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With NFL salary cap set, franchise tag numbers out

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff February 28, 2014 10:21 PM

The NFL set its 2014 salary cap at $133 million, almost $10 million more than 2013.

Along with determining the salary cap, franchise tag numbers for individual positions have also been determined, according to NFL.com analyst Albert Breer.

Official franchise tag numbers for '14 (Offense): QB $16.912M; RB $9.54M; WR $12.312M; TE $7.035M; OL $11.654M.

— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) February 28, 2014

Official franchise tag numbers for '14 (Defense/ST): DE $13.116M; DT $9.654M; LB $11.455M; CB $11.834M; S $8.433M; K/P $3.556M.

— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) February 28, 2014

So if the Patriots want to tag free agent cornerback Aqib Talib, it would cost the team $11.834 million. If the Patriots were to tag free agent wide receiver Julian Edelman, it would cost the team $12.312 million.

Jonathan Kraft touches on where Brady would be drafted today, Wes Welker fallout

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff February 28, 2014 08:22 PM

Patriots president Jonathan Kraft told a sprawling crowd of sports statistic aficionados that if Tom Brady were to go through the NFL draft gauntlet now, even with a healthy amount of new analytics to analyze the now veteran quarterback, he still would've likely been a late-round draft pick.

Kraft was participating in the "Building a Dynasty" panel session with former Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at the Hynes Convention Center.

Brady was famously drafted 199th overall in the sixth round of the 2000 draft. Six other quarterbacks were taken in front of him. Kraft said Brady had caught Belichick's eye as someone with tons of value in the 2000 draft despite the Patriots being wedded to Drew Bledsoe.

"I gotta go back and give Bill and Scott Pioli, who were running our personnel department at the time here, a little bit of credit here because we had Drew Bledsoe on our team and we had just given him a large contract," Kraft said. "It was Bill’s first draft and we had a lot of needs. Brady was rated pretty highly on the board and in the fifth round — we took Brady in the sixth — Bill walked over to the board and picked up Brady’s card, looked at Scott, and said 'what’s Brady still doing here? There’s too much value to be sitting here. This kid’s a winner.’

"Basically, I’m paraphrasing, and Pioli’s like, ‘yeah,’ " Kraft said. "And I’m remembering I’m standing there with my dad and we were staring at each other like ‘why would we take another quarterback when we have all these other needs.’ In the sixth round, when it was about eight picks away, 10 picks away, Bill started to get very focused on drafting Brady because I think he thought the value was just way too great."

Kraft goes on and explains that there was a different set of metrics that Belichick and Pioli were using to evaluate players.

"I think it came down to the intangibles," he said. "I think each team has its own way of evaluating players. I betcha for a lot of people because Tom ran a 5.2 or 5.3 [40-yard dash] and didn’t appear that athletic, he would be off the board. I think his coachability and his passion for the game and his record as a starter — when he starts, he wins — I think that might even carry more weight other places.

"But I wouldn’t see people thinking about him as a raw talent, as a first, second, or third round draft pick. In the first, second rounds you need to take your best guess at statistical sure things because those players, in a salary cap world, if they can come in and play like good, starting veterans but under the rookie wage scale, you have a competitive advantage. And people are always weighing the cost-benefits of that.

"So the same Brady we’ve seen, I would argue, he deserves to be the first pick, but I don’t know that it would happen today."

Kraft also talked about the Patriots' acrimonious split with wide receiver Wes Welker, who signed with the Denver Broncos on a 2-year contract for $12 million. The panel's moderator, ESPN Boston columnist Jackie MacMullan, asked him to explain the process of declining to re-sign Welker and sign Danny Amendola so quickly afterward.

"I think the [issue with] Wes Welker goes back to the start of the season before," he said. "We had franchised him the season before. The idea was to try to work to a long-term deal. We had actually offered Wes a deal the summer before that on a three-year basis would’ve left him in a financially better place than what he’s gonna end up having been in over those three years. But we were willing to do that at a certain time when his production was at a certain level, his age was at a certain level, and he was performing as a player. When we went another year into the process, we still in our head had a value that we were able to place on the player. The player and his agent thought that their value in the open market was going to be greater.

"Going back to the consistency theme, Wes would’ve been our first choice," Kraft said. "There was a dollar figure at that point that we weren’t willing to go beyond. And you put insurance in place by knowing what you’ll do if you can’t make a deal with that player. That involves going out and looking at the other guys in the league.

"We look at their age, we look at their physical measurables, and we place a dollar value to all of that.

"We still offered Wes before free agency started, more than he ended up getting in the open market. But once free agency started, we went out and signed Danny [Amendola] because he fit a construct that worked within our system and we couldn’t take the risk of losing both Wes and Danny. So it really wasn’t as much about the money, it was about trying to do a deal with Wes before free agency started. His agent had a view of the world that we didn’t think was realistic. There’s definitely a lot of analysis that play that position in the league at that point in time."

Also of note:

- Kraft said the Patriots have a "qualitative" way of determining coachability, leadership, and instincts of prospective players that gives them a numerical grade in evaluations.

- "We were in a meeting the other day, Bill, Robert and myself, there was a lot of pushing and questioning and back and forth," Kraft said of Belichick being pushed in the organization. "The more credibility and track record you have of doing things, he'll listen to you. You're allowed to push back. Bill takes it all right."

