As training camp approaches, we’ve gone through each position and offered a spot by spot breakdown. With camp set to open Thursday, here’s our last positional preview, defensive back. (Check out the complete list here.)
Overview: This was a pretty good group last year when everyone was where they were supposed to be: Aqib Talib as the Alpha Dog, Dennard as the No. 2 corner, Arrington in the slot, McCourty roaming center field and Steve Gregory at strong safety. The problems arose when Talib went down and everyone at corner had to take a step forward — instead of relying on depth, the whole house of cards came crashing down. Never was this more the case than in the AFC title game, when Talib went out early on and Peyton Manning scorched the New England secondary. (No one preaches team defense more than the Patriots, but Talib’s absence was the beginning of the end for New England.) After losing Talib in the offseason, the Patriots fundamentally approached the cornerback position using the same approach they did at wide receiver between 2006 and 2007, pushing all their chips to the middle of the table and going after Revis. Provided they stay healthy, the addition of Revis and Browner create an impressive layer of depth at corner — New England can now utilize Dennard as a nickel corner while keeping Arrington in the slot. As for safety, McCourty continues to play free safety at an elite level, but he will be forced to learn how to play alongside a new strong safety after Gregory was cut loose over the offseason. But despite the questions about strong safety, the secondary has become one of the positions of strength on the team, and allow the Patriots to stare down the rest of the top-shelf passing games across the league.
THREE THINGS WE KNOW
1. Darrelle Revis changes everything.
It is impossible to overstate the impact of Revis on the New England defense. At several points over the course of the spring, his new teammates (on both sides of the ball) commented on his approach to the game, his overall fitness as a teammate and his ability to affect almost every level of play on the defensive side of the ball. (Our favorite came from wide receiver Brandon LaFell, who gave a weary shake of the head when asked about Revis’ cover skills. ‘Man, Revis is’¦ he’s a guy who has seen it all. None of your tricks are going to work on him.’ It might be unfair to say he’s going to be Revis, circa 2009, who had one of the great seasons for any cornerback in the recent history of the NFL. But if he can effectively take away the lead pass-catcher on a weekly basis and allow the pass rushers to get an extra two seconds to get after the quarterback, he’s done his job.
2. Brandon Browner will be sidelined for the first four games of the regular season.
The new corner will sit out the first month as part of a suspension for violating the league’s PED rules last season. As a result, the Patriots will likely push Dennard back into a starting role, at least on a temporary basis. One of the things New England has to feel good about is the fact that the ban comes at a time where it won’t be facing what could best be described as a top-shelf passing game — of the Dolphins, Vikings, Raiders and Chiefs, the biggest challenge might come from Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith. At the same time, provided Dennard is completely healthy at the open of the regular season, the Revis-Dennard corner combo should be enough to hold the fort until Browner returns to action.
While no one dispute the fact that the Patriots added an elite cornerback in Revis, McCourty will still hold sway as the unquestioned head of the defensive backs. He hasn’t had the most seniority in the system — remarkably, that honor goes to Arrington, who arrived in 2009, one year before McCourty. But the rest of the defensive backs defer to McCourty, who has evolved from an All-Pro corner (second team) as a rookie to one of the better free safeties in the league.
1. How quickly can all the new defensive backs get used to playing alongside each other?
No one is disputing that Revis, Browner and McCourty are some of the best at what they do. The positional grouping has a chance to be the best secondary in New England since the 2003 team that had Ty Law, Asante Samuel, Tyrone Poole, a young and feisty Eugene Wilson and Rodney Harrison. (Although the 2001 secondary — with Law, Lawyer Milloy and Otis Smith — was pretty good as well.) But you just can’t throw three guys who have never lined up together into the mix at the same time and tell them to play. Regardless of how good they were before they came together, playing as a singular unit in the secondary is an art form, and learning how to mesh can take some time. (This is one of the reasons why the group has apparently got together over the course of the offseason.) This is not to suggest that they will have issues — it’s just that sometimes, it can be a delicate process, and the acclimation can occasionally take some time.
