Category Archives: 2017 Free Agency

New England Patriots Training Camp Primer: Defensive Line

Steve Balestrieri
July 17, 2017 at 6:30 am ET

Versatility and Physicality Mark The Pats DL

The Patriots head into training camp in ten days and there should be no shortage of competition at a number of spots. As a lead-in to the beginning of camp, we’ll break down the positions and give our take on who is a lock, a near lock for the 53-man roster and who is on the bubble. Next up on our primers is the Defensive Line position.

Bill Belichick likes to say that the spring’s OTAs and Minicamp is a learning exercise and that the real competition begins in training camp. With a roster of 90 players and no cuts needed before the final 53-man roster cut down, there will be plenty of time for evaluation.

So, we’re going to look at the Patriots Defensive Line and how they shake out. There is much versatility here and that what makes the Patriots defense so effective. In a sack driven league, they’re rather pedestrian at them despite leading the league in points against in 2016.

DL Malcom Brown will be expected to be more consistent in 2017. (SBalestrieri photo)

It wasn’t smoke and mirrors, the team uses a variety of different looks and squeezes offenses from running the ball and then with their pass rushers, do not let opponents out of the pocket where big plays tend to happen. They demand their edge players set the edge first, they’re not and have never been a “sell-out” pass rush team.

The team lost defensive ends, Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long, this spring but drafted two younger guys in Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise while picking up Kony Ealy from the Panthers in a steal of a trade, during the NFL Draft. The team also picked up the versatile and underrated Lawrence Guy from Baltimore. Trey Flowers was arguably their best DL down the stretch and into the playoffs and Alan Branch was outstanding all season.

Roster Locks: Trey Flowers, Kony Ealy, Rob Ninkovich, Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise, Alan Branch, Malcom Brown
Everything starts with the big men in the middle and Branch and Brown were very good in 2016. Branch frequently plays over the center and is outstanding at stuffing the run. Brown is as well. Their job is to force everything outside where the defensive ends and linebackers are supposed to clean it up. They each got a little bit of push in the passing game but that is something that Brown could do a bit more of as well as be more consistent in 2017.

Patriots rookie DE Deatrich Wise in action at minicamp in June. (SBalestrieri photo)

Ealy will be an intriguing guy to watch this year. He’s in a contract year and has been given a clean slate by the coaches in New England.  The biggest knock against him was that he didn’t buy in when he was in Carolina. He seems to be doing that right off the bat here, which is a good sign. When he’s on, he’s a difficult man to block. Just rewind to Super Bowl L and watch him against the Broncos.

Big things are expected of Flowers this season, and after the way he finished 2016, he seems to be the go-to guy in the pass rush. Flowers, like many others in the Pats defense, is versatile and can rush from the edge or push inside as an interior pass rusher.

Ninkovich is a guy who is always at his best in clutch situations. He may be losing a step but he’s another versatile guy who can line up as a defensive end or drop as an outside linebacker.

Rob Ninkovich has been a clutch performer for the Patriots defense. (SBalestrieri photo)

Rivers and Wise by virtue of their draft stock are untouchable this season. Rivers is another guy who can play DE or OLB and was the Patriots top draft choice this season. Wise is another big DE in the Patriots mold that is an edge setter first and a pass rusher second. He was hurt in his senior season in college but had a very impressive 2015.

With the depth listed above, these rookie edge players, they won’t have a ton of pressure put on them to produce much this season. They will be able to learn the defense, get used to the speed of the pro game and get some reps here and there.

Near Roster Locks: Lawrence Guy, Vincent Valentine
Valentine showed some nice flashes last year in his rookie campaign. He’s another big body who can stuff the run on the inside. Guy is a versatile, movable piece and plays the 1-technique or out to the 5-technique. He seems like he’s going to be a nice fit in the Patriots defense. We’ll have to see if he can translate that to the field.

It is going to take some hard work from the guys below to unseat either of these two players. But stranger things have happened. Unless someone gets hurt or a case of the Foxboro Flu.

On the Bubble: Geneo Grissom, Woodrow Hamilton, Darius Kilgo, Josh Augusta, Adam Butler
The clock is running out on Geneo Grissom. He’s a guy that was drafted ahead of Flowers and was thought to have all kinds of versatility. But it hasn’t happened for him, he’s been unable to make a dent in the defense. Hamilton made the team a year ago but with the addition of Guy from the Ravens, he’s going to have to turn it up… a lot.