- Kraft also said the salary cap was a large reason why his family bought the team, which helped level the playing field. The cap made evaluating talent and coaching that much more important than money, he said, taking away from the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys at the time.

- "We’ll be launching a cloud based scouting app that I think is light years ahead of anything else in the league," Kraft said. "That was something that was pushed by us that I think will allow us to collect more data real time in the field, have the draft evaluation process done quicker and sooner, and allow the coaches, if they want to in season, because they’re trying to evaluate a position now and thinking about the next year, [find out] are there going to be guys in the draft? In the old days, you’d have to pick up the phone and call upstairs and talk to somebody upstairs. Now, if Bill is interested, he’ll be able to go to his tablet or go to his desktop and in a very efficient and very multimedia way and get real data instantly but within a minute or two be very smart on somebody."

- "Bill [Belichick] is somebody who I think will check out when he's not there" anymore trying and driven to win, Kraft said. "And I think for us, I think we'll check out if the family isn't driven that way, we'll check out of the business too. Because it's a lousy business to be in if you're not winning. In this business, it's all about winning. If you're not winning, there's plenty of other ways to make money."

Wearable technology the new big thing among sports teams

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff February 28, 2014 02:24 PM

Power brokers in the NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, and soccer are all present for this week’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at the Hynes Convention Center.

Among the topics of emphasis so far for the two-day conference has been wearable technology and how the technology and data being poured into each respective sport is helping to determine an athlete’s peak performance as well as health and safety.

Basically, an article is either inserted or attached on player uniforms to measure heart rate, explosiveness, or simply movement.

Take for instance Zebra Technologies International, which has a display set up at the conference to promote it’s service to teams. The Illinois based company just got in the sports tech business a little more than a year ago and currently has two NFL clients and numerous college football teams. (They won’t disclose who these clients are citing competitive disadvantage.) Zebra inserts little stickers onto players to measure the force of each activity, helping to better define player movement, hits, and, essentially, trauma.

“In college, what’s really fascinating about using wearable technologies on players is there is a lot of emphasis on health and safety,” said Jill Stelfox, vice president and general manager for Location Solutions at Zebra. “So if you’re a linebacker, I think traditionally what we want is big guys on that front line. Well that comes with a lot of force. So force is mass and speed. So the bigger you are, the more force you bring and the more force is brought on you. When you look at health and safety in linemen, for example on injuries, we can tell you on every play what the force is on any given player.”

NFL teams, using this kind of advanced technology, can better learn whether a player has suffered an injury or may even be experiencing the symptoms of a concussion.

“And the interesting thing about concussions is certainly we all know one good hit can cause a concussion,” Stelfox said. “But so can 10 medium hits. It’s the succession of movement that can cause the concussion. So we won’t say you have one, but we can say look, this is an indicator.”

For adidas, their MiCoach wearable technology (also on display) is more geared to determining the optimal player explosiveness. MLS teams like the New England Revolution use MiCoach, which is like a battery cell inserted into the top back portion of a player’s kit.

The problem, as Max Reckers of adidas points out, is that sometimes this kind of technology can be used as a hammer on players.

“If you’re using the tool like a stick, and you hit him with it, you will lose him,” Reckers said.

The goal, Stelfox explains, is to give coaches, trainers, and doctors better information.

“The one thing that we definitely know is that this movement of IOT [internet of things] in sports, it’s here and it’s here to stay,” Stelfox said. “It’s not going to replace the gut feeling of coaches, it’s going to add to it. It’s just more information to make better decisions.”

Matt Hasselbeck, the backup Indianapolis Colts quarterback and graduate of Boston College who attended as a speaker, said there could be some fan experience to be had in wearable technology too.

“It would be great to see the heart rate for a kicker like Adam Vinatieri, or Andrew Luck, or a rookie,” Hasselbeck said. “I would love that.”

This kind of data, maybe not in-game, could be the future.

Patriots are releasing S Steve Gregory

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff February 28, 2014 01:17 PM

The Patriots are cutting ties with safety Steve Gregory, according to his agent, David Canter, who announced the move on Twitter:

Patriots will be releasing starting #TeamDEC client Safety Steve Gregory today.

— David Canter (@davidcanter) February 28, 2014

Gregory, 31, signed a three-year free-agent deal with New England in 2012, and was slated to count $3.683 million against the salary cap this season. Releasing him saves the Patriots $2.85 million against the cap; only the remainder of his $2.5 million prorated signing bonus, or $833,334, will remain on the books.

Undrafted out of Syracuse in 2006, Gregory spent six seasons with the Chargers before signing with New England.

While with the Patriots, he played in 26 games (23 starts). He was well-respected by coaches and teammates, with his high football IQ lauded; teammates called him a future head coach.

With Gregory released, the Patriots have Devin McCourty, Adrian Wilson (who missed all of last season due to injury), Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner, and Kanorris Davis remaining at safety.

At this point, it would seem Harmon is in line to be paired with McCourty as the starters at the position. A third-round pick out of Rutgers last year, Harmon played in 15 games, starting against the Panthers, Broncos, and the Bills (Week 17).

Patriots' franchise tag options slim, unattractive

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff February 26, 2014 07:06 AM

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Reuters

If there is one takeaway from the NFL Scouting Combine that had nothing to do with the action on the field, it was the reports of continued negotiations between the Patriots and cornerback Aqib Talib.

