Tag Archives: 2015 NFL Season

Patriots Wear Down Texans, Advance to AFC Title Game

Steve Balestrieri
January 15, 2017 at 1:00 am ET

Sloppy Execution But The Pats Prevail

The Patriots advance to the AFC Championship Game for a record sixth year in a row with a 34-16 win over the Houston Texans. It was an uncharacteristically sloppy game for the Patriots especially in the first half, but the team persevered and forced turnovers on defense and won over a tough, determined Texans team.

It was the little big men for the Patriots, Dion Lewis and Julian Edelman who did the damage for the Pats offense. Lewis had a 13-yard touchdown reception, a two-yard touchdown run and a 98-yard touchdown on a kickoff. He’s the first player in NFL playoff history to have a run, reception and a return for a score.

Lewis carried the ball 13 times for 41 yards, had two receptions for 23 yards and returned three kickoffs for 123 yards. But he had two fumbles, one of them directly led to the Texans only touchdown of the night.

Edelman gave Kareem Jackson fits all night and caught 8 passes for 137 yards and is now the Patriots all-time leading receiver with 76 catches.

QB Tom Brady was under a lot of pressure tonight, the most he’s seen all season and was hit numerous times. He completed 18 of 38 passes for 287 yards with 2 TDs and 2 INTs off of deflections. Brady threw only two picks all season and he equaled that number tonight.  Houston’s defense deserves a lot of credit, they had a good game plan and executed it very well for this game.

The Texans moved Whitney Mercilus and Jadaveon Clowney to the inside and their pressure up the A-gap was the cause of great disruption for the Patriots offense, mostly early in the game. The Pats countered by trying to force the Texans linebackers to play in space and take advantage of mismatches there.

After trading possessions where neither team could move the ball, and get a first down the Patriots struck first. They went 65 yards in just three plays for the first touchdown of the game. A pass interference foul on Chris Hogan was good for 35 yards. On the next snap, Brady found Hogan down the right sideline for 22 more down to the Houston 13.

On the ensuing play, Brady hit Lewis in the backfield in the left flat, he juked Bernadrick McKinney, cut back against the grain and raced just inside the pylon for his first touchdown of the year. The score made it 7-0 New England.

The defense had Osweiler facing a third and 18 from deep in the Houston zone but a dumb penalty on Eric Rowe gave them life and a 15-yard boost as well. Houston then put together their best drive of the night resulting in a 33-yard field goal by Nick Novak. The drive consumed eight minutes and three seconds.

On Novak’s kickoff, Lewis ran it back 98 yards for a score giving the Patriots a 14-3 lead. He received good blocks from Matthew Slater and Geneo Grissom to spring him for the touchdown.

After holding Houston for a three and out, Brady’s next pass was picked off by A.J. Bouye and returned to the Patriots 27. Brady intended to hit Floyd on a slant but the ball was just a bit too far in front and when it hit Floyd’s hands it bounced straight up and into Bouye’s hands.

But the defense stiffened and held Houston to just another field goal to make it 14-6. Then disaster struck, Lewis returned the kickoff to the 12 and fumbled, recovered by the Texans and they were in business. Two plays later, Osweiler hit a wide open C.J. Fiedorowicz for a 10-yard touchdown pass and Foxboro began to get restless. Patriots social media right about then was full of gloom and down as the score became 14-13.

Brady would lead the Pats down the field just before the half but the team fell short of the end zone and had to settle for a Stephen Gostkowski chip shot field goal after LeGarrette Blount was stuffed at the 1-yard line. The Patriots despite playing sloppy football in the first half led 17-13.

In the third quarter, Brady led the Patriots best drive of the game going 90 yards in 9 plays in just under three and a half minutes to give the Patriots a 24-13 lead. Brady started off with two passes to Edelman that went for 40 yards. He followed that up with a 21-yard pass to Hogan. The drive culminated with a beautifully designed play that had Brady hit James White for a 19-yard touchdown pass over McKinney.

The Patriots defense held Osweiler and the Texans to just three second half points while forcing three turnovers. Osweiler’s second interception was tipped and Logan Ryan returned it down to the Houston five-yard line. Ryan had a fantastic night in the secondary providing good coverage and breaking up pass plays.

Two plays later, Lewis powered it in from the one-yard line and it was 31-16 Patriots.

They would add a final field goal by Gostkowski to round out the scoring at 34-16.

It wasn’t the way they drew things up but the mark of a good team is one that can play poorly and still win by three scores. Our prediction of 34-13 was very close, but the game played out pretty differently.

Now the Patriots await the winner of the Kansas City – Pittsburgh game tomorrow night. They’ll face off with the victor on Sunday evening at 6 p.m. in Gillette Stadium.

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.

New England Patriots News 7-31, AFC East Notes

Steve Balestrieri
July 31, 2016 at 5:00 am ET

Good morning, here are Sunday’s Patriots news 7-31 and notes on what’s happening around the AFC East.

Do you think that people in these parts … in other words Patriots fans, missed football? After having 12,393 fans show up for the opening day of training camp, the first padded practice of 2016 had the incredible number of 21,781 fans packing the Gillette practice fields, the hill on the side and the tiers of the stadium overlooking the entire process. Saturday was as packed a practice as I’ve ever seen in the past nine years.

Belichick Is Not one to Waste Time nor Words:
For those of us who have been fortunate enough to sit in on Bill Belichick’s press conferences the past few years, the one thing that stands out is that there is nothing wasted. And everything has a meaning. That means if you’re a member of the press, you better do your homework and come prepared.


Bill Belichick was in mid-season form during his Friday presser. (USA TODAY Images)

No one wants to be “that guy”. The one who asks a dumb question and gets the blank stare or the sarcastic, monotone of the coach when he’s annoyed. We’ve all seen it and it isn’t a pretty sight.

So when training camp began on Thursday, Belichick’s comments were straightforward and to the point. He said the team’s #1 focus was to prepare Jimmy Garoppolo to start the season. But more importantly, he stated that when he returned to the team during Week 5, Tom Brady was going to be the starting QB. Right there Belichick put out the QB controversy fires out with a quick statement. Regardless of how Jimmy G. plays in the first month, the position belongs to Brady.

Belichick has seen first-hand both in Cleveland and here how distracting a QB controversy can be. And if you’re a media member, you “shoulda” been paying attention.

A media member asked Belichick on Friday exactly what he unequivocally stated on Thursday. ““Look, I told you what’s going to happen,” growled Belichick.  The warning signs were there but the member persisted “So there’s no chance?”  and that when Belichick mumbled “Jesus Christ” under his breath but audible on the microphones.

Whether you love his ways or hate them, that is how he rolls. And his “four Super Bowl pelts on the wall” give him plenty of ammo. Sometimes it is better not to poke the bear.

