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What does the Geno Smith era mean for the New York Jets?

Posted by Erik Frenz August 31, 2013 06:27 PM

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AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

Jets head coach Rex Ryan has seen enough from veteran quarterback Mark Sanchez to know that he's not the answer to their question at quarterback.

Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News has reported that Rex is ready to move on from the fifth-year quarterback and former fifth overall pick in favor of rookie Geno Smith.

The decision is painfully obvious — almost as painful as Sanchez's shoulder injury, which will keep him out for at least Week 1 of the regular season, probably longer. Even if Sanchez weren't injured, he'd still be...well, Sanchez.

He turned the ball over a league-high 52 times from 2011 to 2012, and there's no indication that would have changed, given what we saw from him in the preseason, with one turnover in each of the three games he played (two interceptions, one fumble).

According to the report, though, the Jets were leaning toward naming Geno the starter after just the first couple weeks of camp. They were pleased with how quickly Geno grasped the offense, and also how he performed against Ryan's defense in practice.

Geno doesn't carry the promise of an immediate change of fortune for the Jets — not if his preseason showing against the New York Giants is any indication.

If the Jets are rolling with Geno, though, they are at least partly confident that they can tailor the gameplan to his strengths and weaknesses. Expect to see a lot of short passes and/or timing throws where the ball comes out quickly to a read that is designed to be open. There will also be some read-option elements in the offense to capitalize on Smith's athleticism — although the read-option was not something he did extensively at West Virginia.

Make no mistake, though — a rookie quarterback does not necessarily mean a balanced approach on offense with a heavy dose of the running game. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg made that crystal clear after the Jets called 16 running plays and 42 passing plays in their preseason opener.

"Who said you need to be balanced?" Mornhinweg said. "You score points throwing the ball. Now you're getting into a philosophical situation. Look, we don't care how we get it done — running, passing, we don't care who gets the credit. It's whatever it takes to win the next game."

Smith could be asked to carry the burden for this offense.

At this point, though, the Jets can't turn back to Sanchez. They are all-in with Geno this season, which could give Rex Ryan a built-in excuse if the Jets don't play well.

Rex's job may have been in jeopardy had the Jets struggled with Sanchez, and had to pull him for Smith at some point during the season. Smith is a rookie, and growing pains are to be expected.

So, Geno is a winner because he gets to start in his rookie season. Rex is a winner because he may have a little more job security for the next 12 months. General manager John Idzik is a winner because the future face of the franchise, and Idzik's third pick as GM, gets to start from the beginning of the season. The Jets offense is a winner because while the current product may not be much different than it would have been with Sanchez, the ceiling is higher.

It seems, then, the only loser in this whole ordeal is Sanchez, who now has to wonder when, or if, he'll get another shot to be an NFL starting quarterback.



Analyzing the Patriots initial 51-man roster

Posted by Erik Frenz August 31, 2013 04:08 PM

The Patriots have made enough reductions to trim their roster from 75 to 51 players. While there are certainly a few more moves to come in the next few days, we now have a very good idea of what the roster will look like for Week 1 of the 2013 season.

First, here is a list of the reported and announced cut during the transition from 75 to 53 players:

  • Daniel Fells, TE
  • Jake Ballard, TE
  • Stephon Morris, CB
  • Marcus Benard, DE
  • Ben Bartholomew, FB
  • Gilbert Pena, DT
  • Matt Stankiewitch, OL
  • Scott Vallone, DT
  • Mike Rivera, LB
  • Johnathan Haggerty, WR
  • Luke Patterson, OL
  • Marcus Forston, DT
  • Jermaine Cunningham, DE
  • Tim Tebow, QB
  • George Winn, RB
  • Quentin Sims, WR
  • Zoltan Mesko, P
  • Justin Francis, DE
  • Ja'Gared Davis, LB
  • Kanorris Davis, CB
  • Chris McDonald, OL
  • Justin Green, CB
  • Jeff Tarpinian, LB
  • Adrian Wilson, S (injured reserve)

Now, here's a look at the depth chart as it currently stands (blue indicates rookies, red indicates 2013 free-agent signings, green indicates trade acquisitions):

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Some thoughts on the make-up of the Patriots roster:

  • Five undrafted rookies made the final cut: tight end Zach Sudfeld, wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, offensive linemen Chris McDonald, defensive tackle Joe Vellano and punter Ryan Allen. Sudfeld and Thompkins are being penciled in for significant contributions to the team.
  • The Patriots lack of depth at defensive tackle has been a big story line this preseason, and the Patriots currently stand with just three interior defensive linemen. Marcus Forston figured to be a top backup, but that role goes to Joe Vellano instead. It wouldn't be a shock for the Patriots to make a move at defensive tackle sometime in the next few days.
  • Five running backs is not as surprising given how close the battle was between LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden. Each has had their moments in preseason, Blount a few more than Bolden, and carrying five backs is not even wildly out of the norm for the Patriots —they did it from 2009-2011.
  • James Develin is a surprise name on the roster, if only because the Patriots have not opened the season with a fullback on their Week 1 roster since Heath Evans in 2008 (unless you count Sammy Morris, a converted running back who was carried as a fullback in 2010). It will be interesting to see if he sticks, and how they use Develin.
  • The biggest move, of course, is the release of Zoltan Mesko in favor of undrafted rookie Ryan Allen. The two punters were thought to be in a very close competition in terms of their on-field ability, and there is also a financial benefit of keeping Allen over Mesko — the team is spending $405,000 on Allen, as opposed to $1.323 million on Mesko. The three-year veteran Mesko has become a folk legend in New England for his community contributions, and was one of the best at landing punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line (third in the NFL in percentage of punts landing inside the 20 in 2012), but Allen is a back-to-back winner of the Ray Guy award as the best college punter in the nation. While Allen is slightly behind Mesko in talent right now, Allen has more potential.

Aaron Dobson's development remains a work in progress

Posted by Erik Frenz August 30, 2013 08:00 AM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — On paper, there's a lot to like about wide receiver Aaron Dobson's game. On the field, that potential has yet to manifest into tangible results.

He flashes at times, like on his 12-yard reception over the middle, a bobbled pass where Dobson was able to keep his focus to make the catch in traffic. He had another nice play on an 18-yard reception where he absorbed a hit and continued running to pick up extra yards.

But then, there were plays like his dropped pass from Ryan Mallett that sailed into the waiting arms of Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich, and another near-interception that was called back on review where Dobson could have fought harder for an underthrown fade from Mallett in the back corner of the end zone.

All the tools are there. He just has to start putting it together on the field.

"He's big, he's fast, he's got good hands, smart," coach Bill Belichick said the day after drafting him. "He has some position flexibility and versatility, catches the ball very well. We'll see how it goes."

Now that Belichick has seen the rookie receivers in the offense for a full offseason program, how does he feel about the progress?

"Like a lot of rookies, some good things, some not so good," he said on Wednesday.
"Better over time; we'll see how it goes."

Still waiting to see how it goes.

What we've seen so far is up-and-down play. He shows some toughness getting off press coverage and making catches in traffic, but still has some lapses in concentration that lead to negative plays, like we saw tonight.

He was flagged for offensive pass interference, wiping away an 18-yard reception by fellow rookie Josh Boyce when he started pushing the defensive back backwards with the pass still in the air.

In the preseason, Dobson has caught 11 of 23 passes thrown his direction for 160 yards, and has dropped at least three of his incompletions.

He's been catching passes from Tim Tebow and Ryan Mallett at times, which could be cause for the lower completion percentage, but top-notch receivers are supposed to help their quarterbacks by making plays on the ball.

Despite a lot of turnover on offense, the Patriots have enough offensive firepower to get by while Dobson learns the ropes. The team looks very smart now for signing receiver Danny Amendola and undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins to help tide the Patriots offense over in the meantime.

Dobson's development remains a work in progress, but let's not be too hard on him just yet. He is just a rookie, and growing pains are to be expected, as we were reminded on Thursday night.




Patriots stock report: Marquice Cole, Logan Ryan make strong case in preseason finale

Posted by Erik Frenz August 30, 2013 12:26 AM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots finally beat the New York Giants in a football game, winning 28-20 on Thursday night in the preseason finale.

It was the final opportunity for many players on the bubble to make their case for a roster spot, and others to show why they deserve (or don't deserve) a bigger role on the team in 2013.

Here are some players who helped their case, and a few others who hurt their chances of making an impact for the Patriots this season.

Stock up:

Marquice Cole/Logan Ryan: The battle for the fourth and fifth roster spots at cornerback stayed red hot despite the departure of Ras-I Dowling. Both Cole and Ryan made fantastic plays on the ball. Each logged two pass defenses, and each broke up a deep pass. Cole, in particular, did something which New England defensive backs have not been known for as of late when he turned his head to swat down a long pass in his direction. Each gave up a key play — Cole a 37-yard reception to Louis Murphy, Ryan a touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks — but each had more good plays than bad.

Marcus Cannon: Lined up all over the offensive line for the Patriots, including at both tackle spots and at right guard. He had a nice lead block on a solid 14-yard run by running back George Winn, and showed some savvy to jump when a defender jumped offsides, forcing a penalty. Given his health, presumed after carrying a big load for the Patriots tonight, he should be the starting right guard for Week 1.

Michael Buchanan: Perhaps the strongest defensive showing of the night came from Buchanan, who had 2.5 sacks, one of which was a sack-fumble which was recovered by linebacker Steve Beauharnais. Buchanan may have played his way into a roster spot on Friday night — it appears unlikely the Patriots will be able to sneak him on the practice squad after such a performance.


Stock down:

Aaron Dobson: The Patriots rookie receiver continued his streak of up-and-down performances throughout the preseason, but tonight's performance was more down than up. He was flagged for offensive pass interference in the second quarter, negating an 18-yard reception. He was responsible for Ryan Mallett's interception, when a pass hit him in the chest, bounced off his hands and into the arms of linebacker Mark Herzlich. He might have been responsible for a second interception had it not been overturned, but he could have fought harder for an underthrown fade by Mallett in the back corner of the end zone.

Josh Kline: Was beat on consecutive snaps for two sacks of Tim Tebow, and again later in the third quarter allowing pressure on Tebow that forced the quarterback out of the pocket. The Patriots aren't particularly deep on the interior of the offensive line, and might have liked someone to emerge as a strong practice squad candidate. No such luck tonight.

Tavon Wilson: The second-year safety was spotted subbing in for safety Adrian Wilson in the third and fourth quarter. Playing time in the final preseason game can be misleading, but it's a far fall from his lofty status as a second-round pick in the 2012 draft.




Dont'a Hightower joining some lofty company in wearing green dot for Patriots defense

Posted by Erik Frenz August 28, 2013 08:00 AM

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Photo: Robert E. Klein, Boston Globe staff

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Linebacker Dont'a Hightower has assumed an important new role on the Patriots defense in the preseason.

No one has said much about it, but Hightower has been wearing the "green dot" radio communication helmet on defense during preseason games. That's a role which linebacker Jerod Mayo has filled for the defense for years.

In fact, only two players have worn the helmet on a regular basis for the Patriots during the regular season: Tedy Bruschi (2008) and Jerod Mayo (2009-2012).

Yet here, Hightower enters his second season, and already has a fluent understanding of the defense.

FULL ENTRY

Plenty of blame to go around for Jets QB drama

Posted by Erik Frenz August 28, 2013 07:00 AM

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AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

The New York Jets quarterback competition has turned into a complex.

In a strange turn of events, the outcome of that competition has become less a part of the story than what the results of that competition mean for Rex Ryan's future as head coach.

Ryan has come under some heat — deservedly so — for his decision to put quarterback Mark Sanchez into the game in the fourth quarter of a preseason game, behind a second-string offensive line. Sanchez was injured several plays later.

The question, though, is whether it was fully his decision at all. As the Jets have already told us, though, every decision is made with a "collective opinion," as referenced by GM John Idzik.

"John and I are really like shoulder to shoulder on decisions that we make," Rex reminded us on Monday.

The opinion may be collective, but the accountability is not. Rex faces the Jets media, their knives sharpened, on nearly a daily basis. Idzik is out of the spotlight.

It's possible. Ryan simply made the decision to put Sanchez in, without talking to Idzik. It's not likely, though, given what Idzik said about the decision making process just one month ago.

"When you look at who is going to play, Rex and I are going to talk about that freely," Idzik said. "I like to believe, it has been the case so far, that if you put in that time and effort when you make the decision you feel like it’s a “we” decision it’s not on one individual."

The circumstances for Smith's removal from the game seemed fair enough: he stunk.

Rex admitted as much, in calling Geno's effort "the good, the bad and the ugly." The good came early, on an eight-play touchdown drive capped off by a 22-yard touchdown pass to Ben Obomanu.

The bad came on three interceptions, each exponentially uglier than the one before it. The first was thrown just slightly behind wide receiver Ryan Spadola on a post pattern. The second was sailed well over the head of tight end Kellen Winslow going over the middle. The third was a quick out, intercepted by defensive end Justin Tuck who read Smith's eyes and leaped to make the grab.

If all that weren't bad enough, it was capped off by a miserable safety where Smith's lack of field awareness was on full display.

As bad as Geno stunk, the decision to replace him with Sanchez in the fourth quarter of a preseason game stunk worse.

It's unclear whether Rex went rogue on the decision, or whether he was under strict orders to get Sanchez at least some playing time that night. Regardless, whoever made the decision deserves the blame for the result.

The whole situation also served as a reminder of where Rex stands this season. He is held accountable for all the decisions, even if he's not the only one making them. Of course, he's part of the "collective opinion," but he's not all of it — not when Idzik tells the media he has a "pretty big role" in determining who the starting quarterback will be.

Geno's first start on Saturday proved that he's not yet ready to assume that role for Week 1 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Given the Jets current situation, though, they may have no choice.

No collective opinion can change this predicament, and if the chips continue to fall like this for Rex, he may not be part of the collective opinion on his future with the team.




Patriots Take 2: Offensive miscues vs. Lions are correctable

Posted by Erik Frenz August 24, 2013 08:00 AM

The Patriots didn't look great on Thursday night against the Lions, and not much changed on a second viewing.

