Saturday, June 28, 2014

Patriots' Résumé - Vince Wilfork

Dear Coach,

As you know, I am recovering from a torn Achilles tendon - which sucked and still sucks, but I'll get over it just like I got over you guys asking me to take a pay cut.

Yeah, I went there.

When I decided to skip my Senior year at Miami, you drafted me in the first round despite the talk that I was lazy and unmotivated.  You took a chance on me then without knowing anything about me, and I have been considered one of the elite nose tackles in the NFL ever since.

Therefore, it hurt that you wouldn't give me the benefit of the doubt coming off of an injury year - even if it was an injury that potentially could have ended my career.  But I took some time to think it over and realized that no one - not me, not Tom, not even you - is immune to the financial limitations imposed on every team by the league.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Patriots' Résumé: Tom Brady

Dear Coach Belichick,

I am enclosing my résumé as a good will gesture out of respect for your position as coach of the New England Patriots - and also an artist's rendering suitable for framing - though you certainly don't need to see either as we have been through much together and are both a constant presence around the complex, and since I am the undisputed leader of this team, I feel it my duty to submit my résumé first to set a good example.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Strong Patriots' secondary should have trickle-down effect on entire defense - offense, too

“I don’t want the receiver coming at me comfortable. When a receiver is coming at you comfortable, they seem to get in and out of their breaks smooth and that’s when you see them catching balls. So I want to knock them off and disrupt those routes.” - Brandon Browner

Brandon Browner is a big dude.

He also carries a reputation on his 6' 4", 220 pound frame as a scrapper - some would say he's dirty player, and he says nothing to deny that moniker.  Matter of fact, the former Seattle Seahawks' cornerback doesn't say much of anything, preferring instead to let his play do the talking and leaving the cheap talk to the beat writers.

Sounds like he'll get along just fine in Foxborough.
Browner nailing Welker - so much the better

Heavily penalized early in his career, he's had to tone down his game outside of the five yard cushion that a similarly sized player with an equally brutal technique helped to create nearly four decades ago - but inside that 5-yard alley, a receiver is going to take as many shots as Browner can deliver.

The Oregon State product is a throwback to a time when a cornerback named Mel Blount teamed with Donnie Shell to physically shut down the opponent's passing game, and did so by brutalizing receivers to the point that the NFL developed the "Mel Blount Rule", essentially forbidding defensive backs from making contact with a receiver past a five yard cushion from the line of scrimmage.

Browner's style and aggressiveness are necessitated by his lack of straight-line speed - recently timed at a linebacker-ish 4.63 in the 40 yard dash - and where carrying a speedster down the sideline on a free release would be disastrous, he can win going toe-to-toe with them off the line and disrupting the timing of their routes...

...particularly playing to his strength of flowing with bigger receivers between the numbers on crossing routes, which is why there was some mention of him perhaps converting to safety when he was first signed - and he will surely get that type of assignment against more athletic tight ends and bigger slot receivers, but he will also get the call on the outside against the Brandon Marshall's and Megatron's of the league.

Why?  In Seattle, the Seahawks' coaching staff teach and insist on their corners fighting to gain inside position and force the receivers to the sideline, breaking the timing of routes and forcing the quarterback into a more difficult throw to the outside, which is something that All World shutdown corner Darrelle Revis has mastered as well, except that Revis has the wheels and the lateral agility to carry his receiver.

But let's get something straight here: Patriots' coach Bill Belichick is not trying to reinvent the Seattle Seahawks' secondary in New England, nor has he mortgaged the future of the franchise in order to win that illusive fourth Lombardi Trophy before quarterback Tom Brady retires, nor has he engaged in an "Arms Race" with the Denver Broncos - he's simply added a few pieces here and there and replaced departed players the best he could.

It just so happens that Seattle tossed Browner in the dumpster rather than deal with his at-the-time indefinite suspension and declining range, and that the new regime in Tampa Bay decided to release shutdown corner Darrelle Revis rather than pay him as the top cornerback in the league, and he was tired of losing.

So what Belichick has done is no more than sign the best replacement he could find for departed corner Aqib Talib - which even Talib will tell you is a significant upgrade over himself - at essentially a minimal amount over what the Broncos paid for Talib and his paper mache quad, then added Browner at close to the league minimum for his tenure.

The trickle down effect, to use an economic term since we're talking about money, is that not only do the Patriots now boast one of the best cornerback depth charts in the NFL, but also a pair of mentors for their young depth in the secondary, and a viable alternative to forcing their linebacking corps into exotic coverage schemes - freeing them up to stop the run and to easily account for backs circling out of the backfield.

But the benefits don't end there.  The secondary should be able to hold coverage longer, both with technique and timing disruption, affording the suddenly swift and violent New England pass rush an extra split second to get to the opposing quarterback...

...and one really can't put a price tag on the experience gained in each practice that the Patriots' young receivers get to go up against Revis and Browner, nor for Brady, who is always trying to step his game up to the next level.

