Category Archives: 2016 Free Agency

Patriots Players Ready For the 2nd Year Jump in Performance

Steve Balestrieri
May 22, 2017 at 8:00 am ET

The Patriots begin the next phase of their 2017 offseason OTAs today at Gillette Stadium and they’ll be on the field for the first time doing football drills. And while many will be focusing on the new players such as Stephon Gilmore, Brandin Cooks, and Kony Ealy, the second-year players should be of equal importance. Bill Belichick always talks of the big jump that players experience between their rookie and sophomore seasons.

There are several players that will bear watching under that scenario but we’re going to focus on just three that could play very large roles in 2017.  Guard Joe Thuney, WR Malcolm Mitchell and CB/KR Cyrus Jones.

Thuney was a Day 1 starter at left guard and had the not-so-unexpected growing pains, Mitchell got hurt in training camp but came on in the second half of the season and was a key contributor in the Super Bowl win over the Falcons. Jones was the team’s top draft choice a year ago, a talented corner and kick returner who struggled mightily and was barely a blip on the radar in 2016.

Thuney was drafted by the Patriots in the 3rd round (78th overall) in the 2016 NFL Draft out of NC State. The 6’4, 305-pound tackle turned guard was a steady, dependable interior offensive lineman last year. He fought his way thru the competition at training camp to become the Day 1 starter at left guard. He showed good communication with LT Nate Solder and C David Andrews and they did a good job of keeping the Patriots QBs upright.

Joe Thuney wants to know “What are Pink Stripes?” (SBalestrieri photo)

He certainly got a good rookie report card from Bill Belichick. “Joe is smart. Joe works hard. He’s here every day. I don’t think he’s missed a day all spring, summer,” Belichick said. “He shows up every day [and] goes to work. A lunch-pail guy. He just grinds it out. And he’s smart. Takes coaching well. He understands what we’re doing.”

He needed to get stronger this offseason and that will bear some watching. But after spending a year with his demanding OL Coach Dante Scarnecchia, he should be ready for the Year 2 jump. His technique, communication, and strength should all be better. There will be no backsliding on Coach Scar’s crew.

The Patriots drafted Mitchell in the 4th round, (112th overall) in last season’s draft. His story was well known when he wasn’t a good reader and joined a ladies’ book club in Georgia. Now he’s an author of a children’s book and a Super Bowl champion.

Malcolm Mitchell puts a move on Darrell Roberts in 2016 TC. (SBalestrieri photo)

Mitchell suffered an injury in the team’s first preseason game and that definitely slowed his progress. He barely registered on the stat sheet thru the first half of the season. But after Tom Brady’s return from suspension, Mitchell gradually worked his way onto the field and earned his way into Brady’s circle of trust. He finished the season with a modest 32 catches for 401 yards and four touchdowns in 2016. But his Super Bowl was a game that showed that his future is bright with New England, catching six passes for 70 yards and again, Brady trusted him to come thru at crunch time late in the game.

The Patriots are stacked at wide receiver this season. With Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, newcomer Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola, Mitchell and newcomers Austin Carr, Cody Hollister and Devin Lucien. But while Mitchell’s numbers may not increase dramatically in 2017, he should be an integral part of the offensive plan this season.

No one could have predicted the struggles that Cyrus Jones suffered in 2016. Coming from the storied football of program of Nick Saban at Alabama, Jones was a talented corner who was thought to be in line for reps at least in the slot for 2016. He was also a dangerous, valuable kick returner, returning four for touchdowns in his final college season. None of it materialized. Right off the bat in Minicamp, he began to struggle with holding onto kicks and that carried over to the season. He never made an impression defensively and his season was about missed opportunity.

Cyrus Jones had ball security issues in 2016. (SBalestrieri photo)

Jones has a lot of work to do in 2017, the Patriots used a 2nd round draft pick (60th overall) last season on him and ball security should be at the top of his list. His judgment wasn’t great either, and that was the cause of his being inactive for five of the team’s final six games.

Bill Belichick needs to work with Jones early this year….OTAs is a prime spot and build up Jones’ confidence. That’s mainly what his problem was in 2016, a confidence issue and not an ability one. He knows how to play football and has been successful at the pinnacle of the college football world. Once his return issues are resolved, his play on defense should be markedly improved as well. He’s the guy we’re picking here as our selection as the most improved player in 2017.

