Tag Archives: Patriots

Training Camp Will Answer How the Patriots Running Backs Are Used

Steve Balestrieri
June 22, 2017 at 6:52 am ET


The Patriots made another big move in an offseason chock full of them by signing LB David Harris who was just let go by the Jets. He filled a position of not necessarily need but one of concern depth-wise. With these moves that they’ve made on defense, it will allow the team to easily switch back and forth between three and four man fronts which they like to do. But today the focus is on the running backs. And how they’re going to be used. And those answers will likely be answered once training camp begins in July.

After the Patriots’ LeGarrette Blount hit free agency, we knew there was a good chance that he wouldn’t return. He slowed noticeably down the stretch and despite an outstanding career year, the team could have used an infusion of youth there. So, the team brought in a pair of intriguing players; Rex Burkhead from the Bengals and Mike Gillislee from the Bills.

Each has some qualities that should be utilized here in New England by the coaching staff as they join James White, Dion Lewis as the players most likely to see significant snaps. 2nd-year player D.J. Foster who is another intriguing kid with the ball in his hands will have to really step up his game this summer. And judging from the Patriots modus operandi in OTAs and mini-camp, they were giving him plenty of opportunities to see where his progression lies.

The Patriots under Belichick have rarely used a true “feature” back. The exception would be Corey Dillon in 2004. They’ve instead relied on a running back by committee and they mix and match their talent depending on the opponent from week to week. Their top four backs will earn about $2 million less than LeVeon Bell from the Steelers. That’s why we weren’t buying all of these Adrian Peterson rumors this spring.

For now, it appears that Gillislee will take over the Blount role and be the main guy to carry the ball in the running game. It doesn’t mean that the others can’t run the ball but he seems to be the best fit doing so.

Right away on his signing, the comparisons went out between Gillislee and Blount and they need to stop. They are two entirely different players. Blount outweighs Gillislee by a good 30 pounds. Gillislee is built more like Stevan Ridley and although he doesn’t Blount’s power, he quicker to hit the holes and can make people miss in the backfield, something that Blount had issues with. He can really hit the edge quickly

Although he wasn’t a prolific receiver in Buffalo, Gillislee runs good routes and is a better option in the passing game than Blount was. So, his being in the backfield means that teams will have to account for him as both a runner and receiver where Blount was more of just a one option guy as a runner.

Burkhead is more of a “do-everything” kind of guy, while he lacks the power of Gillislee and the straight-line speed, he has excellent quickness and will lug the ball between the tackles, with good vision and is a very good receiver out of the backfield. He’s also a stellar special teams’ player, something that may spell the end of the line for a guy like Brandon Bolden.

I did a podcast this week with John Sarianides from @xnoJoe.com and he brought up a great point about Burkhead. I’m paraphrasing here a bit, but he basically was saying, “Don’t look at what Burkhead was asked to do with the Bengals, if you want to see how the Patriots will use him, go back to his Nebraska tape.”

James White proved his worth in the Super Bowl with a fantastic performance and if not for a tremendous comeback by a guy named Brady, he was an easy choice to be the game’s most valuable player against the Falcons. He is the perfect sub-back. He has quick feet, good hands and runs excellent routes. He can lug the occasional run between the tackles but his value lays in the passing game where he can even split out wide as a receiver.

Dion Lewis is cut from the same mold as White but is a better runner inside with the ball in his hands. He’s more of a running back than a receiver but is very dangerous in open space with his elusiveness. The only question with him is his durability, he’s suffered some serious injuries in his career and that may be a factor in his usage.

One area that they will all be judged on is their ability to pass block. The Patriots and their coaches demand that the backs all be excellent pass blockers. Nothing will get a guy taken off the field more quickly (besides putting the ball on the ground) than whiffing on a pass blocking assignment. See the Super Bowl and Dont’a Hightower’s sack. Freeman whiffed and badly. If he doesn’t, perhaps Atlanta is trying on their rings right now.

Bill Belichick last fall in one of his pressers talked about the difficulty of pass blocking and the amount of time spent on the subject should answer any questions about its importance.

“That’s probably the hardest thing to have to do is to figure out whether the guy is blitzing or not, because when he comes across, he’s trying to come across like he’s blitzing so you’ll stay in and take him,” Belichick said.

“But if he really has you in coverage and he’s coming across to just hold you in and you get out, then you’re out and you don’t have to block him and he has to cover you. So that’s a real cat and mouse game there between the back who has the pickup and the linebacker who is in man coverage who is trying to keep him in by using a blitz technique. And if either guy is wrong on that, it’s like playing chicken. If either guy’s wrong on that, you’re out, he blitzes and you get sacked. Or you blitz and he knows you’re not coming and he’s out and then you can’t cover him and it’s a big play in man-to-man coverage.

“That’s a tough spot. It’s not an easy thing for a back to do. Plus, you play against a lot of different linebackers and they all do it a little bit differently and teams try to scheme that up a little bit with different calls and little ways to trick a back and stuff like that. That’s probably the hardest part, really. And then there’s, of course, blocking him. Just because you know who to block doesn’t – a back blocking a blitzing linebacker is not a gimme. Depending on who that guy is, there are different ways you might want to block him.”

There will be no shortage of story lines to follow once training camp opens in July, but watching the running backs and how they compete and get their roles worked out should be at the top of the list.