The bad stood out because of the lopsided result and the four turnovers in the first half, but there were some positives to come out of the game.

"That’s the crazy thing with football — it’s usually not as bad as you think it is," said safety Devin McCourty after the game. "There’s a lot of things we could’ve done better, but we did some things well tonight."

Let's take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from Thursday's game.


1. Trouble brewing at right guard?

From the opening snap, the Patriots offensive line struggled to get any kind of push up the middle against the duo of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley at defensive tackle for the Lions. Left guard Logan Mankins held his own against Fairley, but right guards Will Svitek and Dan Connolly were taken apart by Suh.

It should come as no surprise, though. Svitek is not naturally a guard, having played tackle his entire eight-year career in the NFL. This was Connolly's first real action of the preseason; he's been out of practice with an injury, and hadn't played in either preseason game before Thursday night.

The Patriots rushed 12 times for 17 yards before finally finding any semblance of a running game.

On one running play in the first quarter, Connolly tried to get under Suh, but the defensive tackle trucked Connoly and threw him to the ground, then brought down running back Stevan Ridley for just a two-yard gain.

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On another play, Suh bull-rushed Svitek into Brady's lap, allowing defensive end Jason Jones to get around right tackle Sebastian Vollmer into Brady and get the sack. Svitek gave up two pressures on the night, and it might have been more if Vollmer (two sacks, two hurries) hadn't had to slide over the help him out from time to time.


2. Kenbrell Thompkins the "X" factor

Patriots fans have been clamoring for a solid outside receiver since Randy Moss left town in 2010. Kenbrell Thompkins isn't the second coming of No. 81, but he is quickly becoming one of Tom Brady's favorite targets in the passing game.

Thompkins has shown up in practice for weeks, and finally had his breakout performance against the Lions, hauling in six of Brady's passes for 94 yards. He finished with eight catches for 116 yards on the night.

One trait Thompkins showed was his ability to get away from press coverage at the line of scrimmage. Sometimes, people think that the ability to get off a jam requires one to be physical, but Thompkins twice juked free of the cornerback at the line of scrimmage using his quick feet, not his arms, to create separation at the line of scrimmage.

He did so twice, both times on go-routes, and caught two deep passes as a result: one for 37 yards in the first quarter, and one for 27 yards in the second quarter.

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On the catch in the second quarter, Thompkins broke free of press coverage from cornerback Chris Houston by juking hard off the line of scrimmage. Thompkins faked a break inside, before cutting right back to the outside and down the sideline. The receiver had created separation within a yard of the line of scrimmage, and Brady didn't hesitate to pull the trigger.

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Like any good X receiver, Thompkins then tracked the ball in flight and made the play. There was an opportunity for Thompkins to stay in-bounds and get the touchdown, but connecting on two deep passes was an important first step in this offense transitioning from a dink-and-dunk machine to one more capable of creating big plays.


3. Julian Edelman will not go down without a fight

Wide receivers have been the talk of the town in New England since March, but Julian Edelman seems to have been forgotten in the mix.

The coaching staff definitely hasn't forgotten about Edelman, and he's rewarded them for it with a few brilliant catches this preseason. He had one such catch against the Lions.

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His catch on 3rd-and-7 in Lions territory was a thing of beauty, from the route down to the very end of the run. It was drawn up as a five-yard out, but he juked Houston clean out of his shoes off the line and again in and out of his break, and left him in the dust as he ran toward the sideline.

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Even after making the catch, though, he was still a few yards shy of the first down, but was able to race to the marker and tap his toes neatly in-bounds, moving the chains for the Patriots.

Edelman also made a pair of nice catches against the Eagles, one while taking a heavy hit from a defensive back. He's been one of the more consistent receivers on the roster in the preseason, with at least three catches in each game and with a total of 10 catches for 75 yards in the preseason. He had three catches for 18 yards on Thursday, all on passes from Brady.

It helps that he has a leg-up on the rest of the receivers with his knowledge of the playbook.

"This will be my fifth year here, so the terminology and all of that is kind of my strength right now," Edelman said. "There's new stuff, and I have a long way to improve, but that definitely helped."

The Patriots are hopeful that his knowledge of the offense will help ease the transition of some of the younger weapons in the receiving game.


4. An outbreak of fumblitis

The Detroit Lions came out aggressive, and one way that manifested was in three fumbles forced on the Patriots. Tight end Zach Sudfeld and running backs Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen all put the ball on the ground at one point Thursday night.

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Sudfeld caught a beauty of a seam pattern from Tom Brady, but simply didn't put the ball away in time before safety Glover Quin got his helmet on the ball and knocked it loose.

That's a bang-bang play because it happened so quickly, but Sudfeld could have known the safety was coming at him, sitting back in Cover 2, waiting for the ball to hit its destination. If Sudfeld had known that, he had plenty of time to put two hands on the ball.

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Bolden's fumble happened on a dumpoff pass, and like Sudfeld, Bolden was victimized by not putting the ball away quickly enough before a defender was able to put his helmet on the ball.

Unlike Sudfeld, Bolden had a bit more time to get the pass under control. Still, part of the blame goes to Ryan Wendell, who missed a block that allowed the defender to get right through to Bolden to force the fumble.

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Vereen's fumble? Simply poor discipline. There's no reason to try and dance to a first down on 3rd-and-15 when backed up on your own eight-yard line. The Patriots needed him to secure the ball with two hands so they could punt it away, but instead, their defense faced yet another "sudden change" scenario. The practice helped, as colleague Ben Volin noted on Friday, but the Patriots would rather not get that practice in the regular season.

Even though Sudfeld, Vereen and Bolden didn't play again after their fumbles, Belichick said there was no underlying message involved.

"Our message has been the same here from day one that ball security is of the highest priority for anybody that handles the ball," Belichick said. "I think that message has been delivered on a daily basis since we started practicing back in May. I don’t think there are any new revelations about that message. Ball security is very important to anybody who handles the ball in any situation. There can be no mistake about the importance of it. There can be no mistake about that message. That message has been delivered ad nauseam."

Message received.



5. Chandler Jones' dominant preseason continues

It's been years since the Patriots have had a stud pass-rusher off the edge that could be counted on to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Chandler Jones looked like the player that could do that from Weeks 1 thru 8 of the 2012 regular season, but he tailed off after an ankle injury.

He started hot and has stayed hot in the preseason.

The big story for Jones this offseason was that he put on 10 pounds of muscle. He showed why it could help him, by using an effective bull-rush to get pressure on Matthew Stafford.

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His technique was perfect, with low pad level, his hands inside the chest of the linemen and his arms extended to keep the tackle at bay.

Jones has used that bull-rush and a few other moves to generate six pressures and three sacks in three games. He is right back on track to putting pressure on the quarterback week-in and week-out.



6. What happened on Tom Brady's interception?

There's a little confusion floating around as to the reason for Tom Brady's interception, and it's not hard to understand why. Everything happened so quickly, and everyone's second-guessing themselves after Bill Belichick's response to why everyone thinks they know what the hell they're talking about.

We don't have 100 percent of the context — maybe Aaron Dobson ran the route wrong, maybe Julian Edelman did, maybe Brady should have waited to pull the trigger — but here is what happened.

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Dobson and Edelman ran a pick on the right side of the play, with Dobson running a slant over the middle and Edelman running a quick out. The purpose of the play was to get the defenders tied up with each other.

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Instead, the receivers got their feet crossed, and veteran cornerback Chris Houston wisely stayed out of the traffic jam. Dobson would have been open if he hadn't run into Edelman, but because Houston avoided the pick, he was able get in front of the ball before Dobson could get to where it was being thrown.

Was it bad timing between Brady and Dobson? Did one of the receivers cross just a step too soon? We may never know, and Belichick probably loves it that way.



7. Joe Vellano's start

The Patriots created some buzz when they decided to start Joe Vellano at defensive tackle over Vince Wilfork. Vellano was able to show glimpses in the game of the talent he's shown through practices.

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Vellano took on two offensive linemen and still plugged his gaps on a 1st-and-10 zone stretch toward his side of the field.

In doing so, he forced running back Reggie Bush to take the long way around, as he ran closer to the sideline before eventually being brought down for just a two-yard gain.

There were some times, however, where he was moved off the line relatively easily.

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On another 1st-and-10 in the second quarter, Vellano lined up as a 3-technique with an outside shade over the left guard.

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Once again, he took a double-team, but was walled off by the combination of the guard and center. He was driven back by the duo, and toward linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who was unable to find Lions running back Montell Owens through the clutter before the back could pick up six yards.

Vellano had an up-and-down night, like just about everyone on the roster. He'll most likely be kept on the practice squad, and given the Patriots relative depth at defensive tackle, it's not out of the question that we could hear Vellano's name again during the regular season.



8. Zach Sudfeld's blocking

There's little doubt at this point as to what Sudfeld can do for the Patriots offense as a receiver. He has Gronkowski's size, but he brings a lot of the skill set of Aaron Hernandez in terms of his quickness (though not on Hernandez's level) and route-running savvy.

One area he could still improve, though, is his blocking.

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The Patriots faced 3rd-and-6 in the first quarter, and lined up with 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers). Sudfeld was lined up tight to the left tackle, upright and looking ready to run a route.

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He dropped his hips and went into a pass block, and defensive end Willie Young was able to get across his face and get pressure on Brady.

Sudfeld has shown the ability and instincts to be a blocker (see his key block on LeGarrette Blount's long touchdown run against the Eagles) but there are times when he shows that he needs improvement.



9. Ryan Mallett's stunted growth

We can always expect at least a few flashes of brilliance from backup quarterback Ryan Mallett, but we are still waiting for Mallett to show that he can sustain those flashes.

It was another slow start for Mallett, who missed his first three throws before hitting Thompkins for a 15-yard gain.

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The pattern was nothing spectacular, just a five-yard slant route by Thompkins against a zone blitz.

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The throw was a beauty, though, splitting three defenders on its way into Thompkins' hands, hitting the receiver in stride.

He showed that he has improved a bit with his mobility, scrambling to buy time on more than one occasion with mixed results. He threw a nice pass to wide receiver Quentin Sims for 14 yards, but had Sims wide open on the left sideline on another scramble and threw it into the dirt.

One interesting stat from ProFootballFocus.com: Mallett is 0-for-5 on pass attempts of 20 yards or more this preseason. He has been lauded for his big arm, but has yet to polish that arm strength into consistent downfield accuracy.

Whether it's in regard to his ability to take over the offense if Brady goes down, or his trade value to teams looking for a potential starter, the feeling about Mallett is that not much has changed since his rookie year.


10. Tony Scheffler's touchdown

How did tight end Tony Scheffler get so wide open on his touchdown catch in the second quarter?

Hard to say exactly, without knowing the defensive call or the assignments, but it looks like this is what happened.

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The Patriots had designed a five-man rush, with Hightower rushing from the strong side. Spikes may have come on a delayed blitz, or he may have reacted to the play-action fake by Matthew Stafford. He may have had the responsibility of reading the running back, to either rush into the backfield if he ran the ball or to drop into coverage if he went into a route.

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There may have been a miscommunication between Spikes and Dane Fletcher, who allowed Scheffler a free release and did not attempt to follow him until he recognized the pass was going that direction.

Regardless of what happened, no one was within three yards of Scheffler by the time he had leaped to catch the pass while falling into the end zone.





Words With Frenz mailbag: Patriots defensive line ready to make a big impact?

Posted by Erik Frenz August 23, 2013 12:06 PM

We're just over two weeks away from the start of the 2013 NFL season, and fans could not be more ready, but everyone wants to know what to expect from their teams this year.

There seems to be a great amount of focus from Patriots fans on the defensive line, with a lot of movement in terms of whose stock is up and whose stock is down since last year, and even since the start of training camp in some cases.

Meanwhile, Bills fans would be happy to just get some pressure on Tom Brady for once, and Dolphins fans are still wondering who's going to pick up the pieces at tight end after Texans safety D.J. Swearinger shattered tight end Dustin Keller's knee.

Let's get to all that and more in the return of the Words With Frenz mailbag.

Tom, there's little doubt in my mind that the Patriots think highly of Marcus Benard. He is getting reps with the first-team defense in nickel packages as an interior linemen, in the role Jermaine Cunningham had carved out for himself in 2012. With Cunningham absent from practice and Benard looking fantastic in one-on-one pass-rush drills, it made sense to try him there.

He's made some noise already, with a sack in the first preseason game against the Eagles where he used his quick burst to split the guard and center to get quick pressure.

That being said, from the look of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich Thursday night, the Patriots may not be in as dire need of extra pass-rushing help as they've been in years past.

If there's one name to single out, it's Cunningham. The former second-round pick enters his fourth year in the league, and while he's certainly had his moments, he has yet to develop into a reliable presence on their defensive front.

The problem for him now is an injury that has kept him off the field for much of training camp and out of the team's first three games. He has practiced, so he is not eligible for the physically unable to perform list. With Cunningham, the Patriots would have to commit the roster spot to a player that may not be available to them.

With the aforementioned emergence of Benard as the interior rusher in the nickel, Cunningham has become a bit more expendable.

Armstead joined the Patriots with much fanfare. We marveled at his size and athleticism, and wondered about the different ways the Patriots could use such a versatile player on their defense.

The problem with Armstead was always his health. The concerns stemmed from a heart attack in March 2011 while at USC.

The Patriots released a statement on his status in late July, saying, "Armond Armstead had surgery to treat an infection. Armond is in good condition and is expected to make a full recovery. A timetable has not been set for his return." Since then, mum's the word.

Armstead is currently listed under the non-football illness category, and could be shelved until Week 6 at the earliest if he remains on that list.

Well, Imran, if it was, it won't be anymore.

Kelly was part of a Patriots defensive front that created pressure on a consistent basis on Thursday against the Lions. He contributed half a sack, joining Rob Ninkovich for a takedown of quarterback Matthew Stafford.

The Patriots lack depth at defensive tackle, where only three names stand out as locks for the roster: Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Marcus Forston. Kelly could be shouldering a big load this season. He's been lining up next to Wilfork in four-man lines, coming off the field at times for either Benard or Forston.

