AFC East: New England Patriots

The Patriots will get bigger along the defensive line and at running back if things unfold the way ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper projects in his fourth mock draft. But are they the right picks?

To start, the choices hit two areas in which the Patriots could use more of a long-term boost, first at defensive tackle and then in the offensive backfield.

The defensive tackle spot is well stocked in the short term from a personnel standpoint with Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Armond Armstead, Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga and Joe Vellano, so the need doesn't seem as pressing right now. Thus, any pick at the position would be made as much with 2015 upside in mind more so than the present snapshot, sort of like the Patriots did in 2004 with Wilfork as a first-rounder.


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The New England Patriots continue to devote attention and significant resources to the quarterback position in the NFL draft, as two weeks after creating a buzz by hosting Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater on visits at Gillette Stadium, they welcomed another top prospect earlier this week – Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois.

Some analysts, such as ESPN’s Bill Polian, have Garoppolo rated as high as a first-round draft choice.

The 6-foot-2 1/4, 226-pound Garoppolo earned the Walter Payton Award in 2013, which is given to the top player in the Football Championship Subdivision. In 14 games, he completed 375 of 568 passes for 5,050 yards with 53 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

NFL teams are allowed 30 in-house visits with out-of-town prospects, and the Patriots have devoted at least three of them to top quarterbacks (Manziel, Bridgewater, Garoppolo).

Starting quarterback Tom Brady turns 37 in August and is signed through 2017, while the only other signal-caller on the roster, Ryan Mallett, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2014 season.
We've made the case that the Patriots' biggest need entering the 2014 NFL draft is tight end, and they'll spent part of Wednesday getting a close look at a highly regarded prospect, as Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz is taking a visit to Gillette Stadium, a source confirmed.

NFL Network first reported the news.

The 6-foot-5, 265-pounder was a first-team All-Big Ten selection during his final college season, hauling in 30 passes, including six for touchdowns. He was a standout during the week of the Senior Bowl and ran a respectable 4.76 40-yard dash at the combine while also putting up 25 reps on the bench press.

Washington State safety Deone Bucannon will also be in Foxborough, Mass., for a visit on Wednesday, as we noted on Tuesday evening.

Fiedorowicz is the fifth-ranked tight end and 76th-rated prospect overall by ESPN's Scouts Inc.
The New England Patriots hold private workouts with hundreds of prospects leading into the NFL draft, so there is reluctance to read too much into those workouts.

The most accurate analysis would be that the workouts indicate that the team is still seeking more information on a prospect; sometimes it can lead to genuine interest or to confirm interest, while other times it can lead the team in another direction.

Along these lines, Colorado State center Weston Richburg popped up on the radar late last week after it was learned the Patriots put him through one of their many private workouts, this one coming in Fort Collins, Colo.

Richburg, at 6-foot-3 3/8 and 298 pounds, is one of the higher-rated centers in the draft, according to Scouts Inc. He's projected as a second-to-third-round pick.

A closer look at Richburg reveals a few things that are sure to appeal to the Patriots:

1. He made the line calls and has good football intelligence.

2. Has played games at center, guard and tackle, highlighting his athleticism and versatility.

3. He appears to fit best in a zone-blocking scheme, which is what the Patriots primarily utilize.

4. He played 49 career games.

5. He is a two-time team captain.

The Patriots re-signed their starting center from the last two seasons, Ryan Wendell, to a two-year deal in March. But the expectation has been that Wendell can expect competition, and perhaps it will come in the form of Richburg.

At the least, the Patriots wanted to get a closer look to consider the possibility.

Draft, quarterbacks & the Patriots

April, 14, 2014
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After all the discussion about top quarterbacks in the NFL draft in recent months, is it possible that more signal-callers end up being selected in the second round than the first?

That scenario was offered up by Peter King of TheMMQB.com in his widely-read "Monday Morning Quarterback" piece.

From a Patriots perspective, the view from this perspective is that scenario wouldn't be ideal.

As ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi noted on Sunday during the fifth-annual ESPNBoston draft preview event, the more quarterbacks picked early, the better it is for New England because it pushes other players down the board.

I'd add receivers, in what is considered a deep class but an unlikely position for the Patriots to address, into that mix as well.

That's why the projection of NFL.com's Gil Brandt, also part of "Monday Morning Quarterback", would be a better turn of events for New England: "Four quarterbacks and six wideouts in the top 32 for Brandt, if he had to pick it today."