2. Who is going to play strong safety?
With Gregory cut loose in the offseason, there are several possibilities at the strong safety spot, a group that includes Chung and Wilson, the latter of whom was seriously talked up Wednesday by McCourty. However, the odds on favorite at this point seems to be Harmon, a second-year defensive back out of Rutgers who looked relatively natural at the spot over the course of the spring workouts that were open to the media. The 6-foot, 198-pound Harmon, who finished his rookie year with two picks in 15 games, stood out for several reasons this spring, not the least of which was the fact that while the rest of the defensive players were either working in their own position groups or going through special teams drills, he was frequently seen in the company of McCourty, Revis and Browner. (When he was asked what those conversations were like for him, the 23-year-old replied sheepishly, “Really, just me listening. You have guys that are All-Pros – what can I really say? I’m in my second year, and these guys have played a lot of football and a lot of great football at a high level. It’s really a great chance for me to just sit back and soak up a lot of that wisdom from those three guys.”)
3. Can one of the rookies crack the 53-man roster?
The most intriguing young prospect might be Thomas, a playmaker out of Georgia Tech who lined up at both safety and corner over the course of his college career. At 5-foot-9 and 192 pounds, the slightly undersized ‘ but solidly built ‘ Thomas played all four years at Tech as a defensive back, starting the final 28 games. As a junior, he had four interceptions. In 2013 as a senior, he started all 13 games and led the team in solo tackles (73) and pass break-ups (8), and had 9 interceptions in his last three seasons at Tech. No one is expecting him to step right into this starting lineup, but his skill set, versatile and record as a playmaker certainly suggest he could stick around in some form or fashion. (For what it’s worth, another youngster who didn’t look out of place while running with the backups over the course of the spring workouts was Swanson, a 5-foot-11, 190-pounder out of Sam Houston State. He’s technically in his second year in the league, but didn’t take a snap at the NFL level last season with the Colts and Niners. He finished his college career with the school record for interceptions with 14, and showed a nice nose for the ball during minicamp and OTA’s. Like Thomas, he faces a steep climb when it comes to playing time, but if the Patriots can get him through to the practice squad, he might provide some depth, at least this year.)
By the numbers: 1.8 – According to Football Outsiders, in his eight games with the Seahawks in 2013, Browner yielded an average of just 1.8 yards after the catch, tied for the league lead with Jabari Greer (For comparisons sake, Talib yielded an average of 5.4 YAC, 77th in the league, while Revis was at 3.3, 24th in the league.) In 2012, Browner was 15th in the league with an average of 2.5 yards allowed after the catch.
Key new player: Revis. Revis, Revs, Revis. Simply put, he may very well be the most impactful defensive free agent acquired during the Belichick era. Depending on his contract situation, he might only be around for one season, but if you are going to go all-in on a cornerback, he might be the guy.
The skinny: The Patriots were paper-thin at corner at the end of the season. Now, they boast a cornerback tandem so complete, New England is being mentioned in the same sentence with teams like Seattle as possibly having the best secondary in the league. They might not be in that discussion quite yet, but as the 2014 dawns, the Patriots aren’t too far removed.
The Patriots announced Wednesday they re-signed first-year wide receiver Greg Orton and released rookie wide receiver Tyler McDonald.
Here’s a portion of the release issued by the team.
Orton, 28, was originally signed to the Patriots practice squad on Dec. 31, 2013, and was released by the team on May 22. The 6-foot-3, 199-pounder spent part of 2011 and all of 2012 on the Denver practice squad and went to training camp with Denver in 2013. He originally entered the NFL as a rookie free agent with the Cincinnati Bengals out of Purdue in 2009. Orton had stints with the Arena Football League’s Spokane Shock and the United Football League’s Omaha Knights before joining the Denver practice squad.
McDonald, 23, was signed by the Patriots as a rookie free agent on July 18, out of South Carolina State. The 6-foot-3, 190-pounder, had a career-best 51 receptions for 956 yards as a senior in 2013. McDonald finished his college career with 159 receptions for 2,389 receiving yards.
FOXBORO — Bill Belichick couldn’t be happier that the next stage of the football season is upon us. As a matter of fact, in some ways, it’s the most important phase before actual games begin.
Starting Thursday, the Patriots will hold training camp and ramp up their practices and preparation for the 2014 season, which opens Sept. 8 in Miami. And to many Patriots fans, the eve of training camp is somewhat akin to Christmas Eve, the day before they get to see their team on the field for the first time since watching them lose the AFC championship game last January.
