Tag Archives: Rufus Johnson

Thursday Daily Rundown 9/8: New England Patriots News and Notes

Ian Logue
September 8, 2016 at 5:00 am ET

Here’s a quick rundown of this morning’s top stories:

Jones on Garoppolo, “I have seen him make some great throws” – Chandler Jones is a little more familiar than most of his teammates when it comes to Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, and despite the fact the third-year quarterback will be making his first NFL start this weekend, Jones isn’t taking him lightly.

With Tom Brady sidelined to begin 2016, the Cardinals are in a unique situation that opponents after Week 4 won’t be in, which will see them take on a Patriots team that is missing their future Hall of Fame quarterback.  The first game of the season tends to set the tone for the rest of the season, and given how the Cardinals season ended in the playoffs last year the home crowd will likely be pretty amped up for Sunday night’s match-up.

It will be a big test for Garoppolo, who will have to overcome a hostile crowd in what should be a good test for the former Eastern Illinois standout.  As for Jones, he knows he and his teammates will need to shut down Garoppolo and the Patriots’ offense, but the veteran still expects a tough match-up even with Garoppolo at the helm.

“He’s not Tom Brady,” Jones said via the Cardinals’ official site. “He’s a different quarterback. But I have seen him make some great throws this preseason and even in my years in New England. He made some great throws in practice that I can recall. He’s not a slouch. He’s definitely not a slouch.”

As for Garoppolo, with Brady gone the responsibility now firmly rests on his shoulders and he’s spent this week hard at work getting ready for Jones and the Cardinals.

“It’s busy, that’s for sure,” said Garoppolo when asked about being the starter. “There’s not much time to rest or anything like that, but that’s what I expected. It’s going pretty smooth right now. We’ve just got to keep it rolling this week.”

Gronkowski Limited at Wednesday’s Practice – The Patriots are seemingly taking it easy with veteran tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was listed as “limited” when the team released their first injury report of 2016 on Wednesday.

Gronkowski hasn’t quite been the same since pulling up lame in a joint practice session back on August 15th against the Bears and it seems the Patriots are being cautious with him heading into Week 1 in Arizona.

But the fact he was at least out there is good news, especially as he joins Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola as the trio is hopefully set to make their first start together of the season.  Having all their top players back on the field has been something Garoppolo has enjoyed, and he’s looking forward to taking them into battle this weekend.

“It’s a little different,” explained Garoppolo about having all his weapons out there.  “But it’s nice to have those guys out there. It really is. Their veteran presence it’s always a nice thing and it’s nice to have in the huddle with you.”

Patriots Work Out Eight Players Including QB – The Patriots may have set their roster this past weekend but that hasn’t stopped them from continuing to do their due diligence when it comes to potential additions to their team.

According to NESN.com, the Patriots tried out eight free agents on Wednesday, one of which included a quarterback along with five wide receivers.

The team reportedly worked out quarterback Sean Renfree, as well as receivers Da’Ron Brown, Max McCaffrey, Jordan Leslie, DeAndrew White and Mekale McKay, and linebacker Deon King.  They also worked out defensive lineman B.J. McBryde.

They did reportedly add one player to their practice squad, signing linebacker Quentin Gause, while releasing Rufus Johnson.


Amendola hasn’t practiced during the preseason as he continues getting healthy. (USA TODAY Images)

Amendola Lands on Magazine Cover – We haven’t seen much from receiver Danny Amendola during the preseason as he continues recovering from offseason surgery, but it looks like the veteran may be on a newstand near you very shortly.

According to the Patriots’ official site, Amendola will be on the upcoming cover of the October issue of “Men’s Health” magazine.

The veteran is pictured with his shirt off showing off his physique in the issue, with a teaser that reads, “How MH Guy and NFL Receiver Danny Amendola Gets Fit.”

This marks the second-straight year a Patriots receiver has been in the magazine during the month of October, with Julian Edelman appearing in it last year.