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

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

Why the Patriots Should Kick the Tires on David Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New England Patriots News 6-18, AFC East Notes

Steve Balestrieri
June 18, 2017 at 5:00 am ET

Good morning, here are your Sunday’s Patriots news 6-18, & AFC East Notes.

The Patriots are now off until training begins in about 5 weeks. With the OTAs and minicamp in the books, the team is good shape getting ready for the upcoming season. The weather was as unpredictable as ever this spring but that probably helps the team as they get used to playing in all weather conditions.

Five of the top news items coming out of the spring both good and bad include:

  • Gronk is 100 Percent Heading into Camp:
    Perhaps the best news to come out of the spring was that TE Rob Gronkowski was present for all of the workouts and that he wasn’t held back or limited in any way. That is particularly good news. As good as this offense was a year ago, it is even better with a healthy Gronkowski on the field.
  • Cooks is Going to be Exciting to Watch:
    Brandin Cooks turned heads here in joint practices last year and now is a member of the Patriots. The Patriots don’t normally have a receiver that has the blistering speed he does and it is going to be fun to watch how they try to integrate the productive WR into their offense.
  • Linebacker Still a Concern Heading into the Summer Break:
    Something we’ve discussed this spring was the depth at linebacker behind Dont’a Hightower. It is still a question of who steps up and wrests the reps away from the others. Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and UDFA Harvey Langi are among the players who should be looking to compete for playing time once camp begins.
  • Injuries to Monitor:
    With the aforementioned Hightower not participating and obviously on the mend from offseason procedures, there were a couple of other players limited or missing time that will bear watching. Duron Harmon was limited all spring and Lawrence Guy, Kony Ealy, Jimmy Garoppolo and Andrew Jelks all suffered some sort of setback during spring workouts that caused them to miss time. They’ll bear watching once camp opens.
  • Spring is a Great Time for the Under-the-Radar Guys:
    Every spring we always hear or see (in many cases) some players rise up and stand out in the OTAs and minicamp. Or as Chris Price told me in a podcast this week the “Zach Sudfeld Effect.” Jonathan Jones stepped up to play a lot of nickel corner thus far. Other players making an early splash include RB D.J. Foster, WR Austin Carr and DB David Jones. Whether they can continue this will bear watching. Every year there are players who shine early and fade (Sudfeld) and those that continue to play well (Malcolm Butler). That’s what makes training camp so intriguing.

Speaking of Chris Price, the former WEEI Patriots beat writer and author has a couple of books in the works. His book on the 2016 Patriots Super Bowl Season should be on the shelves soon. He is also working on a book about the Hartford Whalers of the NHL. Price told me this week as a kid growing up in Connecticut, the Whalers were a franchise that the fans closely identified with. If these two books are just half as good as his previous work, they’ll be must reading and great gifts for the sports fan in the house.

Price also does a super podcast (Cover 2) with Don Banks on the Patriots website. Besides great Patriots content, they cover the overall NFL landscape and are doing a great job. Some great intriguing guests as well.

Patriots in the Heads of their Opponents Already? It would seem so:
The Patriots and more specifically Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are seemingly lodged firmly in the psyches of their opponents before the season even starts if the latest on Social Media are any indication.

In Pittsburgh, the headlines asked if Sidney Crosby, fresh off of Stanley Cup championship was better than Tom Brady.  But that wasn’t it for the Steel City, as Pittsburgh LB Ryan Shazier was asked if the Steelers have a “Patriots Problem” having lost four in a row to NE. Shazier took it a step further stating the NFL has a Patriots problem and the Steelers feel they can get over the hump this season.

And finally in Miami, Ndamukong Suh, who has a known reputation as large for dirty tactics as much as big plays made the statement at Dolphins OTAs that will certainly have found its way into the bulletin boards of Foxboro. Suh, stated, “I think one of the great things about Miami and this team, we’ve never been scared of the New England Patriots. We never will be. So, with that being said, when we play them late in the season, we’ll be prepared.” Earlier this spring Jarvis Landry predicted that Miami would sweep New England in 2017.

Confidence in one’s team is always fine, bravado is another. If you want to beat Belichick and Brady, take a page out of their book and say nothing about your opponents and tell the media, you’re focusing on yourselves at this early juncture of the spring/summer.

Patrick Chung gets Incentive Boost in his Contract:
The Patriots, with plenty of cap space this year are giving safety Pat Chung the incentives to have a terrific 2017 season. Chung, according to ESPN’s Field Yates is getting an incentive laden boost in his contract that can pay him up to $1.7 million dollars this season.

Chung is signed through the 2018 season and is set to make $900,000 in 2017. His incentives can nearly double his pay, boosting him an additional $800,000. The Patriots have three safeties that they’ve paid on the higher end of the payroll with Chung, Devin McCourty, and Duron Harmon. They gave a similar incentive boost to Rob Gronkowski earlier this spring.

Chung has played much better in his second stint in New England, although his play slipped a bit in 2016. It could be that he was suffering from some ailments that we weren’t aware or it could be that the physical toll of playing the position close to the box as Chung does is finally taking a toll. Either way, the team is giving him the option to excel now and it is a smart move by Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio.

Kraft’s Touchdown in Israel Brings 18 HOFers to the Holy Land:
Patriots owner Robert Kraft makes an annual pilgrimage to the country of Israel with a bevy of Hall of Fame players to experience first-hand the sights and sounds of the Holy Land and to see the growth of football in the stadium in Jerusalem that bears his name.