But the greatest beneficiaries are young corners Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan, both of whom have the skill set to be starters in their own right as both are the versatile, total package that today's NFL begs for - and also Kyle Arrington, whose game mirrors that of Browner, just miniaturized.

Dennard is quietly solid, plays both man and zone with equal success and showed mad toughness in playing through a myriad of injuries last season - two of which required surgery to repair - returning to action after sitting out just one week after having his knee scoped for a torn meniscus and then playing the final three regular season games and two playoff games with a shoulder ailment that had him under the knife after the season.

His offseason has been a surrealistic nightmare, having to sit in the poke for five weeks and then having a scalpel plunged into his flesh from which he has not yet recovered, but he is expected to be ready for camp - same with slot corner Kyle Arrington, whom the team recently revealed had been playing all of last season with a torn groin muscle for which he underwent surgery in February.

Arrington is somewhat of a whipping boy for Patriots' fans and media, many calling for his trade or release despite consistently grading out as a top twenty corner - reason being is that just like Browner, he doesn't carry receivers down the field well and is at his best jamming the receiver in the slot, keeping the play in front of him and gaining inside position to deny the ball.

The seventh year veteran plays the run with violent intent as well and is truly just a stable presence in the slot, but Ryan may be even better.

Ryan had just about as good a rookie season as one could expect, and even earned himself the title "Instant offense", suggesting his penchant for causing turnovers and defending passes was deserving of a snappy nickname - and in truth, he owns it.

The brash rookie led the team with five thefts plus a sack and a share, just short of 50 tackles with 10 passes defended in seven starts - and seeing significant playing time in the other nine.  He returned one of the picks for a crotch-grabbing touchdown against the Jets and paid the price for his conspicuous package check with a fine and a first-half benching the following week, but his overall solid play had him out of Belichick's dog house quickly.

No one has to tell the aggressive and physical Ryan to punch the receiver in the chicklets, but Browner's presence could help him refine the technique, while Revis' influence can do nothing but help make the second-year corner a more complete defensive back and a future star.

It has been rumored, however, that both Ryan and Browner could be used in the capacity of safety, and while that's not beyond the realm of possibility, the back end is well-manned already and Ryan is about to enter training camp in line to start at the corner opposite Revis while Dennard heals and Browner serves a four-game suspension.

And if the depth chart does indeed shake out that way, the starting Patriots' secondary could look like a Rutgers University reunion - with former Pittsburgh Panther and fellow Big East Conference corner Revis as the guest of honor.

Devin McCourty  is an undisputed All Pro free safety going into his third full year after starting his career as a Pro Bowl corner, and having Revis locking down one side of the field should only boost his numbers - which is fortunate as the Rutgers' product is coming into a contract year and could command top money...
Harmon and McCourty represent Rutgers well

...while the presence of fellow Rutgers alum Duron Harmon at strong safety could give the team a bit of leverage when it comes to talking money at the negotiating table across from McCourty.

Harmon was a surprise second day pick of Belichick's in the 2013 draft, but his vision was validated when the virtual unknown burst onto the scene with impressive sideline-to-sideline play in relief of the now-departed Steve Gregory while Gregory nursed a broken thumb midway through the season.

With a notable size (6' 1", 210 pounds), speed (4.48) combination, Harmon can play either traditional safety position - showing natural range and an uncanny feel for angles, and is a load in run support.  It is possible that Harmon's skill set will allow McCourty some autonomy and enable the Patriots to disguise coverages by playing the former corner anywhere he's needed, trusting Harmon as the last line of defense...

...but not necessarily the intimidating presence that the Patriots have been missing since Rodney Harrison hung up his brass knuckles in 2009, as his game revolves around his instincts and technique - though the man that Belichick did draft to succeed Harrison, Patrick Chung, has returned to the team after a brief hiatis in Philadelphia.

Drafted in the second round in 2009, the hard-hitting Chung had his moments as the enforcer for the Patriots in his previous four years with the team, but his complete disregard for his body and coverage deficiencies rendered him healthy enough to play in only 20 of a possible 32 games with New England in 2011 and 2012, numbers that caused Belichick to allow the former Oregon Duck to team up with his college coach with the Eagles.

But Chip Kelly released him at the end of the season and Belichick scooped him up, which caused a bit of rude dissention amongst media members, but when taking a step back to see the big picture, Chung's style will fit in perfectly with aggressive press scheme that Belichick is sure to employ with Browner and Revis joining Ryan, Arrington and Dennard as corners...

...combined with the starting safety positions well accounted for, Chung can ply his violent trade on a part-time basis as a box safety - his stalking whereabouts certain to cause opposing receivers a bit of trepidation when crossing over the middle of the field.

The presence of so much starting-quality talent should not only have the desired trickle-down effect on the rest of the defense, but also cause intense competition among the remainder of the depth chart for perhaps one open spot each among the corners and safeties.