This highlights one of the challenges for teams picking late in the first round, like the Patriots are at No. 29. It's hard to know what will unfold with many of the picks that will be made before that selection, so preparing for all scenarios is smart business.

As is often the case, quarterbacks (and to a lesser degree receivers) hold part of the key.

Duron Harmon next man up at safety

April, 11, 2014
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TAUNTON, Mass. – If the New England Patriots continue with the “next man up” theme that has been a significant part of their success in Bill Belichick’s 15-year coaching tenure, it is Duron Harmon’s time in 2014.

The first domino to fall came when starting safety Steve Gregory was released on Feb. 28, which opened the door for Harmon in his second season.

[+] EnlargeHarmon
AP Photo/Jim MahoneyDuron Harmon said he is aiming to learn more about the finer aspects of football during the offseason.
“Steve Gregory was like a big brother/uncle to me, somebody that literally sat me down all the time and watched film with me, broke things down, so he’s definitely going to be missed,” Harmon said Friday after reading to third-grade students at the Elizabeth Pole Elementary School as part of the team’s Celebrate Volunteerism campaign.

“It’s an opportunity for me to show that I am capable of playing and starting. But it all counts towards me. I have to show my worth to Coach Belichick and the coaching staff, and I’m eager to do that.”

Along those lines, Harmon has spent this offseason in Foxborough, and has been working out at Gillette Stadium with cornerback Logan Ryan every day. He’ll be joined by more teammates on April 21 for the official start of the team’s voluntary offseason program.

Harmon is listed at 6-foot and 205 pounds on the team’s roster, and he said Friday that he’s most comfortable in the 205-210 range. That qualifies him as a bigger safety and a potential nice complement to Devin McCourty (5-10, 195).

Harmon, who many viewed as a surprise third-round draft choice last year, played 36.9 percent of the defensive snaps in his rookie season. He started two of the team’s biggest games when Gregory was out with a broken thumb – a Nov. 18 loss at Carolina and a Nov. 24 win over the Broncos – and also was a contributor on special teams throughout the year.

He was asked what he felt good about from his rookie season, and what area he believes needs the most improvement.

“I felt good about just being out there, just getting comfortable out there,” he answered. “Toward the beginning of the season, I was just a little hesitant because playing in the NFL is different than playing in college [at Rutgers]. So just getting comfortable out there and getting repetitions.

“But then, I’d say one thing I still need to work on is just learning the game. There is always more you can learn. When I see Tom Brady still trying to learn as much as he can, so if a man is that good and plays that long is always trying to learn, I need to do the same thing.

“And definitely tackling. I think some games I tackled bad, and some games I tackled well. It was just an inconsistent effort that I know I need to be a lot more consistent with.”

Another undefeated season at home?

April, 11, 2014
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NFL Network's "NFL-AM" show keeps the football discussion going on a daily basis, and Friday morning it sparked a discussion on the New England Patriots' excellence at home.

Since 2002, the Patriots are 92-18 at home (including playoffs), which is the best mark in the NFL. They went 9-0 last year.

SportsNation

Will the Patriots go undefeated at home in 2014?

  •  
    69%
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    31%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,898)

So could another undefeated regular season be possible?

That was the question tossed out for discussion by host Molly Qerim, as analysts Steve Wyche, Jordan Babineaux and Shawne Merriman opined on a home slate that includes the Bills, Dolphins, Jets, Broncos, Bears, Bengals, Lions and Raiders.

Babineaux: "The answer is no ... As long as Rex [Ryan] is in that division I'm always going to give the Jets an opportunity and a chance to beat Tom Brady and the Patriots. I think Rex Ryan comes up with the best game-plan for Tom Brady."

Merriman: "Another team that's on that [schedule] is Denver. They have two outside pass-rushers now in DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, who is probably going to come back healthy. Now you're looking at an offense that can put up points, I don't see [the Patriots] getting a win over those guys at home. It's just too much."

Wyche: "I have them going 7-1, but I have them losing to the Chicago Bears. That defense is going to be better this year. I know the Patriots have [Darrelle] Revis. I know they have Brandon Browner. But Chicago has a whole lot of other weapons there, and if it's cold, it doesn't matter [to them]. So I like Chicago."

At that point, Qerim said, "I know the chances are slim, but you can never count out Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. There's always a chance."
And with the 29th and 62nd selections of the NFL draft, the New England Patriots select ...

We've continued to dissect and analyze various possibilities for the team, focusing on the general idea that almost every position outside of quarterback is in play with a first-round pick.

One question pondered of late is, "How high might the Patriots select a running back?"