Augusta is a big-body, run stuffer in the Vince Wilfork mold, he’s listed at 6’0, 335-pounds…which may be wishful thinking. Passing the conditioning test on Day 1 will be a tough task for the big man, who failed to complete a lap during minicamp…twice.

Butler is a definite under the radar guy. Signed as a UDFA from Vanderbilt, the 6’4, 305-pound DL can be a run-stuffing tackle or a penetrator from the interior on passing downs. He played OL in college before switching over. He’ll be a guy to watch to see if he can turn some heads.

Kilgo was drafted by Denver and appeared in 18 games in two seasons before being released last November. The Pats signed the big 6’3, 320 DL to the practice squad where he spent the remaining part of the season.

Our next primer will have the Patriots Linebackers… stay tuned.

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 PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Why the Patriots Should Kick the Tires on David Harris

Steve Balestrieri
June 21, 2017 at 7:23 am ET

The Patriots love to bring in established veterans at the end of their careers and give them a role that they can still thrive in. It is something that Bill Belichick has traditionally done because it not only allows a player that is closer to the end of his career than the beginning the chance to still be a productive player, but will aid the team by giving them a veteran presence in the locker room, a mentor for the younger players and with their experience, almost another coach on the field.

That’s why the team should at least kick the tires on a David Harris signing. The 33-year old inside linebacker spent 10 very productive seasons with the Jets before being released recently in a salary cap dump. He was set to earn $6.5 million dollars under the salary cap in 2017 and along with Eric Decker was also jettisoned by the Jets in their house cleaning.

The Patriots have faced Harris twice a year in the AFC East. They and the coaching staff know him intimately. Another reason why he’d be a fit is the fact that Belichick likes to snag players that play well against his team. They’ve done with Wes Welker, Randy Moss, and more recently Chris Hogan and Mike Gillislee among others.

But Harris reminds one of another former Patriot, Junior Seau. Seau was close to retirement when Belichick came calling and he gave the team a couple of solid seasons. Was he the player he was earlier in his career? No, but it didn’t diminish what he brought to the table both on and off the field.

The Patriots have a concern at middle linebacker, I wouldn’t characterize it as a weakness but a lack of depth. Dont’a Hightower was resigned but has had some injury issues. Elandon Roberts is mainly untested. Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, and UDFA rookie Harvey Langi are either better outside or not ready (in Langi’s case) for major duty inside.

Bringing in a guy like Harris would immediately upgrade the unit. He could give the team, that two-down presence inside and allow them to move Hightower around more. He could come out in sub-packages allowing Van Noy and McClellin the opportunity to be productive either rushing the passer or dropping into coverage.

Like Seau, Harris was an unquestioned leader for the Jets on and off the field. He was known as the first man in the building and the last man out. His release was such a surprise and shock to his teammates, that coach Todd Bowles called a special, players meeting to discuss this.

“I miss him,” Darron Lee said of Harris. “He’s a great mentor and a great leader. I’m still going to consult him. Even though he won’t be around here, I’m still going to ask him for advice and everything. But it definitely was a somber day the next day and for the whole defense, really, and for this whole organization and for everybody in here because Dave was like a dad to all of us, a lot of young guys in here. He was like a father to me.”

With plenty of room under the salary cap, it would make sense for the Patriots to kick the tires on Harris. He would immediately consolidate the middle linebacker position, and allow Matt Patricia’s defense, even more, flexibility on early downs to mix and match their pieces to allow Hightower to be even more effective.

He could be brought in for a modest amount for a year or two and provide the Pats with the type of veteran’s presence that Seau gave them a few years ago. And with Belichick loving to tweak the Jets, how delicious would it be to see Harris grasping a Lombardi Trophy in February after languishing a decade with the Jets.

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 PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Which Patriots Veterans Could Be On the Hot Seat This Summer

Steve Balestrieri
May 25, 2017 at 9:16 am ET

The Patriots made splashes in both the free agency period and the 2017 NFL Draft this offseason to augment an already loaded roster that won the Super Bowl in February. While we continue to watch the developments of these players and try to figure out how well they’ll fit in their new environs, the other side of the equation always is, who do they replace?

