Tag Archives: Jordan Richards

Patriots – Eagles Preseason Week 2, What to Watch For

Steve Balestrieri
August 16, 2018 at 8:30 am ET

The Patriots hit the field on Gillette for their last home preseason game tonight as they’ll take on the World Champion Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2 of the preseason. The game will be televised on WBZ-TV 4 with Bob Socci on the play-by-play, Scott Zolak doing color commentary with Rob Ninkovich the sideline reporter and Andy Hart and Paul Perillo providing commentary from the studio.

The stakes are much lower for both teams since they last met in February for the Super Bowl where the Eagles won 41-33 for their first Lombardi Trophy. But although it is just preseason and the score ultimately doesn’t mean anything at the end of the day, each team is looking to accomplish several things and solidify their rosters. WIth the limit at 90 players right now (the Patriots have 89), the teams will have to get down to 53 in just a couple of weeks now. Each team has several spots up for grabs.

Neither Tom Brady, Carson Wentz or Nick Foles played in their team’s preseason opener but all three should see some playing time this week as it is time for the QBs now to work off the rust.

There have been some interesting newsworthy stories this week, especially so since this is a preseason game. Lane Johnson continues to talk smack about and to the Patriots as well as Patriots fans. His “look at me” schtick will no doubt continue after the game as regardless if he plays a down, as he’s a self-styled expert on all things about the Patriots locker room although he’s never played here.

And Philadelphia fans have purchased a billboard on Route 1 leading into the stadium in a hilarious dig at the Patriots similar to the 28-3 trolling New England did to Atlanta. Crazy to see these things before a preseason game.

So from a Patriots perspective, as there is a football game to be played here is our list of things we’ll be looking for this week as the Patriots play the next preseason game against a very good Eagles team.

How Long Will Tom Brady Play? Brady after having his snaps reduced in training camp for about a week has been right back at it this week, looking like he got a typical workload for training camp.

Jim McBride from the Globe reported that Brady was suffering from a sore back last week, although Brady probably could have played if it had been a regular season game, he sat out the 1st preseason contest. He typically doesn’t play in the first one anyway so he was a cheerleader on the sidelines for Brian Hoyer and Danny Etling.

I would expect Brady to play about midway thru the first quarter and try to get some chemistry going with his wide receivers, several of whom are banged up right now. But it is important that Brady gets his own work in before the regular season. This week and next are his two games to knock off the rust. The final preseason game is usually a final look at guys on the bubble and one he normally doesn’t play in. We expect to see him hook up with Rob Gronkowski a bit this week as Gronk sat last week as well.

Wide Receiver Reps Time For Stepping Up: Kenny Britt hasn’t been a full participant all summer and at the end of practices both Phillip Dorsett and Julian Edelman came up limping a bit. So the WR position has yet to look like the coaches have envisioned it for the regular season thus far. It is imperative that all of the wide receivers get some work in with Brady and build up their chemistry, timing and trust factor with the starting QB. Britt probably won’t play again and it will be interesting to see if Edelman and Dorsett make it on the field this week.

Of course, it is also an opportunity for everyone to showcase their talents, especially those players who are on the bubble. And in the case of Eric Decker, whom the team brought in just a couple of weeks ago, it should be a very important week. Decker is a player who has been very productive in the league but after a couple of serious injuries and at an age where it is fair to wonder if his best days are behind him, Decker is far from a lock at this point. Especially considering that he was just brought in. He doesn’t know the offense well yet and was plagued earlier in the week with several drops. Tonight’s game and next week will be a big measuring stick for him.

Cordarrelle Patterson is another guy who has had a strong camp but hasn’t had a ton of reps with or catches from Brady during the practice sessions. Tonight would be a prime opportunity for him to build some of the trust factor with #12 and work into an integral role in the offense. Ditto for young guns Devin Lucien, Braxton Berrios and Riley McCarron.

Will To See See More From Ju’Whaun Bentley and J.C. Jackson: The two rookies both had strong outings in the first professional, albeit, preseason games. Both got off to impressive starts last week against the Redskins and this week, we’ll see if they can continue to build off of that against a much better football team in the Eagles.

Bentley showed the type of physicality on the goal line that the coaches love, where he read the play, and then flew up into the hole and blew up the play for no gain that we expect from Dont’a Hightower. But for a rookie, he showed a surprising level of comfort within the defense to call the plays and wear the green dot communication device. That shows a level of trust from the coaches and also that his development is coming along quickly, something Hightower alluded to early in training camp.

Jackson began turning heads at OTAs this spring and has carried it thru minicamp, training camp and the first preseason game. The UDFA rookie from Maryland has been impressive with his technique and compete level from Day 1 and was thrust early in the process opposite of Stephon Gilmore to show what he could do. The results have been very impressive thus far. He’s definitely in line to earn himself a roster spot on this year’s team and he’ll be a player to watch tonight.

And we could say the same thing about young RB Ralph Webb who looked strong in his professional debut last week. He still has a long way to go, can he parlay a strong performance into added reps and production two weeks in a row.

Jason McCourty’s Time to Shine is Now: Speaking of cornerbacks, the case of Jason McCourty has been a strange one thus far of his time in New England. He has been a regular member of the second rotation at the corner so far during training camp but didn’t play a snap against the Redskins. If the absence was injury related, McCourty didn’t say anything to the media about it.

