to be in the market for some safety help when Steve Gregory was cut loose earlier this offseason, and while he won’t be guaranteed his old roster spot, Chung could provide some depth for the Patriots secondary.

“I don’€™t feel I’€™m any different,” Chung said. “I’€™m just going to continue to keep working, keep getting better, whatever I can do to help the team, whatever role I might have to play. I feel I’€™m the same. The scheme, I guess, would fit a lot better. I’€™ve had a lot of conversations so I just feel like this would be the best fit right now. Plus, I’€™m really glad to be back too. I’€™ve missed you guys.

“I don’€™t have any expectations,” he added. “Whatever Bill [Belichick] need me to do, this team, I’€™m going to do it. Regardless if it’€™s special team or it’€™s defense, whatever my role is here, I’€™m OK with that. This is where I want to be, so that’€™s good for me. I’€™m not worried about all the distractions, ‘€˜Am I going to be playing, am I going to be doing this?’€™ Whatever I can do to help the team win, then I’€™m good.”

Here are more highlights of Chung’s Thursday afternoon Q&A with the media.
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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
3 thoughts on Patriots decision to cut Steve Gregory 02.28.14 at 1:26 pm ET
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Steve Gregory spent two seasons in New England.  (AP)

Steve Gregory spent two seasons in New England. (AP)

A couple of thoughts on the Patriots decision to release safety Steve Gregory:

1. Gregory signed a three-year deal with the Patriots worth $7.05 million in March 2012, and the decision will reportedly free up between $2 million and $3 million in cap space. With the new year — and free agency — just around the corner, this is as much about money as it is overall performance. As a result, New England will have a little more financial flexibility going forward.

2. In 2014, Gregory was the starter at the strong safety spot, and according to Pro Football Focus, was third among all defensive backs in total snaps with 849 (he trailed only Devin McCourty and Aqib Talib). Gregory, who missed two games with a finger injury last season, appeared to struggle at times over the course of the year with angles, but he was very highly regarded by the coaching staff and his teammates for his smarts. Several of his teammates indicated over the course of the 2013 season he was one of the smartest players they had ever been around, and indicated that he would make a very good coach.

3. Looking forward, the Patriots have a variety of options currently on the roster at strong safety, including Duron Harmon, who just finished his rookie season, as well as Kanorris Davis, who spent the bulk of the season on the practice squad. In addition, it appears that Adrian Wilson is rehabbing with an eye toward returning for 2014. Regardless, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Patriots seek out another strong safety-type in free agency or the draft in hopes of replacing Gregory.

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Agent: Patriots to release veteran safety Steve Gregory at 1:11 pm ET
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The Patriots will release safety Steve Gregory on Friday, according to his agent David Canter.

The 31-year-old Gregory, who spent the last two seasons with New England, started 23 regular season games for the Patriots in that stretch. His best season came in 2013, when he played in 14 games (staring 11), and had 79 tackles (50 solo) and one sack, to go along with three passes defensed.

The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder has spent eight years in the league. Prior to signing with the Patriots as a free agent prior to the 2012 season, he was with the Chargers for six seasons.

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

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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
Patriots players discuss pick plays, season coming to an end 01.20.14 at 3:48 pm ET
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FOXBORO — The day after the Patriots fell to the Broncos 26-16 in the AFC championship game it was a somber locker room at Gillette Stadium, where the players cleaned out their lockers and many said goodbye to teammates, some of whom likely will not be teammates again because of free agency and the general nature of the NFL.

A few players spoke with the media reflecting on both the season and Sunday’s game, with pick plays in the league being a main focus.

Here are a few quotes:

Devin McCourty

On the season coming to an end: “It’€™s always tough when your season ends in the playoffs, it just ends so fast.”

On the Broncos and their pick plays: “Each team is different, but they run that a lot and do a good job doing that.”

Steve Gregory

On what the the defense could have done better in the loss: “I wish we could’ve gotten off the field a little bit. Third downs we weren’t able to get off the field, they kind of pretty much moved the ball and chewed up a lot of clock. We would’ve liked to have gotten a turnover or two and given the ball back to our offense in good field position, even just forcing a punt. We weren’t able to, they were clicking. Peyton [Manning] was on his game. They are a good football team. It’€™s going to be a good game.”

Overall thoughts on the season: “At the end of the season there is only one team that is going to be happy. Every other team is going to go home and wonder what they could’ve done more of to accomplish their goals. I am proud of this group of guys. They played hard all year long. We had so much adversity that we overcame. By no means was it a bad season, we made it to the AFC championship and played a great team in the Denver Broncos and yesterday they were just a little bit better than we were. They made more plays than we did and they deserved it. At the end of the day we can hold our heads high. We played a heck of a year, the guys fought hard, you just have to learn from it, move on.”

On pick plays and what they’ve become: “The game has evolved to that with bunches and stacks with guys trying to create separation especially in man coverage and things like that. Receivers try and rub routes with picks like that, pick plays is what they are called — trying to create separation for guys so the quarterback can get the ball in there. It’€™s kind of become part of the game. To what extent it’€™s a flag or a penalty, I don’€™t know. It’€™s something you have to deal with and work through.”

Andre Carter

On pick plays in the NFL: “It’€™s football. It’€™s part of the offensive scheme, we understand that. Sometimes for defensive linemen like myself, the crack-toss play, it happens. You just have to prepare for it. Sometimes you get caught in the wrong place, but like I said it’s football. The league will review it and see what they can do to protect players.”

Read More: Andre Carter, Devin McCourty, Patriots, Steve Gregory Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
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