The Patriots picked up one of the more under the radar free agents this spring and one who will play a key if an unheralded role in the defense. Mike Pennel came available after the Jets declined his option and the Patriots quickly swooped in and signed him.
Pennel, 28, who is listed at 6’4, 332 pounds fits what the Patriots like to do, especially on early downs with their defense. They want a big, immovable player to clog the middle, fill up the two gaps on either side of the nose and allow the linebackers to clean up.
That fits Pennel to a tee. While he was surprised that the Jets decided to decline his option, making him a free agent, he knew exactly where he wanted to go. He mentioned with the new coaching regime there, that they would be making changes. After the final minicamp practice, Pennel spoke with the media about his time thus far with the team.
“I knew I fit their scheme,” Pennel said. “It was my first visit and although I took others, I knew this is where I wanted to be.”
He said he was aware of how the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick use nose tackles in the defense and Pennel was rated as one of the best run-stuffers in the league last season. Much like a former Patriot legend, Vince Wilfork.
When asked about Vince, he said, “Vince was one of my idols as a nose,” Pennel said. “Coming out of Miami, I followed him closely. He was very productive early in his career and then settled into his role with Bill here.”
He added, “and then, later on, went to Houston and did the same thing. That played a big part in kind of being here. Just because knowing how Coach Bill (Belichick), what he does with nose tackles and things like that. Obviously, it’s fundamentals and technique, but he’s doing something special with those guys here to have them perform at that level.”
Pennel mentioned that his defensive line coach with the Jets has a connection with Pats DL coach Bret Bielema. “Bret was actually friends with, Robert Nunn,” he said.
“Joe Kim (Pats pass rush/martial arts coach) has some experience with Nunn, so it’s kind of the same technique and coaching-wise and nuances and little things like that they’re coaching but with, it’s just a lot more precise. Everything from the footwork, whether it’s three inches outside or six inches, everything is very detailed-oriented. We practice it and try to do it better on game day.”
He’s always striving to learn something every day, something he said he learned from B.J Raji in Green Bay earlier in his career.
Having been in the league for a while, Pennel said that he knew some of the players here and the transition to the locker room and the Pats DL room has been an easy one. “I definitely didn’t get the first day of school feeling here,” he joked, adding. “I’ve known Lawrence Guy and he hosted Pennel on a recruiting trip to Arizona State.
“I’ve kept in contact with him and have seen his success here in New England. I’m just learning the things that they like and don’t like and we’re just working things out.
Asked about how the interaction and feeling is in the DL room with some new faces (including himself), he said it is all positive.
“It’s excellent. It’s just a range of guys, and I try to pick something up from everybody,” Pennel said. “(Michael) Bennett, speaks for itself. LG, I feel as if he had a Pro Bowl season last year, so any run tips I can get off of him. Danny (Shelton… great pass rusher from the inside. (David) Parry’s been a vet. Ufomba (Kamalu), KD (Keionta Davis), they’ve got Super Bowls. It’s just everyone in there you can learn something from. I’ve never won a Super Bowl. Unfortunately, I missed the playoffs for the last two seasons of my career, so those guys know a little something about playing in January, so I just try to pick up everything.”
Playing alongside Guy is a plus for him he added. “Knowing that he’s a top run defender in the league and last year I excelled a little bit in the run, so hopefully, we can do something good.”
So getting to play in January was a selling point for New England, he was asked?
“They didn’t have to sell that point,” he said laughing. “This is where I want to be.”
The Jaguars weren’t done, as the Patriots offense struggled to find a rhythm against a tough defense, Bortles and his offense weren’t afraid as the underdogs and opened up a stunning 14-3 lead following a Leonard Fournette four yard run up the middle at the seven minute mark in the second.
Needing an answer before halftime, Tom Brady continued his mastery of the two minute drill this season as James White tallied another postseason touchdown to cut the deficit to four heading into the half.
The Patriots defense would make some clutch stops of the Jaguars offense, providing Tom Brady with enough time to complete yet another playoff game comeback, with Danny Amendola again providing the big touchdowns. 24-20 Patriots.
The Jaguars took over for the final drive, and on a fourth and long, cornerback Stephon Gillmore thwarted any chance of a response with a big pass breakup to turn the ball over on downs. The Patriots, who trailed by 10 early in the fourth quarter, would hold on for the 24-20 victory and win their second consecutive AFC title.
It’s so hard to see a team lose but someone have to that’s the bad part. Jville played they ass off all year and went into Gillette and gave Patriots everything they had. This was a great football game, just hate to see a loser in this one!!!!
Entering Sunday’s matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the rivals squared off with the winner seeking the AFC’s number one seed and home field advantage for the playoffs with three games to go in the season. Tom Brady came into the game seeking to continue his dominance over the Steel City sporting a 7-2 regular season record.
In the first quarter, the Patriots struck first, with Brandin Cooks immediately rebounding from last weeks struggles as he hauled in a 43 yard deep ball from Tom Brady which help setup the games first touchdown. Running back Rex Burkhead would bang it in from the goal line for an early 7-0 lead.
In the second quarter, both teams traded field goals to knot the score at 10, but Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski provided some highlights leading to the scores.
With the clock winding down on the first half, the Steelers found the end zone for a second time when Roethlisberger found Bryant and the Patriots headed to the locker room trailing, but only by 7 at 17-10.
In the fourth quarter, the Patriots defense began to tighten up for the first time all game despite third down struggles, and Tom Brady drove the Patriots into field goal range for Gostkowski to cut the deficit to five at 24-19.
With two minutes to go in the game, the Patriots were given one more opportunity to retake the lead following a big third down stop. Brady and Gronkowski went to work.