This year’s group contains, Lem Barney, Jerome Bettis, Jim Brown, Cris Carter, Dave Casper, Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, Joe Greene, Willie Lanier, Joe Montana, Andre Reed, Mike Singletary, Bruce Smith, John Stallworth, Roger Staubach, Andre Tippett, Aeneas Williams and Ron Yary.

Kraft told the assembled Hall of Famers on the plane flight to Israel, “My family and I are into spirituality, and no matter what your background, you’ll find a way to be uplifted by the country.” Updates will be posted on the Patriots website.

Pats Heading to W.V. For Joint Practices with the Texans:
The Patriots and Bill Belichick have always believed in joint practices. It breaks up the monotony and dog days of training camp and allows you to evaluate your players against an opponent that they’re not familiar with. Both teams benefit from it and it is an opportunity to improve as a whole.

Not surprisingly, the team has a pair of joint ventures lined up this summer. The Jacksonville Jaguars will visit Foxboro before their preseason game on August 10 for a pair of joint workouts on August 7-8 and now the team has announced that they’ll conduct a pair of practices with the Houston Texans before the preseason game in Houston on August 19.

However, the practices with Houston will be held at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia on August 15-16. It is the second time the Patriots will visit the resort after having held joint practices with the Saints there in 2015. The Saints visited Foxboro last year for joint sessions.

East Bound and Down…AFC East Notes:

Bills RT Jordan Mills Draws Raves from the Coaches:
Buffalo Bills right tackle Jordan Mills had a 2016 season that many, including himself would rather forget. The fifth-year tackle allowed seven sacks and was whistled for four holding penalties.

But the new coaching staff of coach Sean McDermott is starting everyone off with a clean slate and one of the most impressive players thus far has been Mills, who put the work in during the off-season. “Jordan Mills has had one heck of an offseason,” McDermott told the Bills media last week.

Mills has settled in because he took the time to watch tape and evaluate his own play which allowed him to fix his mistakes.

“You’ve just got to in the lab in the offseason, learn from it and get better,” Mills said.

“And I felt like I did that every single day that I came back. It’s a different coaching style They expect different things out of us, but mostly my footwork in the run game and pass game, just keeping my hands up, using my hands better and stuff like that. And mentally, too, studying my opponents and looking at other offensive linemen around the league.”

I just focus on what I have to do and execute to the best of my abilities, and I felt like I did all spring.”

Dolphins’ Gase Admits Mistake with Wake in 2016:
Miami head coach Adam Gase has been very upfront and open about his missteps in his first season in 2016, specifically when speaking about the mistakes the team made with Cameron Wake. In 2016, Wake was coming off of a serious Achilles injury and the team erred on the side of caution, easing Wake into the lineup, an issue that Gase is far alone in making. Now he says, that was a mistake.

“I thought we were being smart,” Gase said to the Miami media. “It backfired on us. What we should have done is let him (Wake) play.”

But Gase is taking a similar track with center Mike Pouncey as he returns from a serious injury this year. “He’s on a really, really good track now,” Gase said. No decision has been made yet as to Pouncey’s availability for training camp but the team remains optimistic. “We need him to heal and be there for the duration,” Gase said.

Jets Building for 2018, Will Have $80 Million In Cap Space:
While the Jets prospects for the 2017 season appear dim, they’re laying the groundwork to be building for the future. The Jets are expected to have more than $80 million in cap space heading into 2018, which would be tops in the league.

The carryover from the 2017 season would put them in the $66 million dollar range according to Rich Cimini of ESPN, and they still have $24 million plus that they can spend this season.

The Jets crop of free agents next season include Sheldon Richardson, Morris Claiborne, Marcus Williams, Demario Davis, Wesley Johnson, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Josh McCown. None of whom are indispensable as of today.

The Jets are expected to be looking for the next franchise QB either in the 2018 NFL Draft or via free agency. A couple of the QBs listed by Cimini include the Redskins’ Kirk Cousins and the Patriots Jimmy Garoppolo.

WR ArDarius Stewart is one the mend from not only one but two surgeries on his groin and thumb since being drafted by the Jets in April. Stewart wasn’t able to participate but coach Todd Bowles expects him to be ready for training camp.

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

New England Patriots News 6-11, AFC East Notes

Steve Balestrieri
June 11, 2017 at 5:00 am ET

Good morning, here are your Sunday’s Patriots news 6-11, & AFC East Notes.

Because of extensive travel this weekend, this week’s news and notes piece will be a bit shorter than normal with no AFC East notes this weekend. We’ll be back with all of them next Sunday.

Patriots Get Their Super Bowl Rings in Private Ceremony:
The Patriots were all invited to the private digs of Robert Kraft on Friday night and received their rings from the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl victory.

The words “We Are All Patriots” and “Greatest Comeback Ever” are engraved inside the ring. The Pats trailed the Falcons by 25 points in the third quarter before staging the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history. No team in the first 50 Super Bowls had rallied from more than 10 points down to win.

Also engraved on the ring is “Unequivocally the sweetest,” which was Kraft’s postgame comment about the Patriots’ latest championship in a dig at NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the entire Deflategate saga, that the team and QB Tom Brady were punished with.

The ring includes 283 diamonds, a not-so-subtle reminder of the Falcons’ 28-3 lead that New England overcame.