The negotiations are a welcome development given Talib’s importance to the team’s secondary. His stock has increased league-wide. His respect is universal. No one forgets how he shut down the Saints' Jimmy Graham and how he saved the Patriots against the Atlanta Falcons.

The six-year veteran, whose brash and quixotic play helped improve the Patriots’ secondary ten-fold (a jump from the 29th-ranked pass defense in 2012 to the 18th-ranked pass defense in 2013), can very well determine the team’s draft strategy and approach in free agency.

It’s also no secret that Talib’s bumps and bruises, including those in the AFC Championship two years running, have hurt the Patriots when they’ve needed him most. The Denver Broncos made mince meat of the Patriots’ cornerbacks, Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan in particular, making use of a height advantage that was more than conspicuous with Talib out. He has missed 4 of 27 games since being traded from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers while being hobbled in countless others. Finding a big-bodied, durable substitute is likely still in the Patriots’ plans regardless of his return. So while Talib is readily acknowledged as a valuable commodity, his value in terms of other players on the team is arguable, especially given the money that he could cost.

That’s why these negotiations are so important.

If the Patriots use their franchise tag, which player should it be used for? The Patriots still have to address whether 11 other free agents will return, most notably wide receiver Julian Edelman, running back LeGarrette Blount, and center Ryan Wendell, all of whom are candidates for the team’s franchise tag. The deadline to use the franchise tag is 4 p.m. on March 3.

The 2014 projected salary cap will help determine franchise tag numbers. As of Tuesday, ProFootballTalk.com has reported the salary cap could be as high as $132 million. With estimates that the cornerback position could yield 8.9 percent of the cap if tagged, 9.12 percent for a receiver, 8.8 percent for offensive linemen, and 7.17 percent for running backs, the Patriots would have to commit $11.74 million to Talib if he were franchised with those estimations.

That’s a hefty sum, even if it’s a one-year deal.

But it doesn’t look much better when considering the other possibilities. Edelman, if the Patriots are so inclined, could garner $12.03 million. Wendell would get $11.61 million and Blount would get $9.46 million if tagged.

You can’t tell me that Bill Belichick would pay $12 million a year to a wide receiver. I just don’t see that happening. Not with Danny Amendola on the roster making $4.575 million next year.

The circumstances are much different for Wendell and Blount. Wendell played every single snap for the Patriots in 2013 and 99.5 percent of the team’s snaps in 2012. That kind of durability and dogged play has strong value to the team. But it’s not representative of the team’s entire financial picture, especially on the offensive line, where $10.5 million of the team’s cap will be attributed to Logan Mankins in 2014, $4.08 million to Dan Connolly, $3.75 million to Sebastian Vollmer, and another $2.71 million to Nate Solder. Franchising Wendell would put him at the top of the pack, and that’s certainly not the best use of that kind of money.

Blount on the other hand can thank Stevan Ridley for likely not getting the franchise tag. Ridley, who will count as $939,750 against the cap in 2014, is talented enough and worthy enough of a long-term investment to avoid committing a large sum to Blount. In a year’s time, the Patriots won’t want both of them coming up for a contract again.

If any one of the Patriots’ top free agents is willing to return, negotiated contracts appear to be the best route for the team. But if there is one player who could spur the Patriots to consider using the tag this year, after avoiding doing so last offseason, it’s Talib. He’s considered a game-changer, and with that kind of respect, particularly in the locker room and among his coaches, he could very well break the bank.

But I highly doubt the team will allow itself to be forced into a situation in which the tag is necessary. That’s why these negotiations are so important. The Patriots would love nothing more than to reel in Talib, at least for a few years. Avoiding the tag, if at all possible, is the name of the game. Otherwise, the options don’t look good.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

Patriots make it official with Michael Lombardi

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff February 20, 2014 01:42 PM

The Patriots announced on Thursday that former Cleveland Browns general manager Michael Lombardi will join the team as an assistant to the coaching staff.

That confirms what had been known for the past week that he had joined the Patriots following his firing in Cleveland. He had consulted with the Patriots prior to his tenure in Cleveland though, advising Patriots coach Bill Belichick on the draft.

Lombardi was spotted with Belichick and Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio on his way to Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine.

Dolphins fire offensive line coach Jim Turner

Posted by Staff February 19, 2014 09:45 PM

The Dolphins fired offensive line coach Jim Turner and head athletic trainer Kevin O'Neil following the release of the Ted Wells report, which investigated allegations of bullying on the team.

The details of Wells's report were explosive, with revelations showing the offensive line coach kept up a disturbing rapport with his players. According to Wells' report, Turner contributed to the Dolphins' abusive atmosphere by sending one player a male blowup doll (after sending others a female blowup doll) and by pressuring Jonathan Martin to make a statement and to defend his teammate, Richie Incgonito. The report mostly painted Turner in a negative light, as someone more likely to add to Martin's and others' verbal abuse than to denounce it.

"The language and behavior as described in the Ted Wells report are against the core values of our organization," said Dolphins owner Stephen Ross in a statement Wednesday evening. "After receiving the report, I conducted my own internal review of the facts to determine the appropriate steps for our organization. Jim Turner and Kevin O'Neill are good people who care a great deal about their profession and the players whom they serve, but both exhibited poor judgment at times which led me to this conclusion.

"As owner, I know firsthand of the high-character and dedicated professionals in our building," Ross said. "I believe in our team and know the hard work and sacrifices they make every day on the field and in the community. However, this is an opportunity and a teaching moment not only for the coaches, staff and players in our locker room, but also for participants throughout sports."