Other second-year players include Elandon Roberts, Vincent Valentine, Woodrow Hamilton and Jacoby Brissett. In Brissett’s case, we may not see a big jump in play in Year 2 strictly because of logistics. With Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo under center at QB this season, there are only so many snaps to go around. And Brissett may not get a ton of work.

The Patriots will have plenty of new faces to integrate into the system, beginning this week for the OTAs but we’ll be keeping focused on seeing how the 2nd year players perform this spring/summer. Getting off to a quick start is always a good sign for having a good regular season. For Thuney, Mitchell, and Jones that all begins today.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Rumors: Free Agent RB Arian Foster Spotted in Boston?

Ian Logue
May 19, 2016 at 9:17 pm ET

The NFL Draft came and went without the Patriots addressing the running back position, which is arguably one that is dangerously thin and hardly settled heading into the start of training camp just over a month from now.

Obviously the question is still, how can that be?  With Dion Lewis coming off of knee surgery and LeGarrette Blount returning from a hip injury that ended his season in 2015, the Patriots obviously have more questions than answers at a spot where they need help in order to try and keep opposing defenses from simply teeing off on Tom Brady.

One would have to think that head coach Bill Belichick and New England’s front office must have someone in mind to add to their backfield, although to this point there has yet to be an obvious answer to whatever master plan is being concocted in Foxboro.

However, there was an interesting turn of events on Thursday after free agent running back Arian Foster was apparently spotted in Boston, with one fan pointing out his presence via Twitter.

Aside from that Tweet, there’s not much to go on and for a guy who took a selfie, there were no further Tweets following up on whether or not he broached the subject of Foster playing for the Patriots, what brought the free agent running back to New England, nothing.  Not that Foster would potentially reveal anything, but any insight into his visit would at least give people a little more to go on other than the speculation we’re left with.

Foster is obviously a talented back and at the age of 29 should still have a little tread left on his tires.  He’s coming off of a year where he tore his Achilles in Week 6 so he didn’t absorb much wear and tear last season thanks to the injury.  The bigger question now would be whether or not he’s healthy enough to be dangerous and if he still has the same burst and quickness to make him an effective running back.  That’s clearly something he’d have to prove in order to end up here.

Having played for the Texans and head coach Bill O’Brien, there’s obviously enough of a connection there for O’Brien to provide Belichick with any insight to Foster’s health to make the decision to have him in for a visit.  Without knowing why he was here, it’s tough to read too much into that.

But if that Tweet is in fact accurate and he was in town, it’s interesting to think about what type of impact he could make on this offense if he’s able to get back to close to where he was prior to the injury.  Maybe he’s the reason the Patriots didn’t take a running back, and maybe he’s been on Belichick’s radar this whole time and he’s the reason there haven’t really been any other serious moves to address the position.

Or maybe Foster’s just here to check out Roger Goodell’s house in Maine.  Either way, that Tweet will certainly have people talking and stirred things up a bit on an otherwise quiet Thursday afternoon.

UPDATE: Ian Rapoport of NFL Network says Foster is in town, but not to visit the Patriots:

Where Will Shea McClellin Fit in the Patriots Defense?

Steve Balestrieri
at 9:00 am ET

Pats Will Have Some Work To Do Finding the Right Fit

The Patriots made some intriguing additions to the team during free agency, addressing positions of need. They signed WRs Chris Hogan and Nate Washington, DL Terrance Knighton, Chris Long, Markus Kuhn, and Frank Kearse. But perhaps the most intriguing signing was LB Shea McClellin because there exists a big question on just how the team plans on utilizing his strengths.

Unlike the much more heralded Long and Knighton, who were paid as one-year rentals far under market value for their services, McClellin was given the most money with a three-year, $9.05 million-dollar contract with $3.5 million fully guaranteed. That is akin to starter’s money, so they definitely have plans on using him somewhere. The question remains, where?

McClellin was on the Patriots radar when he entered the 2012 NFL Draft but the Bears selected him in the 1st round with the 19th overall pick. Chicago tried him as a sub-package pass rusher, a full-time defensive end,  and then the past two years they’ve stood him up as a linebacker. That’s where he seems the best fit, standing up and playing downhill at linebacker.

When McClellin spoke to the Boston media via conference call last month, he said as much stating that he prefers playing an aggressive downhill-type role.