Of course, Bill Belichick isn’t going to say much on the subject. He waxed mid-season form Bill when approached on McCourty’s lack of playing time last week.

“The guys we play, we play. The guys who didn’t play… didn’t play,” Belichick said on Monday. “We’ll play other guys this week, and we’ll see how it goes.

“We all know I’m not talking about anybody’s injuries, so there’s no point in bringing that up or going through that. Can’t look at everybody every week. There’s just too many guys. Some guys will play one week, some guys will play more the other week.”

We expect to see a lot more of McCourty this week against Philadelphia and perhaps get an extended amount of reps. He did practice with the first team unit on Monday so perhaps it was just a case of Belichick knowing what he has in some players and letting them sit to that he has an opportunity to gauge other players. Tonight will be an interesting one to see what McCourty brings to the table.

Eddie Pleasant or Jordan Richards: Most Patriots fans every summer have Richards circled on the cut list but he’s now in his fourth year with the team. He has been a good STs performer but has struggled mightily when asked to play defense. Last year, because of injuries, he played an extended role defensively and things didn’t go well at all for him, most notably in the Super Bowl. That carried over to the first preseason game against the Redskins where he missed several tackles due to taking a poor angle, something we’ve mentioned time and again here.

Pleasant is an established veteran who played for several years with the Texans as a player who fits the same mold. He’s been a solid STs presence who can fill in defensively when needed. Pleasant has looked better than Richards defensively so far, although that is almost like damning with faint praise. If he can pick up the STs role as well as Richards, he may supplant the veteran from the roster.

Both may see the intriguing rookie tight end Dallas Goedert on the field tonight. We really liked Goedert during the draft process, the rookie from S. Dakota St. had a very impressive debut of his own against the Steelers last week, he caught 4 passes on five targets for 66 yards and a touchdown.

Strong Play on the Edge From Wise/Rivers: The two second-year players on the edge had very solid games a week ago against Washington and we are looking to see more from them as they continue to progress this summer. With Trey Flowers and Adrian Clayborn, the Pats are looking to build a solid rotation on the edge, something that was woefully missing last season.

Wise has looked very solid in his second season and appears stronger with a better array of moves in rushing the passer this season. He had a good rookie campaign in 2017 and it was expected that he’d make a big jump in production with a year in the system and getting bigger and stronger in the strength and conditioning program.

Rivers seems completely recovered from his ACL surgery and looks bigger and stronger than he did a year ago after being the team’s top draft choice after coming from a small school in the NFL Draft. He showed good explosion off the line and good speed to power, pushing the offensive tackle backward on roller skates. It was a very encouraging sign that he’s all the way back.

If the team can keep getting similar production from their two 2nd year edge players, one of the bigger worries about the defense, their pass rush should be significantly better in 2018.

Patriots 2018 Training Camp Primer – Safeties

Steve Balestrieri
July 23, 2018 at 8:00 am ET

With training camp just days away, our look at the 90-man roster is nearly complete. We’ve looked at the different positions on offense and most of the defense.

So next up is the Patriots’ safety position. The team has been fortunate to have had no turnover in the safety position and return the top three players who are ostensibly starters in their own right.

The team normally carries a few safeties as special teamers and this year will be no exception. Last season the team began with five safeties on the roster. So, with that in mind who is locked in and who is on the bubble?

Roster Locks: Devin McCourty, Pat Chung, Duron Harmon, Nate Ebner

The team is in very good shape at safety to start the season as they have all three starters returning for 2018. McCourty is an excellent free safety and makes all the calls for the secondary as the quarterback back there. He’s a team captain and a leader, on and off the field.

Not only is he always in the right position but he ensures everyone else is too on the field. He’s like having an extra coach on the field. He’s become a much more vocal presence on the field as one of the captains and is a leader on and off the field.

Chung has been a totally different player in his second stint with the Patriots. The coaches play him close to the line of scrimmage in the box where he’s much more effective. He outstanding in run support, and like everyone else in the secondary, is a good tackler and is rarely out of position.

He’s physical and does a pretty good job of covering backs out of the backfield and tight ends close to the line of scrimmage. He’s a solid locker room guy and seems to be a popular teammate while being another quiet leader.

Harmon is essentially a starter with the number of snaps he plays and he has a tremendous nose for the football. A few of his big plays that come to mind are the interception to seal the deal against Baltimore in the playoffs and the one to close out the close win in Pittsburgh a year ago.  Harmon allows the Patriots to move McCourty around in the big nickel defense. He’s always making big plays at key times and is a very trusted player on the defense.

If McCourty were to miss any time with an injury, Harmon can be relied on to step in and do the job. Would he be able to make all the calls? That’s a question that we don’t know yet, but he’s another valuable piece of the defense.

Ebner is coming off of a serious injury where he was placed on IR, however, he was re-signed to a two-year, $5 million dollar deal this spring, so he’s not going anywhere. He’s more of an STs ace than a safety, however.