Turner, a graduate of Braintree High and Boston College, previously coached at Northeastern (1994-1998), Harvard (2000-2002), and his alma mater. He was hired by the Dolphins in 2012 to join Joe Philbin's staff, his first professional coaching gig, after spending the prior three years with Texas A&M.

Ross said he has reached out Martin and will meet with him soon. The owner added his team is working with the NYU School of Law and the NYU Center for Sports and Society in hopes to address the issues of this kind of misconduct on a broader level.

"My commitment to our fans, coaches, players and staff is that we will be a stronger organization going forward," Ross said.

Hoomanawanui set to ride with Blue Angels

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff February 19, 2014 12:42 PM

File this under fun offseason activities.

Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui will be a guest passenger with the legendary US Navy Blue Angels, the airborne stunt squad that performs shows across the country, in a demonstration to take place March 3 in El Centro, Calif.

"I've been to a lot of places, met a lot of people, and seen a lot of things, but flying in a jet may just top them all," Hoomanawanui said in a press release issued by the Blue Angels. "I am honored to have this opportunity."

Hoomanawanui, who is a free agent, will join another Bloomington, Illinois, native in the air, Blue Angels narrator and VIP pilot Lt. Ryan Chamberlain. Both Hoomanawanui and Chamberlain are graduates of Central Catholic High School in Bloomington.

St. Louis Rams punter Johnny Hekker will also be a celebrity passenger of the Blue Angels.

Report into Dolphins bullying scandal backs Jonathan Martin

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff February 14, 2014 10:42 AM

An investigation into the Miami Dolphins' bullying scandal, which led to offensive tackle Jonathan Martin leaving the team and the suspension of offensive guard Richie Incognito, has concluded that Martin's claims of abuse were valid.

Ted Wells, who completed the investigative report on behalf of the NFL for the law firm Paul, Weiss, wrote that Incognito, as well as Dolphins offensive linemen Mike Pouncey and John Jerry, "engaged in a pattern of harassment directed at not only Jonathan Martin, but also another young Dolphins offensive lineman and an assistant trainer."

“The Report rejects any suggestion that Martin manufactured claims of abuse after the fact to cover up an impetuous decision to leave the team," according to a release by the firm. "Contemporaneous text messages that Martin sent to his parents and others months before he left the Dolphins—which have never before been made public—corroborate his account that the persistent harassment by his teammates caused him significant emotional distress.

FULL ENTRY

Patriots set to hire Michael Lombardi

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff February 13, 2014 03:35 PM

The Patriots are close to hiring former Cleveland Browns general manager Michael Lombardi, who will come to New England in the personnel department.

"It's essentially a done deal," a league source said.

Lombardi was an influence in the Patriots 2010 through 2012 NFL drafts, which were arguably better than the immediate drafts that preceded those years under Scott Pioli. He had been with the Browns for a little more than a year before being fired Feb. 11 along with Browns CEO Joe Banner.

Belichick has a relationship with Lombardi that goes back to their time in Cleveland together from 1991 to 1995 when he was the head coach for the Browns and Lombardi worked in the team's personnel department. The two have been long-time friends, with Belichick valuing Lombardi's player evaluations.


How Bill Belichick's name keeps getting connected to the Cleveland Browns

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff February 13, 2014 12:14 PM
Bill Belichick lobbied for Josh McDaniels and Greg Schiano for
the Cleveland Browns head coaching vacancy.
(Justin Edmonds / Getty Images)

It started on Tuesday when a report surfaced that Patriots coach Bill Belichick had lobbied hard for Greg Schiano to be considered for the Cleveland Browns head coaching position.

According to TheMMQB.com's Peter King, he had called the Browns twice about the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Rutgers coach, who he happens to call a friend.

Belichick's name has been tied to the Browns ever since. More revelations of his connections to Cleveland's upheaval continued to be reported through Wednesday.

Late Tuesday, Chris Fedor of 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland reported that Mike Lombardi, who had previously worked with Belichick and was fired by the Browns last week, was on his way to work in New England.

On Wednesday morning, Mary Kay Cabot reported for Cleveland.com that Belichick had also lobbied for Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to be considered for the Browns head coaching gig all the way up until the team hired Mike Pettine on Jan. 23. McDaniels had previously taken his name out of the running for the head coaching gig, but according to Cabot had second thoughts.

Within about 24 hours after McDaniels pulled out of the search, he called to get back in, sources close to the situation told Cleveland.com. This was contrary to a report on NFL Network that the Browns called McDaniels and tried to lure him back into the mix.

Regardless, he remained in the running right up until the end, when the Browns hired Pettine on Jan. 23. In fact, he received the support and recommendation of Belichick right up until the 11th hour.

It's interesting to note that Belichick vouched for both Schiano and McDaniels for the same job. Belichick had the ear of Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, whom, along with Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, he had encouraged to interview Schiano.

That's apparently when the discord among the Browns' front office came to fruition.

Browns CEO Joe Banner was against interviewing Schiano, according to Cabot, while Banner also feuded with Lombardi during the team's coaching search. Meanwhile Haslam was becoming "weary" of them both.

Lombardi, who worked with Belichick while the Patriots coach was in Cleveland in his first stint with the franchise, was being targeted by Banner after just a little more than a year on the job for his performance, while Haslam targeted Banner for his job because he felt the CEO was the reason prospective coaches were either hesitant to interview or accept the Browns head coaching gig.

