FOXBORO — Bill Belichick was not in the mood to talk anything but football on Wednesday, on the eve of training camp opening outside Gillette Stadium.

FOXBORO — Bill Belichick said Wednesday that Rob Gronkowski has been in the facility in the days leading up to training camp, and has been “cleared to play.”

As a result, the tight end — who ended last year on injured reserve after a knee injury against the Browns — apparently will not start the year on the physically unable to perform list.

FOXBORO — Bill Belichick said Wednesday that Rob Gronkowski has been in the facility in the days leading up to training camp, and has been “cleared to play.”

As a result, the tight end — who ended last year on injured reserve after a knee injury against the Browns — apparently will not start the year on the physically unable to perform list.

“Rob has always worked hard. He worked hard as a rookie,” Belichick said of the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski. “He’s been consistent.”

In four seasons with the Patriots, Gronkowski has 226 catches for 3,255 yards and 42 touchdowns. However, he’s been dogged by injury issues, including problems with his knee, back and forearm.

For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price

Hit fast-forward to Jan. 18, 2015. Start printing the tickets. While everyone is opening training camp over the next week or so, in truth, there’s no need for the rest of the AFC to even put on pads -- the next six months are only going to serve as a precursor to a second straight conference title game between the Patriots and Broncos.



Jerod Mayo is one of the clear leaders of the New England defense. (AP)

Jerod Mayo is one of the clear leaders of the New England defense. (AP)

As training camp approaches, we’€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We looked at the offensive side of the ball, as well as special teams. To open things up on defense, we examined the state of the defensive line. Now, it’€™s the linebackers (For the complete series, click here):

Roster (stats taken from coaches film review): Steve Beauharnais (1 tackle), Jamie Collins (38 tackles, 3 quarterback hits, 3 passes defensed), Ja’€™Gared Davis, Dont’€™a Hightower (137 tackles, 1 sack, 5 quarterback hits, 3 passes defensed), Chris White (1 tackle), Jerod Mayo (66 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, 1 pass defensed), Darius Fleming, Cameron Gordon, Josh Hull, Taylor McCuller, Deontae Skinner, James Anderson.

Overview: The New England linebackers had quite a season last year — the indestructible Mayo was lost for the year after going down with a pectoral injury after just six games. Hightower was up, and then down/benched, and then up again. Collins came on like gangbusters down the stretch and revealed himself to be an athletic freak of a defender who is capable of multiple things (working in coverage, rushing the passer) at the NFL level. And Brandon Spikes went out in the most “Brandon Spikes” way possible, falling out of favor with the team after missing a meeting because he couldn’€™t get out of his driveway after a snowstorm. (After leaving town, he compared his time in New England to slavery.) In the midst of all of it, the Patriots were able to survive with a combo of Spikes-Hightower-Collins-Dane Fletcher. But they really missed the multiple abilities of Mayo, who had could work in coverage, rush the passer and operate with the green dot on the back of his helmet, all effectively. Going forward, while there are serious questions about depth beyond the starters, Anderson might be in position to work as a nickel linebacker on third down and other passing situations. There also appears to be some snaps open for one of the youngsters (Beauharnais? Fleming?) to fill the role of special teamer/backup that Fletcher did so well over the last few seasons. (Hull, who made his bones as a special teamer with the Rams and Redskins, could also figure in the mix there as well.)

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Jerod Mayo makes everyone around him better.

Mayo’€™s critics have roundly derided him as not being an elite-level linebacker on the same plane as someone like, say, Patrick Willis. But Mayo’€™s absence for the better part of last season really exposed the deficiencies of the group as a whole — no one on the roster has a skill set like Mayo. He can run with tight ends in coverage, occasionally rush the passer or work as the defensive leader. If you think of him as a student, he’€™s not necessarily the type who would garner A’€™s across the board. But at the same time, he rarely drops below a B- level of work. Just a steady, dependable, reliable presence who is fundamentally an extension of Bill Belichick on the field. And when Vince Wilfork decides to call it a career, this will become his defense. (It will be interesting to see if his responsibilities are altered at all this season — particularly against the run — now that Spikes is gone to Buffalo and the Patriots are left without a top-shelf run-stopper.)