There is always movement on the Patriots roster and Bill Belichick has always shown that he’ll cut a player a year early rather than wait until a year too late. Even some of his favorite players that he’s coached will eventually be shown the door, that is part of the reason why he continues to be so successful year after year.

So, with that in mind, the competition in training camp this season should be pretty intense and here are a few veterans that may be facing getting a visit from the “Turk” this summer.

Danny Amendola:  His name is on the list seemingly every year, so eventually we’ll be right, or he’ll retire in another few years before he’s shown the door. Another season, another re-done contract. Amendola has shown to be a tough, reliable wide receiver who while not putting up great numbers, saves his best for big plays at crunch time.

Danny Amendola runs a route in training camp 2016 (SBalestrieri photo)

With a very deep roster at the wide receiver position this season, Amendola will invariably face the questions if he’ll get axed this summer. With Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, and Malcolm Mitchell already penciled in, the competition will be there for Amendola to produce for the fifth WR position.

But Amendola has worked his way into QB Tom Brady’s circle of trust which is no small feat. If he stays healthy, he should be able to fend off his competitors for another season. Then come late February, he’ll be the subject of these rumors again.

Brandon Bolden: One of the more intriguing guys on the roster, Bolden is a core Special Teams player on a roster that already has a bunch of them. Bolden was a free agent this spring and signed a new deal to return.  But his roster spot is anything close to a given this year.

With the additions of Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead, the Patriots backfield with James White, Dion Lewis, D.J. Foster, and UDFA LeShun Daniels as well as fullbacks James Develin and Glenn Gronkowski makes the RB position stacked. Bolden may find himself a victim of the numbers game. With RB position in mind…

Dion Lewis: Wait?! What?! Don’t be shocked if Lewis, who was injured in 2015 and came back midway thru the 2016 season is under the gun this summer. He showed glimpses of what he’s capable of last season, but he wasn’t all the way back from his injury (Torn ACL) last year.

Now, more than a year removed from his rehab, Lewis will have to show the shiftiness that made him a Swiss Army Knife of the Patriots offense, a guy who can do a little bit of everything. James White took over his role last year and was simply outstanding in the Super Bowl, parlaying that into a contract extension.

Lewis faces the added competition of Burkhead, Gillislee (who should be taking the LeGarrette Blount role) and second year player D.J. Foster, who is a dangerous receiver with the ball in his hands. Lewis’ spot if far from a certainty either.

Linebackers Jonathan Freeny, Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy: Any of these three could be cut this summer, possibly even more than one. Freeny was a starter at the beginning of 2016 and a favorite of Bill Belichick. Freeny’s base salary is $1.8 million this season, he’s always been a stellar Special Team’s performer but his ability to contribute on defense, or lack thereof may be something to watch this summer.

Shea McClellin in 2016. (SBalestrieri photo)

McClellin was picked up last season and the team seemed to struggle to find him a role at first until they put him in a sub-package role, but while he’s not as good in coverage or as a pass rusher as Van Noy, nor the run stuffer that Elandon Roberts is, he can do a little bit of each. And he’s a guy that can slide down to defensive end for a few snaps as well. Versatility being a big thing with the coaches but will it be enough?

Van Noy was a nice pickup from the Lions last season, he showed that he could rush the passer and drop into coverage with good production. While not great against the run, he’s the best bet to remain this season, but will have to have a good summer as well.

All three will face some competition from second year player Roberts as well as UDFAs Harvey Langi and Brooks Ellis. Langi is an intriguing player who looked fantastic as a junior in 2015 before his coaches moved him out of position to DE last year. The Patriots paid him $100,000 guaranteed money which is a lot for an UDFA, so they have some hopes that he could compete for a roster spot.

Brandon King/Nate Ebner: These two players are safeties officially but are big special teams’ contributors. Their level of play has continued to be high and both are valuable pieces of the puzzle. So why are they on here? Numbers.

With the Patriots possibly keeping more WRs or RBs on the roster this season, the numbers dictate that someone is going to have to be cut to make room. The bottom of the roster will be an intriguing place to watch this summer.

Neither plays many snaps on defense, although Ebner does fill in on occasion in short yardage and goal line packages, and the Patriots are pretty much set at safety. Their value lies on STs but there are only so many spots on the roster that can be penciled in, each must have a good summer to stick although I’d give Ebner the edge here.