Nate Solder’s Return to Action, Was Small News for the Tackle:
Patriots left tackle Nate Solder tore his biceps and was lost for the season after the Dallas game last October.  He’s healthy and is back to work this season which is very good news for the Patriots. But his return is just secondary on Solder’s mind.

His son Hudson is just a year old and was diagnosed with cancerous tumors on both his kidneys just after he was born last July. Solder himself battled testicular cancer just before his son was born. But now both of them are getting healthy and the two along with his wife Lexi were playing on the field after the Patriots first practice.

It put everything into perspective for the Pats starting left tackle. “Oh man, I’m so excited to be out here. Been a while since I’ve been able to play, so I’m so excited about that. My son is doing awesome. Treatment is going well and we’ve been getting so many prayers and messages from so many people that we just appreciate it so, so much”, he said in an interview with Fox 25’s Tom Leyden.

Training Camp Schedule:
Practices and parking are free during training camp but as a word to the wise. Arrive early. Parking is in the P6 or P8 parking lots. It is first-come, first served and the crowds get bigger every year. Saturday’s crowd was the largest I’ve witnessed in the past nine years.

Sunday, July 31: 9:15am – 11:45am — Morning Practice Session
10am – 2pm — Patriots Fan Zone

Monday, August 1: 4:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. Patriots Fan Zone
5:00 p.m. Hall of Fame Induction for Kevin Faulk (open to public)
7:00 – 9:00 p.m. In-stadium practice, open to Season Ticket Holders and Foxboro residents only.

Tuesday, August 2 is an off-day. With no practice

Remember the schedule is subject to change and that in the case of inclement weather, should the team move inside the practice bubble, fans are not allowed inside.

During the day while practice sessions are ongoing, the Patriots Pro Shop, the Hall, the team’s Hall of Fame and the Fan Zone will all be open. There are concessions open behind the bleachers during practice.

East Bound and Down…AFC East Notes:

Dolphins Sign Melvin, Release Stoneburner and activate McCain:
The Miami Dolphins were a busy lot on Saturday as they worked out a trio of cornerbacks and signed one of them, Rashaan Melvin, who spent a part of 2015 with the Patriots. The Fins need help at corner and Melvin played in eight games with the Pats a year ago.

In a corresponding move, Miami released tight end Jake Stoneburner. Stoneburner played in 11 games with one start and caught five passes for 47 yards, for a 9.4 avg. and two touchdowns for the Dolphins in 2015.

The also activated Bobby McCain from the Physically Unable to Perform List (PUP). A 5th Round Draft Pick (145th overall), in the 2015 NFL Draft, McCain played in all 16 games with four starts as a rookie for Miami in 2015. He recorded 22 tackles (19 solo) on defense and added six special teams stops (four solo).

Jets Finally (To No One’s Surprise), Sign Fitzpatrick:
File this one under, let’s quit acting like children and admit we need one another. Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick signed a one-year $12 million dollar contract this week, fully guaranteed and with another $3 million in incentives. So hey, what kept ya?

This one was a no-brainer from jump street, the two sides needed one another but neither would budge. But on the verge of training camp starting, the two sides finally struck a bargain.

Fitzy had a solid year for the Jets a year ago and had them on the verge of a playoff spot. With the two sides far apart, the Jets tried to leverage Fitz by publicly declaring their confidence in Geno Smith. Which probably impressed no one other than Smith.

Is Fitzpatrick a franchise QB? No. but he’s a helluva lot better QB than Smith and gives them a chance to play for a shot in the playoffs.

Bills Set Earlier Curfew for Health, Still Far apart with Gillmore:
The Buffalo Bills are hoping that getting more rest during training camp will help cut down on injuries and give the team a healthier outlook once the season begins. So head coach Rex Ryan instituted a 10 o’clock curfew this season.

“I think we’re also the only team in the league that had, like, a 10 o’clock curfew last night,” Ryan said to the media. “We’re trying to avoid some of the things we went through last year.”

In other news, the Bills and CB Stephon Gillmore are reportedly still far apart in contract negotiations. Gillmore will play out his contract and hit free agency next year and would be set to cash in, in a big way. Gillmore has stated he wants to remain in Buffalo but also sounded pragmatic this week. “I’ll let my agent do the job. If it gets done, it gets done.”
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.

Four Things To Watch For At Patriots Training Camp

Steve Balestrieri
July 27, 2016 at 12:03 pm ET

Lots of positions/players will demand attention this summer

The Patriots headed into training camp this morning. The veterans had to report in and join the rookies who have been at it since Sunday. Now the dog days of summer begin as the team begins to come together on the field and the competition begins in earnest for roster spots in 2016. Here are four things that you need to be watching for.

It can be a daunting task, with 90 players running around on two separate practice fields, it can be a blur at times. While most fans that make the trek down to Gillette watch Brady and the wide receivers do their thing, there are lots of other activities going on that will also bear watching very closely this year. So let’s start with the elephant in the room.

How Will the Reps Break Out Between Brady and Garoppolo?
Normally this one is a no-brainer. Brady loves the work, the competition and tries to protect his snaps like a miser would a pile of gold dust. But with #12’s suspension, this year the coaches face an intriguing dilemma. How will the QB reps with the 1st team offense play itself out?

There is no more “if” Brady is suspended. It’s happening and he’s going to sit the first month of the season. Now Jimmy Garoppolo is no longer facing a possible scenario where he may be forced to play the first quarter of the season, he is.

Brady and Josh McDaniels share a moment

Brady and Josh McDaniels share a moment

Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniel will have to walk a fine line here. Garoppolo must be prepared to take the field on September 11 against the Cardinals and run the offense smoothly. Brady, on the other hand, has a lot of new weapons in the arsenal that he has to get comfortable with. Martellus Bennett, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell are all new faces who will be counted upon in 2016. And Brady WILL be the starting QB from Weeks 5 to 17 and beyond once the playoffs begin.

Brady can’t just skip training camp, then the first month of the season and be expected to be sharp against the Browns in Week 5. And Jimmy G. will also need time to work in a comfort level with the same players. There is no right or wrong answer here. The coaches will have to find a happy medium. I would expect Brady to get just a hair over the 50 percent mark in practice with Jimmy G, getting the lion’s share of preseason game work.

Who Steps Up at Running Back?
This was one of those positions we thought the team would address this offseason. But they mostly decided to stand pat. The only additions were veteran Donald Brown and UDFA D.J. Foster. As a result, this position is truly wide open.

With Dion Lewis coming off of an ACL injury in November and beginning camp on PUP, coupled with LeGarrette Blount coming off of a serious hip injury, the positions are there for the taking.

Foster takes a handoff inside the "triangle" from Tom Brady

Foster takes a handoff inside the “triangle” from Tom Brady

Blount has been a favorite of Bill Belichick and he did have a decent season before he was injured. He’s that punisher that the team likes when they get ahead on opponents and Blount has proved that when he can get to that second level, he’s very effective.