On the Bubble: David Jones, Jordan Richards

The Patriots signed UDFA safety Jones from Richmond last year and he has very good size for a strong safety at 6’3, 210 pounds to be a backup and eventual replacement for Pat Chung. He stuck on the practice squad last year, he saw almost 50 percent of the snaps in preseason and was a Patriots practice player of the week six times in 2017.

Jones is athletic for a big man and returned kicks and punts in college and got some work in the return game last year. But he missed all of the spring with an unspecified injury so we’ll have to see if he’s healthy once camp begins.

Richards continues to be unimpressive when he’s asked to play defense. After being a high draft pick (2nd Round, 64th overall) in the 2015 NFL Draft, he barely played defense in his first two years, and after a disastrous preseason in 2017, it was a surprise to not only see him make the roster but play significant snaps on defense. And the results were not good.

He’s very stiff in his change of direction and takes horrible angles. Despite being a very solid locker room guy and very good on STs, his spot has to be tenuous after the showing he had in 2017. If Jones or Travis (below) can show the same STs ability, they could get the nod.

Outside Looking In… Long Shots:  Damarius Travis

The Patriots signed Travis as a UDFA and he’s an in-the-box safety. He has very good size at 6’2, 210 but he too is a bit stiff in his ability to change direction at the NFL level. He does a very good job against the run and is considered a high character player and person. He does, however, have excellent special teams’ ability.

So it should be noted that Jones, Richards and Travis are essentially playing for one roster spot unless they decide to bring in another player.

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 Draft Profile, Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama

Steve Balestrieri
April 2, 2018 at 8:30 am ET

Harrison Is Another Bama Safety Destined For Big Things

As the 2018 NFL Draft draws closer we’ll profile some of the players that may be on the Patriots radar or that we feel would be a great fit.

The Patriots are set at Safety with all three starters returning in Devin McCourty, Pat Chung and Duron Harmon. We say starting because all three play enough snaps to be considered starters. But in August both McCourty and Chung will turn 31(13th and 19th respectively) and it isn’t too soon for the Patriots to begin looking for possible prospects as replacements.

Alabama is a place where Bill Belichick’s buddy Nick Saban cranks out NFL ready players, especially on their defense. In recent years the Crimson Tide has produced Eddie Jackson, Clinton Ha-Ha Dix, and Landon Collins to make their mark on the Pros.

This season’s crop has two that should be gone off the draft boards by the 2nd round. The Patriots have a thing about selecting safeties early in the draft and with Harmon facing possible discipline from the league over a recent incident in Costa Rica, they could be in the market again. Although they have three other safeties in Nate Ebner, Brandon King, and Jordan Richards, Ebner and King are special teamers and Richards has filled in at safety but not very well (see Super Bowl LII). David Jones is on the practice squad.

Ronnie Harrison from Alabama is another excellent safety from the Crimson Tide program. He possesses great size (6’3, 216) and speed. Harrison was a high school quarterback, so he understands well what the offense is trying to do. He is versatile and has played both safety spots but he’s a better fit as the strong safety in the box due to his issues with the changing of direction and range. But as an overall safety? There are few better in the country.

He has plenty of physicality, athleticism and good instincts to be an impact player on Day 1. Bama moved him around but he was at his best when they had him attacking the line of scrimmage. He does a great job of recognizing plays and attacking downhill.

He’s outstanding in run support, filling the holes quickly and a violent, punishing hitter in the trenches. He led the team with 74 tackles, (43 solos) and seven passes defensed with three interceptions.

Harrison has the size, speed and physicality to play the linebacker role in the Patriots “Big Nickel” defense as well as their in the box safety.

Pros:

– Outstanding size and speed

– Excellent in run support

– Very good blitzer

– Physical, Competitive, versatile

Cons

– Can play a bit out of control

– Doesn’t always wrap up, goes for the big hit

– Range is good but not elite

What his Role Will Be:

Harrison could immediately vie for reps and let the coaches see what he can do. They’ll spell Chung and McCourty for a bit and let the rookie get his feet wet in the NFL. As we mentioned above, he could be used as the linebacker in the Patriots “big nickel” look on defense.

Will his Role Change from Year 1-2?

Yes, in Year 2 with a bit of experience, he could push Chung for his roster spot. Or perhaps Harmon.

How Many Downs Can He Play?

Three

What Current Player on the Roster Will He Replace?

Harrison would be an immediate upgrade from Richards and he’d take over his STs duties as well

What is his ST Value?

He’d immediately become a core special teams guy with his athleticism and physicality.

Conclusion:
NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein in his profile wrote that “Combination safety with all the size and athletic traits you could hope for in a safety. Harrison is a fluid athlete with few athletic limitations and has the ability to fit into a variety of defensive schemes. His penchant for flying in shoulder first will need to get cleaned or risk giving up missed tackles and big plays. Harrison’s physical approach and urgency in run support gives him a chance to start early, but his potential in coverage and athletic ability give him a chance to become a Pro Bowler.”

Harrison isn’t without a few issues that will need to be cleaned up. He doesn’t have great range or change of direction which could limit his use as a single high safety. He sometimes goes too much for the big hit and doesn’t wrap up which can result in a big play or broken tackle.