“Welcome to football season,” Belichick beamed. “We’re here. It’s always an exciting time of year ‘ the start of training camp. I thought that we had a real productive spring with a lot of our players, a couple new coaching staff members. We’re kind of pulling it all together. That’s really to put us in a position to start camp and we kind of get it going today with some conditioning stuff. We’re not in pads for a couple days and then we’ll roll into them by the weekend. It’s a good opportunity to get off to a good start. We’ll see how it goes.
“We obviously have a lot of work to do. We’ll just take it day by day and try to string some good days together and then see if we can get ready to go down and have good weeks against Washington and Philadelphia and into the preseason. From our coaching standpoint, I think it’s all going to happen pretty fast. Again, the spring preparation has been a really important part of this whole process. Now we’ll take it into the next step and hopefully get off to a good start these next couple days and getting into a good, solid week of work by ourselves and then be ready to work against two quality teams, two quality organizations.”
The Patriots will only be in shorts and shells in the first two days, with the first full pads practice expected by the weekend.
“I think this is where we really start finding out; a lot of teaching in the spring and the evaluations are more now,” Belichick says. “So, we’ll see. I think everybody has had their opportunity to participate in the spring workouts, to learn what we’re doing, to get in shape, to be ready to go and now we start competing and we’ll see how that turns out. I don’t know.”
More than anything, training camp is about conditioning as the team begins to work in pads for the first time. The running game is the one part of the offense that can’t be truly duplicated without seeing live bullets or in football terms – live pad-on-pad action.
“I think we’ll find that out after a week of training camp; start stringing some days together and see how we all look,” Belichick said of conditioning. “I know we’ve had guys here for a couple days but that’s not quite the full camp so we’ll see how it goes, take it day by day.
“It’s good to see all the players that are out there, out there. The ones that aren’t out there yet that are working hard to get back, we’ll look forward to seeing them as soon as they’re able to participate. We have 90 players on our roster and the ones that are out there actively participating, I’m happy to see all of them.
“We’re certainly not anywhere near where we need to be or will be, but I’d say we’ve already crossed part of that bridge in the spring. We had 13 practices together and at this time of year, as we do in the spring, we work a lot of different people in different combinations and let the competition sort itself out. I think that we’ve had good, productive communication at all the positions. There’s always going to be turnover. There’s turnover every year on every team. This is nothing unique. We’ll just see how it plays out. I don’t think that necessarily has to be a problem but it could be. I don’t know.”
Here are some other tidbits from Belichick on Wednesday:
Q: So today is the full team conditioning run? Everyone runs today.
BB: No, we’ve had guys here for three days.
Q: So many have already completed it then?
BB: Yeah. The guys that have practiced have been obviously cleared to practice and they’re practicing and they’re rolling. Then we have another, probably half the team, coming in today.
Q: Is everybody here or accounted for?
BB: We’ll find out.
Q: Guys still rolling in?
BB: Yeah, we’re going through the physicals and getting things organized and all that this morning, so hopefully.
Q: With more physicals today, is it possible you could add a couple more guys for tomorrow?
BB: The guys that we’re seeing for the first time, yeah, I don’t know what their situation is. They would have to be cleared by our medical department before they’re allowed to participate. That’s part of what today’s process is. Guys that have already been here have already gone through that. There’s another group that’s going through that today.
Q: Has Rob Gronkowski been here? Is a decision on him still to come in terms of PUP?
BB: He’s been here.
Q: Would it be accurate to say he won’t start camp on the PUP list?
BB: Yeah, he would be ineligible to do that.
Q: Because he’s been here?
BB: Right. Well not because he’s been here, but because he’s been cleared to play.
Q: Was Armond Armstead’s retirement something you were preparing for ahead of time before he announced it or something you reacted to?
BB: Armond had a problem, had an issue come up later in the spring and then it was resolved. When it was resolved a week ago or whenever it was, it was a little bit of a process. I think after everything had come through, that was the decision that he made. So, as that process is going on, we realized that was certainly a possibility.
Q: Do you like it better now the way it is ‘ when guys come in they are fully ready to go, they’ve had an offseason?
BB: It doesn’t really matter what I think about it. We work within the constraints that we have. Whatever the rules and opportunities are and try to make the most of them. That’s what we’ve always done, that’s what we’ll try to do now.
Q: When the rookies come in early, what happens during those couple days?