RCB:  Brandon Browner  Alfonzo Dennard  Kyle Arrington  Justin Green
LCB:  Darrelle Revis  Logan Ryan  Travis Hawkins  Malcolm Butler  Daxton Swanson  
SS:     Duron Harmon  Patrick Chung  Jemea Thomas  Shamiel Gary  Nate Ebner               
FS:     Devin McCourty  Tavon Wilson   Kanorris Davis     

Green was active for just two games in 2013, but is already familiar with the terminology on defense, which should give him a slight leg up to make the roster as a corner, though both second-year player Swanson and rookie Butler have shown up on the radar during OTAs and minicamp - and sixth round draft pick Jemea Thomas should have something to say about it as a corner/safety hybrid.

The competition at safety should be even more fierce, as Wilson and Ebner have a history with the team as core-four special team players and will be difficult to unseat.  Thomas will compete, as will Gary, but both will need to have a spectacular camp to remain.

The good news is that all of the players vying to unseat incumbents have practice squad eligibility, so at least a couple of them should land on the list - but the talent-laden secondary is going to be difficult for any of the long-shots to breach.

This is part 9 of 9 wrapping up the Patriots' offseason. Parts 1 - 8 and any addendums can be accessed through the links below:

Part 1 of 9: New England Patriots' philosophies morphing back to a simpler time
Part 2 of 9: New England Patriots' offensive philosophy - Heavy on substance, not sexy style
Part 3 of 9: Patriots surround Brady with talent, just not how most envisioned
Part 4 of 9: Patriots' incumbent backs no roster locks as rookies ready to compete
Part 5 of 9: Belichick takes a mulligan with Patriots' pass catchers
Part 6 of 9: Belichick in the spirit (of 76) in regard to offensive line
Part 7 of 9: Defensive line status up in the air while injuries mend
Part 8 of 9: Patriots' linebackers better through attrition, deft acquisitions
Addendum 1: Projected 53 man roster

Follow Michael on twitter: @MichaelHammpub

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Completely useless ranting and an inappropriately-timed Patriots' projected 53 man roster

"The lowest form of popular culture - lack of information, misinformation, disinformation and a contempt for the truth or the reality of most people's lives - has overrun real journalism.  Today, ordinary Americans are being stuffed with garbage." - Oscar Wilde

People who know me - and even many who don't - also know that I have always aspired to be a paid journalist despite the rantings of Wilde and regardless of the many bad examples offered up by the Boston rags - but now I'm not so sure.

Oh, I will continue to write, but I have discovered that the closed fraternity of the Boston media is closed for a reason, that there is very little interest in objective journalism - or even a fine balance between information and entertainment, while some of the finest writing that you will find is on the independent blog - and I am proud to be part of that community.
Belichick's disdain for the media is well-founded

Why?  Simply because the people writing are doing so because of their passion for the object of their desire, and do it for little or no money.  They don't have the access to the athletes and coaches as the fraternity does and are at the mercy of the professionalism of the writers within that fraternity - and what they are left with is attempting to decipher fact from guess-work.

Wilde was in the United States for just a short time in the latter part of the 19th century as part of a tour to promote the ideals of aesthetic literature, and that little nugget above was his response to the relentless criticism from the New England media, who collectively viewed aestheticism - literally, art being pleasing to the eye and not necessarily for information - as immoral.

Of course, upon his return to Great Britain, he was placed on trial for his "immorality" and imprisoned as a pervert - then exiled to France, where he died, broken and disgraced, as a relatively young man in his mid-forties.

So almost 150 years after his witch hunt-style trial, it is curious that in the same region of North America where the journalists trashed his ideals at every turn, modern day sports journalists still ignore the aesthetic side of their art, routinely spreading sensationalist swill and rampant rumor to entice potential readers to view their work...

...concentrating on innuendo and hiding behind unnamed sources, their requisite anonymity resulting in prose that requires no accountability, and then apologizing for anything that they write that resembles an original idea - such as a 53 man roster.

That said, many area journalists are busy generating and publishing their projected 53-man rosters for the New England Patriots - which is actually a 54-man roster due to the roster exemption that the Patriots will receive for Brandon Browner's suspension - a full five weeks before training camp even begins, but also issuing the caveat that it is far too early to make an accurate projection - and it is.

But we can certainly try, and always with the knowledge that whatever comes out of our word processing program is public now and forever, and we have no choice but to own every word.  The trick is to feel it, much like an artist is inspired by what is pleasing to his or her eye, and then to meld that passion with informed discretion.

Because Wilde was wrong - at least as far as today's society is concerned, as he probably could not have envisioned things like the Internet, or even the importance of a writer's responsibility to history.  Today, art is didactic, on public display to both entertain and to inform - even if it is just garbage...