Belichick's involvement may be limited to just pushing for his top assistant and friend, but it comes at a time when Cleveland's front office shakeup was toxic for everyone involved.

The Browns have a new coach in Pettine, a new general manager with Ray Farmer, and have Haslam to look to for guidance. It's a drastic change from a little more than a year ago when the Browns brought in Banner, Lombardi, and head coach Rob Chudzinski to lead the team. Cleveland has essentially wiped the slate clean. It just so happens that Belichick's name keeps popping up, even after the fallout. If he hires Lombardi, the Patriots coach will still be the buzz of Cleveland, some 14 years after he was dismissed.

Watch: Would Belichick ever take back Wes Welker?

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff February 11, 2014 12:28 PM

Wes Welker's time in Denver may be drawing to a close, much sooner than his contract would lead you to believe, according to a report.

The Broncos wide receiver and former Patriot, who will count for $8 million against Denver's cap in 2014, may be cap casualty, according to a report by NBC Sports and CSNNE's Tom Curran. He's going on the second year of a 2-year, $12 million contract.

Click Full Entry to watch Kevin Dupont and Chad Finn discuss the topic.

FULL ENTRY

Bill Belichick on Michael Sam: 'We evaluate all players based on the totality of who they are'

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff February 10, 2014 06:08 PM

On Sunday night, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, the Southeast Conference defensive player of the year, announced through a couple of news outlets that he is gay, putting him in line to become the first openly gay active NFL player.

On Monday, after media requests for his thoughts on Sam, Patriots' coach Bill Belichick prepared the following statement:

“We evaluate all the players, including Michael Sam, based on the totality of who they are and who can best contribute to our team and organization, regardless of the matters being discussed today. They all have strengths, they all have weaknesses and no two human beings are identical. Our scouting staff has performed extensive work on Michael, both this season and going back throughout his career. That work will continue through the draft process this spring.”

Sam is expected to take part in the NFL Combine, which officially begins Feb. 19.

Kyle Arrington to undergo groin surgery

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff February 5, 2014 08:11 PM

Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington will undergo groin surgery on Friday, according to his agents at KLASS Sports, for an injury the 27-year old dealt with for much of the season.

Recovery time is expected to be about six weeks.

Arrington first hurt his groin in Week 3 against Tampa Bay. He was removed from the injury report three weeks later in advance of the game against New Orleans, but aggravated the injury in the win over the Saints.

Arrington remained on the injury report for the rest of the regular season, listed as questionable weekly, but never missed a game. Arrington has not missed a game since being promoted from the Patriots' practice squad in November 2009.

Belichick, Brady tee it up at Pebble Beach

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff February 5, 2014 06:01 PM

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In a practice round at AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick failed to hit out of a bunker on the fourth hole. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have it all figured out. We're talking golf, not football. While the Northeast is buried by snow once again, Belichick and Brady are in California's warm, sunny Monterey Peninsula, taking part in this week's AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, a PGA Tour event that features a celebrity-heavy field.

Not only will the Patriots coach and quarterback be playing Pebble Beach Golf Links this week, they'll be paired together in the same foursome. Belichick will be teaming up with Brookline native James Driscoll, while Brady's pro partner will be Ricky Barnes, who has been Belichick's pro in past AT&Ts.

The tournament uses a three-course rotation. Belichick and Brady will be playing Spyglass Hill on Thursday (8:22 a.m. local tee time), Monterey Peninsula on Friday (10:01 a.m. local time), and Pebble Beach on Saturday (9:06 a.m. local time). The Golf Channel has coverage on Thursday and Friday, with CBS taking over on the weekend, when you can bet Belichick and Brady will get plenty of Saturday airtime. Only the top 25 pro-am teams qualify for Sunday's final round, which is also at Pebble Beach.

Belichick prepared for the tournament by playing a practice round on Wednesday. In his group? Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who is partnering with Scott Langley.

NFL partners with CBS to televise 8 'Thursday Night Football' games

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff February 5, 2014 12:27 PM

Move over Big Bang Theory.

The NFL is partnering with CBS to broadcast 8 of its 16 "Thursday Night Football" games for 2014, a one-year agreement with an option for another.

Those eight games will also be simulcast on NFL Network.

CBS's Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will take over the broadcasting duties for all 16 games, relieving NFL Network hosts Mike Mayock and Brad Nessler. The latter duo will be featured in pregame, halftime, and postgame shows with CBS Sports announcers, according to the league. The other eight games, six of which will be on Thursday night and two others on Saturday, will continue to be broadcast exclusively on NFL Network.

“NFL Network built Thursday into a night for NFL fans,” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in a statement. “Our goal is to bring these games to more fans on broadcast television with unprecedented promotion and visibility for 'Thursday Night Football' on CBS."

The NFL had sought to unload a portion of its "Thursday Night Football" lineup since mid January, hoping to sell six to 13 games to a new NFL partner. With CBS, the NFL continues a familiar relationship and teams up with the network's top broadcasting duo.

"We are very pleased to build on our outstanding partnership with the NFL by expanding our coverage to Thursday nights,” Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corp., said in a statement. “CBS is a premium content company and the NFL represents the best premium content there is. I look forward to all this new deal will do for us not only on Thursday nights, but across our entire schedule."