But as a strong safety in the box, he’s outstanding in run support and he’ll be just fine covering tight ends close to the line. He could easily gain another 5-10 pounds without any loss of speed and be the hybrid safety/linebacker the Patriots like to use in their big nickel packages. His physicality, and instincts are off the charts. By Year 2, he’ll be not only pushing for starter reps but could become an impact player on the defense.

While safety isn’t a position of need right now, the Patriots could find themselves in a dilemma.  If Harrison is on the board, the team could be hard-pressed to pass him up. He is a potential Pro Bowler and will be a very solid player at the next level. Zierlein compared him to a young Adrian Wilson and that may be the best description of him yet.  

Harrison’s highlight reel tape from Harris Highlights can be seen here: 

 

His game against Colorado highlights from Felipe Vierra can be seen here: 

 

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.

McClellin Setback Another Big Blow for the Patriots Defense

Steve Balestrieri
November 8, 2017 at 6:03 am ET

The news wasn’t good for the Patriots on Tuesday as they learned that LB Shea McClellin, who had been on IR since the end of preseason, had suffered a setback in his return and now he too will be likely lost for the season.

The Patriots linebacking core is already dealing with the loss of Dont’a Hightower and this one could be more damaging than meets the eye. Hightower’s loss meant that the Patriots lost an edge rusher as well as a linebacker who can stuff the run inside and be used in a coverage role. McClellin, who was brought over to New England in 2016 as a free agent can also perform all three of those roles, albeit not as well as Hightower but his versatility is what sets him apart.

The Patriots didn’t address the linebacker position at the end of the trading deadline possibly because they were expecting to get McClellin back this week. It was hoped that he’d be back in uniform this week in Denver. Now that possibility is dashed and he’ll probably not play at all this season.

Shea McClellin’s 2017 season may be over before it ever began. (SBalestrieri photo)

McClellin was placed on IR in what has now been reported as a concussion. He’s had a history of those prior to coming to New England. And once he was eligible to return to practice on October 18, he did which automatically began the 21-day window in which the Patriots had to either activate him, place him on season-ending IR or release him.

McClellin’s 21-day window ended on Tuesday at 4 p.m. If the Patriots wish to keep him on the active roster, they’d have to make a corresponding move and release another player off of the active roster.

Teams are allowed to make two such moves with players on IR each season. Since McClellin had already begun practicing, he counts as one. The added bad news is that now means that either DL Vincent Valentine or WR Malcolm Mitchell will likely be reverted to season-ending IR soon.

Neither one has begun practicing yet. It has been reported that Mitchell has begun running again but it also means that he isn’t close to returning anytime soon. Valentine’s chances may have taken a hit since the team signed DL Ricky Jean Francois on Tuesday. Francois is a two-gap run stuffer and he may see action in Denver with DL Malcom Brown likely out with an ankle injury.  

McClellin’s injury leaves the team thin again depth wise. Kyle Van Noy was moved outside as an edge rushing option more with Hightower gone. That leaves Elandon Roberts and veteran David Harris as interior run stuffers but neither one is considered viable in a coverage role.

Other players such as Trevor Reilly and Marquis Flowers are considered more Special Teams players than as linebackers. Reilly has the size and athleticism to potentially be used more in an edge role. While Flowers has speed and athleticism to be used in a coverage role. But since neither has played yet this season in either of those scenarios, it wouldn’t be expected that they’d contribute there now.

The Patriots defense has already been dealing with not only the Hightower injury but the absence of cornerbacks Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore. Now with Malcom Brown out with an injury, it really depletes a unit that has been struggling to find its 2016 form. With five of their next six games on the road, after traveling to Denver and Mexico City to face the Raiders, the team returns home for one week before going on the road to Buffalo, Miami and Pittsburgh, the defense is going to be facing some challenges.

So who is the “next man up” in the linebacking role? In the pass coverage realm expect to see more Pat Chung or Jordan Richards as the “Big Nickel” safety/LB role close to the line of scrimmage. Cassius Marsh who has played in about 50 percent of the snaps will probably see an uptick in work as a pass rusher, although he could do a better job of setting the edge more consistently.

It now opens the door for a potential reunion with OLB Akeem Ayers who spent the 2014 Super Bowl season with the Patriots after being picked up as a midseason trade addition. The 28-year old is currently a free agent and was in Foxboro for a workout in September. Many will remember he posted a cryptic tweet after Dont’a Hightower was injured against Atlanta. Now he could be getting a phone call as the depth at linebacker took another hit.

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.

Jordan Richards Named Patriots 2017 Ron Burton Community Service Award Winner

Robert Alvarez
August 30, 2017 at 8:47 pm ET

Tuesday night at Gillette Stadium, the New England Patriots hosted their annual preseason “Patriots Premiere” gala and as part of the nights festivities, the team awarded safety Jordan Richards as the 15th player in franchise history to receive the “Ron Burton Community Service” Award.

Per the Patriots press release, “Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft presented Richards with the award, which is named in honor of the late Ron Burton, the first player drafted by the team and a community leader whose widespread charitable work was a model for how a Patriots player can make an impact off the field.”