Quarterbacks (2)

12 - Tom Brady
10 - Jimmy Garoppolo (R)

Yes, only two quarterbacks.  This is not to say that Ryan Mallett will be traded, but the fact that he is limited in OTAs and in minicamp and is wearing a brace on his left knee is a curious development.  It is entirely possible that he begin the season on the PUP list, then either be activated just before the trade deadline or shut down for the season.

Running Backs (5)

22 - Stevan Ridley
34 - Shane Vereen
28 - James White (R)
36 - Stephen Houston (R)
46 - James Develin 

With contracts coming due on Ridley, Vereen and Brandon Bolden, it goes to figure that the Patriots are not going to be able to negotiate contracts for all three, so dumping Bolden now and training replacements for the other two is just smart business - though it is possible that Ridley and Vereen could be around beyond this year if their price is right.  Develin is looking more and more like a classic H-Back with his versatility.

Tight Ends (3)

87 - Rob Gronkowski 
47 - Michael Hoomanawanui 
45 - D. J. Williams

Gronkowski appears to be on track for the start of the season, which clears up the tight end picture a bit.  While Gronk is an all-around force, Hooman is a decent blocker and has shown good hands in his few targets, while Williams has yet to realize the potential that intrigued the Packers into drafting him as a "move" tight end.  Rookie free agent Justin Jones will probably find himself stashed away on the practice squad to refine his raw skill and potential. H-back James Develin factors in here as well.

Receivers (7)

80 - Danny Amendola 
11 - Julian Edelman 
17 - Aaron Dobson 
19 - Brandon Lafell  
85 - Kenbrell Thompkins  
18 - Matthew Slater 
82 - Josh Boyce

The status of Dobson's foot and the thought that his conditioning will be an issue upon his return may upset this apple cart, otherwise, this is a solid group with a good mix of individual skill sets.  New addition Lafell is a veteran who understands coverages and where the sticks are, and could be in the mix at the "move" type tight end position.  Boyce and Slater figure prominently on special teams as well.

Offensive Linemen (8)

77 - Nate Solder 
70 - Logan Mankins
76 - Sebatian Vollmer 
61 - Marcus Cannon
67 - Josh Kline
71 - Cameron Fleming (R)   
69 - Jon Halapio (R) 
66 - Bryan Stork (R) 

Noticeably absent from this list are last season's starting center and right guard, Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly - but either could stick as depth should the Patriots decide to keep nine linemen.  Stork should start from Day one, as should Halapio with Fleming and Cannon providing depth on the bookends and at guard in a pinch.

Defensive linemen (9)

50 - Rob Ninkovich 
75 - Vince Wilfork 
93 - Tommy Kelly 
95 - Chandler Jones 
99 - Michael Buchanan
97 - Armond Armstead 
74 - Dominique Easley (R) 
94 - Chris Jones 
96 - Sealver Siliga 

This is a familiar list, with the one question mark being the status of the Howard Hughes-like recluse Armond Armstead.  He is on the roster for now, but given his non-participation in OTAs and in minicamp, his ambiguity dictates that he could be replaced by veteran Will Smith or try-hard tackle Joe Vellano.

Linebackers (6)

54 - Dont'a Hightower 
91 - Jamie Collins 
51 - Jerod Mayo 
45 - Steve Beauharnais
44 - Darius Fleming
55 - James Anderson

Again, it is possible that the veteran Smith could usurp Fleming on the roster, but a lot depends on the status of his wheels after recovering from ACL surgery nearly a year ago.  One thing on the side of the Patriots in this instance is that Smith did not have many suitors once released from New Orleans, and could be a rolodex type talent that Belichick could call on in case of injury.  Anderson is an all-around veteran talent that adds a lot of versatility to the scheme.

Corners (6)

24 - Darrelle Revis 
39 - Brandon Browner 
26 - Logan Ryan 
37 - Alfonzo Dennard 
25 - Kyle Arrington 
35 - Daxton Swanson

Swanson is a wild card, and wins out over fellow rookie Malcolm Butler for the sixth corner spot.  Regardless of who actually wins out in camp, the top five corners won't allow for many snaps to Swanson or whomever - that is, once Browner returns to the team in week five.

Safeties (5)

30 - Duron Harmon  
32 - Devin McCourty  
23 - Patrick Chung  
21 - Jemea Thomas (R)  
27 - Tavon Wilson 

Solid group of safeties, with Chung brought back to be that intimidating presence in the middle in the nickle and dime situations.  Thomas is a versatile athlete that is probably a better corner than safety, though he played both in college.  In fact, should Thomas find a spot on the roster, his presence could eliminate one of the listed corners and make room for a player at another level - such as another tight end, safety or defensive lineman.

Specialists (3)

6 - Ryan Allen 
3 - Stephen Gostkowski 
48 - Danny Aiken

Aiken wins out over Tyler Ott in the competition for long snapper, though Aiken will probably be on a short leash after his late season air mail struggles.  Allen and Gostkowski are as dependable as they come.