Roethlisberger Weighs in on Brady – Ben Roethlisberger knows what it’s like to miss the first four games of the season after having been suspended for the same span in 2010 when he was accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old woman, which the league deemed a violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy.

When asked about what advice he would give Brady, Roethlisberger didn’t have any, because he doesn’t believe Brady needs it.

Roethlisberger said via ESPN that Brady “doesn’t need any advice from anybody.”

Added the Steelers quarterback, “Tom’s the greatest in the world, and I mean that.”

Roethlisberger’s comments came after former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw put the Steelers’ QB “ahead of Brady for sure and anybody else.”

There’s obviously bias given the difference in quarterbacks and their accomplishments, so we’ll let that one slide as Bradshaw is from a region where he couldn’t say anything else.  But given Brady’s Super Bowl victories and the fact he appears like he’s still in position to win a couple of more, that debate should easily be tipped in Brady’s favor by the time their two careers come to an end, if it hasn’t already.

Vellano Lost His House, and His Job, Last Week – In the NFL, most players know it’s just a business but last week was a harsh reminder of that reality.

Long-time Patriots defensive tackle Joe Vellano became a casualty of a talented group on the defensive line when he was released by the team over the weekend as New England made their final roster cuts, but that was hardly the worst thing that happened to him.

Vellano reportedly lost his home to a fire last Thursday, which he apparently found out about as he was out on the field warming up against the Giants.

During the game Vellano played in 18 defensive snaps and three special teams snaps, finishing the game with four defensive tackles.  From there he arrived back in New England in the wee hours of Friday morning to assess the damage, and one day later the Patriots added insult to injury when they let him go.

His agent, Sean Stellato, told the Albany Times-Union that it’s been a tough run for Vellano, who has certainly had one of the worst weeks we’ve seen a player endure in recent memory.

“I always believed God gives you what you can handle,” Stellato told the newspaper. “I guess we had to re-check that statement. He definitely dealt with a tremendous amount of adversity the last few days.”

Fortunately his story has some good news, as he did find a new job after landing a place on the practice squad with the Falcons Tuesday.

 

Patriots Get Barkevious Mingo In a Trade with the Browns

Steve Balestrieri
August 25, 2016 at 2:42 pm ET

Intriguing Former Top 10 Pick Instant Depth on the Edge

The Patriots zigged while the rest of the world zagged. The talk of the social media world surrounding New England was that the Patriots would probably try to swing a deal for a running back. Bill Belichick and the Pats, however, swung a deal for the Cleveland Browns former #6 overall pick Barkevious Mingo. He’ll instantly upgrade the depth of the roster on the edge.

Besides having the coolest name in the NFL, Mingo much like Jabaal Sheard came into the NFL with the Browns after having been scouted by New England. And, like Sheard, after a good rookie season, he’s watched his production fall off the past two years.

Oct 26, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo (51) at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 26, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo (51) at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Mingo, 6’4, 240-pounds came out of LSU in the 2013 NFL Draft and was thought to be one of the next big-name edge rushers. He notched five sacks in his rookie campaign, saw that fall to two in 2014 and got zero a year ago as he was relegated to mainly backup duty.

The Patriots signing Sheard a year ago was an under the radar signing that paid off big time for them. They’re obviously hoping that the signing of Mingo will be catching lightning in a bottle twice.

Sheard suffered an MCL sprain and is expected to miss 2-4 weeks after having an outstanding summer. Rob Ninkovich tore a triceps muscle and is expected to miss possibly the first month of the season. Shea McClellin has been on the shelf as well with an injury.

The team still has Chris Long, Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom and Rufus Johnson in the meantime. Mingo gives them the versatility to either line up on the edge as a defensive end or blitz as an outside linebacker.

This is a really nice pickup by Belichick, who was still working out the compensation for the trade, but the addition of Mingo immediately adds more depth and versatility to the Patriots front seven.