Last year, the second defensive tackle was Kyle Love, and he played just 556 snaps, with Brandon Deaderick playing 379. If Kelly and Forston can play as much as Love and Deaderick did, respectively, the Patriots should be fine with their depth. Kelly has played over 750 snaps in each of the past five seasons, so that should be no problem.

That said, it's a dice roll in terms of the health, and if one of them goes down, the Patriots aren't left with a lot of options.

Matt, it looks like it could be by committee. Rookie tight end Dion Sims was getting reps with Keller in two tight end sets, and while he's a better blocker than a pass-catcher, he could see more of a role in the passing game with Keller gone.

Charles Clay was the team's second-leading tight end last year behind Anthony Fasano, now with the Chiefs. He has been classified as more of an H-back than a true tight end, but the Dolphins may look to get him more often to create favorable matchups against linebackers and safeties.

Just last week, Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin came out in support of the progress tight end Michael Egnew has made this offseason. We heard about it in OTAs back in May, so to hear it again means the coach must be satisfied. We know the Dolphins coaches weren't stopping short of criticizing Egnew last year.

It's unclear which of the three wide receivers (Brian Hartline, Mike Wallace or Brandon Gibson) will line up in the slot, but the burden of production will be spread between the tight ends and receivers.

The player with the best likelihood to take Keller's spot, in my opinion, is Clay. His skill set is similar, and if the Dolphins already designed their offense to feature Keller, they'll want someone who can play a similar role. Does that mean Clay will be featured from Week 1? Probably not, because he's not quite on the Keller's level as a receiver. Could it happen over time, or in individual games? Of course.

The Bills are hard to predict, because it truly could be anywhere from 9-7 to 4-12.

Is the defense ready to execute an aggressive hybrid style of defense purveyed by Mike Pettine, who loves to blitz the quarterback and play man coverage? Can the offensive weapons master the rhythm and timing element of the West Coast offense being installed by Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett?

The team doesn't have much time to waste getting on the same page. A tough early stretch has the Bills facing the Patriots, Ravens, Bengals, Saints and Steelers all by Week 10.

We'll know by then whether the Bills will have anything to play for in the final month of the season. If they can come out of that stretch at .500, though, a winning record isn't out of the question, but that requires them beating all the teams they should beat, and that hasn't been a hallmark of the Bills in recent years.

They certainly have all the tools to do it, Rich.

The main reason the Bills had trouble creating pressure was a vanilla defensive scheme, but "vanilla" is anything but the name of the game for Mike Pettine. The Bills blitzed just 17.5 percent of the time in 2012, while the Jets blitzed 39.1 percent of the time. Pettine will bring some of that aggressiveness with him from New York to Buffalo.

Defensive linemen Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams and Mario Williams create a solid foundation for a pressure defense. Jerry Hughes has added his name to the mix as a standout pass-rusher in the preseason, with three sacks and two hurries through two games. Alex Carrington looks poised to make an impact as well, and has caught the eye of his coaching staff for his overall improvement and professionalism. He has also shown up with three hurries and a hit in 40 snaps.

If the two of them can continue to build off their preseason and live up to the billing as a former first- and third-round pick respectively, the Bills front should have no problem getting after Tom Brady.

As we saw against the Lions, though, the best weapon to stopping the Patriots offense is a solid interior rush that takes away Brady's ability to step into his throws. For that reason, it will be up to Dareus and Kyle Williams to create consistent push up the middle of the pocket. Pettine will probably not shy away from sending his speedy middle linebacker, Kiko Alonso, on A- or B-gap blitzes right up the gut.

Adding linebackers like Alonso and former 49ers/Bengals linebacker Manny Lawson brings a necessary level of athleticism to the defense that should allow the Bills to generate more pressure than in years past.

Got room for one more.

Very interesting question, Oz.

It seems like a long shot that Mark Sanchez will be successful this year. That conclusion is not just given his recent history, but also the string of tough games to start the season. In the first nine weeks of the season, the Jets face the Patriots twice, the Saints, the Steelers, the Bengals and the Falcons.

The Jets could easily be 3-6 by their bye week, but if Sanchez finds a way to be successful against those teams, how could the Jets possibly bench him? It would be the worst kind of indecision, and I could only imagine what the headlines in New York would be.

That would create quite the interesting scenario next offseason, when Sanchez's contract finally makes him cuttable. How would the Jets handle their quarterback situation: would they allow Sanchez to walk after a successful season and roll the dice with the unknown in Geno Smith, or would they bring him back and allow Smith to continue to grow on the sideline?

Thanks for some good questions, everyone. Further questions can be directed to me at Twitter, or in the comments.



Patriots stock report: Kenbrell Thompkins shows he has earned Tom Brady's trust

Posted by Erik Frenz August 22, 2013 11:04 PM

Well, that was unexpected.

The New England Patriots came out hot on their first drive, but cooled off quick with a Zach Sudfeld fumble and four total turnovers in the first half, as the Detroit Lions roared to a 40-9 victory.

As a team, the Patriots could have done better, but there were still a few bright spots despite the lopsided score. Here's a look at some players whose stock rose and others whose stock took a hit on Thursday night.


Stock up:

Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich: The Patriots starting duo of defensive ends had a bright night, with six tackles and 0.5 sacks (Ninkovich) between them. Jones was consistently bull-rushing Lions left tackle Riley Reiff into quarterback Matthew Stafford's lap, and Ninkovich was one of few Patriots defenders stuffing runs in the backfield. He even chased down running back Reggie Bush from behind on a screen.

Kenbrell Thompkins: We asked for a receiver to step up as a reliable target for Tom Brady, and Thompkins delivered. He caught six passes for 94 yards off Brady, and finished with eight catches for 116 yards on the night. He had a pair of deep catches, for 37 and 27 yards, where he tracked the ball in flight over his shoulder. He showed an incredible get-off at the line of scrimmage, with the quickness to juke defenders off the press coverage, and the athleticism to get yards after the catch on a few screens. He had a drop on a catchable third-down pass, but he has clearly earned Brady's trust, and that's an important first step.

Dan Connolly: Tonight was Connolly's first game action of the preseason, and although he didn't start — that was Will Svitek, who's been starting there in his absence — he played with the first-team offense. The offense struggled moving the ball up the middle, but it's hard to fault Connolly for that; he hasn't practiced much, and his first test in a preseason game came against All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Still, his return to the field was important for an offensive line that is thin on the interior.


Stock down:

Brandon Bolden: The former undrafted free-agent has been locked in a battle with LeGarrette Blount for the fourth roster spot at running back since training camp began, and Bolden's fumble on Thursday didn't help his cause one bit. He was thought to have more value for his special teams contributions, but the Patriots have recently been trying out Blount returning kicks. The Patriots could still keep five backs, but if not, Bolden might be the odd man out.

Interior offensive line: As mentioned above, the Patriots interior offensive line did not perform well against defensive tackles Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh. The Patriots rushed for 17 yards and one fumble on their first 12 carries. Logan Mankins was flagged for a false start. Suh bull-rushed Svitek into Brady, which allowed Jason Jones to log a sack. It was not a good night for the offensive line, which had more than its share of a role in the Patriots' offensive struggles.

Aqib Talib: Drew a flag for illegal contact on an overthrown pass, and gave up the perimeter on a pair of big plays to the outside when he failed to break down and tackle on running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. He made some plays in coverage, though, forcing an ovethrown pass by Stafford to Nate Burleson and knocking another pass right out of Burleson's hands on a slant over the middle. Talib has been up-and-down throughout his career, and that was the case on Thursday night.



Previewing the AFC East's 20 most compelling games of the 2013 season

Posted by Erik Frenz August 22, 2013 03:22 PM

In a photo gallery posted on Boston.com, we detail the 20 must-see games of the 2013 season.

Surely, each AFC East team will play 16 important games, but some of those games carry a little more flash, history or importance than others.

In some cases (see Broncos-Patriots), the build-up has already begun.

There are plenty of big story lines in the AFC East, between the two rookie quarterbacks (EJ Manuel for the Bills, Geno Smith for the Jets), the Dolphins' free-agency spending spree and the Patriots losing several key skill position players on offense.

Mix all those story lines with the top stories around the teams they'll be facing, throw in some former ties between the teams, and you have some very easy material for sports writers for the next four months at least.

Click here for the full gallery of the 20 most compelling games in the AFC East.



Patriots vs. Lions offers a look into the future for young receivers

Posted by Erik Frenz August 22, 2013 08:00 AM

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AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

Second-round pick Aaron Dobson, fourth-round pick Josh Boyce and undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins comprise what could be thought of as the future for the Patriots at wide receiver.

One problem: The future is now.

It may not be a problem at all. The Patriots seem fully prepared to embrace this truth. In fact, the three rookie receivers lead all Patriots receivers in snaps this preseason: 82 for Dobson, 78 for Thompkins and 72 for Boyce.

It's time for these three to show what they're made of in the third preseason game against the Detroit Lions on Thursday.

"I’m proud of all of those young players for coming in — we’ve thrown a lot of stuff at them," Tom Brady said after joint practices with the Eagles. "I said the other day that it’s not like we’re backing off because that’s not the way our offense is. We’ve got to keep putting the pressure on everybody, whether it’s Aaron [Dobson] or Josh [Boyce] or KT [Kenbrell Thompkins] or Zach Sudfeld. Everyone who’s out there is expected to go in there and execute at a pretty high level."

Dobson had a hot start to training camp, showing off his size and athleticism. He's been up-and-down since then, like any rookie, but he's had enough good moments to outweigh the bad.

He lines up primarily as an "X" receiver, on the outside of the formation. He has the requisite tangibles with his size (6'3", 215 pounds) and speed (4.44-second 40-yard dash at the combine). Dobson’s skill set is similar to another former Marshall and Patriots receiver, Randy Moss.

dobson 2.pngThe talent is not the same level, but Dobson showed his Moss-ness with an impressive catch on a seam route from Brady, where he shielded two defender with his body as he made the catch. He has four catches for 65 yards in the preseason, an impressive 16.3 yards per reception.

He could improve his focus; we have seen him drop catchable passes in practices and two in the preseason opener against the Eagles. Another big game could go a long way in building momentum toward the regular season.

The Patriots are probably also looking for a big game from Thompkins, who has shown incredible route running skills and the ability to win one-on-one matchups. He's been the most versatile of the three receivers, as well, lining up as the "X" and the "Z", or the slot. Like Dobson, Thompkins has the size (6'0", 195 pounds) to line up outside, but he also has the agility (6.88-second three-cone drill at the combine) to run sharp routes from the slot.

Thompkins has easily been the surprise of camp, and now looks poised for a big role in the offense. He'll need to do better than last week, though, when he logged just one catch for three yards, but it shouldn't be a shock if he starts opposite Danny Amendola in Week 1.

Josh Boyce continues to get most of his work with the first- and second-team offense, but unlike Dobson and Thompkins, Boyce is more of a "Z" than anything else.

Boyce has some explosiveness to his game (he ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash and a 6.68-second three-cone drill on a broken foot), and he could line up on the outside in a pinch, but he's best suited for the slot. At 5'11" and 205 pounds, he might have trouble getting off jams consistently and winning jump ball situations, but he has the quickness to get open over the middle, and has some thickness to his frame to take the hits he will likely endure as a result.

Boyce has looked good in practice at times, but has yet to hit stride in games, though, with three catches for nine yards this preseason, all of it earned in one game.

This game presents the last opportunity for these three receivers to make a statement before the season. The Lions run a press zone coverage scheme in the secondary. They have some cornerbacks with size: Ron Bartell (6'1", 210 pounds), Myron Lewis (6'2", 203 pounds) and rookie Darius Slay (6'1", 190 pounds) all stand out.

The challenges will be interesting. The receivers will have the chance to show they can get off a jam. This is important, because defenses will likely look to disrupt the timing element of the Patriots' precision offense. Also, this will be a test of the receivers being on the same page with Brady. While press zone is the Lions' primary coverage scheme, they'll probably mix it up from time to time in an attempt to throw the Patriots receivers off their reads.

The offense is already clicking with Brady throwing it to Amendola and tight end Zach Sudfeld consistently and effectively. If one or two of the three rookies can make an early impact, the fireworks could fly early when the regular season rolls around.



Zach Sudfeld will get a chance to shine if Rob Gronkowski is out Week 1

Posted by Erik Frenz August 19, 2013 04:16 PM

The Patriots have been practicing and playing preseason games for the past three weeks; all the while, tight end Rob Gronkowski has watched from the sideline.

That won't change anytime soon if a recent report from ESPN's Adam Schefter is any indication.

It remains to be seen whether he will be on the roster for Week 1, or if he will begin the season on the physically unable to perform list, which will keep him off the roster until at least Week 7. Regardless, it appears the Patriots will be without their All-Pro tight end for some unidentified period of time.

The Patriots have been without Gronkowski since the start of training camp, and have been preparing for this exact situation. In case you haven't heard, tight end Zach Sudfeld has emerged in practices and in games, and looks like a lock to be the top tight end when the Patriots take the field against the Bills.

At 6'7" and 260 pounds, Sudfeld has almost exactly the same frame as Gronkowski, who weighs the same and stands an inch shorter.

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He put his size on display in catching a two-point conversion in the back of the end zone on a high pass from quarterback Tom Brady. It was a pattern we've seen Gronkowski run in the red zone before, on a post toward the back corner of the end zone.

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The catch, to add a word to the English dictionary, was "Gronkesque."

Sudfeld gives Brady a solid target in the red zone, and even flashed some ability as an open-field runner with his 22-yard catch against the Eagles. At this stage, though, Sudfeld's skill set more closely resembles Aaron Hernandez than Gronkowski.

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Ryan Mallett threw to Sudfeld (circled in yellow) in the flat on a bootleg, and the tight end did the rest.

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He caught the ball, walled off the defender and broke the tackle, while running down the sideline and

Replacing Gronkowski is about much more than just catching passes. Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui both did a significant amount of run-blocking in 2012, with each participating in over 60 percent of their snaps as a blocker.

Fells was the better overall blocking tight end of the two, especially in run-blocking situations.

Let's not forget about Jake Ballard, who was stashed on injured reserve all of 2012 and is now finally healthy and ready to play.