2. Jamie Collins is just a freakish talent.

There were plenty of times early in the 2013 season where Collins made a rookie mistakes by overrunning plays, and then found himself trying to reverse field with his speed. After slowing a bit and letting the game come to him, he appeared to re-adjust nicely. The coaching staffs’€™ ability to bring him along at a gradual rate also helped his development — according to Pro Football Focus, the 6-foot-3, 250-pounder didn’€™t play more than half the snaps in a game until Week 14 against the Browns. But with Spikes falling out of favor down the stretch, Collins emerged as more of a dependable presence on defense. He was arguably New England’€™s best and most complete defender in the Divisional Playoff win over the Colts — in that game, he played every snap (for the first time in his NFL career) and finished with six tackles, three quarterback hits, a sack, a pass defensed and an interception. While he appeared overwhelmed at times in the AFC title game against the Broncos, his late-season surge sparked a strong belief that the Patriots had found their next great defender.

3. Depth is an issue.

The offseason losses of Fletcher and Spikes dealt a blow to the depth of the New England linebacking corps, one that the Patriots were still looking to address late in the spring with the addition of Fleming, Anderson and Hull. Look, injuries are always a concern at every position. And while there’€™s always the possibility that one of the younger players or veteran pickups could step forward (like Collins last year), if New England loses one of the starters for a significant stretch, it would be a major blow for a linebacking corps that’€™s already pretty thin.

THREE QUESTIONS

1. Can James Anderson fill the role of occasional coverage linebacker?

The 6-foot-2, 235-pound Anderson was signed as a free agent this spring, and has shown an ability to work in coverage over the course of his career. The 30-year-old, who has played with both the Bears and Panthers, could be a guy who is on the field in third-down and other passing situations in place of Hightower. He’€™s been praised as a smart veteran who has also shown an ability to serve as a mentor for younger players — if he’€™s able to get up to speed in the system in relatively rapid fashion, he could have a positive impact this season.

2. Can Dont’€™a Hightower deliver a consistent, full season of work?

By his own admission, Hightower was all over the place last season. He started well, but for a few reasons — not the least of which included a desire to maybe try and do too much when Mayo went down — he got out of his comfort zone. He was benched for some key moments last season, including most of the second half and into overtime of the regular-season win over the Broncos. (Although, to be fair, that could have been more a desire to keep a pass-first defense on the field against Peyton Manning.) Regardless, Hightower appeared to right things down the stretch, and again became a regular factor in New England’€™s defensive game plan. With the losses at linebacker over the course of the offseason, the Patriots will need Hightower to be able to maintain the level of play he showed down the stretch and into the playoffs.

3. Will we ever see anyone like Brandon Spikes in New England ever again?

Probably not. From his Twitter feed to his on-field celebrations, the freewheeling Spikes was never boring. After four years with the Patriots, he takes his act to Buffalo. He punctuated his departure from New England with a variety of shots at the Patriots, and the fact that he’€™s psyched about getting a chance to knock off the Patriots twice in 2014.

By the numbers: 0 – The number of starts (in a New England uniform) at linebacker for anyone other than the presumed lead trio of Jerod Mayo, Dont’€™a Hightower and Jamie Collins.

Key new player: Anderson. The Patriots have lacked a coverage linebacker for a few years, and the veteran could be the sort of longtime presence who brings a level of stability to the position. He fully admitted this spring that there’€™s a long way to go when it comes to the learning curve, but he feels good about where he is at this stage of the process. One more note on Anderson: he’€™s a tackling machine. Anderson has played in 110 NFL games and has registered 556 total tackles. Last season in Chicago, he started all 16 games and finished with 102 total tackles and four sacks.

The skinny: If the starters are able to remain healthy through the duration of the 2014 season and someone like Anderson is able to provide a boost when it comes to depth, then this group should be OK.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price
Darrelle Revis will be in the spotlight during his first training camp with the Patriots. (AP)

Darrelle Revis will be in the spotlight during his first training camp with the Patriots. (AP)

With the Patriots set to open camp this week in Foxboro, here are 10 things we’ll be keeping an eye on as things get underway:

1. How Darrelle Revis does as he continues to get acclimated to the Patriots system.

Revis is an elite defender — it’s a safe bet he’d be able to excel in just about any system. But with any new player on a new team, it takes some time to get used to new schemes, responsibilities and expectations. When it comes to Revis, it’s presumed he will act in much the same fashion as Aqib Talib did for the last year-plus — that is to say, he’ll be deployed most of the time in man coverage against the oppositions’ No. 1 option in the passing game. (Remember, Talib wasn’t necessarily utilized on wide receivers, as he also spent time shadowing tight ends like Jimmy Graham and Charles Clay.) It was clear Talib was going to have a pretty good 2013 when he first surfaced in camp and was shutting down anyone and everyone who dared to line up across from him. However, his real expertise was seen in the joint practices, when he was able to take his skills to the next level. Revis against Philly’s Jeremy Maclin and Washington’s DeSean Jackson will be fun to watch during the joint practices next month.