Two other names that can be added to the list are tackles LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming although the latter seems a good bet to stick this season.

The Patriots will have some great positional battles during training camp this summer. The tough part of having a stocked roster is that you always have to let go of some good veteran and rookie players.

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 PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Andrew Hawkins Announces Signing With Patriots

Robert Alvarez
May 24, 2017 at 10:30 pm ET

The New England Patriots officially added another wide receiver to their already crowded depth chart on Wednesday by signing free agent Andrew Hawkins to a one-year contract.

Hawkins announced the signing via the Lebron James developed professional athlete social media platform “Uninterrupted.”

“I’m super excited about the opportunity to join the reigning football champions. I exited Cleveland, and I said it was about joining a contender and the Patriots are the contender, the reigning champs. The program is top-notch and you get the opportunity to play with the best quarterback and the best coach in NFL history.”

Hawkins professional football path began in the Canadian Football League from 2009-2012 where he won two Grey Cup Championships for the Montreal Alouettes after four collegiate seasons at the University of Toledo.  In January 2011 he signed his first NFL contract with the then St. Louis Rams but was waived in August of that year. The Cincinnati Bengals claimed Hawkins off waivers later that summer and he spent the next three seasons in Cincinnati before moving north to Cleveland from 2014-2016.  The Browns released Hawkins on February 27th 2017.

2014 saw Hawkins have his most productive season as a professional, leading the Browns with 63 catches for 824 yards, but inconsistent quarterback play in Cleveland limited Hawkins to a combined 60 catches over the last two seasons. For his career, Hawkins has 209 receptions for 2,419 yards with five receiving touchdowns in six NFL seasons.

Julian Edelman, Brandon Cooks, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Matthew Slater are already locked into spots on the active depth chart. Hawkins will likely be competing with undrafted free agents Austin Carr and Cody Hollister in training camp. Devin Lucien and DeAndrew White are also on the Patriots practice squad.

To make room for Hawkins, the Patriots released wide receiver Devin Street and now have 12 wide receivers under contract.

Hawkins then followed up his announcement by posting an edited video scene from the HBO series “Ballers” which featured wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola but with Hawkins head put onto the main character Ricky Jerret, played by John David Washington.

Back to Work. #Patriots @dannyamendola @edelman11

A post shared by Andrew Hawkins (@hawk) on

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 PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

An Early Projection for the Patriots Starting Lineup, Better, Stronger, Faster

Steve Balestrieri
May 8, 2017 at 9:08 am ET

The NFL Draft is in the books, free agency has been fruitful, and the Patriots have made a flurry of initial UDFA moves. Barring any late moves or last minute trades, the initial roster of the 2017 Patriots should now be set.

As it stands now on paper, the roster for this season’s team looks better than the one that just won the Super Bowl. But as Bill Belichick has frequently said, you never really know what each season’s team will be like until Thanksgiving. Lots of things can and will change, injuries occur, and some players’ production will either rise or fall inside the system. Tweaks to the roster always occur during the season.

But what we see now should constitute the bulk of this year’s team. Confidence is high as always in New England. And for a team that has won 10 or more games for 14 straight seasons, why should there be any other feeling?

So here is a quick projection for the starting lineup for the 2017 Patriots

Offense:
Quarterback:

Tom Brady: Well duh? No change from last year or the 15 years prior. While the talk remains that eventually, his play is going to fall off a cliff due to his age, at this point, it is a lot of wishful thinking for a lot of non-Patriots supporters. His play, especially in the 2nd half of Super Bowl LI shows he’s still at the top of the heap in regard to NFL QBs.

His backups remain Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett. The rumor mill for Jimmy G. had him being traded this offseason but he’s still here, at least for 2017 and should any injury occur, he’ll be ready to step in.


James White is among a crowded Patriots backfield this season.

Running Back:

James White: After a Super Bowl where he could have easily been named the MVP, White has been given a nice raise and contract extension. And with the Patriots being a passing team first, White has proven to be a trusted, capable weapon in the offense.