Offense: 25
Defense: 26
Specialists: 3 
Total: 54

This is the first addendum to a series wrapping up the Patriots' offseason. 

Part 1 of 9: New England Patriots' philosophies morphing back to a simpler time
Part 2 of 9: New England Patriots' offensive philosophy - Heavy on substance, not sexy style
Part 3 of 9: Patriots surround Brady with talent, just not how most envisioned
Part 4 of 9: Patriots' incumbent backs no roster locks as rookies ready to compete
Part 5 of 9: Belichick takes a mulligan with Patriots' pass catchers
Part 6 of 9: Belichick in the spirit (of 76) in regard to offensive line
Part 7 of 9: Defensive line status up in the air while injuries mend
Part 8 of 9: Patriots' linebacker corps better through attrition, deft acquisitions

Follow Michael on twitter: @MichaelHammpub

Friday, June 20, 2014

Patriots' linebacker corps better through attrition, deft acquisitions

Leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft, very few considered linebacker depth amongst the New England Patriots' pressing needs.

This despite the fact that weak side mainstay and defensive captain Jerod Mayo missed the last 10 games of the season after tearing his pectoral muscle, and not taking into account that starting middle linebacker Brandon Spikes was essentially fired late last season while the man that picked up some of Mayo's slack, Dane Fletcher, fled for Tampa - leaving the linebacking corps just one layer deep with six players lining the depth chart.
Anderson may turn out to be a key acquisition for New England

Granted, three of those players - Mayo, third-year man Dont'a Hightower and sophomore sensation Jamie Collins - comprise perhaps potentially the most dynamic 4-3 linebacking corps in the league, with second year players Steve Beauharnais and Ja'Gared Davis and Lions' retread Chris White, leftovers that formed a fairly non-descript group of backups...

...with Beauharnais perhaps the only leftover with enough upside to consider on the 2014 depth chart.

Of course, that's no longer the case, as coach Bill Belichick has pulled out the change jar and visited the local Good Will, coming out with some pretty decent additions to the depth chart at bargain-basement discounts - along with the usual assortment of undrafted rookie free agents.

Beauharnais projects as the primary backup for Hightower, who will be manning the middle linebacker position on early downs, then joining the ranks at the end of the defensive line as a pass rusher, with rookie Taylor McCuller, fifth year free agent Josh Hull and White looking to unseat Beauharnais.

The second year run-stuffer out of Rutgers showed plenty of upside in the 2013 preseason, enough even to make the 53 man roster and kept there even though he was a healthy scratch just about every week.  At 6' 1" and 240 pounds, Beauharnais has some lateral agility to play some strong side in a pinch, but he is best when moving forward and plugging the running lanes...

...while Hull and White are more effective in nickle roles covering the middle of the field in a Cover-3 type scenario.  All three are limited, but Beauharnais carries the most upside - which may or may not matter as far as roster spots are concerned.

Rookie Free agents Cameron Gordon out of Michigan and Mississippi State's Deontae Skinner are looking for spots behind Collins on the strong side, though they will have some competition from former New Orleans Saints' nickle rusher Will Smith who is looking to overcome an ACL tear in his right knee.

Smith has had nearly a full year to recover from his surgery to repair the ligament, which was torn as he attempted to switch from a defensive end to outside linebacker in training camp last season - which makes him just as much an unknown at the position as the rookies in some respects.

But for the Patriots, it is the weak side that Jerod Mayo holds down that is the most critically in need of depth, and where Davis joins fellow third-year man Darius Fleming in vying for the backup spot behind the Patriots' defensive captain - and while 49ers' retread Fleming has a leg up in experience and athleticism over Davis, all of the backup spots could be trumped by the presence of James Anderson.

Signing Anderson was a boon for Belichick, as he gives the Patriots an excellent combination of size, speed and experience in a spot that has been an albatross for the unit for the past several years, and has proven over the years that he can handle either wing.

He is faster than any other linebacker in the Patriots' stable (a solid 4.5 in the 40), and while he isn't the most physical of players, his numbers for the past four years suggest that he's no slouch against the run.  But the Patriots have to hope that he's not needed in that capacity -rather - that he become their "Big Nickle", a safety-sized linebacker (6' 3", 235 pounds) with speed and skill to take on backs and tight ends in the pattern.

The Bears declined to resign Anderson after he led the team in tackles, as many within the organization felt that he wore down late in the season - but while that may be true, perhaps the Bears didn't take into account that they used the 30 year old to excess when their linebacking corps became besieged by injury, and he ended up starting every week...

...mostly on the strong side where he did an admirable job on tight ends and came away with four passes defended - combined with over 100 tackles and ranking second on the team behind Julius Peppers in sacks with four, one could certainly make a case for the Bears pulling a Danny Woodhead with Anderson in not signing one of their bright spots on a struggling defense.