2. Tom Brady‘s relationship with his younger receivers.

To paraphrase Reggie Jackson, Brady remains the straw that stirs the drink. The quarterback, who turns 37 next month, went through a trying 2013 as he attempted to get on the same page with several new teammates on offense. While it was a rocky road at first, the passing game was able to road into form as the season went on. It will be interesting to see if the bonds that were forged between Brady and young receivers like Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins last season will pay off with big numbers in 2014. One thing that’s worth mentioning in this context — while Brady had absolutely zero continuity in the passing game between the 2012 and 2013 season, there’s no such concern this time around. The Patriots lost 305 catches between the 2012 and 2013 season — 75 percent of the output in the passing game. From a percentage standpoint, when comparing New England’€™s 2013 lineup with the 2014 roster, the Patriots have a retention rate of 97 percent when it comes to catches (370 of 380) and receiving yards (4,226 of 4,343), and 96 percent (24 of 25) when it comes to touchdown receptions.

3. The backup quarterback spot.

At this point, Ryan Mallett is expected to serve as the primary backup to Brady, while rookie Jimmy Garoppolo will work as the third stringer. (For what it’s worth, the last time the Patriots entered the regular season with three quarterbacks was 2011, when Brady, Mallett and Brian Hoyer were all kept around.) But the in-game progress of Garoppolo will certainly be worth monitoring as the preseason rolls along. Will this be the last summer in Foxboro for Mallett, who is going into the final year of his rookie deal?

4. The interior of the offensive line, specifically center and right guard.

Incumbent center Ryan Wendell has been near the top of the league in snaps played the last two seasons, and suffered some dropoff in 2013. Is it the start of a trend, or just because he’s been going up against the likes of Haloti N’gata on a regular basis? He’ll likely be challenged by rookie Bryan Stork, who did about a million laps for perceived infractions over the course of the spring workouts. (OK, so it wasn’t a million, but it sure seemed like every time we looked up, he was circling the field.) Stork arrives in Foxboro with an impressive resume, having won the Rimington Award as college football’s best center for a national championship team — he’s also got a beard that makes him look like Logan Mankins’ younger brother. As for starting right guard Dan Connolly, he could also be pushed by Jon Halapio, a sixth-rounder by way of Florida who put together an impressive college career with the Gators.

5. Rob Gronkowski.

The knee. The forearm. The back. All health issues that have dogged the big tight end over the last year-plus. When it comes to the 2014 season, you can look at it one of two ways: if you’re an optimist, you can point to the fact that it sounds like he won’t open training camp on the PUP list, as well as the fact that not too long ago, he was considered as durable as any tight end in the league. (He had a consecutive games played streak of 46 to open his professional career.) However, if you’re a pessimist, there’s the fact that he’s only played in nine of a possible 26 games since he his arm was crunched while blocking on that fateful extra-point attempt against the Colts in November 2012. He spent the spring sessions working with a rehab group in the corner of the field, and then retreated to the practice bubble to continue his attempt to get back to action sooner rather than later. He’s indicated a desire to play all 16 games in 2014, but if he can get back in time for Week 1, it would represent a seismic turnaround from a potentially devastating knee injury — maybe not as epic as Wes Welker‘s return in 2010, but not too far removed.

6. Who gets reps at tight end behind Gronkowski.

There remains some question as to the immediate availability of Gronkowski, and given the fact that Danny Amendola has played three more games (25 to 22) than Gronkowski has since the start of the 2012 season, that’s probably a fair question. If Gronkowski is unable to go, Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams figure to get the bulk of the reps out of the gate, with Hoomanawanui having shown that he has a history with the offense. Williams was hobbled over the course of the spring, and wasn’t see much in the practices the media had access to. The recently acquired Nate Byham also remains a possibility, as well as Dustin Keller, who remains on the market as a free agent. Rookies Justin Jones and Asa Watson also figure to be part of the mix, with the 6-foot-8, 274-pound Jones showing himself to be an intriguing prospect at minicamp and OTA’s. Of course, it will all be moot of Gronkowski is able to see the field from the start of camp, but it’s always good to have a backup plan in place.

7. Vince Wilfork.

Wilfork has always made for compelling theatre — our favorite training camp moments involving No. 75 have been when he’s gone head-to-head with Mankins in one-on-one drills in the corner of the practice field. But the perennial Pro Bowler is coming back from a season-ending Achilles’ injury that limited him to a career-low four games in 2013. He’s always been one to watch, but given the fact that he’s coming back from the first major injury of his career makes even more of a point of emphasis heading into training camp this summer.

