Congrats, New England.

According to a recent sports analytics study, the Patriots have the best fan base in the NFL. The study came from Mike Lewis, a professor at Emory College in Atlanta.

The Patriots reportedly have the best fans in the NFL.  (Mike Petraglia/WEEI.com)

The Patriots reportedly have the best fans in the NFL. (Mike Petraglia/WEEI.com)

Congrats, New England.

According to a recent sports analytics study, the Patriots have the best fan base in the NFL. The study came from Mike Lewis, a professor at Emory College in Atlanta.

Here is how he explained how his rankings were determined: These models are used to determine which cities fans are more willing to spend or follow their teams after controlling for factors like market size and short-term variations in performance.

The Patriots earned the top spot because: The Patriots victory is driven by fans willingness to pay premium prices, strong attendance and phenomenal social media following. The final competition between the Cowboys and the Patriots was actually determined by the long-term value of the Patriots greater social following. The Patriots have about 2.4 million Twitter followers compared to 1.7 for the Cowboys. Of course this is all relative a team like the Jaguars has just 340 thousand followers.

For more Patriots news, visit weei.com/patriots.

Blog Author: 
Ryan Hannable
Nate Solder looks to rebound after an injury-shortened 2015. (Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)

Nate Solder looks to rebound after an injury-shortened 2015. (Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)

As the countdown to training camp begins later this month, we’re going to take a look at the 20 most important members of the Patriots heading into 2016.

11. Left tackle Nate Solder
Height: 6-foot-8
Weight: 325 pounds
Age: 28 (will turn 29 on April 12)

Resume: A first-round pick of the Patriots out of Colorado in 2011, Solder played mostly right tackle as a rookie before flipping over to the left side following the retirement of Matt Light prior to 2012. While an occasional short-term injury has sparked the need for a lineup shuffle, Solder has been the starting left tackle for the Patriots since then, working to protect Brady’s backside for almost all of the last four seasons.

Why we ranked him here: This is one of the most thankless jobs in sports; if a left tackle is good, you’re never supposed to hear his name. And through the early stages of the 2015 season, the unassuming Solder was well on his way toward putting together another one of those solid, workmanlike types of years. (From 2012 to 2014, he missed just one game.) Then, he suffered a torn biceps against the Cowboys, and was gone for the rest of the season. Solder’s loss was part of domino effect that included injuries to Bryan Stork and Sebastian Vollmer, turning things upside down along the offensive line and leaving Tom Brady as vulnerable as he’s ever been. There were other personnel losses along the way, but the fact remains that the injury to Solder played a large a role as any when it came to bogging down the New England offense. In many ways, Solder is Brady’s chief protector, and protection suffered last year when he was lost. That should be more than enough of an argument in favor of him to warrant a spot on this list. (For the record, it’s also hard to overstate the level of respect he has garnered within the locker room. A quiet leader who was named a captain prior to the start of the 2015 campaign, Solder played the entire 2014 season after being diagnosed with testicular cancer.)

Quote: “When you lose Nate Solder, you lose a Pro Bowl left tackle. Five different left tackles played [for the Patriots in 2015], and Nate Solder is head and shoulders better than any of them.” — NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger on the loss of Nate Solder early in 2015

Random Note: Solder and Marcus Cannon are the only two members of the Patriots’ 2011 draft class still on the roster.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price
Malcom Brown is looking to build on a very good rookie year. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today)

Malcom Brown is looking to build on a very good rookie year. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today)

As the countdown to training camp begins later this month, we’re going to take a look at the 20 most important members of the Patriots heading into 2016.

12. Defensive lineman Malcom Brown
Height: 6-foot-2
Weight: 320 pounds
Age: 22 (will turn 23 on Feb. 2)

Resume: The 32nd overall pick in the 2015 draft, he’s the second-youngest player in terms of overall seniority to this point on our list. (Rookie Cyrus Jones was at No. 20.) The Texas product was a 2014 finalist for the Bronco Nagurski Trophy (most outstanding defensive player) and for the Outland Trophy (top interior lineman), and was also elected first-team All-American and first-team All-Big 12. With that sort of collegiate resume, as well as the fact that the New England defensive line was in something of a state of flux with the departure of the likes of Vince Wilfork, it shouldn’t have been that great a surprise that he had a really good rookie season. In his first year with the Pats, he played in 16 games, made 12 starts, and ended with 48 tackles and three sacks. For his efforts, he landed a spot on the Pro Football Writers Association All-Rookie Team.