Look, here is the rule. If you’re going to the ground you have to hold onto the ball when the ball hits the ground…Going to the ground trumps lunging/reaching to try and get extra yards or score a TD. You do that at your own risk. It’s incomplete…just ask Dez
Despite the controversy that ensued the Steelers still had time for another play despite no timeouts, but instead of spiking the ball to setup a game tying field goal, Roethlisberger gambled with a pass, and the result was Duron “The Closer” Harmon.
An incredible goal line stand that brought back memories of Super Bowl XLIX, and the Patriots survived and won in Pittsburgh yet again while taking over the number 1 seed in the AFC and another division title.
A 27-24 final in a thriller and just two divisional games at home remain where the Patriots control their destiny for playoff positioning.
Getty photographer Justin Berl capturing what I consider to be an iconic photograph of Tom Brady leaving the field in Pittsburgh. This man enjoys playing sports for a living. pic.twitter.com/NF6F1qfqw4
On Wednesday, former New England Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork officially called it a career, signing a ceremonial one-day contact with the team making him “a Patriot for life” according to owner Robert Kraft.
Many of Wilfork’s old teammates paid tribute to him with emotional social media postings wishing him well into the next chapter of his life.
With the month of February about to come to an end, things are about to get interesting with one of New England’s key free agents heading into tomorrow’s 4pm deadline where teams will have to decide whether or not to use their franchise or transition tag.
As free agency approaches, Dont’a Hightower is one of the key players on New England’s roster set to hit the market as he looks cash in after a strong start to his Patriots career. Despite injuries that have caused him to miss time over the past few seasons, the veteran linebacker has come up big when it’s mattered most, having made key plays against both Seattle and Atlanta during the team’s two recent championship runs.
That will obviously lead to quite a pay increase, with the likely question being whether or not the team will use the franchise tag or the transition tag as they look to extend one of their most important defensive players. If the Patriots were to franchise Hightower, the move would guarantee his services for the 2017 season at somewhere between $14 million – $15 million while keeping other clubs away from their player. However, using the transition tag, as Mike Reiss of ESPN recently suggested, would earn Hightower a reported $11 million and would allow the Patriots the opportunity to match any potential deal he may be offered by another team.
Reiss believes the transition tag makes more sense as it would be “a more affordable fallback option” while the club tries to work out a long-term deal to keep Hightower in New England.
The next question will be the current state of the discussions between the two sides, and whether or not Hightower would ultimately like to remain here. He’s earned the respect of every player in the locker room and he’s become one of the most reliable defensive players for the coaching staff, with the veteran responsible for making the calls on defense as well as shouldering a big leadership role.
But Hightower holds a significant advantage here as the Patriots essentially put all their eggs in his basket after trading away Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, with the team clearly believing keeping Hightower was the more important priority since there’s simply not enough money cap-wise to pay all three. Given how things have played out, Hightower has proven them correct and if he walks, they really don’t have a viable replacement right now, which is a problem. Losing someone like him would be difficult, especially given his postseason contributions since players like Hightower are certainly hard to come by.
Hightower has become an invaluable piece in New England’s defense. (USA TODAY Images)
In terms of trying to figure out how things might play out, Devin McCourty’s situation comes to mind. The Patriots opted against franchising the veteran safety and allowed him to test the market, which fortunately worked out after he entertained multiple offers before ultimately signing a long-term deal and staying in New England. The big key to that process was likely the fact the negotiations seemed to remain relatively positive between the two sides throughout the time McCourty was fielding offers, which is one of the most important aspects for a player being wooed by other clubs.
The last defensive player who was franchised was Vincent Wilfork back in 2010 before eventually agreeing on a 5-year extension worth $40-million, but those negotiations leading up to when he was initially tagged weren’t exactly the best.
In late January that year Wilfork appeared on WEEI and one thing he talked about was the fact he honored his six-year rookie deal and he expected to be rewarded for everything he had done and didn’t feel the $7-million he would have received for the franchise tag that year was enough.
“I did honor my six-year deal. Now, that six-year deal is up. It’s time for me to move forward, with the Patriots or not with the Patriots,” Wilfork told WEEI via ESPN. “[The franchise tag] is decent money for most people out there. What I do, it’s OK. But I don’t look at myself as an okay player. Like I said, it’s just basically a slap in my face, and an insult to me, to tell me I’m an OK player.”
Heading into the deadline, Wilfork later admitted that it left him wondering how things would turn out before realizing how important he was to his team.
“When the time presented itself, especially with the tag – when it came to me – it was probably five minutes before we got on the phone and started talking,” said Wilfork about how things played out after he signed his franchise tender back in 2010. “I think within those five minutes it was like, ‘OK, are they going to trade me or what’s going to happen now?’ Once we talked and found out the tag was getting put on because we were trying to reach a long-term deal I was very positive a deal was going to get done.”
That process ultimately worked out for Wilfork, but how things will play out with Hightower remains to be seen. If his first choice is New England but he’s looking to find out what his true value is on the open market before making a decision, it’s certainly his prerogative to do so. In the end, whether or not he wants to remain in New England will be up to him, but it looks like the Patriots will have their work cut out for themselves after Ian Rapoport recently reported that Hightower already turned down a deal that would have paid him a reported average of $10 million per season prior to the start of the 2016 campaign.
Now the only question will be how much it will cost to get this done. Should they let him hit the market, it will be interesting to see exactly who might emerge as a contender for his services and whether or not his price tag might ultimately end up being too rich for New England, even despite his significant value to the team.
For now, we’ll have to see what happens tomorrow before we know whether or not Hightower will even get that opportunity.
A three-time Super Bowl champion in New England, Seymour retired following the 2012 season after four years with the Oakland Raiders. He is a seven-time pro bowler and was named to the NFL’s All 2000s Team. Be sure to check him out at @BigSey93