But the Patriots are a matchup team that uses a rotation of running backs so their roster of backs doesn’t really have a starter per se, it will depend on how they match up against an opponent. Mike Gillislee will have a big role, taking over the big back i.e. LeGarrette Blount role. Something to consider, New England runs the ball on third down much more so than most fans would believe, so Gillislee will have a big role.

Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis, who should be completely healthy now round out the RB options. James Develin remains the fullback. Brandon Bolden, D.J. Foster, and LeShun Daniels are longshots for the roster at this point.

Wide Receiver:

Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Brandin Cooks: The Patriots brought in the speedster Cooks who was very productive in New Orleans this offseason. He’ll move around from outside to the slot depending on the matchups. A look at the top three with Edelman, Hogan, and Cooks shows that all of them can do the same. That makes for a very difficult group to cover. The versatility factor makes this group even more dangerous.

Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola are the primary backups and they’ve shown that they’ve earned Brady’s circle of trust. Mitchell came on in the second half of his rookie season and should be ready for more production in Year 2.

Devin Lucien, Devin Street, and Cody Hollister are longshots for the roster.


Rob Gronkowski is once again the Patriots top TE Option heading into 2017.

Tight End:

Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen: Gronkowski returns healthy for 2017 and Allen was brought over in a rare trade with the Colts, replacing Martellus Bennett who left in free agency. Gronk, when healthy remains the gold standard for NFL tight ends. Allen is an excellent blocker that can be very productive in the passing game who can attack the seams of the defense.

There is now plenty of depth behind them with James O’Shaughnessy, Matt Lengel, Rob Housler and Jacob Hollister fighting it out for a roster slot and repetitions. Training camp competition will be interesting to watch here.

Tackle:

Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon: No changes here from 2016. Solder returned from IR and played very solid in 2016. He’s in the last year of his contract and the Patriots must decide this year if they want him to return in 2018. Cannon was the biggest pleasant surprise of 2016. He parlayed a contract extension into a very solid campaign under the able tutelage of Dante Scarnecchia.

The team drafted a potential replacement for Solder in 2018 or beyond with Antonio Garcia. They added another tackle in the late rounds of the draft with Conor McDermott. He’ll be fighting backups Michael Williams, Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle for reps and a roster slot.

Guard:

Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason: No changes here from 2016. Thuney came in and started from Day 1 at left guard. As can be expected, he struggled a bit as a rookie and needs to come back stronger for his second season. Mason is a tough, road grader in the running game and will be looking to improve as well in 2017.

Primary backups should be Jamil Douglas who was brought over in midseason from Miami who was a 4th round draft pick in 2015 and Chris Barker.

Center:

David Andrews: No change here from 2016. Andrews is a bit undersized for the position but is smart and tough. He won over Tom Brady during training camp last year because of his ability to make the line calls and seeing the field much like Brady did.

His backup remains Ted Karras, the tough but less mobile version of Andrews. Karras can also play guard as well, the versatility that the coaching staff loves.


Flowers had a strong showing in 2016.

Defense:
Defensive End:

Trey Flowers, Kony Ealy: Lots of changes here. Gone are last season’s Week 1 starters Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard via free agency. But Flowers, who came on strong in the 2nd half of the season was the team’s best defensive lineman down the stretch and should be primed for a very solid 2017. Ealy was brought over from the Panthers as well as a 3rd round pick for the Patriots 2nd rounder.

Lots of good depth here now, Rob Ninkovich will play both DE and OLB and fill in where he’s needed and may still lobby for starting duties. Top draft choice Derek Rivers gives the team the speed and athleticism from the edge. Deatrich Wise is a bigger, edge setting end who can kick inside as an interior pass rusher. Lawrence Guy is another big man who can play inside as an interior tackle or on the edge. Geneo Grissom is on the outside looking in this year.

Tackle:

Malcom Brown, Alan Branch: No changes to the starting lineup. Brown played solidly in Year 2 but could stand to improve his pocket push in 2017. Branch was excellent against the run in 2016, eating up a ton of space. He returns with a new deal and has played the best football of his career since coming to New England.

Backups include Vincent Valentine, Woodrow Hamilton, Guy, Darius Kilgo, and UDFA Josh Augusta who is one of the players to watch in training camp. He’s a huge space eater who could be one of the surprise players to stick on the roster.