But Chicago's loss is Bill Belichick's gain, as Anderson's versatility gives the Hooded One more options in coverage than in recent years - and provides the type of veteran insurance that he would have given up a kidney for last season when Mayo went down, leaving the weak side truly weak.

Typically, the weak side linebacker in a 4-3 base defense has some autonomy in that his job is to read and react, to keep track of the running back floating out into position for the screen, help set the edge in the running game and to blitz when the opportunity arises - things that Anderson has shown an unwavering penchant for in his years with Carolina and last year in Chicago.

The Patriots were absolutely gashed by the screen play last season after Mayo went down, and tight ends typically had a field day against the assailed underneath coverage and the Patriots struggled to set the edge in the running game, resulting in the team bringing in greybeard Andre Carter to provide the hard edge in the nickle.

And therein lies the problem.  Carter, a defensive end, was clearly at the end of his rope, but still provided the hard edge and inspired pass rush while used sparingly in the half a season he was with the team - while the emergence of Collins on the strong side late in the season solved a lot of the tight end issues, but the team was still lacking in that big nickle package.

Anderson could be the answer, as he could provide depth on both wings and be the nickle coverage 'backer that could be moved around to provide the defense matchup options.

Fleming is another intriguing option that could provide weak side depth - as he is purely a situational pass rusher and plays best outside the tackles, setting the edge and chasing to the sidelines.  At 6' 2" and 255 pounds, Fleming has tremendous size but has torn the ACL in his left knee twice, and in consecutive offseason camps - but if he can make it out of camp, a roster spot is probably his to lose. 

Other than those two and perhaps Smith, the rest of the depth chart - shown below with the projected players making the 53 man roster in bold - are purely camp bodies due to their limitations.

WLB:  Jerod Mayo   Darius Fleming   Ja'Gared Davis
MLB:  Dont'a Hightower   Steve Beauharnais  Taylor McCuller  Josh Hull  Chris White          
SLB:   Jamie Collins  James Anderson  Will Smith   Cameron Gordon  Deontae Skinner

Of course, as with anything Patriots, the caveat always has to do with health - but with Mayo back to full health and with little injury concern among what is projected the top five linebackers, this unit appears to be ready for some excellent camp battles.

This is part 8 of 9 wrapping up the Patriots' offseason.  Part 9 will focus on what could possibly be one of the best secondaries in the NFL.

Part 1 of 9: New England Patriots' philosophies morphing back to a simpler time
Part 2 of 9: New England Patriots' offensive philosophy - Heavy on substance, not sexy style
Part 3 of 9: Patriots surround Brady with talent, just not how most envisioned
Part 4 of 9: Patriots' incumbent backs no roster locks as rookies ready to compete
Part 5 of 9: Belichick takes a mulligan with Patriots' pass catchers
Part 6 of 9: Belichick in the spirit (of 76) in regard to offensive line
Part 7 of 9: Defensive line status up in the air while injuries mend

Follow Michael on twitter: @MichaelHammpub

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Patriots' defensive line status up in the air while injuries mend

There was something wrong even before his Achilles tendon snapped like a taut rubber band.

Prior to the 2013 season, Vince Wilfork had missed a total of six games in nine years, amassing 323 solo tackles and disrupting three times as many plays before they even had a chance to get started - his girth not so impressive at times as what he could do despite his size, his unique athleticism on display weekly.

Such burst he had off the line for a big man, he could find the gap before the guard had a chance to slide over most times, and on the others he would just shove his double team back with sheer brute strength and re-establish the line of scrimmage three yards deep in the pocket...
If Easley is healthy, he can play anywhere along the defensive line

...his singular dominance earning him first team All Pro honors following the 2012 season after amassing four second-team All Pro team selections in the previous five seasons, truly becoming better with each passing year.

But when last season began, it was obvious and apparent that the big man wasn't displaying his normal burst, not driving his blocker back into the pocket, not able to disengage when the run came right up the middle, which happened more and more the more he played, as he was pretty much rendered stationary - and not even the presence of wing man Tommy Kelly could mask the struggles that Wilfork was going through.

Then on the first defensive series of the game in week four at Atlanta and the Patriots backed up inside their own five yard line, Wilfork took a step toward Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan and suddenly crumpled in a massive heap on the Georgia Dome turf, and his season was over.

Kelly followed Wilfork to the shelf the following week with a knee injury - linebacker and defensive signal caller Jerod Mayo the week after that - and the results for the defense were predictable.

Was Vince dealing with a partial rupture prior to it tearing?  It really doesn't make any difference now, as for partial tears rest, ibuprofen and a professional tape job will keep the athlete competing while scar tissue forms and the tendon knits itself back together - but in that scenario the tendon continues to be compromised until complete immobilization can be achieved...

...or until surgery is indicated and performed, which quite often can return the player's full range of motion with proper rehabilitation and physical therapy - and from the reports coming out of the New England Patriots' Organized Team Activities, this has been accomplished - though the real test will come during mini camp and training camp when pads go on and the trench warfare starts in earnest.