At the Premiere, Kraft shared the following thoughts about Richards being named the 2017 honoree;

“Every Patriots player has an opportunity to make a positive impact in our community,” said Kraft. “Jordan has made the most of his opportunities. In his two seasons with the team, he has made dozens of community appearances, volunteering time and resources to support many of our team initiatives. He has an infectious smile, an outgoing personality and a desire to help others, attributes that make him one of the most genuine goodwill ambassadors on the team. We appreciate his many contributions and his eagerness to always want to do more.”

Richards, a 2015 second round draft pick out of Stanford University, ” has played in 25 games with two starts over the last two seasons. His contributions on special teams helped lead the Patriots to the Super Bowl LI Championship last season” per the Patriots press release.

WBZ’s Burton, caught up with Richards following the ceremony.

Video credit: Scott Sullivan and WBZ-TV Boston.

What Does the Marquis Flowers Trade Mean for the Patriots

Steve Balestrieri
at 6:30 am ET

The Patriots addressed their depth at linebacker and on special teams on Tuesday morning when it was announced that they traded a 7th round draft pick for LB Marquis Flowers from the Cincinnati Bengals.

Flowers was drafted by the Bengals in the 6th Round (212th Overall) of the 2014 NFL Draft out of Arizona. The 6’3, 245-pound Flowers is an athletic player who is more comfortable outside on the edge than he is inside. He can cover and has the range to run with more athletic players. He’s been used as strictly a special teams’ player for the Bengals, playing only two snaps on defense last year. With their Special Teams’ standouts having been hurt this summer, including Harvey Langi, Shea McClellin, and Geneo Grissom, Flowers will step right into a key role right away. That was apparent in Tuesday’s practice as he stepped into the starting ST’s unit.

Why is this move significant? Well, that depends on your perspective. With many of the special team’s players banged up and facing the Kansas City Chiefs with the dangerous return game with Tyreek Hill, the coaching staff will want their most athletic players on the field. But this may go even deeper than that.

This may be a signal that the Patriots are planning on cutting their ties to two of their more dynamic special teams’ players in Brandon Bolden and Jordan Richards. Bolden has been a standout STs performer for years but is just in a position that is log jammed with talent.

Richards, on the other hand, has been a disappointment. They’ve tried him at different positions on the defense and he hasn’t been able to make a positive impression. This could be a signal that one or the other, perhaps both may be on the block.

But for Flowers, he’s young, athletic and can step into a core special teams’ role immediately. And he’s able to step up and play some defense as well.

While many on social media were thinking that Flowers is a camp body for the 4th preseason game, I disagree. I think he’s pretty much a lock. They need some athleticism on their STs units with KC coming into town. And he’ll give them that and be able to play some defense as well in the team’s sub-packages. The Patriots have made a trade, albeit a minor one but one which will have some impact, at least in the first few weeks of the season.

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 – Texans Preseason Game #2, What to Watch For

Steve Balestrieri
August 19, 2017 at 8:00 am ET

The Patriots and Texans have finished their joint practices and meet in Houston on Saturday night at 8 p.m. (7 p.m. local time) for the second preseason game of the 2017 Patriots schedule.

The game will be broadcast on CBS with Dan Roche, Christian Fauria and Matt Chatham (sidelines) on the call. It will also be live on NFL Game Pass and on 98.5 the Sports Hub, the Patriots flagship station with Bob Socci and Scott Zolak on the call.

After a couple of spirited and tough practices against the Texans this week in West Virginia, the teams meet in a preseason game before doing it for real in Week 3 in Foxboro. Here are some of the things we’ll be watching for.

Brady and the Healthy Starters Making an Appearance: Last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Patriots sat 40 of their veteran players as well as some hurt ones. It would be difficult to imagine them sitting again and then having to play two + quarters against the Lions next week in the tune-up for the regular season.

So this will be the first chance we get to see guys like Brandin Cooks and Rex Burkhead on the offense and established veterans like Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, and James White will get to strut their stuff with Brady. I still don’t expect to see Rob Gronkowski this week.

On the defense, that means seeing Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler at corner this week with Pat Chung and Devin McCourty at safety. None of whom played a week ago. David Harris should see some action at middle linebacker tonight as well.

The Offensive Line Will Have Their Hands Full: The Patriots know full well how tough the Texans front seven on defense is. They gave them all they could handle in the divisional playoff game in Foxborough last year. The joint practices were much more of the same. On Tuesday, the Texans defense carried the day, leading Brady to get heated on the sidelines. They were better on Wednesday but look for Houston to get after whoever is under center.

Nate Solder, Tony Garcia, and LaAdrian Waddle are banged up and won’t play. That leaves Cameron Fleming protecting Brady’s blind side over left tackle. The team kept a running back in, right behind the left tackle to help out this week. When Brady is in, expect to see James White or Burkhead doing much the same thing.

Whitney Mercilus, J.J. Watt, Jadevon Clowney et.al had a good week going against the Patriots offensive line during the joint practices. They’ll be looking to set the tone early by doing the same. The offensive line will have to give Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo the time to find the receivers. With that in mind, our next key to watch…

Patriots Wide Receivers Keeping the Pressure On: During training camp thus far this summer, the Patriots wide receivers have looked like a pretty dominant group. The versatility and depth make this unit fun to watch. This week will be our first chance to see them on the field together. Brady already has great chemistry with the likes of Edelman, Hogan and Danny Amendola. He’s approaching that (in practice) with Cooks who has been explosive this summer.