"Jake’s been pretty consistent all through camp," head coach Bill Belichick said Monday. "He’s been dependable on a day-to-day basis. He’s got some experience. Big guy, long, he’s got good blocking skill. He’s done a good job in the passing game. I think with him, it’s just keeping it day by day."

ballard 2011 snaps 2.pngHis role in the past has been that of a hybrid tight end, similar to Gronkowski. Ballard was regarded before training camp as the player most likely to fill Gronkowski's role, but Sudfeld's emergence catching passes from Tom Brady in training camp has led to the rookie leading the charge.

So, it seems the Patriots have more than enough options to compensate for Gronkowski's blocking abilities, while the growing legend of Sudfeld could see its most important chapter yet on September 8.



What does EJ Manuel's knee injury mean for Patriots Week 1 matchup with the Bills?

Posted by Erik Frenz August 19, 2013 03:45 PM

The Bills have had bad luck with knees recently.

First, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's knee injury turned out to be nothing serious. Then, Bills quarterback EJ Manuel had some swelling in his knee the day after the Bills' 20-16 win over the Vikings on Friday.

At this point, Manuel's status for Week 1 is in some doubt. The timetable for his recovery is a tricky subject for Marrone.

"I think what we’re going to do is let’s not talk about the timetable until we get through this preseason," Marrone said on Sunday. "I understand he’s not going to be here for the preseason, but any time after that my expectation is he’ll be day to day after that."

A tricky subject could call for a tricky decision: would the Bills rather roll with Manuel at less than 100 percent, or veteran journeyman Kevin Kolb at full health?

It was beginning to look like the battle for the starting job at quarterback was nearing its end, with Manuel to be announced the winner, until his injury changed the complexion of the competition.

It should be noted, however, that Kolb was the quarterback when the Cardinals beat the Patriots, 20-18, at Gillette Stadium in Week 2 of the 2012 season. He went 15-for-27 (55.6 percent) for 140 yards (5.2 yards per attempt) and a touchdown. The 2012 Cardinals, despite having wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald at their disposal, were not as talented from top to bottom as the 2013 Bills.

Whether more talent translates to more wins, or a win in Week 1, remains to be seen.

Even with that historical anecdote, the Bills can only hope Manuel is ready to go against the Patriots.

The Patriots also have not fared well recently against quarterbacks that present the threat of the run.

They faced Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2012, and although the two quarterbacks rushed only 12 times for 45 yards, they went a combined 30-for-52 (57.7 percent) through the air for 514 yards (9.9 YPA), seven touchdowns and one interception.

Whether it's Kolb or Manuel, the Patriots are not likely to see much of a vertical passing game. Manuel has not had much of an opportunity to cut loose on those deep passes, but he has thrown just three pass attempts of over 15 yards, and Kolb attempted just 28 such passes in 2012 out of 183 attempts (15.3 percent), shockingly even less than Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (17.6 percent).

Interestingly enough, EJ Manuel hasn't thrown more than three passes deeper than 15 yards. Here is a table of all his throws against the Colts (routes in red, Manuel threw twice).

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Here is the same chart for his performance against the Vikings.

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Thus, whether it's Manuel or Kolb throwing the ball, the game plan may be to keep the passing short. That's the name of the game with the West Coast offense, which the Bills now run under offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.

The Bills will likely get a better idea of whether Manuel can play once his rehab is done and he's back on the field throwing again, but for now, they can only hope their rookie quarterback, and quarterback of the future, is ready to go when the 2013 season kicks off.




Patriots Take 2: After knee injury scare, Tom Brady looked as comfortable as ever

Posted by Erik Frenz August 18, 2013 07:00 AM

Anyone who was ready for the demise of the Patriots after Tom Brady's knee injury scare on Wednesday got some bad news on Friday night. After two preseason games, it's beginning to look like the Patriots could be a pretty good football team yet again in 2013.

Several key players stepped up in Friday night's win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After a second viewing, here's what stood out.


1. Danny Amendola can stretch the seam

Danny Amendola's 26-yard touchdown catch gave us a glimpse of the explosive nature to his game. He ran a seam route right through the defense, with Tom Brady's perfectly thrown ball (were there any other kind on Friday night?) hitting him right between safety Ahmad Black and linebacker Mason Foster.

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Brady connected on those routes and throws with Wes Welker at times, but Welker didn't have the speed to consistently create separation when running vertically.

An interesting statistical parallel: According to ProFootballFocus.com, a website that tracks every play in every game, Brady hit Welker on 50 percent of passes that traveled 20 yards or more down the field (nine catches, two drops on 22 attempts). Rams quarterbacks in 2012 combined to hit Amendola on 50 percent of deep throws.

So far, the duo is one-for-one on such throws in the preseason.


2. Tom Brady looks confident stepping into throws

Speaking of that touchdown catch, any questions about Brady's confidence stepping into throws were put to bed when Brady sent that 26-yard touchdown pass into the air.

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Of course, it's a little bit easier to step into a throw when the pocket is this clean, but the confidence and accuracy on the deep throw were both good signs. In splitting Black in deep coverage and Foster underneath, Brady put the ball in the one spot where only his receiver could get to it.

Overall, he looked like typical Tom Brady, and he is now 18-for-20 (90 percent) for 172 yards (8.6 YPA), two touchdowns and a 135.8 passer rating through two preseason games.


3. But what if Brady goes down?

Ryan Mallett's progress has been up-and-down in practices, and he had a night that showed it. He went 12-for-20 for 137 yards and a touchdown, which is an impressive stat line on its own, but there were a lot of opportunities Mallett left on the field. He started off slow, going 3-for-7 on his first seven throws, but went 9-for-13 the rest of the way out.

What confounds me is when he fires short of his target. His big arm has been the talk of the town since he arrived in New England, but he's yet to show that he truly knows how to use that arm strength to maximum potential.

There are times when he fires the ball to his target as hard as he possibly can when he should put a bit more touch on the ball. That's understandable. When he fires short, though, it looks like he's overcompensating.


4. Jamie Collins' role coming into focus

A big topic of our film review last week was the alignment and utilization of linebacker Jamie Collins. We once again saw him do a mix of different things, including a few things we had not seen before.

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We got a glimpse of what it might look like for Collins to be an edge rusher in the 3-4. The Patriots came out in their base 3-4 defense to start the second half, with Collins lined up as the right outside linebacker, and Collins was sent into the backfield on 2nd-and-3.

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He stayed disciplined and didn't bite on the play-action fake, keeping his eyes in the backfield as he rushed the passer. He didn't log the sack or generate pressure, but his football intelligence will go over well with head coach Bill Belichick.

Collins lined up primarily on the strong side, prior to any shifts by the tight end. Dont'a Hightower is the starting strong-side linebacker, so for now, it appears Collins will have a part-time role in the defense. Regardless of how often he plays, it's clear Collins will contribute in a number of ways.

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He made a great play in coverage right before the end of the second quarter. He lined up as the strong-side linebacker (circled in red) and dropped in zone coverage over the middle.

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The slot receiver ran a slant route against cornerback Marquice Cole, and was able to get away from the cornerback. Mike Glennon watched his receiver come open, but held onto the ball a fraction of a second too long. Meanwhile, Jamie Collins had his eye on the quarterback the whole time, and broke on the ball once it was released.

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The defender, the receiver and the ball all got there within a split-second of each other, and the pass was broken up for the incompletion.

In run defense, Collins had his ups (tackled running back Mike James for a one-yard loss in the third quarter) and downs (was blocked by tight end Tim Wright and taken out of a nine-yard run) but if he continues to make plays in coverage, he'll bring a missing component from the Patriots defense last year, when they ranked 29th in coverage of tight ends according to Football Outsiders.

His versatility throughout his career as a safety, linebacker and defensive linemen allows him to do almost anything the coaches ask of him.


5. Team effort on Brandon Spikes' sack

Brandon Spikes looked like a one-man wrecking crew when he sacked quarterback Josh Freeman on the Buccaneers' first offensive play, but it was not without a little help from his teammate.

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Defensive tackles Tommy Kelly (93, left) and Vince Wilfork (75, right) ate up three blockers on the play as the two linemen performed a stunt, crossing each other's path. Kelly, specifically, drove guard Ted Larsen inside and out of the "B" gap to clear the way for Spikes.

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Then, with the interior linemen preoccupied, Spikes was able to easily dispatch Doug Martin after the running back collided with Freeman. Spikes then had his own collision with Freeman for the sack. This is an important year for Spikes, whose contract expires at the end of the season, and he flashed the potential to play a big part in the Patriots pass defense with two sacks on the night.


6. Standout night for the defensive ends

If the Patriots defense is to be successful in 2013, it will be with the help of defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich getting into the backfield on a consistent basis. Jones was the first one of the two to get on the sack sheet for the preseason with his first quarter take down of Freeman, and kept his motor running despite being walled off by left tackle Donald Penn off the snap. His tackle for a four-yard loss on running back Peyton Hillis was perhaps more impressive.

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He lined up on the end, in the seven technique over the tight end. He beat the tight end off the snap and split the gap between the tight end and the tackle.

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Even after that, he wasn't home free. The left guard had pulled across the formation to be the lead blocker, and the fullback was also leading the way. Neither of them bothered to stop Jones as he broke through the line, perhaps because they weren't expecting it to happen so quickly.

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Not to be outdone, Ninkovich had a sack of his own in the second quarter. It was an interesting play design, with Spikes rushing the passer from the right edge and Jones coming across the formation, but Ninkovich's rush was nothing spectacular, just a straight upfield rush against the right tackle.

ninkovich sack 2.jpg

An assist should go to Spikes and Marcus Benard, both of whom created enough pressure from the left side to keep Glennon in the pocket. Still, this play was an example of the big plays and the blue-collar hustle plays we've come to expect from Ninkovich.

As a team, the Patriots stopped 139 plays for a loss or for no gain in 2012, and ranked 20th in the NFL in that stat. Improved penetration from their defensive line, like we saw on these plays, could mean improvement for the defense as a whole.


7. Will Svitek's tough night

It's hard to be too tough on Svitek. He is an offensive tackle, but the Patriots have moved him to guard while they wait for Marcus Cannon to come back from his injury. He did his job for the most part, but he got off to a tough start.

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It looked like Svitek (circled in red) missed his assignment on the opening run, letting defensive tackle Gerald McCoy blow right past him to tackle running back Stevan Ridley for no gain.

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On the next play, he had a similar occurrence where he slid to the right to help tackle Sebastian Vollmer against the defensive end, when clearly, it was center Ryan Wendell who needed the help with McCoy, who created pressure on Brady as he delivered a throw to Amendola.

Svitek had a solid game as part of a group effort by the offensive line against the Eagles, and Svitek gave up just one pressure in that game, but if he's going to be called on to start at guard, he'll need to make sure Brady has a clean pocket to step into throws.


8. Justin Francis is the most versatile defensive linemen on the roster

Francis was spotted at defensive end and defensive tackle in four-man lines, and as a defensive end and outside linebacker in the 3-4 alignment. He also lined up in those spots in varying nickel packages.

The Patriots will often put players in varying spots to see what they're capable of doing in those situations, and the preseason is the perfect time for that, but that level of versatility (and a degree from Rutgers) basically writes your ticket for the Patriots roster. Not to mention, Francis has contributed in plenty of special teams units as well.


9. Marcus Forston is a lock as the third defensive tackle

The Patriots are paper-thin at defensive tackle, and have had to manufacture depth at the position by using defensive ends Marcus Benard and Justin Francis as defensive tackles in some sub packages. Through it all, Marcus Forston has come into focus as the third true defensive tackle in the rotation. He's been up-and-down, but there's enough to build on.

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He had back-to-back tackles in the fourth quarter on running plays inside the Patriots' 10-yard line. Running back Peyton Hillis got the hand-off on 1st-and-goal from the 7-yard line, and although Forston was able to shed his blocker, he wasn't able to stop Hillis dead in his tracks and had to turn to make the tackle. Hillis picked up six yards on the carry.

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Forston showed his strength on the previous play, but showed his incredible burst off the line in the next play. In fact, he was in the backfield by the time Glennon had even turned around to hand the ball off, and made contact with Hillis an instant after he received the handoff.

The Patriots really need someone that can penetrate the backfield up the middle, and Forston is showing why he could be the player to fill that role.


10. If Tim Tebow makes the Patriots roster, it's not because he's one of the best 53 players

To avoid belaboring the point, I'll just leave it at that.



Mark Sanchez's performance vs. Jaguars a microcosm of his Jets career

Posted by Erik Frenz August 18, 2013 12:00 AM

One moment, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez was leading his offense to a seamless touchdown drive. The next, he was throwing a costly interception with his team just three yards away from the end zone.

Allow Sanchez to reintroduce himself.

At this point in his career, this is just who he is: flashes of his potential greatness, followed by reminders of his lingering limitations.

For three throws on the opening drive, he was untouchable.

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He fired hard on his first pass, a 10-yard out to wide receiver Stephen Hill, and was able to thread the needle between three defenders reaching for it.

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He put just the right amount of touch on his second pass, a 10-yard in to Jeremy Kerley between the hash marks, that it stayed out of the reach of the defensive back that had dropped underneath in coverage.

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On the third throw? Please, when a player is this wide open close to the end zone, that's an easy decision for any quarterback, and Sanchez made a throw to match, hitting tight end Jeff Cumberland in stride as he peeled his route in front of the safety. The defensive back fell down, but Cumberland would have been open either way.

Sanchez celebrated. Fans cheered. It was like the beginning of the 2009 season. For a minute, the woes were forgotten. We had now seen Sanchez put together two solid drives in the preseason, capping both of them with touchdowns of 20-plus yards to Cumberland.

He came back down to earth a bit after that, but even in doing so, he continued to make smart decisions with the football.

He checked down to fullback Tommy Bohanon when his receivers were covered. He even dirted the ball on a screen pass that got snuffed out by the defense, which drew cheers from Jets fans in attendance who remembered his brutal pick-six from the week before.

Those cheers quickly turned to jeers when the drive ended with Sanchez throwing an interception in the end zone.

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It looked like Sanchez was expecting tight end Kellen Winslow (circled in yellow) to get into and out of his break a bit more quickly, but Winslow was fighting through the traffic of the defensive back and couldn't get through.

