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
Vince Wilfork's return highlights the New England defensive line. (AP)

Vince Wilfork‘s return highlights the New England defensive line. (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 examine the state of the defensive line:

Roster (stats taken from coaches film review): Defensive ends Jake Bequette (1 quarterback hit), Michael Buchanan (3 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 quarterback hits), Rob Ninkovich (93 tackles, 8 sacks, 18 quarterback hits), Chandler Jones (82 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 22 quarterback hits), Will Smith; defensive tackles Joe Vellano (48 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 quarterback hits), Chris Jones (56 tackles, 6 sacks, 8 quarterback hits), Sealver Siliga (21 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 quarterback hits), L.T. Tuipulotu; defensive linemen Vince Wilfork (10 tackles, 1 quarterback hit), Dominique Easley, Tommy Kelly (23 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 6 quarterback hits), Marcus Forston, Zach Moore.

Overview: This was a position of strength entering the 2013 season — with Wilfork, Kelly, Chandler Jones and Ninkovich up front, this group was one of the best in the league. A month into the season, both Wilfork and Kelly were sidelined with season-ending injuries, and the New England defensive line struggled to replace them. While the replacements (Chris Jones, Vellano, Siliga) did as well as could be expected, it was a sizable dropoff, and the Patriots suffered as a result. New England brought Andre Carter back midway through the season, and swung a deal for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga at the deadline. And while Carter was able to give them some quality snaps, the veterans were unable to prevent teams from exploiting the Patriots woes up front. While Ninkovich and Chandler Jones were able to provide strong support off the edge — and Jones showed some positional versatility when he kicked inside on a few occasions to work as a long, lean defensive tackle on passing downs — it was an effort to keep things together throughout the year. The most damning evidence came in the AFC title game when New England’€™s defensive front was unable to get a hand on Peyton Manning.

Going forward, the Patriots addressed some of the depth issues up front with the addition of Easley at the end of the first round, and while there are some questions about his health and how quickly he can get up to speed at the next level, he could provide support sooner rather than later at a variety of positions. In addition, Moore is a small-school prospect who could have an impact relatively early on as a backup to either Chandler Jones or Ninkovich at defensive end. But ultimately, it comes down to Wilfork, and, to a lesser extent, Kelly. If they return to the same level they were at when they went down last year — and both are able to stay injury-free — then New England’€™s defensive line could again become a massive position of strength.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Vince Wilfork is the leader of the defensive line.

Like Logan Mankins on the other side of the ball, Wilfork remains the centerpiece of the New England defensive front, a leader who has a voice that cuts across all lines in the locker room. From an on-field perspective, when he went down with his Achilles’€™ injury last year, it left a gaping hole up front. Down the stretch, Bill Belichick said on several occasions, ‘€œYou don’€™t just replace Vince Wilfork,’€ and even though those who walked in his shoes weren’€™t short on effort, his absence was a major reason this team fell short of its final goal. (As was the case with Matthew Slater, it wasn’€™t a surprise to see him on the road with the team, as it was clear Belichick has a level of respect for him that transcends simple X’€™s and O’€™s.) A borderline Hall of Famer who has an ability to play multiple spots along the defensive line at a high level well into his 30s, he’€™s not always the elite presence he once was. But like Mankins, Wilfork at 75 percent is still better than most of the rest of the league. He’€™ll be a compelling individual this summer for several reasons, including the fact that it will be interesting to chart his progress as he works his way back after the Achilles’€™ injury. But removed from the rehab work, he’€™s had an eventful offseason on two fronts: one, one of his most trusted advocates, Pepper Johnson, is no longer with the team, having departed to become an assistant in Buffalo. And two, a contract situation in the spring between Wilfork and the team got a little heated. It’€™s not expected that either of those things will affect his ability to do his job, but the 32-year-old will start an interesting new chapter of his football career with the Patriots when he takes the field at camp later this month.