Missing both of their starting defensive tackles and their weakside, sideline-to-sideline linebacker left the Patriots with a gaping hole in the middle of their defense in 2013 - a void that affected every level of the defense as Belichick was forced to plug and play rookie free agents Joe Vellano on the nose and Chris Jones as the three tech and bringing in Issac Sopoaga from Philadelphia to bolster the middle.

But the try-hard Vellano just didn't have the bulk to take on double teams and Sopoaga was a classic bust from the moment he put on the Patriots' uniform, and it wasn't until career practice squad nose tackle Sealver Siliga was plucked from the ranks of the unemployed and inserted in the middle that the proverbial tide was stemmed.

In fact, the 6' 2", 325 pound Siliga stabilized the interior defense to the point that the rest of the defense gained enough autonomy to become a reasonable facsimile of what the unit was supposed to be.  He took on the double teams which enabled Jones to penetrate opposite and gave the Patriots linebackers a little bit better defined idea of which gaps to shoot.

It wasn't perfect, but they made it work all the way to the AFC Title Game, where they bent plenty, but only broke twice, surrendering just 26 points to the Denver Broncos' record-setting juggernaut offense but still losing the game because the Patriots were unable to overcome issues on the offense side of the ball.

In both instances, the Broncos controlled the line of scrimmage - on defense because the offensive line just couldn't stop the Denver pass rushers once their run defense had rendered the Patriots one-dimensional, and on offense because once Denver wide receiver Wes Welker took out New England's top cover corner, the ends were forced to chip the Broncos' receivers before initiating their pass rush.

The answer to this would have been to have quality depth everywhere, which they didn't have then, but appear to have now - particularly on the interior, where the Patriots' offseason roster features no less than nine tackles vying for what will probably be five spots, while the defensive end depth chart sports six players with just four spots open.

A healthy Wilfork and ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are the only true locks on the chart, with Siliga and Kelly probables to retain their roster spots, leaving ten players fighting for just four slots on the final 53 man roster - with the spots, more than any other level on the defense, dependent on health in determining who makes it and who doesn't.

First round draft pick Dominique Easley is coming off a torn ACL, as is Kelly and former Saints' defensive end Will Smith, who also may figure in the linebacker competition - while the much rumored, Howard Hughes-like presence of tackle Armond Armstead is still shrouded in mystery after missing all of last season with a flesh-eating infection.

Second year end Michael Buchanan spent his rookie year playing underweight thanks to a broken jaw in his senior season at Illinois, and is expected to be able to show exactly what made him such a pass rushing force in college now that he's a had a fully healthy offseason to get his body right.

Ends Jake Bequette and Zach Moore  are buried deeply on the depth chart while the same is true for tackles Marcus Forston and L. T. Tuipulotu, with seventh round selection Moore the only one with a fighting chance to be with the team past August, but probably as a practice squader.

Easley, a certain top 10 pick had he not torn his knee up, can play anywhere along the line, even on the nose at just 290 pounds as many scouts profess that he plays with violence and leverage that add another 20-30 pounds of force behind his drive - and the same is supposed to be true with Armstead, but neither have been regular participants in OTAs.

If healthy for camp, both would be locked in for spots along the line thanks to their versatility, but the caveat remains for the time being, and renders the defensive line depth chart as seen below, with the probables to make the final roster in bold:

LDE:  Rob Ninkovich  Will Smith  Jake Bequette  
DT:    Tommy Kelly  Chris Jones   Dominique Easley  Armond Armstead  Marcus Forston
NT:    Vince Wilfork  Sealver Siliga   Joe Vellano   L. T. Tuipulotu
RDE:  Chandler Jones   Michael Buchanan   Zach Moore 

Of course, the aforementioned health status for Wilfork, Easley and Armstead will dictate this list on final cutdowns, as will the health and depth amongst the linebacking corps, where Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins could figure into the mix as nickle rushers on the strong (left) side.

This is part 7 of 9 wrapping up the Patriots' offseason.  Part 8 will focus on what could possibly be one of the best linebacker corps in the NFL.

Part 1 of 9: New England Patriots' philosophies morphing back to a simpler time
Part 2 of 9: New England Patriots' offensive philosophy - Heavy on substance, not sexy style
Part 3 of 9: Patriots surround Brady with talent, just not how most envisioned
Part 4 of 9: Patriots' incumbent backs no roster locks as rookies ready to compete
Part 5 of 9: Belichick takes a mulligan with Patriots' pass catchers
Part 6 of 9: Belichick in the spirit (of 76) in regard to offensive line

Follow Michael on twitter: @MichaelHammpub

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Belichick in the spirit (of '76) in regard to Patriots' offensive line

Bill Belichick is on record as saying that the 1976 Patriots are the best team ever to be assembled in Foxborough - a virtual "who's who" in franchise history.