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Either way, it's hard to expect your receiver to make a catch when he's being boxed out by a defender.

Sanchez is as Sanchez does.

The difference is, Sanchez will sometimes call "duck" once in between each "goose," and sometimes he'll call 30 "ducks" in a row.

He rebounded in the third quarter against the Jaguars second-team defense, but much like last week with his insta-pick-six, it's hard to reconcile the good for the bad.

passer rating since 09.pngHe just can't seem to find a stroke that works consistently. With a 71.7 passer rating since 2009, Sanchez ranks 31st out of 32 quarterbacks to start at least 24 games. Needless to say, he is not in good company.

If Geno Smith hadn't injured himself in last week's game against the Detroit Lions, Sanchez may not have been given the opportunity to remove himself from that company. It may not matter, at this point; with his performance Saturday night, he came one step closer to proving once and for all that he wouldn't be able to do that anyway.



Kenbrell Thompkins revealing his bright future for Patriots while 'living in the moment'

Posted by Erik Frenz August 17, 2013 01:12 AM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — How did wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins go from an undrafted free-agent and a dark horse for the roster, to now being close to a lock for a roster spot and a big role in the offense?

Not by stopping to smell the roses.

"I try not to have that 'wow' moment," Thompkins said, "because if I have a 'wow' moment, that means that I’ll be focusing on the outside, on the crowd and the fans and everything like that. Just living in the moment and trying to get better each day. That’s pretty much all I can do."

That's pretty much all he's done since training camp opened. One day after another, Thompkins does something that makes reporters stop and take notice. Whether it's showing his soft hands, smooth route-running or exceptional quickness, all his skills have been on display.

He has made some of the top plays in camp, including a one-handed reception in the back corner of the end zone and a slick triple-move he pulled in a one-on-one against a Buccaneers defensive back during joint practices.

While he's not the biggest receiver on the roster at 6'0" and 195, he would have been as big as the biggest receiver on any of the Patriots' recent rosters (Chad Johnson aka Ochocinco and Brandon Lloyd were b oth about that size). He's already shown the ability to use that size to his advantage to win one-on-one matchups in camp.

The Patriots coaching staff has rewarded Thompkins with more opportunities to catch passes from starting quarterback Tom Brady, both in practices and on game days.

It's not an opportunity that crossed his mind when he signed with the Patriots.

"I just came here just make sure I was playing football," Thompkins said. "Just trying to be on top of the things that I needed to be on top of. I’m just living in the moment right now."

Thompkins had multiple run-ins with the law before college, and although he saw some success at Cincinnati with 78 catches for 1,077 yards and four touchdowns in his two-year career, his off-field concerns were enough to scare teams away from him in the draft.

His practices have been solid, and he had an impressive debut against the Eagles with four catches for 23 yards, but Friday was not smooth sailing for the rookie, with just one catch for three yards and a drop on a catchable pass from Ryan Mallett in the second quarter.

Consistency is key with the Patriots, specifically at the receiver positions where Tom Brady has a high level of accountability for his pass-catchers.

With a receiving corps that is spear-headed by Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson, there's plenty of room for debate as to who will end up the No. 3 receiver on the depth chart. Julian Edelman has the edge in experience, and Josh Boyce has the status as the team's fourth-round draft pick, but on the talent Thompkins has shown in practices, he deserves as much consideration for that spot as anyone else, if not more.



Patriots stock report: Zach Sudfeld showcases size, versatility in Patriots win

Posted by Erik Frenz August 17, 2013 12:32 AM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots moved to 2-0 on the preseason with a 25-21 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday night.

The first series of cutdowns are scheduled for August 27, so with just 11 days left, players need to begin making their strongest case for a starting job, or in some cases, for the roster.

It was a big game for many of the Patriots' most prominent players, and an important one for some of those who might be fighting for a roster spot.


Stock up:

TE Zach Sudfeld: There just aren't enough positive adjectives to describe Sudfeld's performance. He caught a two-point conversion in the back of the end zone and a 22-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Mallett down the seam. It seems his 6'7", 260-pound frame is making him a favorite target of his quarterbacks.

"I don't know if that's me. I think that that's more the quarterbacks being able to put it in there," Sudfeld said. "It's been such a great experience, just this entire thing, and the game today was pretty incredible — to play with all the quarterbacks, and the entire team. I'm a rookie, I have a long way to go, a lot to learn, and a lot to improve on, but so far it's been a great experience."

His blocking also looked to have improved; although he whiffed on a block that resulted in a screen pass being sniffed out, he had nice blocks in pass and run protection, showing improved technique and understanding of leverage.

Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and Brandon Spikes: Ben Volin said the Patriots defense needed to create more pressure, and they delivered. Jones, Ninkovich and Spikes contributed four sacks on the night (Spikes had two), all in the first half of play. Four sacks in one game...maybe 50 sacks isn't out of reach, after all?

DT Marcus Forston: The Patriots' lack of depth at defensive tackle has been a glaring question mark throughout camp, but Marcus Forston is proving himself worthy of that third spot in the rotation, and not just by default. He created pressure up the middle on a consistent basis against the Buccaneers, and quickly shed blocks on a pair of tackles inside the five-yard line, one of which resulted in a six-yard loss.

FB James Develin: Got the starting nod at fullback, which is noteworthy because Michael Hoomanawanui has been the primary fullback in practices. The coaching staff may have hoped to use this game as a measuring stick for Develin with cutdowns two weeks away, and the third preseason game usually used as a dress rehearsal for the regular season.

QB Tom Brady: It was not a typical week for Brady, who had a knee injury scare just two days prior to the playing of this game. He put any concerns to bed by going 8-for-8 for 72 yards and a touchdown on the Patriots opening drive, and 11-for-12 for 107 yards on the night.

There were no signs of hesitation from Brady stepping into his throws. He delivered a pair of on-target passes while under pressure, and unleashed a perfect deep ball on a seam route to Danny Amendola for a 26-yard touchdown.


Stock down:

WR Aaron Dobson: Has been great in practices, but has just four catches for 65 yards in two preseason games, with two catches for 30 yards in Friday's game. Those numbers wouldn't be so unimpressive if Dobson hadn't played through the fourth quarter in both games. The coaching staff must feel he could use the extra work.

S Tavon Wilson: Not a lot went well for Tavon Wilson. On a running play in his direction, Wilson was blocked by a receiver and missed a chance at an arm tackle. He was called for holding on 4th-and-goal, giving the Buccaneers a fresh set of downs, before ultimately giving up the touchdown pass to receiver David Douglas. It looks like Tavon has been passed on the safety depth chart by rookie Duron Harmon, and expectations have dipped for the former second-round pick.

DE Jake Bequette: The 2012 second-round pick has been passed on the depth chart by defensive ends Michael Buchanan, Marcus Benard and Justin Francis. Bequette lined up as the right defensive end in 3-4 and 4-3 packages, and had some good pressure in the passing game, but got moved off the ball on more than a couple of runs.

P Ryan Allen: The punter battle was probably very even before tonight's game, but the pendulum swung in Zoltan Mesko's favor tonight. Ryan Allen was the first punter to get an opportunity, but he couldn't put an angle on his punt from the 43-yard line, and the Buccaneers got a touchback. Allen averaged a net of 29 yards per punt, compared to Mesko's average of 40.



Behind enemy lines: Mark Sanchez and EJ Manuel emerging as starters in different ways

Posted by Erik Frenz August 15, 2013 05:25 PM

Tom Brady returned to practice on Thursday, putting Patriots fans at ease with regard to his status for the coming weeks as we head into the regular season.

A couple of other teams in the AFC East, on the other hand, are getting a little bit closer to clarity in their own quarterback controversies, but in different ways.

Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone decided to give both his quarterbacks an equal opportunity to earn the starting job.

EJ Manuel was the starter in last week's preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts, and while his stat line was impressive (16-of-21, 107 yards, touchdown; 3 rushes, 28 yards), his play on the field was hardly earth-shattering.

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Red routes were thrown twice.

He threw a lot of timing routes, mainly timing routes without going through his progressions. That was one of his perceived problems heading into the draft.

His perceived strength was his powerful arm, but he didn't attempt a pass deeper than 17 yards in his first preseason game, and only two passes traveled deeper than 10 yards.

What's more, a majority of his strongest success — including a 93-yard touchdown drive in which Manuel went 9-of-9 for 67 yards — came against the Colts' second-team defense.

It wasn't a great start, but if Manuel is the front-runner for the top job, as is being speculated by both The Buffalo News and ESPN, he should be getting as many first-team reps as possible to get him used to the speed of the game and to give him an opportunity to test out that arm strength.

That being said, perhaps starting Kolb is a way to prove to themselves once and for all that they're making the right decision. After all, the decision sets up Manuel to start in the all-important third preseason game, often regarded as a "dress rehearsal" for the regular season.

The Jets, on the other hand...

The logic behind this one is a lot clearer. Rookie quarterback Geno Smith came in as the second quarterback behind Sanchez in the Jets preseason opener against the Lions, but Smith twisted his ankle while trying to scramble and did not return to the game.

Sanchez was the starter in that game, and he threw a pick-six to defensive end Ezekiel Ansah on his third pass attempt of the game.

He was able to bounce back a couple of drive later by leading an 80-yard touchdown drive, capping it off with a nice 26-yard pass to tight end Jeff Cumberland down the seam, but the Jets saw in the first four minutes of their first preseason game what they had hoped to see far less frequently in 2013: a turnover.

The Jets might be looking to get Smith back into the competition sooner than later, and could give him the start in the third preseason game if he's ready, but all things being equal, the more reps he loses, the less likely he is to win the job.

Meanwhile, for the first time in 12 offseasons, the Dolphins don't have a glaring question mark at quarterback — or, at least, they hope not.

Now, their question marks are at left tackle and running back. As it turns out, head coach Joe Philbin has been pleased with what he's seen in camp at both positions.

Left tackle Jonathan Martin and running back Lamar Miller were regarded as two players that needed to step up with the respective departures of left tackle Jake Long and running back Reggie Bush.

Martin appeared to struggle in his first preseason game, but that was quickly rebuked by Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and James Walker of ESPN.

Stats website Pro Football Focus agrees, and has not charted Martin with a single quarterback pressure in his 19 total snaps in pass protection this preseason. That's a good start, but most of his action has come against second-team defenders. We'll get a better gauge of where he's at when the Dolphins play their third preseason game next week.

As for the running backs, Joe Philbin may be pleased with Lamar Miller, but Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland isn't ready to crown him the lead back just yet.

"I don’t think it’s just going to be Lamar’s position," Ireland said. "We’ve got a good running back in Daniel Thomas that’s certainly making some noise."

The only noise Thomas has made to this point in his career is a low rumbling with his career average of 3.5 yards per carry, the lowest for any back with 250 or more carries in the past two seasons.

The Dolphins have a young, explosive back in Miller who has a similar skill set to Bush's and who averaged just shy of five yards per carry in 2012. Daniel Thomas has his uses as a short-yardage back, but beyond that, the Dolphins would be better off giving Miller opportunities to make big plays for their offense.



Training camp stock report: Tommy Kelly could be missing piece for Patriots pass rush

Posted by Erik Frenz August 14, 2013 09:20 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Well, believe it or not, things happened besides Tom Brady holding his knee in pain.

Players played football, and were in full pads for the second session of joint practices between the Patriots and the Buccaneers.

Which were the most noteworthy performances? Let's take a look in today's stock report.


Stock up:

Steve Gregory, Marquice Cole, Logan Ryan and Aqib Talib: Tuesday was a tough day for the Patriots secondary, but the unit showed the requisite short-term memory and bounced back Wednesday. Safety Steve Gregory nearly had an interception in 11-on-11 drills, and broke up a pass intended for Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson. That second part is noteworthy because no one has been able to stop Jackson in practice. Aqib Talib and Logan Ryan each had a pick-six off Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman, and Marquice Cole had another pick in the end zone.

Jamie Collins: Continued to get reps with the first-team nickel defense next to Jerod Mayo, even with Brandon Spikes back on the field today.

Tommy Kelly: Had a sack of Freeman in 11-on-11 work for a second consecutive day. The Patriots aren't used to getting a consistent pass-rush from the defensive tackle spot, so Kelly's emergence has been key. They are razor thin at defensive tackle right now, but with a healthy Kelly and Wilfork anchoring things in the middle, they're in great shape.


Stock down:

Zach Sudfeld: The tight end has been solid throughout camp, but today was not his best day. He dropped a pair of catchable passes, one in 7-on-7s and another in 11-on-11s.

Jermaine Cunningham: The former second-round pick hasn't seen the field recently, and Marcus Benard continues to emerge in Cunningham's old role as the defensive end that kicks inside on passing downs and/or in nickel packages.

Zoltan Mesko and Ryan Allen: Today was not a great day to be a punter. Mesko fumbled the snap on one of his punts, and Allen had one of his punts blocked. It should be noted that Mesko recovered very nicely, booming a few kicks after that reminded us that he's been one of the better punters in the league in recent years. This remains a competition to watch in the coming weeks.



Patriots training camp overreaction: Tom Brady injured? Patriots season is over!

Posted by Erik Frenz August 14, 2013 06:14 PM

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Photo courtesy Steve Balestrieri/PatsFans.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — If you were witness to Thursday's practice, you may have seen some guy named Tom Brady go down to the ground, holding his left knee in pain after left tackle Nate Solder was bull-rushed by Buccaneers defensive end Adrian Clayborn right into Brady's lap, and subsequently his knee.

Brady limped to the sideline where he would watch the next play. He entered the action again for five more plays, three of them passes (all were on-target), and continued to look at his knee as he walked toward the next play after each one. He then left the field, headed toward the practice bubble out of sight. A helicopter showed up, and chaos ensued.

Prevailing thought? The Patriots season is over. They might as well not even play a single game! Now, where's that sarcasm font when you need it?

The feeling after practice was unsettled. Most Patriots players were quiet. One player gave an interview that lasted 42 seconds and three questions. Solder was clearly upset by what had happened.

"We're always working to protect and everything," Solder said. "I'll have to see what happened on film. I screwed some things up here and there, and we'll work to improve it."