2. Rob Ninkovich remains one of the most underrated players in the league.

From this viewpoint, Ninkovich has never gotten the credit he deserves. A perfect fit in New England, he’€™s managed to provide support while working as a 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker, as well as seeing action on special teams. Whether it’€™s been dropping into coverage, working as part of the pass rush or setting the edge, he’€™s been consistent and steady ever since showing up as a backup linebacker/long snapper in the summer of 2009. In his five years in New England, he’€™s accumulated 27.5 sacks (including back-to-back eight-sack seasons the last two years), four interceptions and an absurd 12 fumbles recovered. (Ninkovich’€™s 11 fumble recoveries the last four years are more than anyone else in the league in that time.) The 6-foot-3, 251-pounder also has a streak of 79 straight games played (including the playoffs), having suited up for the Patriots every week since Nov. 30, 2009 against the Saints.

3. If everyone stays healthy up front, then Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga and Joe Vellano could do a nice job providing depth in 2014.

After Wilfork and Kelly went down early in the year, the trio was thrown into the deep end of the pool last season and forced to swim. As previously stated, they did as well as could be expected, with Jones showing a knack for working on passing downs (his six sacks were as many as Demarcus Ware and Nick Fairley), while Siliga was particularly stout against the run. Going forward, their body of work suggests that they could see work as backups in 2014.

THREE QUESTIONS

1. How does the acquisition of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner impact the defensive line?

Ninkovich isn’€™t usually given to hyperbole, but the look in his eyes when he was talking about the pickup of Revis this past offseason gives you some sort of idea of just how much the cornerback could have an impact on the New England pass rush. It’€™s a domino effect: Because of Revis’€™ cover skills, the quarterback is forced to hold on to the ball longer, meaning the pass rusher usually gets another second or two (or three or four) to get after the quarterback. As a result, the most impactful member of the New England pass rush this season won’€™t likely be the addition of a defensive lineman or defensive end like Easley or Smith, but the pickups of Revis and (when he’€™s back from his four-game ban) Brandon Browner.

2. Can Chandler Jones take the next step?

Over his first two years, Jones has gradually become one of the better young defensive ends in the league, going from a very solid rookie year (albeit a season where he stalled out about halfway through because of a bout with an ankle injury and some lingering effects from hitting the rookie wall) to a sophomore year where he became the first player since Mike Vrabel to finish a season with at least 11 sacks. (Jones had 11.5, while Vrabel finished 2007 with 12.5.) In addition, the 17.5 sacks in his first two years are third-best in franchise history, trailing only Garin Veris (21 in 1985 and 1986) and Chris Slade (18.5 in 1993 and 1994). There are times where he can be dominant, but he needs to be more consistent — he had just one sack after Thanksgiving last year. The presence of Revis at corner will presumably give him more chances to get after the quarterback in 2014, and his occasional ability to bump inside to a defensive tackle spot should continue to give offensive line coaches fits in 2014. It will also be interesting to see how the additional weight affects his game — he said he added about 10 pounds in his legs, and looks bigger. It’€™s unfair to measure a defensive end purely on sacks alone, but if he can continue that type of progression when it comes to rushing the passer, it’€™ll mean good things for the New England defensive front on 2014.

3. What sort of impact can Easley have as a rookie?

At first glance, Easley could face a big challenge when it comes to playing time. With Wilfork and Kelly entrenched at the defensive tackle spots, if they stay healthy, it figures to be their show for the most part. The biggest question with the youngster is likely health, as he’€™s coming off ACL issues in both knees as a collegian. He was kept under wraps for the bulk of the spring sessions, and only emerged late in minicamp. He appeared limited in what he could and couldn’€™t do, but when he was on the field, he showed a nice ability to cut and change direction, showing a decent level of explosiveness for someone who has had a history of knee problems. If he’€™s healthy, he could play a sizable role in New England’€™s defensive plans, as his versatile and skill set suggest he could have a major impact relatively quickly in the Patriots defensive fronts. (For more on that, check out Doug Farrar‘€™s excellent piece here.) If there is an injury up front, it’€™s conceivable he could follow the same trajectory that took Jamie Collins from reserve/special teamer to starter by the end of the 2013 season. But as far as the Patriots are concerned, spending the better part of his rookie season taking a postgraduate year at Wilfork University might be the best course of action.