But if he can’t move effectively? The team is in a rough spot. For the big backs that can pound the ball, that would leave them with either Tyler Gaffney or Joey Iosefa.  Gaffney is entering Year 3 and still hasn’t taken the field and Iosefa had one big play on his resume from a year ago. Brandon Bolden is just there for STs and as an emergency fill-in.

The team will clearly err on the side of caution with Lewis which opens up camp and preseason for the third down passing back role. James White was very good out of the backfield but the team showed zero confidence in him as a runner. Donald Brown is a vet who may be getting a little long in the tooth. He can do a bit of running and is a good receiver as well as an excellent blocker. Foster is an intriguing guy who looks dynamic out of the backfield. If he can prove he can run with the ball, he’ll be the guy to watch.

Cornerback Depth, Who’s #2 and #3?
Malcolm Butler is the Patriots top cornerback. That isn’t going to change unless he gets hurt this summer. But here is where things get interesting. While both Logan Ryan and Justin Coleman return after starting as the right and slot corners respectively, competition is wide open.

Top draft choice Cyrus Jones is going to push Coleman at a minimum for the starters job at slot corner. He may even push Ryan for the right corner spot and force him into the slot. But the competition doesn’t end there.

2-Roberts,-Coleman

Also competing for a roster spot is 2nd-year player Darryl Roberts, veteran E.J. Biggers and UDFAs Jonathan Jones, Cre’Von LeBlanc and V’Angelo Bentley. The young players are all on the smaller side but very athletic and have return ability.

Jones and LeBlanc stood out this spring, the final slot may come down to STs ability. Roberts made an outstanding play as a gunner in minicamp, something that had to catch the coaches eye. This will be a fun position to watch this summer.

Interior Offensive Line, crowded with New Faces:
While we thought the team would address tackle this spring, the team again threw us a curve and stood pat. But they added several new faces in the interior offensive line and how it plays out will bear watching.

The Pats brought in former 1st round pick Jonathan Cooper in the Chandler Jones trade. Injuries and inconsistent play have marked his career to date. Now he’s looking to reignite his career under Dante Scarnecchia. The team also drafted Joe Thuney and Ted Karras.

With Josh Kline, Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason missing the spring workouts, it opens up some intriguing possibilities inside. Most assume Bryan Stork and David Andrews are locked in a positional battle for the center job. But Thuney took some snaps there as well this spring.  Health and performance on the field will be the final decision makers here but we could be conceivably looking at a completely different interior of the line in September.

Check out our earlier primers on the running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, cornerbacks and the safeties.  And be sure to keep tuned into PatsFans.com during training camp as we’ll post daily updates from down in Gillette.

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 Training Camp Primer – Safeties

Steve Balestrieri
July 26, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

Deepest Position of the Team, Tough Cuts Ahead

The Patriots head into training camp this week 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 are the Safeties.

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. While that is true to an extent, with 89 players on the current roster, a minimum of 36 of these will be cut. That doesn’t take into consideration the tweaking that goes on during the season after the initial 53-man roster is completed.

So the next position to break down are the safeties. The backend of the Patriots secondary is set, starters Devin McCourty and Pat Chung return and each will turn 29 in training camp so their age isn’t an issue.  Duron Harmon is normally the first man on the field, but he missed all of the spring so 2nd-year player Jordan Richards was taking the majority of his reps. Richards is shorter and stockier than Harmon and is a bit stiff for the backup center field role, he’s better suited to the box or the hybrid safety/linebacker role. Nate Ebner will not be at camp, having been granted permission to play rugby in the Olympics.

Those five plus Brandon King were on last year’s roster. The team let Tavon Wilson walk in free agency but waiting in the wings is LB/S Kamu Grugier-Hill, Brock Vereen, Cedric Thompson and the recently signed Vinnie Sunseri.

The team is deep and talented at safety and they’re more than addressed the loss of Wilson who played very little the past two seasons.

So who’s locked in and who’s on the bubble?

Roster Locks: Devin McCourty, Pat Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards
McCourty is the quarterback of the secondary, a co-captain of the team and the glue that holds everything together on the backend. He still doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his center field play. With each passing year, he’s asserting his leadership more and more and still just 28 is one of the oldest established veterans of the unit.


Pat Chung has excelled in his second stint with the Pats. (USA TODAY Images)

Chung continues to enjoy a renaissance in his second go-around with the team. He plays up in the box and is extremely effective at stopping the run and covering the tight ends. It seems like Chung should be older than 28, but he still has several good years left in his career.

Harmon was considered a reach when he was drafted in 2013 but now he’s a very valuable member of the defense. In certain packages, the team will move McCourty around and bring in Harmon to play centerfield. He played in nearly 54 percent of the team’s defensive snaps and allowed just 4 of 11 passes for 69 yards and two touchdowns in 2015. He was also credited with three passes defended and three interceptions. His 58.5 passer rating against, was the best of the Patriots’ secondary men.

Richards was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2015 NFL Draft with the 64th overall pick. He has an outstanding football I.Q. and is a high character guy. As a rookie, most of his playing time (21% of the defensive snaps), came after McCourty and Chung suffered injuries late in the season. He’s best suited to the backup of Chung, being used down in the box and covering the tight ends.

On the Bubble: Nate Ebner, Brandon King,
King was a pleasant surprise a year ago, carving out a special team’s role and ending up with the second most tackles on the STs unit. He wasn’t given much of a chance of sticking but worked closely with Special Team’s Coach Joe Judge and had a solid rookie season.

Ebner was given a contract extension this spring and has been a valuable member of the STs unit. But he was granted a leave of absence to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics as a member of the US National Men’s Rugby Team. He’s been a fixture here but his absence could open the door for another player who steps up in training camp.

Kamu Grugier-Hill could be one of those players. An undersized, athletic demon on special teams, he could easily carve out a role for himself on defense as well. He’s one of those LB/S hybrids that teams are filling their rosters with.


Brandon King had a solid rookie season competing on Special Teams. (SBalestrieri/PatsFans Images)

Outside Looking in…. Longshots: Vinnie Sunseri, Brock Vereen, Cedric Thompson

Sunseri is an intriguing player, someone I was hoping the Patriots would take a look at in 2014 when he was taken by the Saints in the NFL Draft. He’s the son of the Raiders’ coach Sal Sunseri and was lauded by his teammates at ‘Bama as being a coach on the field. An excellent special teams’ leader, he is also injury prone. He blew out an ACL in his senior season, had his rookie year cut short with a broken arm and missed all of 2015. This may be an audition of another kind. He may end up being a coach in the not too distant future, and maybe Belichick is building off of some first-hand knowledge of him.