One thing the Patriots could have to improve, though, is the play from their backup quarterbacks.

Ryan Mallett is still showing signs of his inexperience, with up-and-down performances throughout camp. He looked shaky yet again in practice Wednesday, continuing an up-and-down training camp by going 8-for-17 with a touchdown an an interception.

Tim Tebow has struggled throwing the ball for the most part to this point, both in practices and in games. He was part of the play of the day Wednesday, when he threw a long pass to wide receiver Julian Edelman which was bobbled by the receiver before being caught in the back of the end zone.

But talk of Mallett and Tebow may be premature. It looks like the Patriots may have dodged a real bullet here according to Dan Roche of WBZ News:

Oh, and then this from Adam Schefter of ESPN:

So, it would appear for now, the Patriots season is not over yet.

No one is going to argue that the Patriots are a better team without Brady under center, but they have some tools for success besides the quarterback: A running game that scored the most touchdowns and rushed for the seventh-most yards in the league in 2012; an offensive line that allowed Brady to be pressured on just 25 percent of his drop-backs; a defense that, with more experience as a unit, could be even better than last year, when it ranked ninth in scoring.

All of that being said, you can bet there are more updates to come, and Patriots fans will continue to hold their collective breath until they see Brady on the field throwing passes comfortably to his receivers again.


Training camp stock report: Vincent Jackson victimizes Patriots defensive backs

Posted by Erik Frenz August 13, 2013 03:10 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots participated in a joint practice with the Buccaneers on Tuesday, in rainy conditions. It was the first of three practices with the Patriots and Buccaneers before the two teams meet on Friday in the second preseason game.

"It will be good for us to see different players, different scheme," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. "We’re going to have to deal with those during the year too so it will be good to get kind of a whole new look this week. I think it’s a good way to prepare our team."

Which players had a strong showing against the new look, and which players were thrown off a bit?


Stock up:

LeGarrette Blount: The former Buccaneers running back had a strong practice with three catches in one-on-one coverage drills, working against linebackers Ka'Lial Glaud and Lavonte David. Blount also continues to get repetitions over second-year running back Brandon Bolden.

Julian Edelman: Dropped one pass that hit him in the hands, but made a pair of impressive catches in 11-on-11 work, one down the sideline against rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks, another down the seam after splitting a linebacker and defensive back.

Zach Sudfeld: There was a moment where Tom Brady yelled at Zach Sudfeld for not getting to the ground in a drill simulating a late-game situation, but Sudfeld has been one of the most impressive Patriots throughout camp, and he carried it over into joint practices by consistently getting open against the Buccaneers linebackers and safeties. Sudfeld went 2-1 in the one-on-one coverage drills with the Patriots running backs and tight ends vs. the Buccaneers linebackers and safeties. He also caught a team-high three passes in 11-on-11 work, including a touchdown against safety Keith Tandy.

Kenbrell Thompkins: Made the play of the day with a leaping touchdown catch in the back right corner of the end zone, and had a spectacular one-handed grab in one-on-one drills. Also made a nice catch near the sideline, turning up field for what would have been a long gain of yards after the catch.


Stock down:

Anyone trying to cover Vincent Jackson: The Patriots cornerbacks posed no threat for the Buccaneers No. 1 receiver, who regularly beat any kind of coverage thrown at him. Jackson has incredible speed for a man his size, at 6'5" and 230 pounds. He had nice catches over the middle against Kyle Arrington, and an impressive leaping sideline catch against Logan Ryan. Jackson also beat Aqib Talib and Devin McCourty (at cornerback) in 7-on-7 work.

Aaron Dobson: Dobson had an impressive catch down the left sideline against Johnthan Banks, but he dropped four passes on the day and struggled to get open in the final 11-on-11 drill, with safety Mark Barron breaking up two passes headed in his direction in the end zone. Ups and downs are expected from rookie receivers, and Dobson is no different; what's more, today was a sloppy day for all involved with the rain.

Brandon Spikes: Missed today's practice, and while that's not usually cause for putting someone in the "stock down" category, the Patriots got a long look at their nickel package without Spikes in the mix, allowing Dont'a Hightower to line up at middle linebacker, Jamie Collins at strong side linebacker and Jerod Mayo on the weak side.



Training camp stock report: Brandon Bolden falling off the map?

Posted by Erik Frenz August 12, 2013 05:51 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots returned to the practice field at Gillette Stadium on Monday after practicing in Philadelphia with the Eagles leading up to their first preseason game. The practice was a brisk walkthrough with the players donning shells and shorts.

Here's a look at some players who had a great practice and some others who struggled.


Stock up:

TE Daniel Fells: Caught a pair of touchdowns in 7-on-7 work, one against linebacker Brandon Spikes and another against safety Tavon Wilson, had an impressive catch down the seam against safety Adrian Wilson, and caught a touchdown in 11-on-11 work.

DL Marcus Benard: Continued to earn reps with the first-team defense in his role as an interior pass-rusher in a four-man line. Coaches must have been pleased with his performance against the Eagles, in which he logged a sack of quarterback Dennis Dixon and had another QB pressure in the contest.

WR Danny Amendola: May be redundant to mention at this point, but this was an especially strong practice for the Patriots' best receiver. His chemistry with Tom Brady seems to be hitting stride, and the wide-out caught everything that was thrown his way, routinely making impressive leaping catches and even had a nifty one-handed grab in passing drills.


Stock down:

WR Kamar Aiken: Lost sight of a catchable pass on a ball in flight in a passing drill, and dropped another pass from Tim Tebow (yes, a catchable one). Aiken started strong, but didn't get many reps with the first-team offense in the game against the Eagles.

RB Brandon Bolden: Was spotted in special teams drills while the rest of the running backs worked on their blocking (he was called for running into the kicker in Friday's game). Also dropped a pass in the end zone in 7-on-7 drills. He started off training camp as the front-runner for the fourth spot at running back, but with LeGarrette Blount's emergence, Bolden may become expendable.

TE Michael Hoomanawanui: Runs mainly with the second- and third-team offense, at this point, with Zach Sudfeld and Daniel Fells getting a majority of the reps ahead of him. There could be a little battle developing between Hoomanawanui and Jake Ballard for the third tight end spot, if the team opts not to carry four tight ends into the season.


Patriots Take 2: Offensive line the unsung heroes in Patriots win

Posted by Erik Frenz August 10, 2013 04:38 PM

Some observations after re-watching the Patriots' 31-22 win over the Philadelphia Eagles:


1. There was a lot of talk of all the weapons the Patriots lost this offseason, but one weapon they kept in-tact was the offensive line, which showed that it can still be a strength of the team right from the opening play. Almost the entire offensive line won their matchup on running back Stevan Ridley's 62-yard run.

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Left tackle Nate Solder pancaked defensive end Fletcher Cox, center Ryan Wendell stood up and turned nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and left guard Logan Mankins got linebacker DeMeco Ryans out of the play with an ear-hole block.

The offensive line came right back with more fantastic blocks on the next play.

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This time, right guard Will Svitek pulled across the line for a lead block that sprung running back LeGarrette Blount for a nine-yard gain through the B-gap. Solder, Mankins and tight end Jake Ballard also had solid blocks on the play.

The offensive line was equally effective in pass protection. Solder gave up pressure against Fletcher Cox on the first play of the next series, and quarterback Tom Brady was forced to throw it away, but that was only after doing his best Tim Tebow impersonation holding onto the ball for 4.2 seconds in the pocket.

After that, Brady was not pressured again on the drive. He got the ball out quickly (1.2 and 1.6 seconds respectively) for short completions on his next two throws, but what happened on his next attempt was exactly what we had hoped to see from the Patriots offense this year.

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With a clean pocket, the quarterback had all the time in the world to scan the defense. He found wide receiver Aaron Dobson down the seam for a 23-yard gain.

For too long, the Patriots offense has relied on quick throws to move the ball slowly down the field. As long as the offensive line continues to buy time for Brady to make down-field reads, the Patriots offense could be gearing up for more big plays in the passing game in 2013.


2. On the back end of that throw from a clean pocket was a spectacular catch by Dobson, the likes of which we haven't seen in New England for quite some time.

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The rookie from Marshall did his best impersonation of another receiver from Marshall by using his frame to win the one-on-one matchup against cornerback Bradley Fletcher. Brady loved it, rushing down field to congratulate his receiver. Early chemistry between Brady and Dobson is a good sign of things to come.


3. The Patriots first-team offense didn't run a single play out of the no-huddle on Friday night. According to Chris Price of WEEI, it was 24.8 percent of their offense in 2012 (294 plays out of 1,191). It would be foolish to expect the Patriots to unveil their full offense in the first preseason game, and we did see them on a few occasions run their typical up-tempo offense by snapping the ball within the first 20 seconds on the playclock and/or fairly quickly after lining up.

It's notable, however, that with so many new pieces in the offense, the ease of communication may not be what it once was with an offense that had been together for three full years. Give it time, and we'll probably see the no-huddle return, but for now, the Patriots can still run plays pretty fast even when huddling.


4. Thought it was an up-and-down night overall for wide receiver Julian Edelman. He finished with three catches for a team-leading 31 yards and had a pair of impressive catches in the second quarter, but he muffed a punt, bobbled another and fumbled the ball on a screen pass from Ryan Mallett. He has the most experience in the Patriots offense of any receiver on the roster, so the Patriots may be looking to him for some measure of consistency in 2013. They didn't get any on Friday night.


5. Nickel defensive substitutions on the first-team defense: Cornerback Logan Ryan came in for linebacker Dont'a Hightower, and defensive end Marcus Benard subbed in for defensive tackle Tommy Kelly as an interior pass-rusher.


6. We've seen Benard line up at defensive tackle in practice, and he's played well in the role Jermaine Cunningham occupied in 2012, but it was interesting that Marcus Forston was not the choice in that regard; he was instead the top choice on the second-team defense. At 260 pounds, Benard is not the ideal frame for plugging the middle, but his activity at defensive tackle was hardly limited to third downs; he was spotted lined up on the inside through the second quarter.


7. There were a lot of eyes on linebacker Jamie Collins, who played 33 snaps on the night — 11 in run defense, 13 in coverage and nine rushing the passer. He created pressure three times, but most notable was his missed sack of quarterback Nick Foles.

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There's not a lot Collins could have done differently here, except maybe to take more of an inside angle at Foles, which would have eliminated the angle to escape the pocket. He wouldn't have been able to scramble at all if defensive tackle Cory Grissom (circled in red) hadn't lost his lane.

Collins made an impact by getting into the backfield and on several running plays as well, but was running wild at times. Once he settles down, he'll make an impact.


8. When Collins crashed the line and went into the backfield, he did so primarily from a two-point stance.

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He would start off lined up over the tight end or receiver, as if in man coverage, only to shift tight to the line just before the snap. He would then rush into the backfield, whether to stop the run or rush the passer.

Collins hasn't participated in the one-on-one pass-rush drills at training camp, but the Patriots were interested in seeing what he could do in a game situation. That role will most likely be filled by a combination of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich this year, but Collins could play a part, especially if the Patriots intend on carving Collins into Ninkovich's eventual replacement.


9. There may be a front-runner now in the battle for the fourth running back spot between LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden. Obviously, Blount had 101 rushing yards and the highlight of the night with his 51-yard touchdown carry. He showed the hard running style and impressive athleticism that made him a 1,000-yard back in Tampa Bay. On the other side, Bolden had 14 yards on four carries, and had a nice 17-yard catch on a Tebow screen pass, but he was also flagged for running into the kicker on an Eagles punt, which gave Philadelphia the first down. Both Blount and Bolden missed some practice time, and were considered fairly even heading into the game. The Patriots could still carry five backs, but Blount took a big step toward winning the job on Friday night.


10. If you saw one Patriots practice in training camp, you saw exactly what Tim Tebow showed you against the Eagles. He was tentative as a passer, holding onto the ball too long in the pocket and hesitating to deliver to the open man on several occasions. He showed flashes of arm strength and good reads, and had a pair of nice runs. The Patriots ran the read option with Tebow exclusively.


Patriots vs. Eagles: 5 things to watch for in tonight's preseason opener

Posted by Erik Frenz August 9, 2013 08:00 AM

A few items to keep an eye on tonight, as the Patriots open the preseason against the Philadelphia Eagles.


1. How the Patriots use Jamie Collins

Collins has been primarily a run defender and a cover linebacker in practices to this point. It's fairly safe to assume he'll be used in coverage against tight ends and running backs over the middle of the field.

That was a huge weak spot for the Patriots in 2012, where they ranked 29th in the NFL in coverage on tight ends and 23rd in coverage on running backs according to Football Outsiders. He could be covering talented tight end Brent Celek, who finished second on the Eagles with 57 catches and third with 684 receiving yards in 2012.

Don't rule out the possibility that Collins could be used other ways. We have seen some flashes of him shooting gaps on his way into the backfield, and Collins was regarded as a solid pass-rusher coming out of Southern Mississippi. We haven't seen him participate in the team's one-on-one pass-rush drills pitting the offensive and defensive lines, though, so the Patriots may scheme him to rush the passer in other ways.


2. Tom Brady's chemistry with his new wide receivers

The biggest story line of the offseason in New England has been the dramatic change in pass-catching talent. Brady's top five pass-catchers from 2012 will not be on the field on Friday, and only one of those five will see the field for the Patriots in 2013.

Danny Amendola is regarded as the pseudo-replacement for Wes Welker for his similar skill set and ability to work the slot, but there's reason to believe Brady and Amendola could also share similar chemistry to what Brady once had with Welker. It won't be immediate, but we've already seen flashes of it in training camp. How that translates in game action remains to be seen.

Rookie Aaron Dobson has already begun to show signs of the outside-the-numbers downfield threat the Patriots have been sorely lacking for years. If Brady is dialed in with Dobson, the Patriots offense could be heating up for another fireworks show in 2013.

Kamar Aiken has been very solid and consistent, and continues to fight for a roster spot, but undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins may be the surprise of training camp. He was regarded by cornerback Aqib Talib for his impressive release, and has made impressive catches in almost every practice. If he has a big game, he'll be making the Patriots' job that much harder when it comes time for cutdowns.