For those that are too young to remember or who were not not even born yet, that Patriots' team was the first in franchise history to actually contend for a title after ten years of futility in the old American Football League segued into seven more lean years upon the merger of the AFL with the National Football League, going 11-3 and earning a wild card berth and losing to the Oakland Raiders in the infamous Ben Dreith Game...
The left side is set with Solder and Mankins, the right is a question mark

...featuring three separate very questionable personal fouls called on New England's defense in the final minute of the game that extended the Raiders' final drive when the Patriots appeared to have them stopped - and given that Oakland stomped the Steelers the following week in the AFC Championship and then did the same in the Super Bowl to the Minnesota Vikings, it would appear that the Patriots were robbed of their first World Title.

Which may or may not be true, but all of that detracts from the fact that when Belichick heaped such high praise on this unit, he did so from personal experience as he was under the employ of the Detroit Lions that season as an assistant coach, a Lions' team that handed New England one of it's three losses by building a big early lead and forcing New England to the air, neutralizing their potent running game.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Belichick takes a mulligan with Patriots' pass catchers as health remains key

Don't be surprised if all nine of the New England Patriots draft picks are still with the team come September.

That includes Michigan wide receiver Jeremy Gallon, whom Bill Belichick plucked out of his magic hat just three selections shy of being "Mr. Irrelevant", the moniker reserved for the final pick in the NFL draft - but just for the sake of relevance, believe that Belichick does absolutely nothing without a purpose.

He doesn't give kids a chance because he feels bad for them, nor does he carry a roster spot specifically for hard-luck cases - either you can play football or you can't, and the kid can play.
One way to keep Brady smiling? Healthy pass catchers.

Sure, he's not much taller than a standard garden gnome but his hands are magical and his route running pro ready, something that should appeal to the deliberate Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady, as last season he lost his cool on more than one occasion when his rookie receivers zigged when they should have zagged in the pattern.

But that was last season, a surrealistic nightmare that ended with Brady throwing to journeyman Austin Collie and special teams' captain Matthew Slater in the AFC Championship Game - Slater a receiver in label only as the three-time Pro Bowl selection for his play in the kicking game has but one catch for 46 yards to his credit in six seasons with the Patriots - simply because everyone else was hurt.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Is Tom Brady a "Top 5 Quarterback? Patriots' fans shouldn't care

Stats are for losers.

Unless, of course, you frequent the fantasy football circuit - and then stats are everything.  By the time you've gotten through a season, you find yourself cheering for players on teams that you don't like, perhaps even needing a rival's defense to shut out your own team's offense in order to win your league.

That said and unless you are hard-core fantasy junkie who doesn't know loyalty to any one team any longer, the process of drafting players and setting your active roster for the week takes little time, as name recognition alone will get most fantasy teams into the win column every now and then...

...but there's a reason why it's called fantasy football.  It has nothing to do with the human element per se, just a bi-product of their toil on the field - a set of numbers that tell no story, merely providing the team owner a scientific base from which to proceed - no game plans, no pain, no excuses.  If your numbers aren't winning games for the team owner, you are tossed aside like yesterday's trash.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Patriots on the clock for Finley?

Are the Patriots so predictable that every sportswriter in the country has them pegged as the mystery team that hosted former Green Bay tight end Jermichael Finley last Friday?

Apparently so, and for good reason as's Pro Football Talk started speculation when news of a mystery shopper surfaced:

"We’ve speculated that Finley visited the Patriots on Friday, given that the team that hosted him insisted on silence — which is something the Patriots typically do."

Patriots' incumbent backs no roster locks as rookies ready to compete

"Both the University of Wisconsin and the Patriots are afforded the luxury of having the 5' 10", 200 pound White split carries both with the power backs that Wisconsin is noted for and that the Patriots' "By Committee" approach begs for - but in White, Patriots' coach Bill Belichick has drafted a back that can do everything the veteran backs can do - combined." - Foxborough Free Press, May 16, 2014

How much does Bill Belichick regret letting Danny Woodhead get away in free agency last offseason?

The Hoodie makes some mistakes in personnel, but usually not so egregious as to facilitate 2013's Summer of Pain, when he lost his top receiver, top third down back and half of his twin tight end attack - carrying over into the regular season when he lost Shane Vereen in the season opener with a broken bone in his wrist, then three defensive mainstays in successive weeks.

Belichick gambled that Vereen would at least match Woodhead's production and that new receiver Danny Amendola would come close to approaching "Welker-esque" numbers - but there was no replacing Aaron Hernandez as he sat - and still sits - rotting in jail...

...and coupled with the fact that the team was running with Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan as their tight ends at the start and at the end of the season, the onus fell on a group of rookie receivers and a brace of running backs that, while individually one dimensional which made the Patriots' offense predictable, those mistakes finally caught up with Belichick in the AFC Championship Game.