Vereen was signed to the Patriots practice squad in November after being released by the Bears and then the Vikings. After the season was over, he signed a future’s contract for 2016. Vereen can play safety and has filled in at slot corner. He’s considered a core special teams’ player and served as a gunner for a bit this spring. He is a longshot to make the roster.

Thompson spent all of 2015 on the Dolphins’ practice squad after being drafted by Miami in the 5th Round of the 2015 NFL Draft out of Minnesota. He wasn’t resigned and the Pats signed him to a future’s contract. The 6’0, 212-pound safety is another longshot to make the roster given the depth.

Check out our earlier primers on the running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers and the cornerbacks.  And be sure to keep tuned into PatsFans.com during training camp as we’ll post daily updates from down in Gillette.

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 Training Camp Primer – Cornerbacks

Steve Balestrieri
July 25, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

Talented but young group looks to take next step

The Patriots head into training camp next week 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 are the Cornerbacks.

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. While that is true to an extent, with 88 players on the current roster, a minimum of 35 of these will be cut. That doesn’t take into consideration the tweaking that goes on during the season after the initial 53-man roster is completed.

So the next position to break down are the corners. Given the epidemic of injuries suffered by the Patriots last season, they were fortunate that both starters Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan remained healthy. Entering last season, there were nothing but questions about the corner position after jettisoning all three starters from the Super Bowl winning team.

Rather than being a weakness, corner became a position of strength in 2015. Butler parlayed his SB heroics into a very solid first season of starting. Ryan came on strong in his third season and played solid. Justin Coleman surprised some people and played well as the slot corner. But depth was an issue. The team brought in veteran Tarell Brown to add that veteran presence and he played very well in small glimpses until he went on IR.

CB Malcolm Butler

CB Malcolm Butler -photo by SBalestrieri/PatsFans.com

This season the team brought in Cyrus Jones with their top draft pick and a trio of smaller, but very athletic corners in Jonathan Jones, Cre’Von LeBlanc and V’Angelo Bentley as UDFAs. They’ll be competing with veteran E.J. Biggers and 2nd-year player Darryl Roberts who turned some heads in training camp before suffering a wrist injury and landing on IR in preseason a year ago.

If there is an issue with the corners this season other than overall experience it is size. Only Biggers and Roberts are 6’0 tall and neither are locks to make the roster. In a league dominated by the big men at WR, this could be an issue but the team made a concerted effort to get more athletic and all of the new corners have Special Teams capability as well.

So who’s locked in and who’s on the bubble?

Roster Locks: Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Cyrus Jones
No big shocks here, and there is a big difference from a year ago. Butler was able to go from a walk-on, tryout basis to Super Bowl hero and now is a Pro Bowl cornerback. The funny thing is, he’d be the first to say that he still has a long way to go. So if he can continue to progress, he should be an extremely valuable piece for years to come.

Right now he is a bargain at his current cap hit. The Patriots can either decide to pay him with an extension quickly or hit him with a franchise tag to buy them more time with Hightower, Collins, and Sheard also on deck.

Ryan rebounded very well from an awful 2014 to play very solidly a year ago. His consistency could still stand to be better but it is safe to say that he far outperformed expectations in 2015. Ryan may get pushed this season by Jones who will at the very least compete for the slot corner duties. But I wouldn’t be shocked to see the rookie from Alabama in the starting lineup sooner rather than later.

Patriots top draft pick Cyrus Jones has gotten plenty of reps

Patriots top draft pick Cyrus Jones -photo by SBalestrieri/PatsFans.com

Jones has some of those qualities that teams covet in their corners. He’s physical and tough, and can play press man. He’s very confident and feisty and is an outstanding returner in the kicking game, returning four kicks for touchdowns in 2015.

He was also a good teammate who was highly thought of inside the locker room. The team is in very good shape with their top three corners. The only thing lacking is once again the size aspect.

On the Bubble: Justin Coleman, Darryl Roberts, E.J. Biggers, Jonathan Jones
Here is where the competition really begins to get interesting. The remaining six players are essentially fighting for two, possibly three roster spots. And the race is essentially wide open.

Coleman bounced around between Minnesota, Seattle, and the Patriots before winning a job a year ago. He appeared in 10 games and had six starts in 2015, playing solidly in the slot. Now he’s looking to take the next step in his second season with New England.

Roberts was a very athletic late 7th round draft pick a year ago. He ran a 4.38 time in the 40-yard dash, a 6.66 time in the 3-Cone Drill, a 39-inch Vertical Jump, an 11’1” leap in the Broad Jump and benched pressed 225 pounds 23 times. He impressed in the early going at training camp and earned the start in the 1st preseason game. He injured his wrist in that game and was lost for the season on IR.

Biggers is the elder statesman in terms of age at just 29. He’s spent time with the Redskins, Bucs and Eagles where he was a serviceable corner in 2015. He also can be a gunner on the STs. The Pats wanted to see what he could do early this spring and he saw lots of reps during OTAs and minicamp.

Jonathan Jones is an intriguing case because, although he’s listed at 5’10, that is being generous. He lacks the size that teams are looking for but he more than makes up for with his tenacity. Another exceptional athlete, Jones was once the National Hurdles champion. Of the undrafted corners, he looked very solid this spring and was arguably the best on the field. But once the pads come on, can he continue his solid play? He will bear close watching this summer. He’s a dark horse to make the roster but don’t write him off just yet.

Outside Looking in…. Longshots: Cre’Von LeBlanc, V’Angelo Bentley
LeBlanc and Bentley played well in the spring but are facing a numbers crunch more than anything else. They face an uphill battle to make the roster but will probably find their way onto the practice squad if they falter.

CB Cre'Von LeBlanc

CB Cre’Von LeBlanc- photo by SBalestrieri/PatsFans.com

LeBlanc impressed in the limited window that I watched him during minicamp. A smaller (5’9) corner but with an impressive build, he showed some nice footwork as he was able to mirror the larger WRs he was matched up against. He’s aggressive and physical and plays with an air of a young player who isn’t intimidated by the stage. He has kick return ability and was known as an effective blitzer in college.

Bentley comes from a military background, his mother served in Afghanistan which will resonate well with Bill Belichick. Something else that will reverberate is the Illinois grad is another STs return man, scoring on a kickoff, punt return, interception and fumble in college.

Check out our earlier primers on the running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, and the linebackers  And be sure to keep tuned into PatsFans.com during training camp as we’ll post daily updates from down in Gillette.

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.

New England Patriots News 7-24, AFC East Notes

Steve Balestrieri
July 24, 2016 at 5:00 am ET

Good morning, here are Sunday’s Patriots news 7-24 and notes on what’s happening around the AFC East.

Be sure to keep checking PatsFans.com as training camp begins. We are doing primers by position and we’ve already posted ones on the running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, offensive line, defensive line and linebackers. Tomorrow we’ll get to the cornerbacks, followed by the safeties.