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.

 

 

Rob Ninkovich is in Unchartered Waters, Working His Way Back

Steve Balestrieri
August 22, 2016 at 6:30 am ET

Iron Man for the Patriots Banged up for the first time

Rob Ninkovich can be excused if he’s feeling a little testy. He’s experiencing something completely new to him on the Patriots. It’s the first time he’s been injured as a member of the team.

Since arriving with the Patriots in 2009, he’s been one of the Iron Men of the NFL. He played 15 games that first season and since 2010, he hasn’t missed a game playing in every contest and while racking up some incredible percentages of defensive snaps played on the way.


Rob Ninkovich has been one of the most durable players in the NFL since 2010. (SBalestrieri/PatsFans image)

Ninkovich is one of only 25 players to play in all 96 games during that span. A sign of his toughness and durability. He’s always able to answer the bell.

He spoke with the members of the media for the first time since his injury and his frustration was plain to see with having to miss valuable practice time. At first, he was reluctant to even speak. When reporters began to question him, he tried to pass them off to his teammate in the next stall, Chris Long. “Look, guys, it’s Chris Long,” he said drawing a laugh from the media.

“I’m just working as hard as I can, rehabbing, trying to get back as soon as I can,” he said. “I’m going to continue to work hard and see how I feel.”

Ninkovich tore his triceps during a joint practice with the Saints on August 9. And he was had to sit out quite a bit of time for the first time since he was a rookie with New Orleans. His injury is expected to keep him out of game action until October which will break his consecutive game streak.

“It’s really hard,” he said. “I haven’t had to deal with anything like this for a long time. Just trying to work as hard as I can, and just trying to work and do the only thing I know how to do. That is trying to work hard to get back.”

Ninkovich amazingly was back on the field less than a week after getting hurt, wearing a protective sleeve on his upper arm. But he’s not able to participate in any positional or team drills. Asked about the mental side of the game, he said that it is one aspect he’s keeping up with.

“You can watch the tape, you watch practice, you watch the game film and do the best you can to try to absorb what’s going on,” Ninkovich said. “You put yourself out there. It’s just something you have to do.”

Asked when he may be ready for game action, he bristled ever so slightly before saying “I’m just going to try to take it day by day,” he said.

“As a football player, you’ve got to run around and use your legs,” he said. “I’m running around and keeping my wind.”

Ninkovich isn’t the only defensive end on the shelf right now. Jabaal Sheard and Shea McClellin did not play in Thursday’s preseason game against the Bears. Between them, they’re three of the top four edge rushers for the Patriots. Chris Long and Trey Flowers took the brunt of the first team snaps against the Bears with Geneo Grissom and Rufus Johnson both seeing significant playing time.

One bit of encouraging news was that both McClellin and Sheard were spotted in the Patriots locker room on Sunday afternoon and that both were walking limp free with no braces of any kind visible. So hopefully they’ll both return to action soon.

As for Ninkovich, he’ll still be on the field for the warmups and then do some conditioning with the training staff and helping the younger guys in the film room. The Patriots Iron Man may not be able to play this week in Carolina, but his presence will be felt by his teammates.

Check out a clip from Sunday 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.

 

 

Geneo Grissom Looking to be as Versatile as Possible

Steve Balestrieri
August 15, 2016 at 7:58 am ET

Game is beginning to slow down for the 2nd year DE

The Patriots are deep at defensive end in 2016 with seven players vying for reps and playing time. One of them, 2nd-year player Geneo Grissom, is looking to be as versatile as possible to not only stick on the 53-man roster, but to find as many reps on the field as well.

The Patriots made a couple of interesting selections in the 2015 NFL Draft. By selecting defensive ends Grissom and Trey Flowers in the 3rd and 4th rounds respectively, they turned a few heads because defensive end wasn’t considered a position of need. The team had Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich and had just signed Jabaal Sheard. Now, with Jones traded off to Arizona, the opportunities would blossom for the 2nd year players, right?