Linebacker:

Dont’a Hightower, Jonathan Freeny: Wait, what? People forget Freeny, a Bill Belichick favorite was a starter for the defense a year ago until landing on IR. Hightower got a new deal after testing free agency and not finding the market he envisioned out there. He’s the glue that holds the defense together for the Pats. He calls the defense and is the guy they need in the middle. He can do it all, stuff the run, cover in the flat and blitz up the A-gaps. Hightower’s starting slot is secure, Freeny will have to re-earn his spot this summer. But for now, he’s in.

Backups include sub-package third down players Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy, run-stuffer Elandon Roberts, Ninkovich, Trevor Bates and UDFA Harvey Langi. Langi is one of my players to watch this summer.

Since the Patriots spend so much time in sub-packages, we only include two starting linebackers, therefore…


Butler’s potential return solidifies a terrific secondary.

Cornerback:

Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe: The team gave Gilmore a big money contract this spring during free agency. And after a contentious period with Butler, he signed his free-agent tender and has been in for off-season workouts. Rowe is a big matchup corner and gives the Patriots a very solid starting three. Each has the versatility to be shifted around and play outside or in the slot depending on how Belichick and Matt Patricia choose to use them.

Backups include Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Coleman, Jonathan Jones, and intriguing UDFA D.J. Killings who for now, is a long shot for the roster.

Safety:

Devin McCourty, Pat Chung: No changes here from 2016. McCourty is the QB for the secondary and always ensures that the players in are in the right position. He plays the centerfield position in the base defense and can slide up to play in the slot in the “big nickel”. Chung is the guy in the box, he plays physical against the run and he’ll cover tight ends in the short to intermediate range.

Duron Harmon was brought back with a nice deal in free agency. He plays a lot of snaps and replaces McCourty as the center fielder in big nickel coverage. Jordan Richards has been disappointing thus far. Nate Ebner and Brandon King are special teamers.

Special Teams:

Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Joe Cardona, Matthew Slater: The team’s specialists remain the same. Gostkowski will have training camp competition for the first time in a while from Josh Gable, known more for his trick shots. Punter Ryan Allen and LS Joe Cardona face no competition. Slater is a perennial Pro-Bowl gunner.

So, with the additions made in the draft and free agency, the Patriots look …on paper in a prime position to compete for another Super Bowl bid. Of course, injuries and other factors always weigh in but there are no holes on the roster as it currently stands. They’ve addressed their needs across the board and look even better than the team that won 14 games in the regular season and three more in the playoffs in 2016.

Is it time for mini-camp yet?

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 PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Will Any UDFA Players Make the Patriots? Hollister, Langi Good Candidates

Steve Balestrieri
May 6, 2017 at 9:06 am ET

There always seems to be at least one undrafted free agent [UDFA] that makes the Patriots 53-man roster out of training camp. Bill Belichick has never been one to care where a player was drafted only that he can play, is coachable and one that football is very important to.

This year’s undrafted rookie free agent crop has [for now], 19 names on it. While these players are yet to take the field with the veterans in any kind of workout yet, there are a few names that jump off the page. Among them are tight end Jacob Hollister and LB Harvey Langi.

Hollister is a tight end but at 6’4, 239-pounds he’s more of a “move” or a “U” type tight end than the inline or “Y” tight end like Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen. While a willing blocker in the run game, he doesn’t have the strength or the punch to drive defensive linemen back. He won’t line up inline much in short yardage.

Hollister, as one would expect of move tight end has good speed and athleticism. He logged a 4.64-second time in the 40-yard dash with a 36 1/2-inch vertical leap, a 10-foot, 1-inch broad jump, a 4.34-second short shuttle and a 7.12-second time in the all-important 3-cone drill that the Patriots really like to evaluate their receivers.

Hollister caught 32 passes for Wyoming in his senior season, good for 515 yards and seven touchdowns. He showed an ability to stretch the seams of the defense. Hollister was targeted 11 times in 2016 where the ball was 20 yards or more in the air. He caught seven of those for 189 yards and three touchdowns.

He runs nice fluid routes, can move around the formation to create mismatches against linebackers and is a threat to stretch the field attacking the seams. He can create some separation and has good ball skills. Wyoming at times lined him up in the backfield as an H-Back. His value will lie in that the Patriots when they go with a two-tight end set with him and Gronkowski, is that they’ll be dictating to the defense. If they play a base look, he’d be isolated on a linebacker. In a sub-package look, Hollister would have single coverage on a safety.