3. Zach Sudfeld's everything

Undrafted free-agent Zach Sudfeld has been in focus throughout training camp for his potential role in replacing injured tight end Rob Gronkowski. He's been impressive as a pass-catcher, but can he continue to be a steady presence when the bullets are real?

Also, replacing Gronkowski isn't just about catching passes. At some point, Sudfeld is probably going to have to block. All eyes will be on him as viewers hope to see his 6'7", 260-pound frame translate into a mauler of a blocking tight end. The Eagles run a hybrid 3-4 defense, so he could be blocking pass-rushers Trent Cole or Connor Barwin.


4. Reps at defensive tackle

The Patriots lack of depth at defensive tackle is a story line we've been watching all throughout training camp. Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly have been getting a majority of the first-team reps at defensive tackle, with Marcus Forston subbing in for either player from time to time.

The Patriots are still waiting for Armond Armstead to practice, as he recovers from a surgery he had to remove an infection. In his absence, Cory Grissom and Joe Vellano have earned a good deal of snaps in team drills, Grissom with the first- and second-team and Vellano with the second- and third-team. The Patriots might look to get them both reps with the starters, to prepare them in the event of an injury.

Look for defensive ends like Marcus Benard and Jermaine Cunningham to play a part in the team's interior defensive line rotation, as well. Cunningham assumed a role as an interior pass-rusher last season, and the Patriots might have to manufacture their depth at defensive tackle.


5. Safety combinations

Devin McCourty is likely the starting free safety, but there is no clear front-runner to start opposite him on the Patriots back end. Adrian Wilson has taken most of those reps, but Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson and Steve Gregory have all been in the mix.

Beyond that, we've seen combinations at safety not involving McCourty. While the team may simply be preparing for injuries, which forced them to overhaul their secondary last year, it will be worth noting where players line up and which players participate in the nickel vs. the base defense.


Patriots 53-man roster projection, version 2

Posted by Erik Frenz August 7, 2013 08:00 AM

With 10 practices in the books, the Patriots roster is beginning to take shape. Certain players are lining up with the first-team units on their side of the ball, other players are taking a back seat, and others still are nursing injuries and missing out on valuable opportunities.

While those first-team reps can be misleading -- sometimes, a player will get reps in "opportunity time" in order to see how he matches up with top competition -- they can be part of the puzzle in determining who has a better or worse chance of making the final roster.

Here's one man's opinion of what that roster could look like at the end of training camp.

Check out my previous projection here. Hat tip, once again, to Ian Logue of PatsFans.com for the Pats Picker tool.

QB (3): Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett, Tim Tebow

Missed the cut (0)

Tebow hasn't looked good in practices, but I find it hard to believe they would bring him in if they didn't have designs on keeping him during the regular season. He's been spotted on special teams as the personal punt protector, as well, so the team is interested in seeing how else he can contribute.


RB (4): Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Leon Washington, Brandon Bolden

Missed the cut (4): LeGarrette Blount, George Winn, James Develin, Ben Bartholomew

Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount have been battling for that last roster spot, and although Bolden was out for a few days, he has returned to the practice field. This is an ongoing battle, and the complexion could change in the coming weeks.


WR (6): Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Kenbrell Thompkins, Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater

Missed the cut (6): Kamar Aiken, Michael Jenkins, Mark Harrison, Quentin Sims, Lavasier Tunei, Johnathan Haggerty

Given his practice performances, Kenbrell Thompkins can no longer be considered a dark horse for the roster. He's an odds-on favorite. Kamar Aiken is right on the bubble, and unless he begins to show significant value on special teams, he could remain there. Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater both have a leg-up on him in that area.


TE (4): Zach Sudfeld, Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui

Missed the cut (2): Rob Gronkowski, Brandon Ford

With Gronkowski still on the sideline, it's hard to say with any degree of certainty that he'll be ready to go Week 1. Starting the season on the six-week physically unable to perform list opens up a roster spot at tight end, allowing the Patriots to keep one of the four that they may not have otherwise kept. Sudfeld's superior size and athleticism leads me to believe he'll be the opening day starter, although Fells is the better blocking tight end. The Patriots will have a tough choice on their hands if Gronkowski is ready to come off the PUP.


C (1): Ryan Wendell

Missed the cut (0)

The Patriots lone true center is Ryan Wendell; Dan Connolly has some experience at the position, and could move there in a pinch.


G (4): Logan Mankins, Marcus Cannon, Dan Connolly, Tyronne Green

Missed the cut (3): Chris McDonald, Luke Patterson, Josh Kline

Connolly hasn't practiced much, as a result of his ongoing recovery from shoulder surgery, Marcus Cannon looked ready to unseat him for the starting job at right guard before Cannon suffered an injury of his own. Connolly may be asked to take a pay cut from his lofty $3,333,333 cap number in 2013, but his positional versatility makes him one of the most valuable offensive linemen on the roster.


T (3): Sebastian Vollmer, Nate Solder, Will Svitek

Missed the cut (5): Brice Schwab, Marcus Zusevics, Elvis Fisher, Kevin Haslam, R.J. Mattes

Three tackles may seem a little low, but not when you consider that all three tackles have NFL experience playing and starting at both left tackle and right tackle. That kind of versatility creates depth in and of itself.


DE (5): Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Justin Francis, Michael Buchanan, Marcus Benard

Missed the cut (3): Jermaine Cunningham, Jake Bequette, Jason Vega

Benard has shown the potential to be a solid situational rusher for the Patriots, and has even worked in Cunningham's 2012 role as an interior rusher in the team's nickel defense. It appears the two are vying for one spot, and Benard gets the edge for his role on special teams. Same goes for the battle between Michael Buchanan and Jake Bequette.


DT (4): Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Marcus Forston, Joe Vellano

Missed the cut (4): Armond Armstead, Scott Vallone, Cory Grissom, Anthony Reshad White

The defensive tackle position is about as deep as a kiddie pool for the Patriots, with just three players showing themselves truly worthy of the roster. Armond Armstead has yet to practice, and is currently listed with the non-football injury designation due to an infection; he could be kept off the roster until everything clears up. Joe Vellano may otherwise be a practice squad player, but for now, he will take Armstead's spot. Vellano has stepped up in recent practices after a tough start to camp, and he was constantly a force at Maryland (14 tackles for loss and six sacks as a senior), so he's proven he can produce in games.


ILB (3): Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher, Steve Beauharnais

Missed the cut (2): Niko Koutouvides, Jeff Tarpinian

Steve Beauharnais fills the special teams role of Niko Koutouvides and Jeff Tarpinian, and has played significantly more on defense in practices than both of those players. The Patriots could elect to keep one of the two players for special teams purposes, but their value doesn't go much further than that, as neither have been spotted much in team drills.


OLB (3): Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins

Missed the cut (2): Mike Rivera, A.J. Edds

Nothing has changed here since the first 53-man roster projection. Much like the inside linebackers that missed the cut, Rivera and Edds both suffer from a lack of value on defense. Both have been spotted working with the second- and third-team units.


CB (5) Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan, Marquice Cole

Missed the cut (3): Ras-I Dowling, Brandon Jones, Justin Green

Ras-I Dowling has exactly the physical tools most people want in a cornerback, with height and long arms working to his advantage. His inability to stay healthy, though, is a problem that continues to surface. He has missed practices during training camp already, and did not practice on Tuesday with the Eagles. Cole also offers some value on special teams.


SS (3): Adrian Wilson, Tavon Wilson, Duron Harmon

Missed the cut (1): Nate Ebner

Adrian Wilson, Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon have earned a majority of the snaps with the top unit on defense, with a lot of mixing-and-matching going on in terms of where they play, who they line up next to, etc. Nate Ebner was more known for his contributions on special teams, but he didn't play much on defense (36 snaps in 2012) and hasn't played with the first-team defense at all in training camp. Tavon and Harmon both add value on special teams to make up for the loss of Ebner.


FS (2): Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory

Missed the cut (1): Kannoris Davis

No shock here, and not much of a change from last time, except that Harmon moves to strong safety. Steve Gregory has earned reps at multiple safety spots on the first unit, and his spot on the roster appears safe.


ST (3): Stephen Gostkowski, Zoltan Mesko, Danny Aiken

Missed the cut (1): Ryan Allen

Ryan Allen has looked good punting the ball, but Mesko has developed into one of the best punters in the NFL. The Patriots could try putting Allen on the practice squad, but another team might scoop him off waivers. He's been that good.



Bills and Jets quarterback battles both a tie on teams' official depth charts

Posted by Erik Frenz August 5, 2013 07:05 PM

The New York Jets and Buffalo Bills both released their first depth charts of the preseason (Jets seen here, Bills seen here).

Naturally, the eyes drift right to the quarterback position. Who is the starter? Will the rookies get the nod from Week 1, like they did in 2012? We listed the battles as two of the top 10 in the division. Wonder has grown over the three months since the draft.

Wonder lingers. Both teams list a tie for the starting job: Kevin Kolb and EJ Manuel for the Bills, Geno Smith and Mark Sanchez for the Jets.

The initial reaction goes three ways:

  1. The teams may not want to show their hand at this early stage in the preseason. One has to wonder how much of an advantage, though, given the fact that both offenses will look dramatically different from last year, anyway.
  2. The coaching staffs may be inspiring a competition between their quarterbacks that will push all parties involved through the coming weeks. No one can be content with where they stand on the depth chart, because no one knows where they stand.
  3. None of the four quarterbacks in question have done enough through the first week of camp to earn the starting job for their respective teams.

From a Patriots perspective, this news highlights the uncertainty with these two teams at the game's most important position.

A front-runner could still emerge in the coming weeks, and it already sounds like the rookies are headed that direction. We'll get a sense of where each quarterback stands in the race when the two teams play their first preseason games; someone's going to have to take the first-team snaps, right?

Some other thoughts on the Jets depth chart:

  • Jets running back Bilal Powell is listed as the top option over Chris Ivory, likely because Ivory suffered a hamstring injury during practice.
  • Stephen Peterman is winning the Jets right guard battle on the depth chart, with Vladimir Ducasse remaining the team's top back-up.
  • Muhammad Wilkerson is listed as a defensive end, which makes sense, given that he was one of the best five-technique defensive ends in the NFL last year. Quinton Coples is listed as an outside linebacker -- a move which has been reported since May, and which Rex Ryan has been hinting at since February. It's not a role that Coples has filled in his past, and at 6'6" and 290 pounds, it's not what he's built to do, but regardless, it sounds like he's making strides in that transition.
  • Antwan Barnes is listed as a backup to Coples, and Calvin Pace is still listed as a starting outside linebacker after being cut and re-signed to a lower contract. The 32-year-old logged three sacks in 2012 and just 7.5 sacks over the past two years. That's not a good look for Barnes; it was hoped his presence off the edge would improve the Jets anemic pass-rush (30 sacks in 2012).
  • Rookie Dee Milliner is listed as a starting cornerback over Kyle Wilson, which can't be considered much of a surprise, given Wilson's struggles and Milliner's billing as the top cornerback in the 2013 draft class.

Some thoughts on the Bills depth chart:

  • The quarterbacks aren't the only tie on the Bills depth chart, as they also list the left guard battle as a tie between Doug Legursky and Colin Brown. The Bills are trying to replace Andy LeVitre, who left Buffalo to become the fourth-highest-paid guard in the league with the Titans.
  • Stevie Johnson and T.J. Graham are listed as the two starters at wide receiver, with 2013 second-round pick Robert Woods backing up Johnson and third-round pick Marquise Goodwin backing up Graham.
  • Undrafted free-agent Da'Rick Rogers is listed as the fourth back-up to Stevie Johnson, ranking him somewhere between the sixth and 10th receiver on the roster.
  • Many were under the impression that the Bills defense would switch to a base 3-4 with Mike Pettine as the new defensive coordinator, and while their first depth chart may be a bit of gamesmanship in and of itself, they are currently listed with a 4-3 front -- two starting defensive ends, two starting defensive tackles, three linebackers.
  • No surprise with Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams as the two tackles and Mario Williams as the right end, but Alex Carrington is listed as the starting end opposite Mario. Carrington was a third-round pick in 2010, enters his fourth season in the league, and has logged four sacks in a rotation with veterans like Chris Kelsay and Mark Anderson.

The Jets' first game is August 9 at the Detroit Lions; the Bills' first game is August 11 at the Indianapolis Colts.

While both Kolb and Manuel have been spotted running the read-option for the Bills in practice, the Jets have already committed to using Geno on read-option plays, seemingly eliminating the idea of Sanchez running it.

Daily training camp overreaction: Zach Sudfeld ready to replace injured Rob Gronkowski

Posted by Erik Frenz August 5, 2013 01:10 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — For one unpadded practice in the first week of August, tight end Zach Sudfeld looked like the Rob Gronkowski replacement the Patriots might need if their All-Pro tight end isn't ready to go Week 1.

Sudfeld's emergence is no secret, with reports of his dominance tracing all the way back to organized team activities in May.

His 6'7", 260-pound frame was enough to begin the discussion, but his pass-catching savvy continued the snowballing of comparisons and expectations.

"Zach's come in and absorbed a lot of information," head coach Bill Belichick said. "The offense that he played in in Nevada is quite a bit different than what we do. I'm sure there's some similarities, but there's quite a few difference as well. He's been able to acclimate to those changes. Catches the ball well."

Sudfeld has shown that ability throughout camp. He had a pair of drops on Monday, one on a pass down the right sideline in offense-only drills and another on a deep pass in the end zone in an end-of-half drill.

Other than that, he was his usual self, with an impressive over-head leaping catch in the end zone and a nice reception against safety Adrian Wilson on a pass over the middle. In fact, before today's practice, I had not charted Sudfeld with a drop since July 30.

As we all know, though, the responsibilities of a tight end go far beyond just catching passes -- especially in Foxborough.

"I think it's one of the most difficult positions in any offense. Any time you change formations, that player is really at the heart of the changes," Belichick said. "It's normally the tight ends that are involved in a lot of the formation variations, which then involve them in a lot of different assignments. Basically, they're involved in the passing game, the running game, pass protection, blitz adjustment...you might be able to get around a part of that, but not too many parts of it, or else the guy's a receiver or he's an offensive linemen."