Not so fast. This spring right after trading Jones, the team brought in veterans Chris Long and Shea McClellin, which created a logjam at the edge rusher position. Rufus Johnson, who had a strong training camp a year ago, returns as well.

But having all of that depth now helps.  On August 9th, the first day of joint practices with the Saints, Ninkovich tore a triceps muscle and is expected to miss about a month. Losing a veteran like Ninkovich, who’s been so durable and productive, is never a good thing, but the team is in very good position to cope with veterans Long, Sheard and McClellin to lead the way. Now it is time for the younger players to step up and earn some reps.

Flowers, who had a strong camp a year ago, had a solid week of practice followed by a big game against the Saints. Now Grissom is looking to build some momentum.  He also chipped in with a sack against the Saints on Thursday night. The 6’4, 265-pound graduate from Oklahoma who is built like a power forward in basketball was lauded by Belichick after he was drafted as an athletic, versatile player who could fulfill a number of roles.

He made the team out of training camp but contributed only sparingly on defense, playing mostly on special teams. He notched six tackles and a sack while appearing in 14 games.

Johnson, Grissom with the sack

Grissom (48), Johnson with the sack

“Part of it is the understanding of the scheme. With them coming in a year ago, you see some of the athleticism, you see some of the physical skills,” defensive line coach Brendan Daly told the Worcester Telegram. “Rookies, just by the inherent nature of the situations, are behind from a mental standpoint. I think that’s the biggest thing you look at — how far have they come, the understanding. A lot of times that allows them to play faster and let their athleticism and natural ability show. We’re excited to see where that’s at.”

When asked if the game has started to slow down heading into his second year, Grissom said it has, but he still has work to do.

“Absolutely, although I have a long, long way to go,” the soft-spoken Grissom told me Sunday.  “I see the plays quicker now and instead of thinking about what my responsibilities are, I can just react and play. Which is a bit faster.”

One area that the Patriots utilized Grissom in was as an interior pass rusher as well as on the edge, an area where the chiseled, well-built player can not only hold up but use his power in a smaller window against the offensive linemen.

“Geneo did a lot of different things for us and improved through the course of the season,” Daly said. “You could see that growth from him mentally. Pleased with the way he works — comes in and works hard every day, he’s focused on getting better, he’s a team guy, willing to do whatever anyone is asking him to do.”

With a veteran like Long, to mentor the young defensive ends, I asked him how much a factor the mentoring was making in helping his game rise. “He’s been great,” Grissom said. “All of those guys (Ninkovich, Sheard, Long), are fantastic. It’s an honor to play with them and we soak up as much as we can.”

With the Patriots mixing things up on the edge this year, they’re already showing different looks and alignments, Belichick said they were installing different elements into the playbook this week and the defensive front is one area.

Grissom,-Blount

They’ve been mixing in the 4-3, 3-4 and 5-2 alignments. With McClellin and Ninkovich, the coaches can move them around as rush ends, or drop them into coverage covering the tight ends. They’ve used Long, Sheard, Flowers and Grissom both on the edge and interior pass rushers.

Grissom has even dropped into the flat to cover running backs, but is that an area that he feels comfortable with yet? “Ah, I’ll do whatever the team asks me to do,” he said with a smile. But it isn’t his strongest suit.

One area where he can make an immediate impact is on special teams. And what an impact he made during the first team scrimmage. On the initial kickoff, he pushed McClellin back into return V’Angelo Bentley and decleated him with a tremendous thud.

The athletic Grissom made another tackle of Bentley later in the session. With the new kickoff rules in effect with touchbacks being returned to the 25-yard line, Grissom may be called upon to handle the ball. During both the in-stadium practice and later during the team scrimmage last week, Stephen Gostkowski used the shorter, “mortar” kickoffs that fall well short of the goal line.