With some work on his run blocking and gaining the trust of Tom Brady in the passing game, Hollister could be a steal. The Patriots gave him $90,000 in guaranteed money. Which is high for an UDFA.

His highlight film can be seen here:

Langi was a Swiss Army knife for BYU where he transferred from Utah after taking two years off to complete his two-year mission to fulfill his Mormon LDS obligation. So he’s an older [25] prospect. Part of his versatility was possibly the reason that he fell in the draft right out of the seven rounds.

He was effective at inside linebacker but the team switched their defense up and tried him as a 4-3 edge rusher, something he wasn’t particularly suited for. He is listed at 6’2, 251 pounds but he’ll probably ditch 5-10 pounds and lineup full-time as a linebacker in the Patriots scheme which should help his mobility.

He’s at his best when he’s playing a downhill, physical style of football and plays the run extremely well. The Patriots will probably play him inside or on the strong side. While not great in coverage, he shows good depth in his drops. He can easily play in the short-to-intermediate parts of the field.

Langi moves well and has good athleticism running a 7:00 in the 3-cone drill. He’s a guy that can back up Hightower at the Mike or line up at the SAM. He’s a good blitzer up the A-gaps and that is a better look for him than on the edge.

The Patriots gave him the most guaranteed money of their UDFAs with $115,000 fully insured so they obviously think he can contribute this season. He’ll be an immediate contributor on Special Teams and become part of the rotation at linebacker.

His highlight film can be seen here:

Hollister and Langi aren’t the only two who could land on the roster this season. One never knows how things play out and how many injuries occur in minicamp and training camp. But in looking for a couple of guys who can crack the 53-man roster in early May? These two should be at the head of the list.

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 PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots’ Defense on the Edge Will Have a Different Look in 2017

Steve Balestrieri
May 3, 2017 at 10:50 am ET

 The Patriots didn’t have to make too many changes for a roster that had just won Super Bowl LI but one of the areas that underwent pretty dramatic change was at defensive end on the edge. With Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long leaving via free agency, it was considered the Patriots biggest area of need.

And the Patriots have addressed it, bringing in Kony Ealy in a trade with the Carolina Panthers and then drafting a pair of edge players Derek Rivers from Youngstown State and Deatrich Wise from Arkansas. Those three players will join Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich for the Patriots this season. The team signed UDFA linebacker Harvey Langi as well and he played the edge for BYU somewhat last year, but his best fit is at outside linebacker.

Flowers was arguably the best Patriots defensive lineman down the stretch last season. He’s guaranteed to be starting at RDE when the season starts. Ninkovich and Ealy will compete for the LDE spot. With Rivers and Wise providing rotational depth.

But this year’s unit has a much different feel to it because they have more versatility. Ealy is a bigger guy at 6’4, 275 pounds. He can set the edge in the running game, has the athleticism to get after the passer and is big and physical enough to kick inside as an interior pass rusher on third down. Flowers already does that frequently.

The Patriots brought in another free agent, Lawrence Guy who can be a sub-package interior pass rusher. That’s what they’ll get in Wise as well. He’s a big kid, at 6’5, 275 pounds with insanely long arms that he needs to learn to use better. When he extends his arms, with his upper body strength, he can push through tackles and get to the quarterback. He’s frequently been compared to Chandler Jones but isn’t nearly as athletic. He’s more of a big edge setter. But Wise can also kick inside and provide interior pass rush…Seeing a trend here?

Which brings us to the team’s first draft pick Derek Rivers. If there was one element the Patriots front seven lacked on the edge last season was speed. Rivers will bring that speed to the pass rush with an athleticism that should serve the team very well.

Rivers isn’t as big at 6’4, 250 pounds at the defensive end position but ran a 4:61 in the 40-Yard Dash, with a 1:61 10-Yard Split. His time in the 3-Cone Drill was third best at the position with 6:94. That shows he has the quick twitch athleticism, loose hips and the ability to change direction as well as bend off the edge to get to the QB. He showed his strength with 30 reps at the Bench Press.

He may need some time to find his feet in the NFL, similar to how Flowers progressed in his first campaign, but he has the potential to be a very good player in the league. The good part is, with the depth of the team, he won’t be pushed too hard too soon. They can let him develop and learn the nuances of the position at the NFL level.