Why we ranked him here: He quickly become a major player along New England’s front seven, a reliable presence at multiple spots who did well holding up against the run and penetrating as a pass rusher when needed. While there are some differences between the two, last year it was hard not to contrast Brown’s ascent with Dominique Easley’s occasionally frustrating path. As Easley faded into the background with a second straight year that concluded with him on injured reserve, Brown asserted himself as a sizable defensive presence. However, the biggest part of his evolution as a player came off the field, as he became a go-to guy in the locker room for other players, displaying a maturity level beyond his years and reminding some of an early model Vince Wilfork, who also took on the mantle of leader very early in his career. (It was interesting to hear veterans like Alan Branch and Terrance Knighton talk about Brown this spring.) It’s wayyyyyy to soon to anoint him as a potential heir to No. 75, but it was hard not to be impressed by the way Brown has handled his business on and off the field over his first 12 months in the league. Look for more to be put on his plate in 2016. Provided he can handle the load, he’ll be even higher on this list in 2017.

Quote: ”Malcom Brown has basically been leading the group. Being in his second year, he’s probably the most experienced guy in it right now as far as this team. I’m picking his brain to see how things are done around here.” — Terrance Knighton on Brown, 6/2/16

Random Note: One of the youngest players on the New England roster, Brown celebrated his eighth birthday the day before Tom Brady and the Patriots beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price

If you were wondering what Tom Brady is up to during his time off before training camp, now you know.

The Patriots quarterback was in Las Vegas Saturday night for UFC 200 and was spotted with Justin Timberlake.

If you were wondering what Tom Brady is up to during his time off before training camp, now you know.

The Patriots quarterback was in Las Vegas Saturday night for UFC 200 and was spotted with Justin Timberlake.

Patriots training camp begins on July 27.

For more Patriots news, visit weei.com/patriots.

Blog Author: 
Ryan Hannable
Rob Ninkovich has grown from backup linebacker/long snapper into one of the most important players on the New England roster. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Rob Ninkovich has grown from backup linebacker/long snapper into one of the most important players on the New England roster. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

As the countdown to training camp begins later this month, we’re going to take a look at the 20 most important members of the Patriots heading into 2016.

13. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich

Height: 6-foot-2
Weight: 260 pounds
Age: 32 (will turn 33 on Feb. 1)

Resume: We’re not sure what more can be said about Ninkovich, who has gone from backup linebacker/long snapper to one of the most important elements of New England’s defense. (Next time someone tells you that NFL team-building only happens in the spring, remind them that Ninkovich was signed as a free agent in August. August.) Waived four times by Miami and New Orleans before joining the Patriots in the summer of 2009, he’s grown into an irreplaceable defensive end in New England. He has 42 career sacks, including 14.5 the last two years. We’re not entirely sure how much longer he’ll be able to produce at such a high rate, but since 2010, there are only two players who can boast of at least 40 sacks, 10 fumble recoveries, five interceptions and a touchdown in that stretch: Ninkovich and Julius Peppers. Good company to be in.

Why we ranked him here: His versatility (he’s played multiple spots at the end of the line — on both sides — as well as inside), durability (more on that in a moment), and knack for making big plays at big moments (especially against the Jets) are all part of the package when it comes to Ninkovich. A defensive captain, he garners respect from players on both sides of the ball. Bottom line? While he’s not quite Mike Vrabel, version 2.0, his growth and evolution as a player in the New England system represent the closest thing the Patriots have had on defense since Vrabel was dealt to Kansas City following the 2008 season.

Quote: “I think his selection by his teammates as a captain reflects kind of the leadership or the respect that he has amongst them. But Rob has been a really versatile guy for us. He’s played kind of like [Mike] Vrabel at the end of the line primarily, but he’s played inside linebacker, he’s played defensive end, he’s played in the kicking game. He did a lot of the things like Mike did that you need somebody to do on your defense somewhere along the line because of the different offenses we face and some of the different schemes we use. You can’t move 11 guys around but sometimes you can move one or two and create that. That’s been important.” — Bill Belichick on Ninkovich, 1/6/16

Random note: We’ve noted this before, but it’s a truly remarkable run for Ninkovich: he’s currently at 81 straight regular-season starts with New England, second-best in the league among all defensive ends. And he’s played in a total of 102 straight regular-season games with the Patriots, third-best in the league at his position. (Julius Peppers is tops in both categories with 128 straight games played and 102 consecutive starts.)

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price
Bryan Stork has been the Patriots' starting center for most of the last two years, but will face a challenge this year from David Andrews. (Andrew Weber/USA Today Images)

Bryan Stork has been the Patriots’ starting center for most of the last two years, but will face a challenge this year from David Andrews. (Andrew Weber/USA Today Images)

As the countdown to training camp begins later this month, we’re going to take a look at the 20 most important members of the Patriots heading into 2016.