While Houston’s front seven is a dominant type of group, the secondary has some question marks. At corner, they lost A.J. Boyue who effectively shut down half of the field in the divisional playoff game in January. And at safety is the Texans position of concern. They’re still searching for answers there besides Andre Hal who wasn’t terrific a year ago. If there is a chance to stretch the field tonight, look for Brady to do so with either Cooks or Hogan.

Once the starters give way, guys like Devin Lucien, Austin Carr and TE Jacob Hollister will be looking to continue their hot summers. All three would be, in a different time frame, in a great position to make the roster. With the depth in place, all three are having to make strides to make the 53-man cut down in two weeks.

Patriots Edge Pressure, Where Does It Come From: We’ve mentioned the Texans front seven which is excellent and now the flip side. With the injuries to the two rookie draft picks, the Patriots are thin on the edge. Dont’a Hightower won’t play, so that leaves the team even thinner. Where does the edge pressure come from?

This will probably be a question we’ll ask every week, but for now, veteran Trey Flowers who led the team down the stretch a year ago will be the guy who is expected to provide the most pressure. Look for the team to employ LBs Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin in more of a rush mode beginning this week. Rookie Harvey Langi, who is having a very solid camp will no doubt be tasked to do more of the same.

One area where the team can help the edge players is to push the pocket from the inside where the Texans QBs, Tom Savage and DeShaun Watson can’t step up. That will fall to guys like Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler, the rookie UDFA who is stepping up his game.

Bottom of the Roster Players Have a Great Chance to Shine: With the Patriots 90-man roster as deep as we’ve seen it in many years, the players who round out the Patriots roster will have a chance to strut their stuff against a playoff team from 2016 in the Texans. And that includes a couple of players who didn’t have their best moments against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week.

Cyrus Jones struggled mightily on defense, and he’s clearly over-thinking things back there. That is something that has to be remedied. In essence, he’s the #5 corner, so he’s not expected to play much on defense. But he can’t let it affect his play in the return game. And he was lackluster there a week ago, tonight is a prime opportunity to erase those bad feelings.  If he fails there, the Patriots have options. Both Danny Amendola and Dion Lewis are waiting in the wings if called. Time to step it up.

Elandon Roberts and Jordan Richards both struggled a week ago, Roberts was reaching and filled the wrong gaps and Richards’ deficiencies in speed were put on display as well as taking a very poor angle on a 79-yard touchdown run. Both need to step up their game.

As we mentioned above, the young receivers, Lucien, Carr, and Jacob Hollister have another prime opportunity to impress the coaches. Adam Butler and Conor McDermott on the offensive and defensive lines, respectively are players to watch tonight.

 

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New England Patriots Training Camp Primer: Safety

Steve Balestrieri
July 20, 2017 at 6:30 am ET

Proven Veteran Leadership, Solid Depth

The Patriots head into training camp at the end of 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. And we’re on to 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. 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. And some serious decisions will have to be made to get to the 53-man limit at the end of camp this summer.

Our earlier evaluations looked at the:
Running Backs
Wide Receivers
Tight Ends
Offensive Line
Defensive Line
Linebackers
Cornerbacks

So next up is the Patriots’ safety position. This spring the team had the good fortune and smarts to bring back safety Duron Harmon during free agency. The re-signing of, in essence, the third starter because he plays so many snaps was a win/win. Harmon has been the team’s third safety in their big nickel package and he’d fill in as the team’s center fielder and many times they’d move McCourty, who used to be a cornerback into the slot.

McCourty and Chung return and are a savvy pair of veterans. They both should be around for at least 2017 and possibly beyond. The team normally carries a few safeties as special teamers and this year will be no exception.

So, with that in mind who is locked in and who is on the bubble?

Roster Locks: Devin McCourty, Pat Chung, Duron Harmon
The team is in very good shape at safety to start the season as they have all three starters returning for 2017. McCourty is an excellent free safety and makes all the calls for the secondary as the quarterback back there. He’s a team captain and a leader, on and off the field.

Not only is he always in the right position but he ensures everyone else is too on the field. He’s like having an extra coach on the field. He’s not a big rah-rah guy but leads by example and makes himself and everyone else accountable.


Pat Chung has been very solid in his second stint in New England. (USA TODAY Images)

Chung has been enjoying a career rejuvenation in his second stint with the Patriots. The coaches use him close to the line of scrimmage in the box where he’s much more effective. He terrific in run support, and like everyone else in the secondary, is a good tackler and is rarely out of position.

He’s physical and does a pretty good job of covering backs out of the backfield and tight ends close to the line of scrimmage. He’s a solid locker room guy and seems to be a popular teammate while being another quiet leader.

Bringing back Harmon on what is a pretty team-friendly deal was a great move. He was already essentially a starter with the number of snaps he’s played and he has a tremendous nose for the football. Harmon allows the Patriots to move McCourty around in the big nickel defense. He’s always making big plays at key times and is a very trusted player on the defense.

If McCourty were to miss any time with an injury, Harmon can be relied on to step in and do the job. Would he be able to make all the calls? That’s a question that we don’t know yet, but he’s another valuable piece of the defense.