“We celebrated our first Super Bowl ring ceremony 15 years ago to the day,” Kraft said. “It was our first Super Bowl championship in 42 years and, at the time, I couldn’t imagine a more exciting game or ring celebration.”

“It was a historic comeback win, and the players deserve to have a ring that represents that accomplishment. So, we created the biggest Super Bowl ring ever made. Watching the expressions of the players and coaches when they saw them for the first time and the overwhelming pride when they put them on was priceless.”

Julian Edelman Gets Contract Extension and is a Bargain:
The biggest news coming out of minicamp this week was that the Patriots extended WR Julian Edelman for an additional two years which will keep him in Foxboro thru the 2019 season. Edelman’s contract is worth a reported $15 million dollars in pay and incentives which is a total bargain for New England.

Consider this, Edelman’s potential $15 million is what the Colts are paying T.Y. Hilton, for just the 2019 season. Edelman finished 2016 with 98 catches for 1106 yards, but his grab at the end of the Super Bowl may have saved the Patriots Super Bowl comeback.

In the past four seasons, only three players have more receptions that Edelman’s 356, Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, and Julio Jones. Edelman is tied with Larry Fitzgerald, some pretty heady company.

Not too shabby for a 7th Round draft pick out of Kent State on an option quarterback who had never played a down at the position of wide receiver before.

Minicamp Had Few Surprises But Was a Good Teaching Experience:
The team wrapped up their mandatory three-day minicamp on Thursday and while there a few small surprises, the team treats it like the learning camp that it is. We all get excited about the performance of a player either good or bad but that’s what these sessions are designed for. However, a few things that did stand out, because, hey that is all we have to judge on.

The good? Newcomers Brandin Cooks, Rex Burkhead, and Kony Ealy flashed early in the workouts. Cooks was displaying his noted speed on the outside had a few splash plays as he and Tom Brady are working hard on their chemistry early this year. Burkhead had a nice day on Wednesday catching the ball out of the backfield. Ealy who missed the second two days with an unspecified injury stood out on Tuesday.

Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan looked impressive in passing drills both individually and in team drills. Tom Brady looked to be in near mid-season form. Stephon Gilmore impressed with his coverage ability

The not-so-good? Dwayne Allen struggled in the rain on Tuesday and dropped a number of passes, Wednesday he seemed to be just fine as we were in attendance and didn’t see any drops. Jacoby Brissett had a particularly rough outing on Wednesday, holding the ball too long and struggling with his accuracy. But the bottom line is, there is no reason to get too high or too low over minicamps with no pads on. But after 4 months of no live football, it is easy to get excited over seeing the players do football activities.

Training Camp will hold answers for DL/OL Running Game:
One thing missing from minicamp was the play of the offensive and defensive lines as well as the running game. With no pads on the battles in the trenches is very difficult to judge as well as the running game.

We’re intrigued to see how well newcomer Mike Gillislee fits in with the Patriots offense in 2017. He was there on the field and most definitely looks the part but until the pads come on, we won’t really know. On the offensive line, newcomer Tony Garcia is an intriguing prospect who could someday push Nate Solder for reps.

On the defensive side of the line, draft picks Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise are going to be watched closely this season, especially in training camp to see how much they can contribute in their rookie campaigns. Trey Flowers looks to continue a stellar second half of 2016 and playoffs and will enter 2017 as a starter on the edge at defensive end.

Ealy in a contract year looks to get a fresh start in New England and already gets high marks for showing up for the voluntary OTAs and showing the willingness to work hard. Something he was criticized for in Carolina.

Some of the UDFA free agents looking intriguing, WRs Austin Carr, Cody Hollister, DB David Jones and LB Harvey Langi are all guys who will bear watching once camp opens for real in about six weeks.

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

Patriots Day 2 Minicamp Observations from Wednesday 6-7

Steve Balestrieri
June 8, 2017 at 6:58 am ET

 The Patriots concluded their second day of mandatory minicamp on Wednesday under bright sunny skies after Tuesday’s session seemed more like late October weather with rain and temperatures in the 40s.

A total of 88 players took part with DL Lawrence Guy and backup OL Andrew Jelks being the only players not on the field. Brandon King was on the field however he didn’t appear to be working out.

Dont’a Hightower worked out on the exercise bike at the beginning/stretching phase of the workout and he and Malcolm Mitchell retreated to the lower fields with training personnel. Jonathan Freeny wore a red non-contact jersey and is still recovering from shoulder surgery that landed him on IR.

Russ Goldman and I were at Wednesday’s session and this was our observations from the practice. And remember, it is really early and there aren’t any pads on until training camp.

Cooks appears even faster than we remember:
Last summer during the joint practices with the Saints, Brandin Cooks stood out with his speed when working against the Patriots corners, specifically Malcolm Butler. Fast forward a year and if anything, he’s even more impressive.

Brandin Cooks looks to be a very intriguing option for the offense in 2017. (SBalestrieri photo)

Cooks’ speed was on full display on Wednesday, he connected on a post route from Tom Brady where he literally left Jordan Richards and Devin McCourty in his dust. Richards has been playing some deep safety early in minicamp as Duron Harmon has been limited and we know that isn’t his strength but it is clear that if defenders can’t get a jam on Cooks at the line, he has the speed to create separation and dare we say it…. stretch the field.

He showed during both 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 work, that whenever he wasn’t disrupted he was getting open. Cooks is obviously putting the work in to build that early rapport and trust factor with Brady, something that can’t be overstated.