CBS will have to reshuffle its Thursday night lineup, which includes sitcoms “Big Bang Theory,” “The Millers,” “The Crazy Ones,” “Two and a Half Men,” and “Elementary.”

Pepper Johnson says he wanted to get out from Bill Belichick's 'shadow'

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff February 5, 2014 09:22 AM

Longtime Patriots assistant coach Pepper Johnson, who left the team last month, has been hired by the Bills as their defensive line coach under new coordinator Jim Schwartz.

Johnson appeared on the Bills-affiliated Bill Murphy Show on Tuesday night, and among other things said the time was right to move on to a new opportunity, away from Belichick, whom he'd played for on three different teams and coached under since 2000.

"My legs are still shaking a little bit. But I'm excited; I'm so excited," Johnson said. "I have always been a fan of Doug (Marrone) and the Buffalo Bills, and just getting the opportunity to spread my wings, and to get up from under the shadow of coach Belichick. So it's a good thing, a good opportunity."

Johnson said in the interview he began thinking about coaching when he was playing at Ohio State, though initially he wanted to coach at his Detroit high school alma mater. But after his NFL career ended, he took part in the league's Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Fellowship under Belichick, and remained with the Patriots' coach for well over a decade.

But moving on was necessary, Johnson said. In New England, he was passed over a couple of times for the coordinator job, most recently in 2012 when Matt Patricia was given the title. Johnson admitted that part of his departure from the Patriots was because of his desire to run a defense someday – something that wasn't likely to happen had he stayed in New England.

"I'm a very ambitious person," Johnson said. "I moved around a little bit when I was there with New England, starting off with the linebackers ... then I graduated to coaching inside linebackers and took the linebackers over, and then eventually the defensive line. I went back to linebackers last year."

As for becoming a coordinator, "I would love to. In a sense, those 13 years that I played in the NFL, I graduated to calling a lot of the defenses [on the field] and having the responsibility of running our defense, and being an extension of the head coach on the sideline.

"It's a dream of mine and a goal of mine, but right now, I have to deal with this defensive line."

The entire interview with Johnson can be heard here.

Patriots on the bubble

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff February 4, 2014 08:54 PM

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Patriots wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins is going to have to prove he belongs with the Patriots one more time in 2014. (Elise Amendola / AP photo)

If the Patriots are going to win the Super Bowl, they have to upgrade a select number of positions and bring in some capable competition.

A cursory look at New England’s roster will show that two positions immediately need revamping: defensive tackle and wide receiver.

That’s where the 2013 Patriots underachieved the most.

But that doesn’t mean all of the players in those positions should fear for their jobs. Just some of them.

And there are others, too, who should be concerned about their standing going into 2014. The Patriots tinker quite a bit with the bottom half of their roster in the offseason with hopes of creating a competitive environment come training camp. There are a select number of players on the team, either because of their performance or because of their contract, who have to face the fact that they are sitting on the bubble.

That includes:

Kenbrell Thompkins — Given a 3-year, $1.493 million contract with $5,000 guaranteed after winning a job out of training camp, he was less than stellar in an injury-riddled season. He caught 32 passes for 466 yards and four touchdowns. But he also had a number of drops (5), plays that kept him off the field while coaches favored fellow rookie Aaron Dobson. He had two fantastic games, catching the final touchdown against the New Orleans Saints and tearing up the Atlanta Falcons for 127 yards and a score. There’s also the issue of the number of bodies for Thompkins. He still has to compete with Dobson, Josh Boyce, and Julian Edelman for snaps, all of whom were outside wide receivers. Edelman is the only free agent of the bunch while Dobson and Joyce are Patriots draft picks, making the other rookies much more valued commodities.

Danny Amendola — His contract is his detriment. He was paid a handsome sum (5 years, $31 million) to be the Patriots’ new slot receiver. But after a fine performance in Week 1, he found himself continually injured and having a tough time performing consistently. His lack of playing time likely contributed to his lack of chemistry with Tom Brady, who targeted him only once in the AFC Championship. Amendola, for his part, dropped it. He caught 54 passes for 633 yards and 2 TDs in the season.

Joe Vellano — The Patriots rookie defensive tackle was never guaranteed to make the team out of training camp, helped in part by Armond Armstead’s unavailability. He substituted for Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly as the team’s third defensive tackle until Wilfork, then Kelly, went down with season-ending injuries. But he had only 12 hurries while playing 672 defensive snaps, 322 against the run, according to ProFootballFocus.com. His play was mired in part by a bad outing against the Denver Broncos in Week 12, the same game in which Knowshon Moreno ran for 224 yards. Going into his second season, he has to prove the he belongs on a team that will get back Wilfork, Kelly, and Armstead.

Isaac Sopoaga — It wouldn’t be a surprise if Sopoaga was cut sometime this offseason. The Patriots traded for the defensive tackle, hoping he could help shore up the team’s run defense. But he was a healthy scratch for the team’s final four games. They gave up a fifth round pick for him and paid a prorated portion of his $1 million salary in 2013. He’s slated to make $3.5 million in 2014 and 2015.

Bill Belichick could easily target his tight ends group, the secondary, and the interior offensive linemen for upgrades as well. Safety Adrian Wilson will already be in place to compete while offensive linemen Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly had down years, giving the Patriots coach an opening to bring in fresh bodies. Then there is the matter of the constant health issues between cornerback Aqib Talib, a free agent, and tight end Rob Gronkowski. New blood at both positions seem overdue for the sake of depth.