On both occasions, Grissom picked up the ball and during the scrimmage last week, made a nice return up the sideline. I asked him if he would look forward to running back a kick in a game situation. With a very Patriots-like answer he said with a grin, “Well, I’m just trying to prepare myself that if the situation does appear, I’ll be ready for it.”

After the joint practice against the Saints, Grissom spent about 10 minutes fielding kickoffs from the JUGS machine with Special Teams coach Joe Judge.

Grissom isn’t a lock to make the team and he still has plenty of work to do, but as Belichick himself said yesterday, “the more you can do, the more valuable you are.” While Flowers has the edge on him as a pure defensive end, Grissom brings the element of being a special teams core guy that can’t be discounted. That could end up with both of the second year players carving out a role.

As for Grissom, he’s just taking it a day at a time. “I’m just trying to improve my craft every day,” he said. “I’m trying to improve in all areas and game situations when I’m called on.”

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.

Trey Flowers Making a Case for Himself at Defensive End

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

2nd Year Player has a big night against the Saints

The Patriots finished up their second week of training camp on Thursday night with a 34-22 preseason win over the New Orleans Saints. The two teams had conducted two joint practices prior to the game in Gillette. One of the players who stood out was 2nd-year Defensive End Trey Flowers. He’s quickly rising up the ranks for securing a roster spot on the 2016 team.

A year ago, Flowers had a strong training camp that saw him make the initial 53-man roster. But injuries cut short his season a year ago and now the talented DE from Arkansas is making another run at the roster and increased playing time.

Flowers-pressure

During the early days of camp and the lack of true hitting, Flowers did little to stand out. But with the two team scrimmages last week, followed by some strong work against the Saints in joint practices, Flowers is kicking his game into high gear. Flowers isn’t the tallest guy at 6’2, 265, but plays with good leverage and shows a tremendous amount of power.

Because of the plethora of talented edge rushers, the Patriots have, they’ve been putting some of the bigger, more physical players inside during obvious passing downs in kind of a “NASCAR” package. Flowers came in during the second half on Thursday and was very impressive. He blew thru a gap and nearly sacked QB Luke McCown and then later in what was the play of the game, he again blasted thru the center of the line, sacked McCown, stripping the ball in the process. Showing some quick athleticism, he was able to jump up, scoop up the football and raced for a touchdown.

His effort and hard work resonated with Bill Belichick.

Trey’s had a good spring and a good camp so far. We didn’t really get to see a whole lot of him last year. He fought through an injury and really couldn’t be as effective as what he wanted to be.”

“He’s done a good job for us when he’s had an opportunity to play,” Belichick said. “He played some in the kicking game. He’s obviously got a lot of things he has to work on, too. But he’s shown up pretty much daily in one way or another with some positive plays. He’s a hard working kid so hopefully, it will continue to get better.”

With Flowers coming on to play better each day the Patriots are perhaps the deepest they’ve been in the Belichick era with edge rushers. And that is with Rob Ninkovich being out for the next few weeks.

Jabaal Sheard continues his outstanding summer and was a thorn in the Saints side in the first half. Chris Long and Shea McClellin both did a good job of setting the edge and pushing the pocket. Long, healthy after two injury-plagued years, showed some nice inside moves and was creating pressure as well as drawing some holding flags.

In the second half, Geneo Grissom (1 sack) and Rufus Johnson also contributed off the edge. The team invested in some big bodies (Terrance Knighton, Markus Kuhn, Frank Kearse, Vincent Valentine, Woodrow Hamilton) in the spring to bolster the interior of the defensive line. The QB pressure is to come from the edge rushers.

If last night was any indication, the Patriots pass rush should be just fine and Flowers is right in the mix to be a part of that. They can mix and match and keep fresh legs on the field at all times. Once Ninkovich comes back, it will make them more versatile and dangerous since both he and McClellin can also slide back into the linebacker position.