Brissett had a Rough Outing:
Look, we get it, it is one practice and an early one at that. But this spring we made a mental note to watch Brissett and look for that big second season jump in play. And this wasn’t it. After reading about his struggles on Day 1, he’ll have to put some extra work in before training camp begins.

Jacoby Brissett had a rough outing on Wed’s minicamp session. (SBalestrieri photo)

He seemed to process things late, holding onto the ball for far too long. His accuracy was off as well. He missed many throws he needs to make if he’s pressed into service again. During 7-on-7s RB D.J. Foster had a good step on his man down the center of the field on a post route and Brissett badly overthrew him. That’s a throw that Brady makes consistently.

Nothing to be overly alarmed at unless it becomes a trend. As Russ pointed out, some of his timing issues could stem from the fact that he was working with an entirely new cast of characters and he hasn’t had the opportunity to build any chemistry with them yet.

On the flip side, Brady not surprisingly looks to be in mid-season form. His throwing motion is always perfect, something he works on. A staffer was filming all three QBs as they went thru their throwing motion. Fundamentals are always stressed at this time of year. Garoppolo looked sharp after reading of his struggles on Day 1.

Other observations included:

Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan look to pick up right where they left off last season. Each looked sharp in their route running and each made a couple of nice catches in team drills. Hogan with a back-shoulder throw and catch near the sideline over Butler and Edelman with a grab down the middle.

Julian Edelman had a typically strong day at minicamp, making a few nice catches, as this one over the middle. (SBalestrieri photo)

Newcomer Stephon Gilmore definitely looks the part of a tall, physical defender. He looked impressive at times but was beaten by Edelman badly, going for a fake and left grabbing air. Not surprising since the jamming is very limited at this time of year. He took a back seat to Eric Rowe for many of the drills today as Rowe got some work with the first unit.

Gronk beat Pat Chung for a touchdown in team drills on a nice pass from Brady. The big man is looking healthy and was all business on the field Wednesday. Chung has the unenviable position of usually covering him in practice. And when he’s on like that, no one can stop him one on one.

Kyle Van Noy picked off Garappolo during 11-on-11s and Kony Ealy had a pass breakup during team drills, dropping into the flat to cover the area for check downs, something that Chris Long did frequently last season.

Rex Burkhead looked to be a nice target in the passing game as he was the recipient of about a half dozen passes during full team drills.

Watching Deatrich Wise had a strange gait in his running and we originally thought he was hobbled. He even had it walking, he wears a bulky knee brace and first thoughts were that he tweaked something. But after speaking with others there, it is a natural gait for him.

UDFA David Jones turned a few heads with some nice coverage ability. He’s a big safety who is listed at 6’3, 210 pounds from Richmond. He’ll be a guy to monitor in future workouts in training camp.

Cody Hollister is a big target (6’4, 209) and had a pretty good day at catching the ball. He was able to generate some separation and used his body well to shield the defenders away.

Good news for Cyrus Jones, he was clean fielding all his kicks on Wednesday. That is encouraging for the rookie who struggled all of last season. And it all started with minicamp struggles in the wind a year ago.

The team gets back for their final minicamp practice on Thursday.

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 Photo Gallery Minicamp Session 6-7

Steve Balestrieri
June 7, 2017 at 8:12 pm ET

Our guys were at Patriots minicamp today and here are some of the photos from the day’s action. Be sure to check back later as we’ll have our observations on what went down on Day 2 of Minicamp and what to look for on Thursday.

New England Patriots Minicamp This Week, Three Things to Watch For

Steve Balestrieri
June 6, 2017 at 10:29 am ET

The Patriots begin minicamp this week in rainy, cold conditions. The temperatures are not what one would expect in June with highs hovering only around 50 degrees. The weather resembles late October more so than early June but ball security drills become more important in this type of weather and at least today, expect to see some more of that. But for the other two days of camp this week? What are we looking for?

Here are three things to look for in the three days of minicamp this week. Don’t you love how these things seem to work out?

Linebacker Depth: The Patriots have a really deep roster in 2017. But one area that still has some question marks is the linebacker position. Dont’a Hightower’s health is of primary importance this season. As we pointed out during free agency, the Patriots don’t have a man that can do the things he does. So, who else steps up in 2017?

The Patriots brought in veterans Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy last year and each of them contributed at times in the Super Bowl run of 2016. McClellin probably has a bit more flexibility and can do more things than Van Noy, but the former Lion has plenty to offer in terms of coverage and blitzing and both will be competing for reps.

Second-year player Elandon Roberts will be looking to make a big jump in play in Year 2. The undersized but physical run-stuffer needed to improve in coverage this season and it will be interesting to see how well he fares in 2017. But an undrafted free agent may be looking to make a spot for himself as well.

Harvey Langi is an intriguing guy and a one that could carve out a role for himself as a rookie. He had a very successful junior season in college but his coaches decided they needed help at the edge and moved him from linebacker where he was far less effective. There is a lot to learn about playing the LB position in New England, look for Langi to make his mark on Special Teams first. If he can do that, then his path to the roster should be clearer as well as a shot at producing on defense.

Dont’a Hightower is the Patriots best linebacker by far and one they’ll need healthy in 2017. (SBalestrieri photo)

Safety Reps: The Patriots have one of the better free safeties in Devin McCourty, he isn’t going anywhere and is the like the QB of the secondary out there. The Patriots like to move him around and he can occasionally move down into the slot because he can cover like a corner…which he once was.