8. James Anderson‘s ability to get up to speed as coverage linebacker.

The Patriots have been without a coverage linebacker the last few seasons, and the 30-year-old Anderson arrives in Foxboro with a rep as someone who runs well with tight ends and running backs in the passing game. The 6-foot-2, 235-pounder has carved out a nice niche as a steady, veteran presence with the Bears and Panthers, and is a tackling machine — he’s passed the century mark in three of the last four seasons, including 102 last season with the Bears. While he won’t be an every-down presence, if everything works according to plan, he would likely be on the field in place of someone like Dont’a Hightower on third downs and other passing situations, working as part of New England’s pass defense.

9. Who is getting reps at strong safety.

At this point, this is likely the spot that prevents the Patriots from walking away with the title of the Best Secondary In Football. While New England feels relatively secure at both corner positions, slot corner and free safety, the strong safety spot is still a bit of a question mark. Steve Gregory and Adrian Wilson were let go in the offseason, and while the Patriots do have a couple of possibilities on the roster — including Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung — none of them necessarily strike fear into the hearts of opposing offensive coordinators. New England could utilize a combination of players at the position, one that could potentially include new linebacker Anderson. In terms of who might have the inside track at this point, it was hard not to notice the fact that Harmon spent a sizable portion of minicamps alongside Revis, Brandon Browner and Devin McCourty.

10. Kick returner.

Since LeGarrette Blount departed as a free agent, the position of kick returner is open. While there are a handful of candidates on the roster who have some experience at the NFL level, including Julian Edelman and McCourty. The Patriots tried several different players at the spot in the spring sessions that were open to the media, and some of the more intriguing possibilities included second-year wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce, as well as rookie receiver Jeremy Gallon, who posted impressive numbers there as a collegian (he had 589 yards on 27 kick returns in 2010). If one of them can seize the mantle with a good performance this summer, it could also help solidify a roster spot, as things could get dicey for some of the younger receivers at the back end of the depth chart.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price

With camp looming later this week, the Patriots reportedly made some procedural roster moves Monday designed to allow some of players who are injured or coming off offseason surgery more time to rehab before they get on the field.

According to Field Yates of ESPN, defensive lineman Dominique Easley, running back Roy Finch, linebacker Deontae Skinner and tackle Chris Martin have been placed on the non-football injury list.

With camp looming later this week, the Patriots reportedly made some procedural roster moves Monday designed to allow some of players who are injured or coming off offseason surgery more time to rehab before they get on the field.

According to Field Yates of ESPN, defensive lineman Dominique Easley, running back Roy Finch, linebacker Deontae Skinner and tackle Chris Martin have been placed on the non-football injury list.

Meanwhile, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard; wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Jeremy Gallon; defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and special teamer Matt Slater were placed on the physically unable to perform list. Most of the players in this grouping were either limited (working with a rehab group) or not present during the media portion of the spring workouts.

In both cases — the active/physically unable to perform list as well as the active/non-football injury list — they can come off the list and return to practice at any time after they have been cleared by the team’s medical staff.

One thing worth noting is that both lists do not include tight end Rob Gronkowski, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo, all of who suffered season-ending injuries last year.

For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price

The Patriots announced Monday they have signed rookie free agent defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna and released rookie free agent defensive lineman Seali’i Epenesa.

Here’s a portion of the statement from the team on the moves.

The Patriots announced Monday they have signed rookie free agent defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna and released rookie free agent defensive lineman Seali’i Epenesa.

Here’s a portion of the statement from the team on the moves.

Manumaleuna, 25, was originally signed by the New York Giants as a rookie free agent out of Brigham Young on May 12. The 6-foot-2, 305-pounder, was released by the Giants on June 19. He played as a true freshman for BYU in 2007 and then served a two-year mission. He returned to the starting lineup in 2010. After suffering an injury early in the year as senior in 2010, Manumaleuna was granted a medical redshirt year after suffering an injury early in the year as a senior in 2012 and came back to start all 13 games in 2013. He finished his college career playing in 56 games and finishing with 143 total tackles and 5.5 sacks.

Epenesa, 22, was signed by the Patriots as a rookie free agent out of UCLA on June 17. The 6-foot-1, 310-pounder, played in 41 games and finished with 46 total tackles and one sack during his four year college career. He played in 12 games with seven starts as a senior in 2013 and was credited with 16 tackles and one sack.

For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price