Near Roster Locks: None

On the Bubble: David Jones, Jordan Richards
The Patriots signed UDFA safety Jones from Richmond this spring and he may be a player for fans to keep an eye on this summer. He’s got very good size for a strong safety at 6’3, 210 pounds to be a backup and eventual replacement for Pat Chung. Playing a very physical position takes a toll and the Patriots need a reliable backup.

Keep an eye on David Jones (#34) this summer, here with the Patriots safeties and coach Steve Belichick. (SBalestrieri photo)

Jones is athletic for a big man and returned kicks and punts in college and got some work in the return game during the spring. The more you can do, the more valuable you are to the coaches. Watching him in our limited window this spring, he impressed in coverage against the backup receivers. Now when the pads come on Thursday, will be a big test.

Richards’ career is at a crossroads in just his third season. After being a high draft pick (2nd Round, 64th overall) in the 2015 NFL Draft, he hasn’t made an impact and was buried on the depth chart in his second season, when Bill Belichick says most players make a big jump in their development.

He’s looked stiff in the hips and hasn’t been able to stick with receivers. He played just 18 defensive snaps in 2016 and just a third of the special teams’ snaps a year ago. He’s going to have to earn his way on the roster this summer. Right now, and it is very early with a limited view, but I’d put Jones ahead of Richards, especially given his ability to be an impact STs player. This will be a positional battle to watch.

Outside Looking In… Long Shots: Damarius Travis, Jason Thompson
The Patriots signed Travis as a UDFA and he’s an in-the-box safety. He has decent size at 6’2, 210 but he too is a bit stiff in the hips and may be a liability in coverage at the NFL level. He does a very good job against the run and is considered a high character player and person. He has excellent special teams’ ability and led Minnesota with 17 special teams’ tackles.

Thompson is a long shot to make the roster but if he shows enough of special teams, he could stick or make the Patriots practice squad. He wasn’t a starter in college and switched from QB to safety. He’s got decent size at 6’2, 210, and ran a 4.44 in the 40-Yard Dash and logged a very impressive 6.57 time in the 3-Cone Drill which would have been second in the Combine.

So, before we have everyone reaching for cell phones and keyboards for our snubbing of Nate Ebner and Brandon King…you’ll just have to wait until tomorrow we post our Special Teams primer…

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

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Who Will Be the Patriots’ Slot Corner in 2017?

Steve Balestrieri
March 31, 2017 at 6:00 am ET

The Patriots will have an interesting mix on their hands at the cornerback position if they can persuade Malcolm Butler to come back at least for this season. They’ll have Butler, newly signed Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones, and Justin Coleman as their corners (as of right now) unless they add another in the draft.

The question everyone is asking is, “Who will play in the slot?” And the easy answer is, all of them could at one time or another.

With Rowe and Gilmore being 6’1, they could line up them outside and push Butler into the slot where he’d line up on the quicker shiftier receivers much like Logan Ryan and before him, Kyle Arrington did in the past. But the NFL being what it is, many teams now try to line up their big WRs in the slot attempting to get them more of a free release and take advantage of matchups.

We’ve seen this many times, and the Patriots would have the option of sliding any of their corners around depending upon those matchups. Flashback to Super Bowl XLIX, Arrington was being matched up with the Seahawks Chris Matthews who had a huge size advantage on him. Bill Belichick then slid Brandon Browner into the slot and the physical 6’4 corner quickly erased Matthews.

In 2016, the team used Butler and Eric Rowe on the outside and moved Logan Ryan into the slot. Butler has developed into one of the best corners in the game. He has a short-term memory, is very physical, doesn’t back down from a challenge and will jump up into the fray in support of the running game. He is outstanding in press man coverage at the line and is versatile enough to play on the outside or bump into the slot.

He is a perfect fit, depending on the matchups to play in the slot. The Patriots would have two big corners in Gilmore and Rowe and a slightly smaller but very athletic Butler. This is a secondary that could mix and match with anyone. Things become slightly murkier however if they do end up trading Butler.

The slot corner position would then be open for competition between Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones, and Justin Coleman. At that point, I think the Patriots would add a corner thru the draft if Butler leaves. But I truly believe sans Butler the job would be Cyrus Jones’ to lose.

Forget about 2016, that nightmarish rookie season is long gone. He got off to a rocky start in minicamp last spring with issues holding on to punts in the return game and it carried over into the season. Jones is starting with a clean slate this spring and I expect much, much better results from him on the defensive side of the ball in 2017.

He was much too good in Nick Saban’s defense in Alabama to forget how to play football. Jones has excellent press coverage skills, is a good, willing tackler in the running game and is more than athletic enough to cover anyone from the slot position. Obviously, without Butler, it would be a step-down, but the team and the rest of the secondary members could make it work.

Coleman and Jonathan Jones are the dark horses here but never say never…especially in New England. Coleman played some in 2015 and did fairly well overall. Jones had some flashes in training camp a year ago but it will be interesting to see how he looks in Year 2.

Devin McCourty at free safety and Pat Chung at strong safety in the box provide excellent overall play and still have plenty left in the tank although Chung’s physical play down low is bound to start taking a toll on his body soon.