BB: The players that came in early were a combination of rookies and veterans; obviously quarterbacks. It was a mixed group but for the most part, with one or two exceptions, all those players were here in the spring. So it isn’t like we’re starting from scratch of, ‘Here’s where the field is,’ type of thing. We’re beyond that. They’re all here for a reason, for a purpose. We try to make the most out of those opportunities that they were here for. They’re all, again, different reasons, different circumstances but there are reasons why they’re here, set forth in the CBA. We try to, again, use that time to use it productively for those players. They’re in certainly different categories, different situations.
Q: Cameron Fleming missed all the spring except for minicamp. How has he done cramming for everything he missed?
BB: I think all the players are in different stages of development. Cam is a smart kid. He’s picked things up quickly but started further behind because of the two and half weeks or whatever it was that he missed. Again, we’ll try to level the playing field here in training camp so that everybody gets an opportunity to compete: the double digit veterans and the guys that are here for the first time. That’s not going to be totally level but it will be hopefully on a competitive level and we’ll see how it goes. But they’re here, they’re working hard and we have a long, long way to go. We’ll see how much everybody improves.
Q: Rob Gronkowski has had a lot to overcome physically the last couple years. What have you seen from behind the scenes how he has worked to get himself back?
BB: Rob’s always worked hard. He worked hard as a rookie, he’s always worked hard. When he’s here ‘ I can’t speak for ‘ but what we’ve seen, he’s been consistent.
Q: With a guy like Rob Gronkowski, is there anything more that the staff can do during the year to preserve his health?
BB: The health of the team is the most important thing that we have. That’s for all 90 players now and 53 players once we have our final roster. We always try to do everything we can to help all the players stay healthy and stay on the field. We do that for everybody; every single guy. It’s a consideration for all them. Certainly Rob, but everybody. We don’t single out ‘these players’ and ‘those players’. It’s all the players, all of them.
FOXBORO — WEEI.com’s Mike Petraglia and Chris Price preview the opening of training camp for the Patriots on Thursday outside Gillette Stadium. On Wednesday, head coach Bill Belichick announced that tight end Rob Gronkowski has been cleared to practice with the Patriots as camp begins.
Let’s take a look at the top 50 wide receivers. I’d planned on ranking just the top 36, which would represent the starters in 12-team leagues, but this year’s group is so deep that more players merit a mention. If you are looking for an even deeper take on this year’s receiving class, go to Rotobahn and check out our Top 300, which includes rankings and comments for over 100 receivers.
Just to be clear, these rankings reflect standard or performance scoring rather than PPR (point per reception) scoring. For a PPR take on the receivers, you can check out my 2014 projections.
These are the monsters. They almost always come through and they’re all healthy. These guys aren’t just WR1 fantasy options, they are high-end WR1 options. You can anchor your receiving corps with any of them. In fact, we think the top five all have a solid shot at being No. 1 by season’s end. While we don’t quite see that high a ceiling for Marshall, we love his high floor and consistency. He also has the complete trust of his quarterback. The Jay Cutler-to-Marshall connection dates back to their rookie season as Broncos in 2006.
There’s not much drop-off from the first tier, but you have some smaller receivers and Jeffery has just the single season of greatness. Nelson is on the cusp of Tier 1, but I still have some concerns about him staying healthy and don’t feel that his top end goes quite as high as the options in the elite tier.
Here’s another group that signifies a small drop-off from the prior tier. Arizona’s Floyd and Fitzgerald are on par with Chicago’s Jeffery and Marshall, but we give the Bears duo a bump because we like Cutler a bit better than we do Carson Palmer. Johnson still is elite, but his quarterback is not … and his offense is in a state of flux. Allen has the look of a potential star, but he has a rough schedule in 2014 that features four contests against NFC West teams.
This group is comprised of players who can be strong second fantasy receivers or WR2s. They all have high-end talent, but with a caveat. Crabtree and Harvin have thick injury histories. Garcon and Jackson are in new offenses, and Jackson probably will have a new quarterback in Josh McCown. Patterson has only half of a season’s worth of NFL production. White is on the decline but still very good.
Big talents, but with some issues. Wallace and Jackson have diva reputations for reasons both fair and unfair. Decker has a quarterback downgrade of rather epic proportions if you go by 2013 statistics … or 2014 projections, for that matter. Hilton still is looking like a great talent, but his team likes to limit his snaps and exposure to punishment … not to say that we blame them, but it affects his fantasy ceiling. Smith is in a new offense, but our guess is that it ends up being a plus. He’s a breakout candidate who only needs to find the zone a few more times to become a high-end WR2.