“Any aspect with my hand down or standing up, any kind of blitzing, any linebacker position really, anywhere where I’m rushing the passer I feel comfortable in,” McClellin said.

McClellin isn’t a good fit as a defensive end.  He doesn’t have the size and strength to set the edge, where he played around 260 pounds.  The Bears had him trim down to around 245 where at inside linebacker he seemed to be a much better fit. He’s going to have a role when either Dont’a Hightower or Jamie Collins are banged up and when the Patriots use all three linebackers in their base package, but where?

So where will he fit with the Patriots? I called former Patriots linebacker and football media analyst Matt Chatham earlier this week and we spoke about McClellin and where he sees the fit. If anything, the situation is even murkier. “With the money the team is paying him, he’s not just going to be a supplemental player,” Chatham said. “But I’m not exactly sure where.”

The 2015 season saw the Bears use McClellin as their Mike linebacker in the middle. It was the position he looked most comfortable in. With the Patriots, just bringing in all these 300-pound beefy defensive linemen, it would definitely help the Mike in the running game.

“The Mike linebacker position or the Mack in the sub-packages seems like a good position for Shea,” Chatham said. “But [Dont’a] Hightower has been really good there. He played there at Alabama and has done a really solid job there the past few years. I don’t think you really want to move him over to the Sam.”

Dont’a Hightower has been outstanding in the middle for the Patriots the past few years. (USA TODAY Images)

Collins has been outstanding in the Will or weak side linebacker role. That is the player who makes the most impact, as he’s able to roam more sideline to sideline. McClellin could fit that role at times with his ability to blitz up the A-Gap but would that detract from Collins overall performance?

“If they felt Shea could be that impact guy, that would move Jamie [Collins] to the Sam over the tight end, which is probably where you’d want him in coverage, but would he be more of an impact player than Jamie? I don’t see that,” Chatham said.

At the Sam, where Chatham played in the Patriots system, he described it as a “more nuts and bolts position”, the linebacker plays over the tight end, jams him up at the line before passing him off to someone else deeper in coverage and sets the edge in the running game. That could be a possibility as well.

“I’m really spinning my wheels here,” Chatham said with a laugh. “He’s going to have a role and situations like this, I fall back on several conversations I’ve had with Bill [Belichick] during the television broadcasts, I’ll ask him where such and such a player fits, and invariably Bill will say, ‘Camp hasn’t started yet, we’ll see how that shakes out’ and that’s what I see here.”

So where and how the Patriots do decide to use McClellin will be an added piece of intrigue during the spring OTAs, mini-camp and training camp once it begins in earnest on July 27th. Where McClellin is lining up will be an area to watch. The Patriots had some linebackers in the past that came here and failed to catch on, including Chad Brown and Monty Beisel back in the mid-2000s. But more recently, Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas were two players that quickly found a comfort level with the Patriots.

McClellin brings to the table the element of versatility.  He can do a variety of different things and we’ll look for the Patriots to try him in a variety of different roles throughout the spring and early summer. Then they’ll find a spot that works for him and the team.

But like the rest of us, they probably don’t know where that will be yet. Stay tuned…

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Chris Long, Another Patriots Redemption Project on Defense

Steve Balestrieri
May 12, 2016 at 9:25 am ET

Pats DE-A Big Under the Radar Signing This Spring

The Patriots signed DE Chris Long just hours after trading Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals for G Jonathan Cooper and a 2nd round draft pick. Coincidence? Hardly. It was a smart decision signing a formerly dominant edge rusher looking to reignite his game after suffering two serious injuries in 2014-15.

Long missed 14 games those two lost seasons and was able to generate just four sacks, suffering an ankle injury and later a knee issue. Prior to that, Long, who turned 31 in March had an impressive run from 2010-13 where he generated 41.5 sacks and was one of the more dominant edge rushers in the game.

Long, if he can stay healthy in 2016 is a perfect fit for the Patriots defense in that he is the quintessential Bill Belichick-type player. Smart, competitive, comes from a football background and family, passionate about the game and with an unquenched thirst for winning. That’s one thing Long hasn’t experienced in his NFL career…winning. He’s never tasted the postseason and part of the draw for New England, why he took only a $2.375 million-dollar contract to come here was the opportunity to win.