The question revolves around the strong safety position. Pat Chung was outstanding in his first two seasons back in New England as the team used him to his strengths closer to the line of scrimmage than his earlier tenure with the team. But his play took a step back last year. Is it a sign of things to come? He plays a very physical style and the wear and tear on his body may be beginning to show. Who will step up for him?

The most obvious choice is Duron Harmon who was rewarded for his stellar sub-package play by getting a new contract this season. But the Patriots used him as the center fielder when sliding McCourty down into the slot. To bring him down into the box would limit the effectiveness of moving McCourty around.

Jordan Richards would be the most obvious choice but his play too suffered in 2016 where he barely saw the field. The Patriots used a 2nd round draft pick on him but thus far he’s yet to show that was a worthwhile pick. From watching him in coverage at practice, he seems a bit stiff in the hips but is better suited for the spot in the box. Nate Ebner and Brandon King are more special teamers than safeties on defense.

Running Back Usage: With no pads on until training camp, the running backs won’t get to show what they can do in the running game until then. But with a plethora of pass catchers, how they’re used and how much is very much up for grabs. The Patriots are a pass first team and the backs must be productive and protective of the QB.

James White, fresh off his Super Bowl heroics and holding a new contract has the inside edge on his competition as he should, but he knows that the team won’t base any decisions on what he did a year ago but on what’s he’s doing this year. Dion Lewis should be completely healthy after coming back from ACL surgery more than a year and a half ago. If he’s got his trademark elusiveness back, Lewis is a very dangerous man with the ball in his hands and could be used as a returner this season.

Newcomers Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee offer a bit more of versatility and seem to be as good if not better at running the ball than catching it. Both were paid decent amounts of money this season. Gillislee seems to be the primary running back while they are keeping the ball on the ground. With the size equivalent of Stevan Ridley and a very good burst at the line, he looks to have a successful year on the ground.

The one intriguing guy is 2nd-year player D.J. Foster. Like Lewis, he is electrifying with the ball in his hands. He was signed as an UDFA last season and didn’t get to flash very much in 2016. But now that he’s had a year in the system, he’s going to be a guy that will be intriguing to watch. Can he do enough to warrant a roster spot in 2017? Time will tell, and minicamp will be a prime spot to show what he can do.

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

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

Which Players May be Traded by the Patriots in 2017?

Steve Balestrieri
May 30, 2017 at 6:36 am ET

The Patriots always seem to make a couple of surprise trades either just before or during the season. Most times they bring in some veteran players who may not register much on the radar screen but find a role for them to play that fits the New England system. Some are more productive than others. Other times they make surprise moves by jettisoning players that are or have been starring on the team.

Recent examples of the former include players like Akeem Ayers who played a key depth role in the 2014 Super Bowl and Kyle Van Noy who they brought in mid-season and who played well for the team. One move that didn’t work out was LB Barkevious Mingo who couldn’t carve out a role with the defense and played only on special teams in 2016 during the Super Bowl run.

There are several examples of the latter. Bill Belichick hasn’t been shy about trading some of his star players if he feels it is in the team’s best interest in doing so. Jamie Collins was traded last season for a conditional 3rd round draft pick. Chandler Jones was traded in the off-season for guard Jonathan Cooper and a conditional 3rd round draft pick. After unloading both Jones and Collins, many media members considered it the death knell for the defense in 2016. The team ended up with a Top 8 unit in yards and first in points against and won the Super Bowl, so Belichick gets the benefit of the doubt.

Just prior to the 2014 season, Logan Mankins was having contractual issues and was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for tight end Tim Wright and a 4th round draft pick.

Going back a bit further, Randy Moss in 2010 was also having contract issues, just four games in, he was traded along with a 7th round pick to the Vikings for a 3rd round selection in the 2011 season. Richard Seymour was “blindsided” by a trade to the Raiders prior to the 2009 season. The Patriots got a 1st round pick in that deal.

So, who could be the surprise players traded either just before the season starts or during the year in mid-stride? There are a lot of variables that go into it but a quick look at the early work in OTAs may provide a hint.

Malcolm Butler: Cornerback Jonathan Jones was getting a ton of work with the first unit players as the third or slot corner in the first week of OTAs. This could mean a lot or nothing. Possibly somebody was hurt and Jones was just stepping in. Or perhaps Belichick wants to see what Jones can do against the Patriots suddenly very deep wide receiver corps. It is always dangerous to read too much into OTAs.

Malcolm Butler may still be moved this season if the price and situation is right. (SBalestrieri photo)

Most think that this points to Rowe being a matchup corner against bigger wide receivers, which may indeed be true. But it could also be setting the Patriots up to use Stephon Gilmore and Rowe outside with Jones if he’s ready to play the slot. Butler could be trade bait to bring in a high draft pick. If they wait until next offseason, Butler would be gone and they’d get little in compensation.

I’m one of those who really wants to see Butler and Gilmore work beside each other all season. And beyond that, I’d really like to see the team sign him to a long-term deal. But I have this sneaking suspicion that they’re going to move Butler before the season is out and before he reaches free agency.

Dion Lewis: For the record, I love what this guy brings to the table. When he gets the ball in his hands he’s electric and makes you sit up a bit straighter in your seat. After coming off ACL surgery, he didn’t have quite the jump in his step that we saw prior to the injury in 2015. But that is understandable, it normally takes a year or more for a player to get his feet totally back under him.