With the Bears coming into two for a pair of joint practices next week, Flowers will be one of the players to watch. He’s healthy again and looking strong.

Check out a clip from our interview with him from last year.

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

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

Patriots Training Camp Primer – Linebackers

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

Top End Talent, But Depth Needed in 2016

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

Bill Belichick likes to say that the spring’s OTAs and Minicamp is a learning exercise and that the real competition begins in training camp. While that is true to an extent, with 89 players on the current roster, a minimum of 36 of these will be cut. That doesn’t take into consideration the tweaking that goes on during the season after the initial 53-man roster is completed.

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

Jamie-Collins,-Chandler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grugier-Hill,-King-STs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Trey Flowers Looking to Make Year 2 Jump for the Patriots

Steve Balestrieri
June 6, 2016 at 6:28 am ET

Defensive End Had Rookie Season Derailed by Injuries

The Patriots are quite deep at the defensive end position heading into 2016. With Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard penciled in as the starters, they signed Chris Long during free agency and 2nd-year players Geneo Grissom, Rufus Johnson and Trey Flowers will be looking to make that big jump during their sophomore seasons in the system.

Of the younger players, all three had their moments during the early portions of training camp and preseason with Flowers arguably showing the most as he continually turned heads with the ability to beat the blocking on the edge and pressure the quarterback.

During the Patriots first preseason game, he blew around Packers starting left tackle David Bakhtiari and sacked QB Aaron Rodgers. But a concussion injury suffered during that game set him back. Then a combination of knee and shoulder woes slowed his progression. When he returned he wasn’t able to climb back up the depth chart to play meaningful snaps. As a result, he appeared in only one game during his rookie season.

Flowers-pressure
Trey Flowers had an impressive rookie training camp and preseason before injuries cut short his season. (SBalestrieri Images)

Now in Year 2, Flowers will be looking to pick up where he started last summer.  After being drafted in the 4th Round of the 2015 NFL Draft, Bill Belichick spoke about his strengths to the media.

“He’s an instinctive player,” Belichick said. “We’ve asked him to do a lot of different things. He’s played in the kicking game, which wasn’t something he did at Arkansas. He’s a tough kid. Works really hard. He seems to have a nose and instinct for the ball.”

After the Green Bay game, Belichick was asked about Flowers’ sack of Rodgers and added some additional breakdown. “He plays with good leverage,” Belichick said. “He has longer arms. He uses his hands well and he did that on that play. He showed some acceleration to the quarterback.”

The Patriots are hoping that Long, limited by injury the past two years, will be able to recapture some of his previous production that saw him be one of the better defensive ends in the NFL. So, Flowers, Grissom, and Johnson will be battling it out for the 4th DE spot and be ready to step in if anyone falters or gets injured.

In an attempt to get them on the field more in the preseason, Belichick and Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia kicked Grissom inside during obvious passing situations but it something Flowers can do as well. With the Patriots, versatility is a big key. Johnson has his own versatile side and can play upright as an outside linebacker. Although when I spoke to him this spring he told me the coaches told him he’d be strictly a defensive end this season.

With the number crunch going to happen with the 53-man roster in September, the more you can do, the better the chances of you sticking to the roster. Although all three players have practice squad eligibility remaining, the Patriots will try to find a spot for all of them if possible.

For Flowers, his path is perhaps the most clear-cut. The 6’2, 265-pound end has the ability to be an impact pass rusher on the edge using his speed and athleticism. He’s a stout run defender and sets the edge very well in the running game and can play either right or left defensive end as well as kick inside as a sub-package interior pass rusher.

He’ll be a player to watch this season once the pads come on. As for his outlook on things, during a players’ charity appearance during the offseason, he had this to say: “I just plan on obviously getting a little more into the game and affecting the game a little more. I’m just looking ahead and trying to get better.”