The Patriots are looking for DE Chris Long to return to health and his dominant form in 2016. (USA TODAY Images)

Long can look to other players who came to New England in the latter stages of their careers and found success with the Patriots. Roman Phifer, Ted Washington, Andre Carter, Mark Anderson, and of course Rodney Harrison were all important cogs on the Patriots defense in years that the team went to the Super Bowl.

Long fits right in with what the Patriots and most importantly Bill Belichick likes in his players. Just ask one of his closest confidantes and fellow coaches has to say.

“The structure of the Patriots is based on players who are passionate about football and competition and winning,” Long’s former college coach and Belichick friend Al Groh said to WEEI’s Chris Price. “They are intense about preparation, and at the same time, they value guys who are good teammates.

“He’s passionate about football and winning, and he loves competition. He prepares relentlessly. Everybody who has ever played with or coached Chris said that they have never had a better teammate,” added Groh.

“He’s an excellent fit for the Patriots, and the Patriots are an excellent fit for him.”

The Patriots have been stockpiling big, physical players on the interior of the defensive line this spring. With Alan Branch and Malcom Brown already on the roster, the team added Terrance Knighton, Markus Kuhn, Frank Kearse and drafted Vincent Valentine in the 3rd round of the draft. They’re big, immovable objects but aren’t the most dynamic of pass rushers. That’s where the edge rushers come in.

Long is part of half a dozen Patriots defensive ends that the team will carry into OTAs and later into training camp. With Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard returning, Long won’t be expected to play an inordinate amount of snaps and wear himself down. Rather, he may be tasked with being a sub-package, third down pass rusher.

He could stay fresh, come in on passing situations and play with fire that marked his career that we’ve come to expect since he was the 2nd overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft from the University of Virginia.

The Patriots also have last year’s draft picks in Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers as well as Rufus Johnson who played well last summer before ending on IR early last season. With a slew of good edge rushers, the Patriots could also opt with sliding an edge rusher inside on obvious passing downs in a NASCAR package. We’ve seen them do that with Jones and Sheard in the past and with Grissom and Flowers last preseason.

The Patriots have used their edge rushers inside, in a NASCAR-type package here rookie Geneo Grissom lines up inside Jabaal Sheard. (SBalestrieri image)

Long at 6’4, 275 could do that, but would probably be best served lining up on the edge. Ninkovich and Sheard should enter training camp as the team’s starters but by adding Long as a pure pass rusher just sounds like a success waiting to happen. And just what is the best news to come out of Long and the Pats since his signing? Silence.

Nary a word has been spoken from Long nor about him since he’s signed on. I am sure that’s fine with Belichick. But for Long, it is just a sign that he’s putting in the work and getting ready to fill a role for the Patriots that will hopefully take him thru 16 games and beyond this season.

Uncharted waters for the veteran, but he can look to those other vets who came to New England and found success as well. He’s taken over Jones’ old number, #95 on the Pats roster. He’ll be a clear player to focus on once training camp begins in earnest come late July.

Then you’ll be hearing his name quite a bit…

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.



LeGarrette Blount Back in the Fold For Patriots

Ian Logue
April 12, 2016 at 1:39 pm ET

LeGarrette Blount has made a home for himself in New England, and it looks like he’ll have a shot at remaining here for at least another season.

According to the Boston Herald’s Jeff Howe, the veteran back re-signed with the Patriots on Tuesday, adding some depth to a position that for the most part looked pretty thin up until this point.

Blount’s signing adds to a group that just saw Tyler Gaffney get let go on Monday, leaving just Dion Lewis, James White, Brandon Bolden, Joey Ioesefa and Donald Brown, as well as fullback James Develin among the other backs joining Blount heading into training camp.

The veteran had a quiet 2015, carrying 165 times for 703 yards with six touchdowns before suffering a season-ending hip injury on Dec. 13 against the Houston Texans.  Prior to that Blount didn’t look as quick or as powerful as he did in his previous two seasons, which will make him a player to keep an eye on heading into training camp.

Running back is certainly a position that should be considered a need for this football team, so we’ll likely see additional players brought in both during the draft and following roster cuts by the time July gets here.  But for now Blount at least provides some stability and familiarity to the offense, although it should be a competitive camp depending on who else is added in the next couple of months.