It’s going to be a long offseason. The team is only two and a half weeks into the process of mapping out how they will address the deficiencies on their roster. But we’re sure it won’t take long for them to determine who and what those deficiencies are.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

Patriots have 29th selection in NFL draft

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff February 4, 2014 04:52 PM

The first round of the NFL draft is set, with the Patriots getting the 29th overall pick.

The final four draft selections of the first round were set after Sunday's Super Bowl. The Patriots will make their selection at 29 and then the San Francisco 49ers will pick 30th, the Denver Broncos 31st, and the Seattle Seahawks at 32.

The last time the Patriots made a pick in the first round, 2012, they selected defensive end Chandler Jones (21st) and linebacker Dont'a Hightower (25th).

Other recent first round picks include Nate Solder in 2011 (17th overall), Devin McCourty in 2010 (27th), and Jerod Mayo in 2008 (10th).

The Houston Texans have the first overall pick after finishing 2-14, the worst record in the league.

What the Patriots can learn from the Seahawks

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff February 3, 2014 06:31 PM

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Seattle Seahawks coach built a winning team by favoring defensive linemen. (Ted S. Warren / AP photo)

Outside of stealing Seattle’s talent, there’s quite a bit to learn from former Patriots coach Pete Carroll’s Super Bowl-winning Seahawks in terms of the value he has placed on position players.

Culturally the Seahawks are as sound as they come, benefitting from a young and hungry group of players that average only 4.1 seasons of NFL experience on their 53-man roster. None had ever participated in a Super Bowl prior to Sunday’s massacre of the Denver Broncos. With such a large infusion of youth, the Seahawks were able to establish a loose and fun atmosphere where competition was routine and no job was ever safe. It bred camaraderie.

That’s eerily close to how the Patriots operate, with less emphasis publicly placed on how those competitions fare. You won’t hear about “Competition Wednesday” here.

Structurally, the Seahawks are also in a similar boat with the Patriots. Carroll handpicked general manager John Schneider (reportedly from a list of four options given to him), essentially giving him the keys to run the team with the blessing of management. Bill Belichick wields similar control over the Patriots, with director of player personnel Nick Caserio reporting to him.

But the two coaches diverge when it comes to philosophy, specifically when it comes to positions on the team they value. None of that is more apparent than in the draft and in free agency.

Since Carroll took over in 2010, he has drafted eight defensive linemen, a sure sign of his emphasis on the players up front. Only one was a core contributor this season, Bruce Irvin. But the Seahawks have brought in four others as free agents (Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Tony McDaniel, Benson Mayowa) and traded for three more (Chris Clemons, Clinton McDonald, O’Brien Schofield). Of the four players that are holdovers from the Tim Ruskell era, two are defensive linemen (Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane). The 14 defensive linemen that have come through the Seahawks program since 2010 are by far the most of any position group on the team.

That set the stage for Carroll to infuse a competitive environment, with those with the right attitude and best ability winning out. We saw that on Sunday as the Broncos were able to get after Peyton Manning against the best offensive line in football, one that had allowed only 141 total pressures in the regular season and 13 total sacks. The front seven accounted for 14 hurries on Manning, four quarterback hits, and a sack.

It’s been a much different tale for Belichick and the Patriots, who have sought to revamp the secondary after finishing 30th, 31st, and 29th overall since 2010 in pass defense. The Patriots have drafted eight defensive backs, more than any other position. Devin McCourty and Alfonzo Dennard, two of those draft picks, have become quality starters. They’ve also added free agent Steve Gregory while trading for Aqib Talib. The investment has shown to be somewhat fruitful, as the Patriots finished 18th overall in pass defense in 2013.

But part of the Patriots’ pass defense woes has been the team’s inability to get to the quarterback. That was supposed to be shored up this past offseason when the Patriots brought in Tommy Kelly as a free agent to join Vince Wilfork. They also signed Armond Armstead out of Canada.

Unfortunately, Armstead never touched the field, and both Kelly and Wilfork suffered season-ending injuries. The Patriots were forced to utilize rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones as well as former practice squad player Sealver Siliga. With Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich as the team’s leading pass rushers, the Patriots totaled 40 sacks, good for 20th in the NFL.

Only four sacks behind the Seahawks.

Given the dire situation of the Patriots’ pass defense from 2010-12, it’s understandable that there was a greater need in the secondary. It’s been the Patriots’ chicken-and-egg dilemma.

Of course, the Seahawks scored big with draft picks Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, and Walter Thurmond, giving them a secondary that is unrivaled in the NFL. But the beauty of what Carroll has done in three short years is build depth on the line, using seven different players regularly. Even with their health woes, that’s one thing the Patriots are still working on.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

5 takeaways from Super Bowl XLVIII

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff February 3, 2014 07:01 AM

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A key to Seattle's huge victory over Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII was the Seahawks' pass rush, particularly Cliff Avril and Chris Clemons. (Charlie Riedel / AP photo)

What happens when an unstoppable force hits an immovable object?

Well, now we know.

The Seattle Seahawks flattened the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, 43-8, proving that the top defense in the NFL could manhandle the league’s No. 1 offense — historically the league’s most prolific offense — with ease time and time again. The Seahawks then took the beatdown to historic heights, causing us to question whether the Broncos would be the first team to be shut out in Super Bowl history.