Dion Lewis should be completely healthy but may become trade bait in 2017. (USA TODAY Images)

Now Lewis should be completely healthy and ready to assume that role of the Patriots “Swiss Army Knife” again. But with the emergence of James White, the Super Bowl performance he had and his resultant contract extension, the additions of Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee, where does the team go from here? Don’t forget the 2nd year player D.J. Foster who can also be electric with the ball in his hands. The running back position is pretty deep at this point.

I think the Patriots may feature Lewis early in the summer to get the interest in him high and to show that he’s all the way back. Look for him to play a key role in joint practices with the Jaguars when they roll into town along with a media horde during that week.

And don’t be shocked if the team dangles him out there for trade bait.

Nate Solder: Would this be a surprise? Absolutely it would be, but a shocker? No. The Patriots have shown this before when they shipped Mankins off to Tampa Bay for Tim Wright and a draft pick. Solder is in the last year of his contract and it isn’t known if the team has approached him about an extension.

Nate Solder in the last year of his contract could also be a subject of a trade in 2017. (USA TODAY Images)

But with a look towards the future, they picked up not one but two tackles in the NFL draft this spring. The intriguing pick is Tony Garcia, the third-round pick from Troy. He’s a work in progress and he was taken with 2018 and beyond. But what if his game takes off quickly under Dante Scarnecchia and he shows he’s ready to assume a starting role earlier than expected?

Solder could be one of those surprise moves to a team that desperately needs OL help and it frequently happens when teams get hit with a rash of injuries or some established veterans don’t work out in new environs.

Every year we see Bill Belichick make some moves in mid-stream that are surprising. I wouldn’t expect the 2017 season to be any different. Of course, certain things will have to fall into place for any of these players to be moved, but I wouldn’t rule out a surprise move or two. Just look at the list of players above. We didn’t see most of them being moved at the time either.

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 5-28, AFC East Notes

Steve Balestrieri
May 28, 2017 at 5:00 am ET

Good morning, here are your Sunday’s Patriots news 5-28, & AFC East Notes.

From all us here at PatsFans.com, we hope everyone has a safe and happy Memorial Day Weekend. We’ll be paying homage to our veterans who paid the ultimate sacrifice, our true heroes on Sunday morning at a church service. And then the annual parade on Monday. Any of our readers out there who are veterans we salute you, especially those Gold Star families.

We applaud the NFL for coming to its collective senses and putting a stop to the ridiculous penalties for celebrating a touchdown and easing the rules on that a bit in 2017. Isn’t that the point of the game, to score? Players can once again use the ball as a prop in their end zone celebratory choreography.

The other interesting development this year is the cutting of the overtime period from 15 to 10 minutes. Ushered in under the “players’ safety” mantra, it was also done to shorten the games and encourage teams to be a bit more aggressive in the extra session. We’ll see how that turns out, but it will be intriguing to see how the second development is game planned by coaches this season.

Clayborn Gets the Call…and About Time:
The Patriots fan voters have spoken and CB Raymond Clayborn will be the newest inductee into the team’s Hall of Fame this summer. Clayborn played for the Pats for 13 seasons (1977-1989), was named to three Pro Bowls and is tied for the team’s all-time lead in interceptions (36) with Ty Law.

Drafted in the first round (#16 overall) in the 1977 NFL Draft, Clayborn teamed with Mike Haynes to give the Patriots a tremendous starting tandem at corner. Clayborn was a member of the Patriots All-1970s Team, the Pats ALL-1980s Team and the Patriots 35th Anniversary Team. He also set the team record with 161 consecutive starts, so he was always healthy and on the field.

Congratulations to Clayborn, we look forward to seeing him presented his red jacket this August by owner Robert Kraft.

Brady Fired up for practice? Now There’s a Surprise:
Phil Perry from CSNNE reported on Thursday’s OTA session that Tom Brady was very fired up for the session and that he celebrated a late practice touchdown to reserve RB D.J. Foster as if it was a January playoff contest. That should surprise no one.

Tom Brady didn’t let another Super Bowl win temper his fiery competitiveness even in OTAs this week. (SBalestrieri photo)

When Brady steps into the building at Gillette, he’s got laser focus and is as competitive as they come, something Brandin Cooks remarked on after the session. That’s part of the reason the Patriots and Brady have been so successful. The work that they put in and the attention to detail on the practice fields of May, June, and July, will win games in November and December.

Of course, maybe the weather from Thursday’s session just made Brady think it was January as the cool, raw, rainy weather from last week belied the fact that we’re in the end of May instead of January.

Butler Taking the High…and Smart Road:
The media crowded around Patriots CB Malcolm Butler, it was after all the first time anyone’s had the opportunity to speak with him since his much-ballyhooed contract situation resulted in him signing his one-year $3.91million-dollar tender. But if anyone expected Butler to pass on “voluntary” OTAs, they were sadly mistaken. Butler, as he has been in his entire, albeit brief career is all in for 2017.

Malcolm Butler speaks with the Patriots media after spring practice. (SBalestrieri photo)

“I wasn’t going to hurt nobody but myself if I missed this,” he said. “This is time to get better. That’s what I’m out here to do. Get better. Have another great year. Anything to help the team. Present a positive image. Whatever happens, happens.”