Flowers spent time in the weight room with the strength and conditioning coaches preparing for his second season. “I’ve been making sure I stay on top of my game as far as skill-set, and also in the playbook and in the film,” Flowers said. “Watching and trying to improve my game that way mentally. It’s all about getting better and improving from year one to year two.”

While he doesn’t have the special teams experience of Grissom, that’s an area where the coaches may want to get him more actively involved this spring and summer and it will be something to look for during the upcoming mini-camp this week.

We had a chance to speak with him last September during the preseason regarding his injuries.

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

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

Jabaal Sheard is Another Player Deserving of a New Contract

Steve Balestrieri
May 31, 2016 at 8:25 am ET

Veteran DE is still just 27 and entering prime of his career

The Patriots pulled off quite the steal last spring when they signed DE Jabaal Sheard via free agency from the Cleveland Browns. At the time, his two-year $11 million-dollar contract generated little on the national stage but like many of Bill Belichick’s moves, it was a bargain for the team. Now Sheard joins the ranks of those players deserving of a new deal.

Sheard fit right in with the Patriots at the DE position, logging in eight sacks and 58 quarterback pressures in 2015, and according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), he was the third rated defensive end for setting the edge against the run.

Sheard provided the Patriots with a versatile defensive end who joined Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones as an end of the line player who can set the edge in the running game, get after the quarterback and was even able to kick inside and give the team a decent interior pass rusher on obvious passing downs.

Cleveland, with so many changes in coaches and philosophy, never really quite figured out a way to utilize Sheard’s talents. As a result, his loss was the Patriots gain, despite him not being one of the premiere free agents from a year ago. Sheard, along with last season’s draft picks Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom and Rufus Johnson gives the team a versatile, impactful group that is just scratching the surface of their potential.


Jabaal Sheard made his presence felt immediately last season and became a big part of the Patriots front seven. (SBalestrieri/PatsFans image)

His versatility was not lost on Bill Belichick, who recognized his value late last season.

“We put Chandler (Jones), inside some in the past and we’ve done that some this year, but Jabaal has actually played in there more,” Belichick said. “That’s something that, as I said, in Cleveland, he primarily played on the left side. He was on right end, too, but primarily on the end of the line. You rarely, if ever, saw him inside, and this year when we put him in there early in the season and in training camp he had some very productive plays …

“Jabaal, in particular, has been able to do some things he hasn’t done before like playing inside and playing some pass-coverage responsibilities. He’s done very well in picking that up and giving us a lot of production.”

The team felt comfortable enough with the group that they traded Jones to Arizona this spring for guard Jonathan Cooper and a draft pick. They then signed veteran Chris Long from the Rams. But it will be Sheard that will step up into Jones starting role and he should be close to the top of the list of impactful veterans that need to be resigned.

With Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower and Malcolm Butler all due for new contracts, Sheard is nearly as important a signing when talking in terms of a new deal. He’s currently in the last year of that two-year deal and with Ninkovich and Long both on the wrong side of 30 and the younger players still mostly unproven, it would behoove the Patriots to get his deal done sooner rather than later as he still has quite a few years of peak performance left.

With the abundance of big players being added to the interior of the defensive line this offseason, the onus will be placed on the players at the end of the line to be the playmakers. In Sheard, Ninkovich, Long, Flowers, Grissom and Johnson, the Patriots have a deep and productive group on the edge. With plenty of potential and versatility, they have on paper, an even better front seven than a year ago. Now they’ll just have to come together and play well. With Sheard, Flowers, Grissom, and Johnson all entering their second year in the Patriots system, there is no reason not to believe that they will all improve in 2016.

Long has embraced the team’s way and has gone out of his way to credit Ninkovich with showing him the ropes. Sheard isn’t a demonstrative type, he’s much quieter and prefers to let his playing do the talking. While he’ll never be a quote machine, he’s a player that should have a big role in 2016. It promises to be an exciting summer watching the edge rushers jockey for position and snaps during training camp. Sheard will be at the forefront of the players to watch.