With the added depth, the Patriots can move Ninkovich around and possibly let him take some snaps at OLB with Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, and Langhi.

However, the edge will look quite different in 2017. How effective will it be? No one knows right now but I’d bet on Belichick having it figured out as the season winds along.

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 PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Get Their Man Again From Buffalo, Gillislee Now a Pat

Steve Balestrieri
April 24, 2017 at 6:32 pm ET

The Patriots added another nice piece to their roster when the Buffalo Bills decided not to match New England’s offer sheet and Mike Gillislee is now a member of the Patriots.

The cost? A fifth-round draft pick. But this is another case where with Brandin Cooks and Kony Ealy the Patriots and Bill Belichick decided to go with a known commodity. New England gave up their first rounder for Cooks who has been very productive for New Orleans and their second-round pick for Ealy and Carolina’s third rounder, a difference of eight slots.

Gillislee had 577 yards on 101 carries for a 5.7 yard per carry average with eight touchdowns in 2016 backing up LeSean McCoy. The 27-year old added nine receptions out of the backfield. Against the Patriots last year, he had 12 carries for 85 yards and a score in the game in Buffalo.

He’ll join a stable of running backs including James White, Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, D.J. Foster and Brandon Bolden. While Gillislee has never had to stand up for a whole season as a starter, with the Patriots, they have plenty of depth to carry them thru, plus he can contribute in the passing game.

This signing probably means the end of the line for LeGarrette Blount in New England as Gillislee’s role will undoubtedly be that of the “big back” in the Patriots offense. He had a stellar 2016 season with over 1100 yards and 18 touchdowns. Blount was never a fan favorite here in New England but in his seasons here, in all fairness, he was a model citizen, a great teammate and being paid around the veteran minimum, a tremendous value.

So the Patriots raid Buffalo again, Chris Hogan was a restricted free agent last season and Stephon Gilmore was an unrestricted free agent this spring. Gillislee won’t have to worry about knowing many players in the locker room in his first few days.

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Patriots Learn Today If They Get Gillislee, Close Door on Blount

Steve Balestrieri
at 6:23 am ET

 The Patriots will know no later than 4 p.m. if restricted free agent running back Mike Gillislee will be suiting up for them this season. The Patriots signed the Bills running back to a 2-year $6.4 million dollar offer sheet with $4 million of it front-loaded into the first year. Buffalo has until the 4 p.m. deadline to either match the Patriots offer or decline it.

If the Bills decline, Gillislee becomes part of the Patriots stable of running backs which includes James White, Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, D.J. Foster and Brandon Bolden under contract. The Patriots would also have to give up one of their fifth-round draft picks, as the Bills placed a fifth-round tender on Gillislee this offseason.

Gillislee would inherit the “big back” reps in the Patriots offense. With a slew of pass-catchers and the New England offense being a pass-first unit, he wouldn’t be consistently asked to carry a heavy load. But he’s a physical, downhill runner who can also be a factor in the passing game.

Gillislee earned the praise of Bill Belichick last year and in the second meeting between the two teams in Buffalo had a very solid outing. He carried the ball 12 times for 85 yards and a touchdown. He also added three catches out of the backfield.

The Bills are tight under the salary cap and also have been rumored to be looking to add some picks in this week’s upcoming draft. Part of the reason the Patriots front loaded the deal for Gillislee is to make it harder for the Bills to match. They’d have to do some shifting around of monies under the cap but could make it work if they feel it is in their best interests to do so.

If the Bills match the Patriots offer, then Gillislee returns to them for the next two years and the Patriots will probably use one of their draft picks on a running back. They currently have seven picks. Two 3rd -round picks, a 4th, two 5th-round picks, a 6th and a 7th.

One player who will be watching the events of today unfold will be free agent RB LeGarrette Blount. If the Patriots sign Gillislee, then that would probably end the run of Blount in New England. But if the Bills decide to match, it would open the door for Blount to return for at least one more season, although it would still be expected that they’d entertain drafting a big running back this weekend.

Blount was visible over the weekend and is still making personal appearances for the team. He appeared at a charity basketball game with the Patriots in Grafton on Friday night. So there is plenty of reason to believe, that the door is not closed yet.

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 PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.