I’m here. This is my team,” he added. “Ignore the noise. Keep working no matter what. You’ve got a job to do no matter where you’re at. I’m glad to be here to do this job.”

Gronkowski is a Healthy Participant:
Another bit of good news this spring are the pictures of Rob Gronkowski, seemingly fully healed up from last season’s back surgery that landed him on IR, running routes and catching passes high up over defenders. A healthy Gronk is always a good sign for the offense and he makes this unit offensive unit even more dangerous.

Rob Gronkowski is apparently healthy and ready to roll…with a new contract in 2017. (SBalestrieri photo)

With him being seen seemingly everywhere this spring, including a new video where he’s obviously enjoying himself, it is another good sign that he’s healthy and ready to go this summer.  The Patriots also re-did Gronkowski’s contract. With incentives reached, he could increase his salary from $5.25 million dollars to $10.75 million. The money breaks down as follows:

  • NE shells out a $10.75 million payout if Gronkowski records 90 percent playing time, 80 catches, 1,200 receiving yards, or is named to the All-Pro team.
  • That drops to $8.75 million if Gronkowski totals 80 percent play time, 70 catches, 1,000 receiving yards, or 12 touchdowns.
  • And lastly, $6.75 million if Gronkowski hits the marks of 70 percent playing time, 60 receptions, 800 receiving yards, or 10 touchdowns.

By the nature of his playing style, Gronkowski has had issues staying on the field. He’s averaged 73 catches for 1108 yards and 12 TDs over the course of 16 games in his NFL career. The Patriots would probably love to be forced into paying him option #1 in 2017 with a big year and playing in 90 percent of the snaps.

Welcome to New England Andrew Hawkins:
New Patriots wide receiver Andrew Hawkins was at OTAs this week. The diminutive 31-year old veteran wide receiver may have a tough road to make the roster but he’s already made the Patriots All-Star social media post of the offseason. Check out this hilarious post.

Well done Mr. Hawkins.

What’s the Rush? A New Year, Another Leading Rusher:
We were sorry to see LeGarrette Blount move on the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency this season, but it shouldn’t come as a big shock that he was moving on. In the 17 years that Bill Belichick has been the Patriots head coach, they’ve had nine different leading rushers in those 17 seasons.

Blount had a terrific 2016 season but slowed down the stretch. He carried 35 times in the playoffs for just 109 yards. Dion Lewis rushed 25 times for 79 yards. The Patriots as a team rushed for just 259 yards in their three playoff wins. But thanks to having a laser-focused Tom Brady under center the Pats scored 104 points in those three wins, 34 against Houston, 36 against Pittsburgh and 34 more against the Falcons.

That’s part of the reason why guys like Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead were brought in. Lewis and James White can catch the ball out of the backfield. Burkhead can do the same, but he and Gillislee will give the Patriots another leading rusher in 2018.

East Bound and Down…AFC East Notes:

Bills Beef Up LB Position, Sign Hodges:
The Buffalo Bills added some nice depth to their linebacker stable by inking former San Francisco 49er Gerald Hodges to a one-year deal on Friday.

Hodges tallied two interceptions, three sacks, one forced fumble and 80 combined tackles in 12 games started for the Niners in 2016. He had visited the Seattle Seahawks, New York Giants, and the Jacksonville Jaguars before signing with the Bills on Thursday.

After losing middle linebacker Zach Brown in the offseason, the Bills by adding Hodges will pair him up with Pro Bowler Lorenzo Alexander and redshirt rookie Reggie Ragland who is reportedly back on the road to being fully healthy in 2017.

Maxwell Recovered from a Slow Start, Ready to Star in Miami:
The Miami Dolphins traded for cornerback Byron Maxwell last spring, bringing the veteran corner over from the Eagles. At the time, the returns weren’t encouraging. Maxwell was burned early and often in the first few weeks of the season, playing soft and was benched by the Dolphins coaching staff.

But after a knee injury to Xavien Howard necessitated putting him back in the lineup, Maxwell shined. He defensed 15 passes and forced four fumbles, tied for second in the NFL in a remarkable turnaround.

Now the Dolphins are counting on Maxwell to improve from a year ago to being the productive pro he was down the stretch. Maxwell chalks it up to taking responsibility for his own play and playing better technique.

“I think it was just a change in technique and a change in mindset basically,” Maxwell said to the Miami media. “I just realized where I had to go at, what I had to do in order for this team to win or help this team win. That’s really what it was. I was just taking ownership and not looking at everybody else. It was on me.”

Jets Hire First Female Coaching Intern for 2017:
New York Jets Head Coach Todd Bowles has hired Collette Smith as a coaching intern for the 2017 training camp. A lifelong Jets fan and a Queens native, Smith is currently a coach and marketing executive with the New York Sharks, part of the Women’s Football Alliance.

Smith becomes the Jets female coaching intern and just the third in NFL history following Jen Welter with the Cardinals and Kathryn Smith who was with the Bills as a quality control special teams’ assistant in 2016.

“I’m over the top. I’m humbled and I’m proud,” Smith told the press. “This could have happened with any NFL team. But it just so happened that it was with my beloved New York Jets. This is bigger because of that. God forbid it would have been with the Patriots. But I still would have done it.”

Smith spent some time with the Jets on the practice field a year ago, Bowles gave her access and she was learning on the go with the Jets. Now she’s progressed enough to be named a coaching intern.

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

Patriots Players Ready For the 2nd Year Jump in Performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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