Patriots Fourth And Two Podcast: Latest In Patriots Free Agency

Russ Goldman
April 6, 2016 at 2:51 pm ET

In this episode, we discussed the additions of Terrance Knighton, Clay Harbor, E.J. Biggers, and Nate Washington to the Patriots. We also discussed the contract extension for Patrick Chung. Lastly, we discussed some players to look for in the NFL Draft at offensive tackle and running back.

Patriots Add Depth, Sign TE Clay Harbor

Steve Balestrieri
March 31, 2016 at 6:05 am ET

The Patriots keep adding pieces to the offense and on Wednesday they signed another TE adding Clay Harbor who visited them early in free agency.

The signing was first reported by Adam Caplan of ESPN and gives the Patriots another weapon at the tight end position. Earlier the Patriots traded for the Bears Martellus Bennett.

Harbor saw his playing time cut in 2015 with the Jaguars when Marcedes Lewis returned to health as did Julius Thomas and caught just 14 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown. But in the two seasons prior, he snagged 50 passes for 581 yards and three touchdowns.

Harbor who turns 29 in July, was taken by the Eagles in the 4th round of the 2010 NFL Draft. He has 111 career receptions for 1,151 yards and eight touchdowns in 83 games.

Prior to the Jaguars coming to Foxboro last season in Week 3, Bill Belichick spoke highly of Harbor and the versatility that he brings to the table.

 I’d say that Harbor is kind of similar to (Raiders’ Marcel) Reece,” Belichick said. “He’s a fullback, tight end kind of guy, sort of lines up in a lot of different places. They use him in motion, change formations with him a bit.. Harbor is a good receiver.”

Clay Harbor Clay Harbor adds versatility to the Patriots TE position and will be more of a “Move” tight end. (USA TODAY Images)

Harbor caught 3 passes for 49 yards in that game, a 51-17 Patriots victory.

With the Patriots looking to keep the production up at the tight end position in 2016, they now have a logjam there with Rob Gronkowski, Bennett, Harbor as well as Michael Williams and 2nd year pro A.J. Derby.

It’s possible they keep four tight ends on the roster this season. When Gronkowski went down last year, Scott Chandler couldn’t respond with the production they were looking for and Williams is a blocker with limited value as a receiver.

Now with Bennett and Harbor added to the mix, the team will have on paper at least, the most productive group of tight ends they seen since Aaron Hernandez went to prison.

Harbor is more of a move tight end at 6’3, 250 pounds that Josh McDaniels can use flexed outside, as an H-back or even in a fullback mode. Gronkowski and Bennett are more in-line tight ends with the ability to move outside. With these additions it appears that the Bill Belichick and McDaniels are looking to go bigger and more physical on offense in 2016. And having a trio of big, physical and athletic tight ends will make the red zone offense pretty versatile.

Harbor also can be used to great effect in short yardage as either a fullback or H-back where play action passes from Tom Brady will be much more effective if they decide to utilize a 13 personnel package (1RB,1 WR, 3TE).

Rumors were flying that this signing may be the end of the road for the primarily run blocker Williams. While his skill set is much different, it may come down to a numbers game between he and Derby unless the team does opt for a 4th tight end where a cut will have to come from somewhere else.


Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

VIDEO: “@FitzyGFY’s Wicked Pissah Pats-N-Bat-Cast”

Robert Alvarez
March 29, 2016 at 1:13 pm ET

New England Patriots superfan Paul “Fitzy” Fitzgerald (played by Nick Stevens) posted his latest offseason video to his YouTube channel recapping free agency, trades and even a little Batman Vs Superman.

WARNING: NSFW, Language.

Video courtesy @FitzyGFY

Patriots Fourth And Two Podcast: Patriots Moves In Free Agency

Russ Goldman
March 24, 2016 at 6:03 am ET

In this episode, we discussed the many moves the Patriots have made since Free Agency opened for the 2016 season.

ICYMI: Chris Long Talks Jersey Number On Twitter

Robert Alvarez
March 22, 2016 at 9:52 pm ET

Newly signed New England Patriots defensive end Chris Long brought not only depth to the defense, but his funny, and sometimes heavy usage of social media along with him. This past Sunday, Long took to his Twitter to take time responding to fans who were curious what his new jersey number would be, his previous one with the St. Louis Rams was 91, currently owned by Jamie Collins.

It remains unknown what number he chose but it appears he made a final decision.