Be sure to check out our podcast “Patriots 4th and 2”. On Friday we conducted our own training camp preview with the emphasis on Jimmy Garoppolo and what to look for from the QB this summer and into the beginning of the season. So onto the news…

Pats Sign OL Kerbyson, Still Have Two Open Roster Spots:
The Patriots on Friday signed rookie free agent Kyler Kerbyson bringing the roster number to 88 which still leaves two open slots for the beginning of training camp.

Kerbyson started 13 games in 2015 for Tennessee at left tackle and has played some guard as well. During the pre-draft process, he was projected more as a guard in the NFL. His signing may not bode well for the health of either Josh Kline or Tre’ Jackson who each missed the entire spring OTAs and minicamp.

It will be interesting to see how the team fills the other two open roster slots. There is room for possibly a veteran running back or corner and depending upon the health of Shaq Mason, another offensive lineman. Mason missed all of the spring before appearing in the last workout of minicamp.

Going to Training Camp? Read on…
With training camp opening this week, the summer vacation for the players is over and they will begin their work for the entire season with a brief respite during the bye week. But for the fans, and many will be planning vacation weeks around training camp dates, many questions remain. We’ll try to answer as many as possible.

Practices and parking are free during training camp but as a word to the wise. Arrive early. Parking is in the P6 or P8 parking lots. It is a first come, first served operation and the crowds get bigger every year. With a pair of joint practices against the Saints and then the Bears before their respective preseason games, the crowds will probably be much, much larger.

Nice grab by Edelman on a fade

The veterans must report by July 27 the rookies report today. The first scheduled practice is July 28 and here is the tentative schedule.

Thursday, July 28: 9:15am – 11:45am — Morning Practice Session
10am – 2pm — Patriots Fan Zone

Friday, July 29: 9:15am – 11:45am — Morning Practice Session
10am – 2pm — Patriots Fan Zone

Saturday, July 30: 9:15am – 11:45am — Morning Practice Session
10am – 2pm — Patriots Fan Zone

Sunday, July 31: 9:15am – 11:45am — Morning Practice Session
10am – 2pm — Patriots Fan Zone

Monday, August 1: 4:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. Patriots Fan Zone
5:00 p.m. Hall of Fame Induction for Kevin Faulk (open to public)
7:00 – 9:00 p.m. In-stadium practice, open to Season Ticket Holders and Foxboro residents only.

Remember the schedule is subject to change and that in the case of inclement weather, should the team move inside the practice bubble, fans are not allowed inside.

During the day while practice sessions are ongoing, the Patriots Pro Shop, the Hall, the team’s Hall of Fame and the Fan Zone will all be open. There are concessions open behind the bleachers during practice.

After every practice session, a certain amount of players will be made available for giving autographs and taking pictures with the fans. According to the Patriots site, no video cameras, GoPro cameras or drones are allowed.

The schedule past August 1 hasn’t been released yet, but the joint practices with New Orleans are slated for August 9-10, and the Bears on August 15-16.

Edelman’s Health Questions Seems Settled After He Blasts Homers at Fenway:
On Wednesday afternoon before the Boston Red Sox took on the San Francisco Giants, Pats WR Julian Edelman took batting practice with the Sox.

With many of the Sox on-hand to include skipper John Farrell, Edelman put on quite the show, blasting several homers over the Green Monster. Edelman who is becoming quite the social media presence these days looked to be having himself a great time.

The better news is Edelman was planting his foot pretty solidly to get his bombs to fly over the “Monstah”. If there was still some concern over his foot, I doubt that this would have happened. And since there never are any kind of coincidences with the Patriots and the fact that the RS just happened to have their photographer on hand. Maybe it was a subtle message that …yes Edelman will be ready for September 11.

Edelman tweaks ankle

“Summer of Gronk” Continues, First Pitch and Playing Guitar with McCartney:
Speaking of social media butterflies, Pats TE Rob Gronkowski continues to be everywhere this summer. There are no off days during the “Summer of Gronk” tour.

The big man’s latest escapades had him also at Fenway Park as he joined Beatles’ legend Paul McCartney onstage to try his hand at a little air guitar. He also joined Sir Paul in singing “Helter Skelter”.  He then appeared with Seahawks QB Russell Wilson and his new bride Ciara on the Nickelodeon show, The Kids Choice Sports Awards.

On Wednesday, he threw out the first pitch at Fenway, joining his buddy David Ortiz on the field. If that wasn’t enough Gronk, Malcolm Butler, and LeGarrette Blount appeared in Boston at Downtown Crossing on Friday and were dressed as Good Humor Men.

They delighted fans by chatting, signing autographs and of course, handing out ice cream. And what better way to top it off than having Gronk break out into a dance and spiking an ice cream cone.

East Bound and Down…AFC East Notes:

Dolphins Sign Arian Foster, Low Risk, High Reward:
The Miami Dolphins signed free agent running back Arian Foster this week. The move to bolster and push RB Jay Ajayi is one that could bear fruit for Miami this season. Foster is 30, the age when running backs start to break down and he’s already suffered thru some injuries in his seven-year career.

But if healthy, Foster is a player that can catch the ball out of the backfield and is very good in pass protection, something Ajayi has struggled with. The team drafted Kenyan Drake in the 2016 NFL Draft and Ajayi has only 187 career rushing yards, so Foster could be that veteran presence that helps out the younger guys.

There are some that believe that the Foster signing is showing the Fins don’t believe in Ajayi. They are pointing at the offer sheet to C.J. Anderson that Denver ultimately matched as proof that the coaches don’t trust him. This will bear watching as camp plays out.

Jets Hear from Carson Palmer on the Fitz Impasse:
Arizona Cardinals QB had just three words for the New York Jets, embroiled in a contract dispute with QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. “Pay the Man”.

Palmer and Fitzpatrick were golfing together in a celebrity tournament in Lake Tahoe when Palmer who is close to Fitzy, chimed in on the impasse.

“He’s a good friend of mine, he’s an ex-teammate of mine, and I know what he means to a locker room. I know what he means on the field.

“He’s been a great player for them,” Palmer added. “I hope they take care of him the way they should because he means so much to that team. That team wants him there, and they have a legit shot with him at quarterback.”

The two sides have spoken since Fitzpatrick turned down a three-year, $24 million-dollar offer from the Jets this spring.

Bills, Gilmore Contract Talks Stall:
NFL.com’s Ian Rappoport reported this week that talks between the Bills and CB Stephon Gillmore have stalled and it appears that he’ll play out the final year of his rookie contract.

Buffalo picked up the fifth-year option on Gillmore’s rookie deal and he’s due a cool $11.082 million dollars in 2015. But Gillmore is looking for a long-term extension and wants to be paid among the top cornerbacks in the NFL.