Duron Harmon was brought back with a nice new deal that works well for both sides. He’s the guy that comes in for the Big Nickel formations. One player that may be replaced this summer is Jordan Richards. He’s been disappointing and is too stiff in the hips to be a consistent player in coverage.

The best-case scenario? Butler signs his tender and returns with a big chip on his shoulder and wants to show the rest of the league that he deserves a big money contract. With Gilmore, Rowe, and he providing three very good cornerbacks, the defense will be ready for the cavalcade of opposing QBs that they’ll face in 2017.

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New England Patriots Free Agent Profile Duron Harmon

Steve Balestrieri
February 21, 2017 at 7:34 am ET

The Patriots will enter the beginning of the 2017 league season with several important decisions to make in regards to free agency. While the team has the third most salary cap room in the NFL this season, they have a slew of free agents including several who are either starters or important role players.

We’ll be doing profiles on each of the free agents in the upcoming days and give you our take on whether they return or move on. One of the players that is an important role player is safety, Duron Harmon.

The Patriots’ 26-year old safety from Rutgers has been a valuable member of the secondary. Harmon is kind of a closer for the team. Time and again, he’s shown the knack for making the big interception to close out games as the Patriots third safety. He had an interception against the Houston Texans in the Divisional Round and nearly had another in the Super Bowl against Matt Ryan. It was a play he normally comes down with.

Everyone remembers his interception against Joe Flacco and the Ravens in the 2014 Divisional Round that sealed the Patriots comeback win. It is typical of the play that we’ve come to expect from Harmon in big situations.

When the team goes to their “Big Nickel” look with three safeties, Harmon comes in and plays the deep centerfield role, something he’s excelled in. He’s almost a starter, logging about 49 percent of the defensive snaps in 2016.


Duron Harmon intercepts Joe Flacco in the 2014 Divisional Round of the playoffs. (USA TODAY Images)

The Patriots drafted Harmon in the 3rd Round, 91st overall in the 2013 NFL Draft.  His role has steadily evolved since then and he’s now a trusted integral part of the defense. Harmon finished his fourth year with a second Super Bowl ring, and he’s in line to get a nice pay increase. While the Patriots would surely be willing to increase his pay, the question now becomes, will another swoop in and wow Harmon with a big money contract and a chance to be a starter?

Why Harmon Will Return: The Patriots and Bill Belichick know that you can never have enough defensive backs, especially ones with the big play ability that Harmon has. He’s proven that the big moments of games aren’t too big for him, he has a knack for always being in the right place at the right time.

He knows the system, the coaches, and his fellow players. He’s a de facto starter with Devin McCourty and Pat Chung, the three work extremely well together. He’s the insurance for McCourty in the case of injury, something the Patriots no doubt recognize.

He shouldn’t break the bank to re-sign and given a nice pay raise, he could continue in his role with the team and provide them with solid play on the back end and insurance for McCourty. There is the subject of winning also. Harmon has two Super Bowl Rings in just four years. In his other two years, the Patriots went to the conference championship game. By now, he’s met several other players who’ve come to New England after toiling for years without a sniff of the playoffs. That is a draw that can’t be discounted.

Why Harmon Won’t Return: There is a very real possibility that another team will recognize Harmon’s talents for what they are and pay him much more than the Patriots would. While the money is one thing, the opportunity to go from being a de facto starter to becoming a starter and playing in 90 percent + of the reps is another.

While he’s not a household name with casual fans around the NFL, the scouts and GMs of opposing teams know his worth. And one of them may feel he’s ready to assume the mantle of leadership that McCourty enjoys here as the centerfielder and leader of the secondary.

Money is always an issue in free agency. One of the reasons the Patriots have enjoyed such success under Bill Belichick is because they won’t fall into the trap of overpaying for players, either their own or others who have hit the market. If another team offers Harmon more than the Pats deem his value is, then he’ll be gone.

Bottom Line: The Patriots have an eclectic group of safeties. The three ostensible starters, McCourty, Chung, and Harmon all have varying skill sets that makes them click so well. McCourty is the centerfielder who can move down into the box and cover the slot receivers like a cornerback.

Chung is an in-the-box safety who is outstanding in run support and can cover in the short areas of the field. He plays the role of a linebacker in the Patriots big nickel formations.

Harmon doesn’t have the versatility of McCourty and while not a detriment in run support, that isn’t a position of strength. But he’s a fantastic deep cover safety with excellent ball skills and anticipation. The other three safeties on the roster, Nate Ebner, Brandon King and Jordan Richards are mainly special teams’ mavens.

Together the three make a fantastic trio that locks down the deep part of the field and provides good support underneath. When was the last time, you saw the safeties get burned on a deep ball?

That’s why the Patriots should make a concerted effort to retain Harmon preferably before the March 9th, 4:00 p.m. deadline when free agency begins. They probably can convince him to stay put with a nice increase in pay. An added incentive is always the chance to play deep into the playoffs every year, something that can’t be discounted.

However, the chances of that happening are going to be low. There should be a decent amount of interest for Harmon’s services once free agency begins in earnest. Therefore, the chances of his returning are only about 50-50 in a Patriots uniform in 2017.

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.