14. Centers Bryan Stork and David Andrews

Height: 6-foot-4 (Stork), 6-foot-3 (Andrews)
Weight: 310 pounds (Stork), 295 pounds (Andrews)
Age: 25 (Stork — will turn 26 on Nov. 15), 23 (Andrews — will turn 24 on July 10)

Resume: We’re going to bend the rules here and make these two a package combo, because when they’ve been healthy, each have proven to have very good moments in the middle of New England’s offensive line. A fourth-round pick out of Florida State in 2014, Stork has been in control of the gig for the better part of the last two years, and in 2014, we thought enough of his performance to give him the team Rookie of the Year Award. He struggled with injury and was sidelined at the start of 2015, and so Andrews got his chance. The undrafted rookie out of Georgia was probably the Patriots’ most impactful first-year player over the start of the 2015 season, starting 11 games and allowing Stork to take his time to return to full health. Stork eventually won the starters’ job back before the end of last year, but the competition was close at the end of 2015, and figures to be one of the positions worth keeping an eye on when camp rolls around later this month.

Why we ranked them here: When Stork is completely healthy, he’s one of the best young centers in the NFL. He also has excellent positional versatility — while he wasn’t the second coming of Logan Mankins, when the offensive line was in a pinch last year, he also played guard and tackle. (If the guard situation gets dicey at times this year, it wouldn’t be a shock to se him take some snaps there this season.) Plus, he is a notoriously ornery cuss who, when he’s in the mood, can certainly evoke memories of Mankins, which is a good thing. Meanwhile, Andrews stepped into the lead role nicely last year, starting the first 10 games and allowing the Patriots’ offense to not miss a beat in the early going when he was on the field. (For what it’s worth, PFF gave Andrews higher grades than Stork last year.) The two could be pushed at the center spot this season by rookie Joe Thuney, who was working some at center over the course of the spring workouts. But in terms of importance, the two have done an excellent job proving their bonafides over the last two seasons. That’s why they get a dual spot on our list.

Quote: “I think they’re different in terms of the type of player they are, both of them are smart and dependable and tough, do a lot of different things to try and help set the table for the rest of our lineman and get everybody going in the right direction. Bryan’s a little bit more experienced certainly at this point having played quite a bit last year. I think both guys have a lot of strengths to them. Both guys certainly work hard to try and improve some of the things maybe they don’t do as well as they’d like to. I think they work extremely hard, bring great work ethic to our offense. There’s a presence inside, a toughness that they both have.” — Josh McDaniels on Stork and Andrews, 12/15/15

Random notes: Andrews got the call in the 2015 opener, and was the third rookie free agent to start opening day under Bill Belichick. Meanwhile, in 2014, Stork became the second member of the Patriots franchise to win a national championship (at Florida State) and a Super Bowl (as a rookie) in back-to-back years. Cornerback Randall Gay (LSU 2003, Patriots 2004) was the other.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price
Bryan Stork has been the Patriots' starting center for most of the last two years, but will face a challenge this year from David Andrews. (Andrew Weber/USA Today Images)

Bryan Stork has been the Patriots’ starting center for most of the last two years, but will face a challenge this year from David Andrews. (Andrew Weber/USA Today Images)

As the countdown to training camp begins later this month, we’re going to take a look at the 20 most important members of the Patriots heading into 2016.

14. Centers Bryan Stork and David Andrews

Height: 6-foot-4 (Stork), 6-foot-3 (Andrews)
Weight: 310 pounds (Stork), 295 pounds (Andrews)
Age: 25 (Stork — will turn 26 on Nov. 15), 23 (Andrews — will turn 24 on July 10)

Resume: We’re going to bend the rules here and make these two a package combo, because when they’ve been healthy, each have proven to have very good moments in the middle of New England’s offensive line. A fourth-round pick out of Florida State in 2014, Stork has been in control of the gig for the better part of the last two years, and in 2014, we thought enough of his performance to give him the team Rookie of the Year Award. He struggled with injury and was sidelined at the start of 2015, and so Andrews got his chance. The undrafted rookie out of Georgia was probably the Patriots’ most impactful first-year player over the start of the 2015 season, starting 11 games and allowing Stork to take his time to return to full health. Stork eventually won the starters’ job back before the end of last year, but the competition was close at the end of 2015, and figures to be one of the positions worth keeping an eye on when camp rolls around later this month.