Now the Patriots need to do an extension with him before he hits the open market again. This time, it will promise to be a much bigger market for his services.

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

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

 

 

Rumor Central: Dwight Freeney to the Patriots?

Steve Balestrieri
May 18, 2016 at 6:31 am ET

NE Has Depth, Youth at DE and his signing would impact that

The latest rumor surrounding the Patriots has to do with free agent Arizona Cardinal defensive end Dwight Freeney. The 36-year old edge rusher is still looking for a home in 2016 and is still hoping to re-sign with the Cardinals.

This is where the story gets a little contrived; in an interview with MMQB’s Peter King, King asked Freeney if he’d consider New England. Freeney, a long-time Colt and long-time pain in the behind for Tom Brady, naturally said he’d be open to the idea.

“Well, that’s hard to fathom. But I’m not against Bill,” Freeney said to King. “I understand the dynamic involved, but at the end of the day, this is a business. My first allegiance right now is to Arizona if they’re interested. But if it happened that I ended up in New England, I can tell you, both sides would win.”

Freeney had eight sacks in just 317 snaps in 2015 playing in 13 games, 11 regular season and two playoff contests. That includes three sacks of Aaron Rodgers in a game against the Packers. That was the most he’s had since 2011. But with the Cards trading for Chandler Jones, a much younger player and a guy that can go on all three downs, Freeney’s age and lack of versatility make him expendable.

Here are two reasons why I don’t think this will happen. First, neither the Patriots nor Freeney have shown any interest in one another. The team didn’t have him in for a visit and Freeney never openly courted to come here ala Terrell Owens. King just threw it against the wall given that Freeney was a big part of several contests between the Patriots and Colts. With the intense rivalry between the two teams, it would make for some good fodder.

The second reason why is that the Patriots are already deep at defensive end. Starters Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard return and the team already brought in Chris Long this spring. With the money they’re paying Long, it would seem that he’s going to be that designated pass rush specialist and even though he has had injury concerns the past two years, he is five years younger than Freeney at age 31.

Plus, the Patriots have invested in young players at the position with Geneo Grissom, Trey Flowers, and Rufus Johnson. Bringing in Freeney would mean parting ways with at least one of them before the team has had an opportunity to see what they can do.

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The Patriots are already deep at DE with Jabaal Sheard and 2nd yr player Geneo Grissom, here playing inside. (SBalestrieri Images)

Grissom and Flowers were drafted last spring and Johnson was signed to a future’s contract in December 2014. It should be noted that all three made the 53-man roster at the end of training camp. Johnson flashed very well in camp and preseason then played in the first game before an illness forced him on IR. I spoke with Johnson two weeks ago at a charity basketball game and he said that although he was listed as a LB last year, that the team told him he’s going to play strictly defensive end this year. At  6’5 and a chiseled looking 280 pounds, he looks the part.

Grissom appeared sparingly in 14 games logging in at just 11.9 percent of the defensive snaps but did have a sizeable special teams’ role, playing in 28.9 percent of the unit’s snaps there. He totaled six tackles and a sack in his rookie campaign.

Flowers had a dominant training camp and preseason but a pair of injuries prematurely ended his season after just a single game. He too has an intriguing upside and his red-shirt type ending to 2015 should leave the team expecting much more from him this year. In the short clip below we caught up with Flowers after he was coming back from his first injury

While the signing of Freeney would definitely seem like a good thing on the surface, it wouldn’t benefit the team in the long-term, especially with the untapped potential of the three younger players. Plus, with Long fulfilling the dedicated pass rush role (at least on paper), Freeney’s addition would seem redundant. And could we really expect him to duplicate the numbers of 2015 or would it be like catching lightning in a bottle?

I say the Patriots pass.

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

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

Chris Long, Another Patriots Redemption Project on Defense

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

Pats DE-A Big Under the Radar Signing This Spring

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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