So, yeah, there's a lot a tight end has to be able to do in order to make an impact in the Patriots offense. No wonder Belichick has treated tight ends like gold, stockpiling depth at the position for years.

Gronkowski is involved in every aspect of the game, and although his most notable impact is as a receiver, he has become one of the better blocking tight ends in the league on top of that.

In Monday's walkthrough, Sudfeld was spotted lining up as a blocker on a few running plays. We didn't get a great look at his abilities -- the players were not in pads for the first time since the second practice of training camp, and for only the third time in nine practices since camp opened.

The takeaways from Monday's walkthrough were few and far between, but Sudfeld's new role and continued success catching the ball, along with Belichick's comments about his progress, were enough that it looks like the Patriots could have an early return on their low-cost investment.


Training camp stock report: Kenbrell Thompkins continues to emerge in wide receiver battle

Posted by Erik Frenz August 2, 2013 06:56 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Patriots held their seventh practice of training camp on Friday afternoon in great summer conditions. It was the team's fifth consecutive practice in full pads.

The team has practice scheduled for Saturday and Monday, before traveling to Philadelphia for practice with the Eagles and head coach Chip Kelly on Tuesday.

Who could carry some good momentum with them to Philadelphia, and who needs to turn things around before the road trip?


Stock up:

Kenbrell Thompkins: Was spotted returning punts in special teams drills. Showed impressive quickness in his release. Won both his matchups in one-on-one drills against Brandon Jones and Justin Green. Has also shown a keen ability to track the ball in flight, over his shoulder, when going deep. Thompkins had a strong start to camp, and has continued to build off that to become one of the top "dark horse" candidates to make the roster.

Chandler Jones: Went 2-1 in one-on-one pass-rush drills, and logged what would have been two consecutive sacks in 11-on-11 work. This is Jones' second time on the stock up list. He's had a great camp so far, and his bull rush seems to be more effective than last year.

Ryan Mallett: Went 3-for-4 in the first session of 11-on-11 work, and showed solid accuracy on on a few throws into tight windows, one on an in-route to Kenbrell Thompkins and another on a drag route to Kamar Aiken. Also showed off his big arm on a nice touch pass to Matthew Slater in the end zone in one-on-one drills, and on a flea flicker to Aaron Dobson, who made the catch despite being interfered with by Aqib Talib.


Stock down:

Quentin Sims: Continues to drop easy passes, and has spent a majority of his time with the third-team offense. The competition at wide receiver is growing stiffer with the return of Julian Edelman and the emergence of Thompkins, Dobson, Aiken and Boyce. Sims may not be long for the roster.

Michael Jenkins: Much of what was said about Sims applies to Jenkins. On top of that, Jenkins was spotted being worked on by trainers with an apparent hamstring issue. The young receivers have been getting most of the reps with Tom Brady, and Jenkins has been on the outside of this battle looking in since the first day of training camp.

Brandon Jones: Showed good ball skills on a throw into the end zone, in coverage on Matthew Slater, but gave up two receptions to Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson in 7-on-7 goal line work, and a third in one-on-one coverage drills against Kamar Aiken. Jones is one of many Rutgers defensive backs on the roster, but his alma mater may not be enough to save his roster spot if he keeps getting burned in practice.


Daily training camp overreaction: Defensive tackle depth as deep as a kiddie pool

Posted by Erik Frenz August 2, 2013 06:20 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — What does the Patriots depth chart look like at defensive tackle?

Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Marcus Forston and a lot of question marks.

With Armond Armstead still absent from practice with a non-football injury, there's a good opportunity for a defensive tackle to earn snaps in the rotation. There are two new job openings this offseason with both Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love being handed their walking papers this offseason -- moves that could be scrutinized in hindsight, given the Patriots lack of depth at the position.

Forston is clearly the third wheel in the rotation, ahead of the likes of Joe Vellano, Anthony Reshad White and Cory Grissom, but he's not taking anything for granted.

"You always feel behind, knowing that you can get better," Forston said. "You don't know all the stuff that you need to know. You always want to be on top of that. Once you get to the point that you always want to get better and that you want to come out here knowing that you don't know it all, you've just got to come out here with the right attitude, a positive attitude knowing that you want to get better."

Forston joined the Patriots in 2012 as an undrafted free-agent out of Miami, and spent the season on the practice squad. Now, with the aforementioned departures of Love and Deaderick, he appears to be a lock for the roster.

He's not getting ahead of himself, though.

"Like I said, I've just got to get better and focus on me," Forston said. "Every day, we go in there and evaluate the film, and the coach points out everything that each guy needs to learn, and each guy needs to improve on, and I try to attack that."

Forston's arrow is pointing up over the past few practices. He went 0-2 in the one-on-one pass-rush drills on Monday and Tuesday, but has gone 3-0 over the past two practices.

Like every player on the roster, he knows his best chance to earn a roster spot and playing time is to show that he's trending upward, but he must also show that he's learning. Forston said the one area he feels he can improve the most is understanding the offense, and mentioned that Wilfork has been a valuable teaching tool in that respect.

"I learn everything [from Vince]," Forston said, "just as far as understanding the game and understanding the offense. It's never too much information, that's something that he knows. He knows the offensive formation, he knows the sets, and he just knows the game, and I'm just trying to learn that."

If Forston is retaining what he is learning from his fellow Miami alum, the Patriots interior defensive line is in good hands. He has shown an explosive first step off the line of scrimmage and an effective bull rush.

Vellano, White and Grissom haven't inspired overwhelming confidence, so unless Armstead returns or the Patriots bring in another defensive tackle via free agency, the Patriots will need good mileage out of Wilfork, Kelly and Forston.


Behind enemy lines: A front-runner emerging in Jets quarterback battle?

Posted by Erik Frenz August 2, 2013 08:00 AM

sanchez geno.png

AP Photo/Mel Evans

With every team in the AFC East nearly a full week into training camp, some front-runners are beginning to emerge.

That statement applies to the battle to be the Jets starting quarterback, one of the most closely watched battles in the league between rookie Geno Smith and veteran Mark Sanchez.

The battle to be the Bills starting quarterback has been under the microscope, as well, with rookie EJ Manuel battling journeyman Kevin Kolb.

The Dolphins have finally found their quarterback of the future in Ryan Tannehill, but now, they just have to hope they can keep him upright. It looks like their stability issues on the offensive line have continued through the first week of camp.

Here are all those updates and more across the rest of the division.

New York Jets

Those words are a far cry from the outcry of confidence from Sanchez prior to training camp.

"When it's a straight-up competition for the job, let's roll," Sanchez told ESPN New York. "It really doesn't bother me at all. It really doesn't affect my confidence or anything like that. We're competing for something. All right, I'm going to win. That's just how I am."

Sanchez has every right to feel some pressure, since all indications are Geno Smith is picking up the offense and looks more comfortable than earlier in the offseason.

In fact, it appears they may have more of a role for this backup than they had for the previous one.

The Jets hardly ran the read-option when they had Tim Tebow on the roster. If they plan to use it with any frequency with Geno Smith as the quarterback, it could be seen as one way of helping him learn how to drive an NFL offense and eventually handing him the keys to the car.

The read-option was not a big part of the West Virginia offense, either, but Geno did spend a majority of his time working out of the shotgun, so the use of read-option could be one way of making his transition a bit easier and putting his 4.59 40 speed to use.


Miami Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins question marks at offensive tackle remain front and center.

They had an opportunity to re-sign left tackle Jake Long, but lost out when Long chose the Rams over the Dolphins. They were then faced with two options: either replace Long at left tackle, or move Martin to left tackle and find a new right tackle.

They went with the latter, signing free-agent tackle Tyson Clabo and putting Martin in the all-important left tackle spot. Martin, however, has been about as stable as Amanda Bynes at right tackle. He allowed 47 pressures, four hits and six sacks on Dolphins quarterbacks last year, and ranked 64th out of 72 offensive tackles in pass protection according to stats website Pro Football Focus.

While some might dispute the value of a left tackle being greater than a right tackle, it doesn't matter where the pressure is coming from if Tannehill has no time in the pocket.

The Dolphins drafted Florida running back Mike Gillislee in the fifth round, two years after drafting Daniel Thomas in the second round and one year after drafting Lamar Miller in the fourth round. With speedy, shifty backs like Gillislee and Miller, the writing is on the wall for Thomas, who was drafted by Tony Sparano to help run the ball between the tackles, behind a man-blocking offensive line.

Thomas averages 3.5 yards per carry and dealt with knee and ankle injuries as well as a concussion in 2012. His durability is questionable. There's a role for Thomas as a short-yardage back, so don't count him out of the Dolphins roster just yet, but he'll have to stay healthy and produce if he wants to keep that role.


Buffalo Bills

The Bills made arguably the most noise of the undrafted free-agency period by signing Da'Rick Rogers, who had been regarded as a potential mid-round pick leading up to the draft.

There were doubts about his overall character, and although we wouldn't anticipate Marrone would be bashing his players at this early stage, it's encouraging that the signs have been positive for him.

With this news, the Bills receiving corps is shaping up nicely. We all know Stevie Johnson is a talented receiver, and Robert Woods has been impressing his teammates as well.

Whether it's EJ Manuel or Kevin Kolb leading the charge, they'll have plenty of targets in the passing game.

"Kolb had a decent day throwing the ball, about even with rookie EJ Manuel," Gaughan writes. "But Manuel looked pretty impressive running the ball. On the sixth play of 11-on-11 drills, Manuel saw all of his receivers covered and took off around left end for what would have been a gain of at least 10 yards. It was a play that a quarterback with average physical tools would not make. Manuel will be a threat if pass rushers don't stay in their rush lanes. Manuel looked good bursting off right end on a read-option running play at the end of the second 11-on-11 session."

Thus, we have our answer: The Bills will do whatever is necessary to make life as easy as possible for EJ Manuel if and when he takes the starting job. Having him run the read-option is the best way to take advantage of his great physical tools as a 6'5", 237-pound quarterback who runs a 4.65-second 40-yard dash.

If the two quarterbacks are even when it comes to throwing the ball, and Manuel has a sizable advantage as a running quarterback, the choice is obvious for who should be the starter.


Daily training camp overreaction: Jamie Collins will destroy everything

Posted by Erik Frenz August 1, 2013 07:16 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — If you watched today's practice and no other, you might think Jamie Collins has the potential to be the 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year.

It's not out of the realm of possibility, but the problem is that usually, that award is reserved for a player who makes a "sexy" impact with sacks or interceptions.

No matter how he is used, his impact will likely be felt from a very early stage. His athletic ability is simply too great to not translate to the NFL game.

“He’s a competitor and he’s going to compete when he’s out on the field,” linebacker coach Pepper Johnson said on Monday. “That’s what I like: His athleticism. If it doesn’t transfer out there to the football field, then we’ll start hiring male cheerleaders or something and he can do a couple flips that way."

The Patriots would probably rather use him in other ways, like forcing fumbles, which he did twice in practice on Thursday -- once in the Oklahoma drill against tight end Brandon Ford and again in the ball security drill against running back James Develin.

Up until this point, we haven't seen Collins do much besides defend the run and drop into coverage. He still hasn't participated in the one-on-one pass-rush drills between the offensive and defensive linemen, but today was our first real look at Collins' ability to get into the backfield. He was seen shooting gaps through the offensive line, and forced quarterback Tim Tebow out of the pocket on one play, which would have been a tackle for at least a four-yard loss.

Collins role has taken shape through the first six practices, but the added talent and athleticism at linebacker is certainly welcome.

“I think Coach Belichick did a great job of getting a linebacker in here,” Johnson said. “It’s just a matter of him understanding the game, which he does. He kind of came ready with a lunch pail. It’s just a matter of us putting the sandwiches and the milk up in the lunch pail. He’s a guy that understands football, so that makes it easier for me to help try to guide him.”

With some potential for turnover at linebacker this offseason -- both Rob Ninkovich and Brandon Spikes are set to become free agents -- there will be a vested interest in the continued development of Collins through training camp and beyond.


Training camp stock report: Marcus Benard could find role as pass-rusher

Posted by Erik Frenz August 1, 2013 06:49 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Patriots held their sixth practice of training camp on Thursday. It was the team's fourth consecutive practice in full pads.

The team has four days before they travel to practice with the Philadelphia Eagles in preparation for their first preseason game.

Now is an important time to build the right kind of momentum, so let's take a look at which players are making pronounced moves in one direction or the other.


Stock up:

Tyronne Green: With Marcus Cannon absent from practice, Green took snaps with the first-team offensive line at right guard. Bill Belichick said their interior offensive line is "probably not as deep as it's been at other times," and Green started 13 games for the Chargers in 2012, so getting a closer look at him in camp was a wise move.

Duron Harmon: The rookie safety saw his first action with the top unit on defense, most notably in the final two-minute session of the day. It could be a sign that he is taking steps forward in the eyes of the coaching staff, or that there is uncertainty at strong safety. It's probably a combination of both.

Marcus Benard: Went 2-0-1 in the one-on-one pass-rush drills, and has shown the ability to get into the backfield by doing so once in each of the past two practices in 11-on-11 work. He also logged one of very few solid defensive plays in the Oklahoma drill, tackling tight end Jake Ballard.

Aaron Dobson: Had a nice bounce-back day after missing Wednesday's practice. He consistently gets open, and was on the receiving end of a touchdown pass from quarterback Tom Brady in the back corner of the end zone. He also had a nice catch against Devin McCourty in one-on-one drills, and handily beat Justin Green on a deep route in the same drill.


Stock down:

Jason Vega, Tommy Kelly, Marcus Forston: It was hard not to notice the trio of defensive linemen take a lap for false start penalties in one-on-one pass-rush drills, especially since the first two happened very close together. Kelly, specifically, has taken a lot of laps for such penalties.

Chris McDonald: Went 0-2-0 in the one-on-one pass-rush drills, with losses to Jake Bequette and Marcus Benard. Chris' brother, Nick, was released on the Patriots' off day.

Ras-I Dowling: Started out Thursday's practice on a stationary bicycle, and didn't participate in team drills. Logan Ryan took Dowling's snaps with the second-team defense. Crunch time is coming quickly for Dowling.


About the author

Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »

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