By the numbers: Through the first four games of the 2013 season ‘€” with Wilfork and Kelly completely healthy ‘€” the Patriots yielded an average of 105 rushing yards per game, 13th in the league. By the end of the regular season, that number had jumped to 134.1 rushing yards per game allowed, 30th in the league

Key new player: Smith. The annual ‘€œLet’€™s see what this veteran defensive lineman has left,’€ Smith was a pickup after the Saints’€™ salary cap purge this past spring. (In the past, the Patriots have kicked the tires on a variety of guys like Carter, Shaun Ellis, Steve Martin, Albert Haynesworth, Keith Traylor, Ted Washington and Anthony Pleasant. Some have worked out, while some haven’€™t.) The defensive end, who has 67.5 career sacks, is a 33-year-old coming off a knee injury that kept him on the shelf for the duration of the 2013 season, so expectations should be managed. But if he’€™s healthy, he could fill the role that Andre Carter occupied to great acclaim in 2011, that of veteran pass rusher.

The skinny: So much of this position — particularly along the interior — comes down to health. Wilfork, Kelly, Smith and Easley are all coming off injuries that prematurely ended their 2013 seasons. If they are all able to bounce back in 2014, the Patriots will be able to count on the defensive line as a position of strength. If not, New England will be forced to turn to youngsters again and get creative with some of its defensive fronts.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price

The Patriots announced Sunday they have signed veteran tight end Nate Byham.

Here’s a portion of the release issued by the team:

The Patriots announced Sunday they have signed veteran tight end Nate Byham.

Here’s a portion of the release issued by the team:

Byham, 26, is a veteran of four NFL seasons with the San Francisco 49ers (2010-11) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2012-13). The 6-foot-4, 264-pounder, originally entered the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick by San Francisco out of Pittsburgh in 2010. He was signed by Tampa Bay on Oct. 2, 2012 after being released by San Francisco on Aug. 16, 2012. In his four NFL seasons, Byham has played 29 games with 11 starts and has totaled 11 receptions for 83 yards and one touchdown. Last season in Tampa Bay, Byham was limited to four games and finished with three receptions for 38 yards.

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

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price

Sounds like Rex Ryan is back to being old Rex again.

After sounding chastened the last few years, in a series of interviews Saturday, the Jets coach sounded off about the state of the NFL, his own legacy, and where the Jets stand in relation to the Patriots.

Despite missing the playoffs the last three years, Rex Ryan says he's a "great coach." (AP)

Despite missing the playoffs the last three years, Rex Ryan says he’s a “great coach.” (AP)

Sounds like Rex Ryan is back to being old Rex again.

After sounding chastened the last few years, in a series of interviews Saturday, the Jets coach sounded off about the state of the NFL, his own legacy, and where the Jets stand in relation to the Patriots.

“Somebody asked me if we focus on New England. Bull—-,” Ryan told the New York Post. “We’re focused on us. We’re focused on us and how are we going to be better. I have to be honest, I don’t worry about them. They need to worry about us. I think that’s really where we’re at now.”

Ryan didn’t make any Super Bowl predictions, but still sounded confident in his abilities as a head coach.

“Do I think that I’m a great coach? I absolutely know I’m a great coach,” Ryan told Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News. “But it’s not just about me. What makes a great coach is the people that surround you, the people that are with you every day.”

Ryan, who has a 46-40 career record as a head coach and has seen his team fall short of the postseason the last three years, will lead the Jets against the Patriots twice this season — Oct. 16 in Foxboro and Dec. 21 in North Jersey.

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

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price