Gillmore has become an integral part of the Bills’ defense and is an excellent, complete cornerback. But the Bills, at least at this point are digging in their heels and hold the leverage. If Gillmore were to hold out the entire preseason, the fines and money lost would total nearly $3 million dollars according to Mike Rodak from ESPN.

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 Training Camp Primer – Linebackers

Steve Balestrieri
July 22, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

Top End Talent, But Depth Needed in 2016

The Patriots head into training camp next week 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 are the Linebackers.

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. While that is true to an extent, with 89 players on the current roster, a minimum of 36 of these will be cut. That doesn’t take into consideration the tweaking that goes on during the season after the initial 53-man roster is completed.

So the next position to break down are the linebackers. The Patriots have two of the best LBs in the business with Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower. But they each missed time in 2015 and the depth behind them was a problem. The run defense really suffered when Hightower was injured in the Denver game in November.

Jamie-Collins,-Chandler

Both are free agents at the end of this season, something the Patriots should try to rectify this summer. Jonathan Freeny played some meaningful snaps on defense but struggled with his consistency.

The team signed former Bears LB Shea McClellin this spring and the former first round pick gives them some versatility. He can play DE, OLB, and ILB. During the spring, McClellin was seen mostly at DE but I’d expect him to revert to linebacker once the pads come on.

So who’s locked in and who’s on the bubble?

Roster Locks: Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, Shea McClellin
Collins and Hightower are a fantastic duo at linebacker. One of the reasons I don’t care for those Top 10 Lists or in this case the NFL’s Top 100 is how can Collins be left off of that?

The freakishly athletic 6’3, 250-pound linebacker led the team in tackles with 89, had 5.5 sacks and forced five fumbles despite playing in only 12 games. He missed four games due to an illness. He’s also outstanding in coverage and can make plays all over the field. Pro Football Focus (PFF), had Collins rated as the AFC’s top linebacker in 2015.

While Collins and for that matter Hightower didn’t make the Top 100 player list, should they hit free agency they’ll get paid like one.

Hightower is the perfect complement to Collins. Big at 6’3, 265-pounds, he is a fantastic run stuffer in the box with his size and instinctive play. Smart, he calls the plays for the defense and ensures everyone is lined correctly pre-snap. He logged 61 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 12 games last season. Hightower is the glue that holds the front seven together and provides the solid run protection while Collins is the athletic playmaker.

McClellin came over from the Bears during free agency and the biggest question about his signing is, where will he fit?  New England was interested in him during the draft process in 2012 but the Bears selected him in the first round with the 19th overall pick.

Chicago initially had him as a sub-package edge rusher, a full-time defensive end, then two years ago they moved to linebacker where he lined up outside and then in the Mike position. While the Patriots worked him as a defensive end during the spring, look for him to revert to his best fit and that would be as a linebacker. McClellin will initially back up Collins and Hightower and go on the field when they play their base defense.

On the Bubble: Jonathan Freeny, Rufus Johnson, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Ramon Humber
Freeny came over from the Dolphins a year ago with the reputation as a solid special team performer. He did that but was pressed into service much more on defense after both Collins and Hightower were lost for periods of time during the year.

He logged the third most snaps at linebacker for the Patriots behind Collins and Hightower and notched 50 tackles, one sack, two QB pressures, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. But although he was serviceable against the run, Freeny struggled in coverage, allowing 19 of 21 passes to be completed. That must improve.

Johnson made the team out of training camp in 2015 only to end up on IR with an illness in October. The 6’5, the 280-pound backer is athletic and turned heads as a pass rusher in camp. His size and versatility (he can also play DE), may give him a leg up on Freeny if it comes down to a numbers crunch.

With defenses around the NFL getting smaller and more athletic, a player’s versatility can sometimes mean a world of difference between a roster spot and that dreaded call from the “Turk”. That’s where Kamu Grugier-Hill comes in. He is built like a safety, can run like a slot corner and plays linebacker.

The 6’2, 215-pound hybrid S/LB was drafted in the 6th round of this year’s draft with the 208th overall pick. He’s certainly athletic; he ran a 4.45 in the 40-yard dash with a 1.52 10-yard split. Coupled with a 6 .89-second time in the 3-Cone Drill, a 38.5-inch vertical leap, and a 10-foot, 9-inch broad jump, he’s intriguing, to say the least. He was getting a lot of 1-on-1 work with Special Teams Coach Joe Judge this spring and he should fit well in a gunner role as well as a punt blocker. But he could also see some time as hybrid “money” LB/S role that Pat Chung plays as well.

Grugier-Hill,-King-STs

Humber was the first player signed by the Patriots during free agency on March 9. He’s a standout special teams’ performer but with a limited ceiling on defense. He did have 13 starts at middle linebacker in the past three years as an injury replacement.

Originally signed in 2009 by the Colts as a UDFA out of North Dakota State, Humber moved over to the Saints in 2010 and played there until being released this spring. He may find himself pushed hard by Grugier-Hill.
Outside Looking in…. Longshots: Kevin Snyder, Elandon Roberts, C.J. Johnson
Snyder was signed to the Patriots practice squad in December after being released by the Lions who signed him as a rookie free agent in May. He was active for but didn’t play in the AFC Championship Game in Denver.

The 6’2, 240-pound Snyder is a Rutgers product and also has good athleticism, running a 4.54 time in the 40, with a 35-inch vertical leap at his school’s Pro Day.

Roberts was another 6th round draft pick by the Patriots and like Grugier-Hill is undersized at 6’0, 235 pounds. But he’s very productive and plays a down-hill style, run thumping Mike linebacker that belies his lack of size. He shows a tremendous explosion in the running game and when blitzing but struggles in pass coverage.

C.J. Johnson is a 6’2, 235-pound rookie linebacker from Mississippi. He’s had injury concerns while in college and was moved from defensive end to middle linebacker in his senior season. His work ethic and attitude were lauded by the coaches and he was elected to be a team captain. However, he’ll face a steep uphill climb to make the roster.

Check out our earlier primers on the running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line and the defensive line.  And be sure to keep tuned into PatsFans.com during training camp as we’ll post daily updates from down in Gillette.

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 Training Camp Primer – Defensive Line

Steve Balestrieri
July 20, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

Deep, Talented Group Preps for a Big Year

The Patriots head into training camp next week 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 is the Defensive Line.

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. While that is true to an extent, with 89 players on the current roster, a minimum of 36 of these will be cut. That doesn’t take into consideration the tweaking that goes on during the season after the initial 53-man roster is completed.

So next on deck are the defensive linemen. The Patriots lost three of their linemen from a year ago. They traded Chandler Jones to Arizona, lost Akiem Hicks in free agency and released former first-round pick Dominique Easley. But the team is poised to be very good and is deep along the front four.