In Tier 6 we have players trending in different directions. On the way up, we have Tate, Wright and Edelman. Both Wright and Tate get better every year, and Edelman has done the same but finally has found a way to stay healthy. I expect all three to be stable WR3 options in 2014, and Wright has WR2 upside in PPR formats. Edelman obviously gets a value bump because he plays with a future Hall of Fame quarterback. Trending down are Cruz, Colston and Welker. Welker and Colston have age and mileage concerns, while Cruz simply has a nasty downward trend statistically since his breakout season in 2011. Having said all that, all three have solid WR3 value on draft day. Welker and Colston play with all-time great quarterbacks while Cruz still projects to be a No. 1 option for his team.
It’s a big old tier for sure, and I’d feel fine with any of these guys in my lineup. What this tier has in abundance is upside, but also significant roles. The concerns for guys like Sanders, Shorts, Cooper and Maclin are injuries. They’ve all had multiple maladies over their fairly young careers. For Cooks, Stills, Williams, Jones and Evans, we have very young players with little or no NFL experience. Cooks, Stills and Williams represent excellent talent in great situations. Jones and Evans are talented long-bodied guys with solidified starting roles and solid touchdown potential. Randle may end up as the Giants‘ third receiver, but New York can support a third receiver quite nicely, as we’ve seen in the past. And he has some breakout potential as Eli Manning‘s best red zone target.
Tier 8 is all about upside, but there are bigger concerns with roles and quarterback quality. Hopkins, Watkins, Hunter and Austin all have issues with their quarterbacks. Nicks, Hunter and Austin still are trying to establish their roles with their teams, though they should all get a fair shot. Again, what this tier offers is upside. This entire tier is filled with players who could post WR2 numbers. Nicks has shown high-end talent in the past and now plays with a stud quarterback. Hopkins is highly talented and he’s got a nose for the end zone. Sadly, he also has a limited quarterback in the near term. Dobson is a player we like a lot, but we want to see him playing at 100 percent before we consider him for Tier 7 or even Tier 6. After all, he’s got red zone ability and he plays with that Brady guy. Beckham Jr. and Watkins are game-ready rookies with game-breaking ability, but Beckham Jr. has to share the ball in New York and Watkins is in a sketchy quarterback situation. I don’t disagree with the people who think the Rams over-drafted Austin, but that doesn’t mean the guy can’t play. I just think you have to be careful about investing too much into a 174-pound receiver who also carries the football. I think the Steelers got it right this year with Dri Archer, whom people will be talking about at some point this season. Hunter was our “Johnny Bravo” at Rotobahn last year heading into the draft. While he had some diva tendencies and an ACL injury to be concerned about, he also had all the traits we see on today’s prototypical receivers. If Hunter hits, he has the potential to hit big. That upside gets him into the tier.
This small tier closes out the top 50 receivers as things currently stand. Bowe is the clear No. 1 for a mediocre quarterback, while Wayne is coming off major injury but plays with a great young quarterback. I think Wayne lacks the upside he had before his injury, but with Luck he still has a chance to produce WR3 numbers if things go well. Bowe also has a shot at WR3 performance.
The depth and quality of the receivers available in 2014 is stunning. There are still plenty of fantasy-relevant receivers who missed the cut. As I said earlier, head over to Rotobahn and check out our Top 300. I’ll be back in this space again next week with an in-depth look at the quarterbacks.
WEEI.com's Mike Petraglia and Chris Price discuss the start of Patriots training camp. Players began arriving for camp on Wednesday, and Bill Belichick broke the news that Rob Gronkowski has been cleared to play.
[0:00:00] ... Welcome back to football 2014. The NewEnglandPatriots are about to open up training camp. Here outside Gillette Stadium. I'm Mike to -- a long time no see partnered Christopher ... [0:03:17] ... one. We're not talking about the same kind of turn -- that WesWelker and went from 20092010. That was an eight month turnaround you're looking at a ten month turnaround. It's not Blake Welker but ... [0:04:47] ... Wednesday morning on the eve of training camp here at. Gillette Stadium BillBelichick back and shouldn't be surprised by this was asked about. The text messages between Aaron Hernandez. And several members of the patriots ... [0:07:29] ... who ended last year and injured reserve. Mayo Wilfork. Those guys to TommyKelly exactly TommyKelly to see where those guys are -- their overall level fitness. Don't wanna see how Revis is able to be incorporated into ...