Why we ranked them here: When Stork is completely healthy, he’s one of the best young centers in the NFL. He also has excellent positional versatility — while he wasn’t the second coming of Logan Mankins, when the offensive line was in a pinch last year, he also played guard and tackle. (If the guard situation gets dicey at times this year, it wouldn’t be a shock to se him take some snaps there this season.) Plus, he is a notoriously ornery cuss who, when he’s in the mood, can certainly evoke memories of Mankins, which is a good thing. Meanwhile, Andrews stepped into the lead role nicely last year, starting the first 10 games and allowing the Patriots’ offense to not miss a beat in the early going when he was on the field. (For what it’s worth, PFF gave Andrews higher grades than Stork last year.) The two could be pushed at the center spot this season by rookie Joe Thuney, who was working some at center over the course of the spring workouts. But in terms of importance, the two have done an excellent job proving their bonafides over the last two seasons. That’s why they get a dual spot on our list.

Quote: “I think they’re different in terms of the type of player they are, both of them are smart and dependable and tough, do a lot of different things to try and help set the table for the rest of our lineman and get everybody going in the right direction. Bryan’s a little bit more experienced certainly at this point having played quite a bit last year. I think both guys have a lot of strengths to them. Both guys certainly work hard to try and improve some of the things maybe they don’t do as well as they’d like to. I think they work extremely hard, bring great work ethic to our offense. There’s a presence inside, a toughness that they both have.” — Josh McDaniels on Stork and Andrews, 12/15/15

Random notes: Andrews got the call in the 2015 opener, and was the third rookie free agent to start opening day under Bill Belichick. Meanwhile, in 2014, Stork became the second member of the Patriots franchise to win a national championship (at Florida State) and a Super Bowl (as a rookie) in back-to-back years. Cornerback Randall Gay (LSU 2003, Patriots 2004) was the other.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price
Stephen Gostkowski's best moment of 2015 was his game-winner against the Giants. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Stephen Gostkowski’s best moment of 2015 was his game-winner against the Giants. (Elsa/Getty Images)

As the countdown to training camp begins later this month, we’re going to take a look at the 20 most important members of the Patriots heading into 2016.

15. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski

Height: 6-foot-2
Weight: 200
Age: 32 (will turn 33 Jan. 28)

Resume: Since he arrived as a fourth-round pick out of Memphis in 2006, Gostkowski has earned a rep as one of the most dependable kickers in the league. He’s led the NFL in points in 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, joining Don Hutson and Gino Cappelletti as the only players to lead the league in scoring in five seasons. Gostkowski also surpassed Adam Vinatieri this past season to become the team’s all-time leader in field goals with 276. His 87 percent success rate on field goal attempts is third all-time among kickers with at least 100 career field-goal attempts. A four-time Pro Bowler, he’s twice been named first-team All-Pro, in 2008 and 2015. (He was second-team All-Pro in 2014.) He was also first-team All-NFL last year, according to the Pro Football Writers and Pro Football Focus. While he had an ugly end to the 2015 season — a missed extra-point against the Broncos in the AFC championship game came back to haunt the Patriots in the end — given the body of his work, he’s become a worthy successor to Vinatieri’s legacy.

Why we ranked him here: If there’s a kicker who deserves to be among the top 15 most valuable on his team (other than maybe Baltimore’s Justin Tucker) its Gostkowski. With the exception of last year’s miss against the Broncos — his first missed extra-point in nine years — he’s been the very model of consistency for the franchise over the last decade. He has an extraordinary success rate from anywhere (he’s a career 17-for-22 from 50-plus yards, including the game-winning 54-yarder last year against the Giants), is annually one of the league leaders when it comes to touchbacks, and is tied for fifth among all kickers when it comes to consecutive regular-season games played (80). People will dismiss his standing here because he’s a kicker, but in terms of overall value to the franchise, he’s earned a place in our top 20.

Quote: “Stephen is awesome. I’ve got the utmost respect for him. I think he is a great kicker. … He didn’t miss one all [regular] season long. He missed one extra point the whole season. I wouldn’t hold it too much against him on that. That’s for dang sure. I think he is as good of a guy as you’re ever going to get to kick for your team. You would be fortunate and lucky to have him.” — Adam Vinatieri on Gostkowski in the wake of his missed extra-point in the AFC title game

Random note: While there have been a few fill-ins here and there because of injury, this upcoming season will mark the 20th consecutive year of the Vinatieri-Gostkowski combo. Vinatieri joined the Patriots in 1996, and Gostkowski was drafted by New England in the spring of 2006 after Vinatieri left in free agency.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price