After years of trying to search for an undersized penetrator in the interior to beef up the pass rush, the Patriots and Belichick made a shift in their approach in 2016. The interior players that they brought in via free agency and the draft are all big men that are space eaters and run stuffers first. It is clear that the pass rush will come from the edge guys who are versatile and can slide inside on obvious passing downs.

They added Terrance Knighton, Frank Kearse and Markus Kuhn in free agency. Picking up Vincent Valentine in the draft and Woodrow Hamilton as a UDFA adds a lot of beef to the interior of the line.

On the edge, the team brought in Chris Long who has the last two seasons end in injury but is healthy in 2016 and is this season’s reclamation project. Jabaal Sheard will take Chandler Jones’ previous starting spot opposite Rob Ninkovich.

So who’s locked in and who’s on the bubble?

Roster Locks: Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, Malcom Brown, Terrance Knighton, Alan Branch, Chris Long, Trey Flowers, Vincent Valentine
Sheard and Ninkovich, who played LB in the spring are the starters on the edge. They are both productive and set the edge in the running game extremely well, (something Jones’ game lacked in his time here). Long will be the dedicated pass rush specialist, something that should keep him fresh this season. He and Flowers provide the depth.

Malcom Brown Malcom Brown had a solid rookie campaign and should be a key cog of the defense for years to come. (SBalestrieri Images)

The interior will feature a mixture of Brown who in his second season is primed for a big year, Branch and Knighton. Branch has played some of his best football as a member of the Patriots and provides that veteran leadership. Valentine by virtue of his draft position is a lock. Pot Roast came over from Washington and gives the Patriots that big (6’3, 354-pounds), immovable object inside, like Vince Wilfork.

One of the things the Patriots liked to do in Big Vince’s time was to play a hybrid scheme that Knighton should fit well in. Knighton will line up on the center and two gap his area on either side of the center. The strong side defensive end, (Ninkovich) will two-gap his area. The other side with Brown and Sheard will be a traditional 4-3 one-gap attacking style. It will also open up opportunities for the linebackers to blitz in openings on the outside as well. Lots of versatility and flexibility with this group as well as a nice mix of youth and experience.

On the Bubble: Geneo Grissom, Frank Kearse, Markus Kuhn
These three are competing for one or possibly two spots if the Patriots opt to keep 10 linemen on the defensive side. Grissom is a big guy who seems larger in person than his listed 6’4, 265 pounds. He brings the element of versatility and athleticism to the table. He can play special teams, something that always resonates with Belichick.

2-Grissom Geneo Grissom made the team out of training camp as a rookie but the team will have to find a niche for his talents. (SBalestrieri Images)

Both Kuhn and Kearse are big guys who will be looking to add some depth inside. Kuhn saw a lot of reps this spring and that may bode well for him this summer. He came over from the Giants and was considered a favorite of coach Tom Coughlin although his numbers didn’t translate on the field. Kearse is a 6’5, 310-pound defensive end who projects to move inside here with the Patriots. He’s spent time with the Panthers, Cowboys, and Redskins (2014-15) and will look to latch on as a backup.

The competition here should prove to be spirited. All of these players are worthy of a roster spot but it may come down to a simple numbers crunch unless the inevitable injury or two occurs in training camp.

Outside Looking in…. Longshots: Woodrow Hamilton, Anthony Johnson, Joe Vellano
Odds are long for Joe Vellano this season to make the cut. He’s one of those guys that you can’t help but root for. After being signed as a UDFA from Maryland in 2013, he made the team out of training camp and played in all 16 games with eight starts. But in 2014 he played in just four games with a single start and one playoff game. He was hurt early in training camp last season and will have a tough time to garner the reps this summer.

Johnson was signed by Miami as a UDFA in 2014 and appeared in seven games. He was cut by the Dolphins and spent part of 2015 as a practice squad player for the Redskins. The Patriots signed him to a free-agent contract in May.

Woodrow Hamilton is a big interior lineman from Mississippi. The 6’3, 319-pound tackle faces long odds. He and Bryan Stork were tossed from practice during minicamp for throwing punches at one another. That may set up something to watch this summer.

Check out our earlier primers on the running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and the offensive line. And be sure to keep tuned into PatsFans.com during training camp as we’ll post daily updates from down in Gillette.

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 Linebackers, Rated #4…With a Bullet

Steve Balestrieri
May 13, 2016 at 6:55 am ET

 

Pats ex-LB Willie McGinest gives NE High Marks

The Patriots defense in 2015 played well all season, this year they’re looking to make the jump from the ranks of the good to be among the best. And to go along with improved depth on the edge and the secondary is the play of the unit’s linebackers. NFL Network’s Willie McGinest was asked to rate the top five linebacker units in the league and not surprisingly, he gave the Patriots high marks.

McGinest waxed nostalgic about his time in New England, talking about the great teams and defenses from the early 2000s, of which he was a great part of and then spoke a bit about what makes this unit go, specifically Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins.


Jamie Collins bring the element of freak athleticism to the linebacker position. (USA TODAY Images)

“More often than not … the linebacking units with the most production have exceptional group play, with two particular things in common: great preparation and communication. Alongside Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and several others throughout my years in New England, I felt that our linebacker group had these components when we helped the Patriots win three Super Bowl titles in 2001, 2003 and 2004,” he stated.

“We were always on the same page, whether we were watching film or playing on Sunday because we gave our full attention to preparation. We not only knew our own job but the position of every other person in the unit. We were moved around a lot and interchangeable, and that worked to our advantage. However, we could only play this way with good communication. When you’re lacking in that area, there is a lot of confusion, players are frequently a step slower and the defense gets beat on the play. If communication is smooth, players can simply react to what the offense is doing, because they know assignments and can diagnose formations quickly.”

This group brings a traditional, physical style of play. These guys are stout against the run — and they’re solid pass rushers, as well. All of these players feed off each other. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia puts his ‘backers in the right positions to be effective… Bill Belichick and Co. tend to move linebackers around and change their responsibilities each week, depending on the opponent. It worked with our group over a decade ago and it continues to work with the current players — specifically Hightower.

The Patriots return four players from last year’s team, Collins, Hightower, Jonathan Freeny, who was their top backup in 2015 as well as Kevin Snyder. Collins and Hightower are two of the most talented players at their position in the league and give NE a tremendous pair of starters. Each brings something different to the table. Collins the freak athleticism and big play ability, and Hightower the size, physicality and smarts to be the signal caller for the defense.

There has been a lot of turnover in the depth of the position with a number of players being let go including former Bear Jon Bostic who was traded to the Lions for a conditional 7th round pick and Tony Steward, the former Clemson and Buffalo Bill who was released just three weeks after being signed.

The team signed another former Bear, Shea McClellin to a three-year, $9.05 million-dollar contract this spring during free agency. McClellin possesses the traits that McGinest spoke about, he can move around being a standup outside or middle linebacker and can play with his hand in the dirt as an edge rusher.