That’s the anticlimactic end to a year that coach John Fox, quarterback Peyton Manning, and the rest of the Broncos were not expecting. Fox is now 0 for 2 in the Super Bowl. Manning is 1-2. Their legacies are shaken.

So how did it happen? How did the Seahawks win so convincingly and the Broncos play so poorly when everything that matters was on the line? Let’s recap with one final “5 takeaways.”

1. All-around awesome — The Seahawks got contributions from all three phases of the game. That’s one we hear in New England quite a bit, given Bill Belichick’s penchant for peppering the press with those very same remarks. On Sunday it was clear what that talk means when put to action. The Seahawks scored by safety, two field goals, a rushing touchdown, a defensive touchdown on an interception, a kickoff return for a touchdown, and two passing touchdowns. No other Super Bowl team in history had scored in every phase of the game — and in every possible way. Describing it as a team effort doesn’t really catch the enormity of what was accomplished. The Seahawks were opportunistic, aggressive, and successful in everything they attempted to do. That kind of dominance is rare and most certainly unforgettable.

2. The pass rush was key — The Broncos accounted for four fumbles (two lost) and two interceptions. It was a bad day at the office for Manning (one lost fumble, two interceptions), wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (one lost fumble) and center Manny Ramirez (fumbled into the end zone, causing the safety) when looking at the turnovers alone. But a number of the game’s turnovers, particularly Manning’s interceptions, were the cause of pressure up front by Seattle’s Cliff Avril and others. Manning didn’t really see a clean pocket in the first half. When the Broncos quarterback got his first sustained drive going in the second quarter, he got hit by Avril while looking to throw the ball downfield to Knowshon Moreno. That pass was intercepted by Malcolm Smith, who promptly brought the interception back for a 69-yard touchdown. Avril was a nuisance all game. The Seahawks' defensive line had tremendous penetration with three tackles for a loss. Given the pedigree of the Broncos’ offensive line, which had allowed the fewest hurries and sacks all season, the Seahawks’ front seven proved it could do what so many other teams had failed to do: get to Manning. Avril and Chris Clemons (1 sack), were the jewels of the bunch.

3. Ball control was on point — Russell Wilson’s first pass to Zach Miller was high and uncatchable, a sign of the second-year quarterback’s nervousness on the NFL’s grandest stage. But it didn’t take long for Danger-Russ Wilson to settle down and show exactly why Pete Carroll fell in love with him. He showed escapability, he made the easy throws, he ran it well, and he never put the Seahawks in a bad position. Between Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, Robert Turbin, and Seattle’s receivers, there were no boneheaded mistakes with the football. It is, and always will be, the No. 1 key to winning football games: taking care of the ball. The Seahawks had zero turnovers while forcing four. And Wilson, despite his wayward pass, did not offer any lame duck passes for his opponents to snatch away. It was symphonic effort.

4. Playmakers seized the moment — Percy Harvin played in only one regular season game for the Seahawks. On Super Bowl Sunday, he showed up big time. Harvin had two carries for 45 yards, caught a pass for 5 yards, and returned a kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown. He took advantage of his opportunities and he wasn’t the only one. Wide receivers Jermaine Kearse (4 receptions, 65 yards, 1 TD) and Doug Baldwin (5 receptions, 66 yards, 1 TD) both made a little something out of nothing. Kearse bounced off three tacklers before running in a 23-yard touchdown. Baldwin avoided two tacklers to get in the end zone on a 10-yard reception. Running back Marshawn Lynch plowed his way into the end zone for a tough 1-yard score. There was a quality of grit and determination by each of Seattle’s playmakers to gain that extra yard and to make that extra move in order to seize the moment.

5. Perspective on history — Everything went downhill for the Broncos when they fumbled their first offensive snap of the game, which ended up becoming a safety. The Broncos were trailing 36-0 before they scored their first touchdown, a 14-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas to end the third quarter. That’ll help explain why Manning ended the game with an NFL-record 34 completed passes (34 of 49 for 280 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs, 1 fumble). The Broncos were forced to throw going into the second half down 22-0 and then down 29-0 on the Seahawks’ opening kickoff return in the third. So add an asterisk there because they abandoned the running game. They ran the ball five times in the second — twice to run the clock out in the waning moments. Demaryius Thomas’ 13 receptions are also a Super Bowl record. But it seems to all come back to the dire situation in which the Broncos found themselves. No playoff team wants to throw the ball 49 times. And similarly, no Super Bowl winner is going to only have 27 yards rushing.

Extras — One thing we’re not going to be talking about is Richard Sherman, who suffered a high ankle sprain in the fourth quarter. He had been a source of hefty chatter ahead of XLVIII with the hopes that he’d do something or say something that could live up to his outsized personality. Sadly that moment didn’t come. But he certainly forced Manning to look the other way for three quarters, so it wasn’t like his presence wasn’t felt. … Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith truly played a fantastic game. He recorded 9 tackles (five solo), an interception returned for a touchdown, and a fumble recovery. He joined Ray Lewis and Chuck Howley as the only linebackers to ever win Super Bowl MVP honors. And he’s also the youngest defender to ever do it at 24 years old and 212 days. … Former Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker is now 0 for 3 in Super Bowls. … Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who coached the Patriots from 1997-1999, became the third coach in NFL history to win a Super Bowl and a national college championship. He joins Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer to hold that distinction.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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