He figures to be the top backup for the Patriots behind Collins and Hightower and in certain packages could move into a starting role when they go with three linebackers. The 6’3, 260-pound linebacker should become a valued role player for the Patriots defense this season. This becomes especially important when considering that both Collins and Hightower missed time last season with injuries.

The team also added the intriguing, uber-athletic Kamu Grugier-Hill during the draft. Although built more like a strong safety, he showed a propensity to fly around the field and be a sideline-to-sideline player with the ability to blitz off the edge.

Other depth players include run-stuffers Elandon Roberts, C.J. Johnson as well as former Rutgers player Snyder who was active for the AFC Championship Game over Bostic and special teams’ maven Ramon Humber.

The nine linebackers currently on the roster give the Patriots a talented, versatile group who will have to put the work in to gel, but have the capability to be a special group. They’ll have to decide who best fits what they want to do and then leave it to the coaches to put those players in the best position to be successful.

They should be fun to watch….just ask Willie Mac.

 

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

NFL Combine is Just a Step in the Process For the Patriots

Steve Balestrieri
February 24, 2016 at 8:46 am ET

The Patriots are in Indianapolis for the 2016 NFL Combine, which is one of our favorite times of the year. And this event with all of the media coverage now is one of the “must-see” moments of the preseason.

It is also one of the most overblown events as people will fawn all over a player who blows every event away in Lucas Stadium and proclaim that “so-and-so’s draft stock is plummeting” over a not-so-great performance in the Under Armor Olympics.

It’s important to remember what it is…This is just the beginning for many of these players. Teams have compiled lists of players and watched the tape of them in their college football games. Now this will be coaches’ and GM’s first opportunity to meet with them face to face, and check them out medically and see what kind of young man each player is.

The truly two most important aspects of the Combine? The interviews and the medicals and those are the two parts that all of us aren’t allowed to see. We’ll get to more of that in a second. But right now many of are thinking, “Are you crazy?” The on-field workouts are the most important thing. Think again. Better yet, listen to Bill Belichick speak about the preparation that players go thru for the combine from an interview last summer.

“I think that’s a huge mistake that a lot of those players make, but I’m sure they have their reasons for doing it,” Belichick said.We’re training our players to play football, not to go through a bunch of those February drills. Yeah, our training is football intensive. We train them to get ready to play and ultimately that’s what they’re going to do… We just train them for football. I think it’s huge.”

“I think there are a lot of players and I think a lot of players learn from that, that they look at their rookie year and feel like, ‘I wasn’t really as physically as well prepared as maybe I was in college or what I will be in their succeeding years in the league,’ and train more for football and train less for the broad jump and three-cone drill and stuff like that. I think a lot of those guys hopefully learn that lesson and intensify their physical football training after they’ve had that year of, in a lot of cases, I would say non-football training or very limited training for actually football.”

While there is certainly a ton to be said about his comments, the Combine and the on-field workouts can help a fringe prospect out. Look at T.J. Moe, slot WR from Mizzou who was signed by the Pats before injuring an Achilles. He’s one of the more outspoken critics of the way the combine is conducted yet credits his time in the 3-Cone Drill as turning the Patriots heads.

The prospects will be tested in various on-field tests and then specific positional drills that relate to their particular specialty. The events include:

40-Yard Dash: Measures straight line speed and is often the most overrated of the tests.

225-LB Bench Press: Measures strength and endurance

Vertical Jump: Measures explosion and athleticism

Broad Jump: Measures strength, explosion, athleticism and balance

Shuttle Run: Measures change of direction, agility and explosiveness

3-Cone Drill: Measures lateral agility, change of direction

It is a well-known fact that the Patriots value the 3-Cone Drill as much if not more than the others. Why? Because it is the most football-centric move of the ones tested. No other drill more closely mimics actual football moves than the 3-Cone.  Players have to be able to sink their hips, change their direction and then explode back up to speed.

For wide receivers and running backs, especially in the New England system that equates to running short routes, shaking off a defender, catching the ball, change direction again and get yards after the catch, (see Edelman, Julian). It is why the Patriots value that drill over say the 40 where a prospect is running in a straight line.

The on-field workout schedule this weekend plays out as such:

Fri., Feb. 26 – RB, OL, ST

Sat., Feb. 27 – QB, WR, TE

Sun., Feb. 28 – DL, LB

Mon., Feb. 29 – DB

Why the Interviews/Medicals are most important: Medicals are a must. Before a team invests a top round draft pick in a player, they want to make sure that they’re healthy. So their doctors will poke, prod and generally invade a prospect’s space for the examination.

It is also a good time for checking out players who have had injuries and ensure that either they’re completely healthy or well on their way to recovery. The Patriots did a check like this on Rob Gronkowski in 2010. He missed his junior season for a back injury and surgery and their medical check satisfied them that he was indeed ready to go in the NFL.

And finally believe it or not, the medical checks ensure the actual height and weight of prospects. Frequently colleges put out somewhat skewed information on players exaggerating their height and weight.  This sorts it out.

Interviews Are #1: The interview is many things to many teams but it is a chance for the first time to see what kind of man and player each team is getting. Some teams ask ridiculous questions that are head scratchers. LeCharles Bentley, former OL for the Saints and Browns recalled being asked “Are you a paperclip or a rock?” Rest assured Bill Belichick isn’t asking anything remotely close to that.

But the interviews will tell you where a guy’s head is at. Is he a team player or is it all about him? Is football important to him or is he just cashing a paycheck. For New England, as Moe pointed out in his interview by Chris Price, the Patriots asked detailed questions about his overall knowledge of football.

Moe recalls Pats WR coach Chad O’Shea drilling him questions about not only his responsibilities but other players on different down and yardage situations. The Pats are looking for football intelligent players. He then contrasted those questions to those of the Rams who he says barely touched on football questions.

And finally the interviews are extremely important to ask about guys with off-field baggage and it seems that every year the draft is chocked full of them. Examples include:

Noah Spence from E. Kentucky who is an edge rushing nightmare on the field was kicked off of Ohio State’s program for two drug violation suspensions. Ole Miss DE Robert Nkemdiche who was charged with marijuana possession after he fell out of a hotel window and suspended from his team’s bowl game.

A player rumored to be on the Patriots radar, Rutgers WR Leonte Caroo was involved in an incident where he was accused of an assault but the charges were eventually dropped. After the situation involving a TE that shall not be named…the Pats will be leery of bringing in a guy with a lot of baggage.

So while we’ll all watch riveted to how these players do in their on-field workouts, the Patriots will be watching too but their true work will be behind the scenes in the interview and examination rooms. That’s where the big questions get answered this week.

Unless someone blows them away with a 3-Cone time….

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