ESPN draft expert Todd McShay's fourth 2014 NFL mock draft is out on ESPN Insider Insider today, and he answers that question by going two rounds deep.


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LeGarrette Blount signed a two-year deal with the Steelers, free-agent Michael Bush was in town for a free-agent visit but left without a contract, and thus a void remains on the Patriots' roster for a bigger running back.

If it's not Bush, the most likely place it will come from is the draft, and Russ Lande of SportsonEarth.com gave his rankings/analysis Wednesday on the best "big back" prospects.

Here are some thoughts from a Patriots perspective:

1. Carlos Hyde (Ohio State) -- At 5-foot-11 7/8 and 230 pounds, he is the consensus top player at the position. The "dilemma" for the Patriots would be if he represents value at No. 29. If the team doesn't believe he does, it's hard to imagine Hyde would be there at the team's next pick, 62.

2. Andre Williams (Boston College) -- No stranger to the Patriots because he did his best work about 20 miles from Gillette Stadium, he put together an impressive 2013 season that was worthy of Heisman Trophy consideration. At 5-foot-11 3/8 and 230 pounds, he is a solid all-around prospect who projects to the middle rounds. If he's there in the late third round, it's an intriguing possibility in the range where value might match up with need.

3. Terrance West (Towson) --At 5-foot-9 1/4 and 225 pounds, he played at a lower-level of competition but did what players at that level have to do -- dominate. A middle-round projection.

4. Jeremy Hill (LSU) -- The Patriots have had success with running backs from LSU (Stevan Ridley, Kevin Faulk), and the 6-foot-0 5/8, 233-pound Hill is a hard-charging, downhill runner. He was arrested twice at LSU and those off-field issues will draw scrutiny from teams (and makes us think the Patriots would stay away).

5. Lorenzo Taliaferro (Coastal Carolina) -- The 6-foot-0 1/4, 229-pound Taliaferro would be a developmental prospect in the late rounds/free-agency range, similar to when the Patriots hit on BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 2008. His special- teams experience landed him in this final spot.
As part of NFL Network's "Path to the Draft" program, a "front-office playbook" is dissected for each team. The Patriots were in the spotlight on Monday night, with Daniel Jeremiah and Curtis Conway analyzing some of the team's needs.

There will always be varying perspectives, as the NFL Network crew rates cornerback a bit higher than our view, and part of that is tied to the overall grouping of "secondary" in the analysis.

As part of an accompanying video, Jeremiah and Conway start at the tight end position, with Conway identifying Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins as a nice fit with an early-round pick. Texas Tech's Jace Amaro would be his fallback choice.

Jeremiah, in turn, focuses on two of the bigger running backs in the draft -- Ohio State's Carlos Hyde and LSU's Jeremy Hill -- as possible options at some point.

"Both guys can pound the ball inside and both are surprisingly good in the passing game," Jeremiah says, adding that interior offensive line could be another area of focus.

Both are in agreement that receiver is not a pressing need.

On defense, Conway eyes the front seven and pass-rush help, identifying Auburn defensive end Dee Ford as a solid choice. If the Patriots go bigger, Conway agrees that Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix looks like a prototypical Patriot.

Jeremiah then focuses on the secondary from a depth standpoint.
The term is often used when it comes to football personnel -- "We need a No. 1."

Gronkowski
Gronkowski
Matt Williamson of ESPN.com's Insider team attempts to quantify exactly what that means, listing out his criteria for what makes a true No. 1 pass-catcher Insider. Considering a formula of getting open, having the necessary strength and size, productivity and consistency, Williamson then ranks his top "No. 1" pass-catchers in the NFL.

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is trumped by only one player -- and he's in Detroit.

"If healthy, Gronk is the perfect tight end, and frankly, he could be the most impressive tight end who has ever played this game," Williamson writes.

Williamson's piece sparks thoughts about Gronkowski and how the Patriots' offense takes on a different look when he's on the field. It also shines a brighter spotlight on the team's tight end personnel, which currently includes Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams. It's possible bigger receiver Mark Harrison could also be included in the mix.

While the Patriots have been active in free agency and appear to have improved overall, the greatest improvement might simply be Gronkowski's return to the field, whenever that may be.
We had the chance to catch up with ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper last week and here were a few of the takeaways as we shift draft preparations into a higher gear:

More intel on safety spot: Kiper sees Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as the first safety likely off the board within the top half of the first round, with Louisville’s Calvin Pryor projected closer to the end of the first round. Kiper noted Pryor didn’t test particularly well in workouts. The next tier includes Jimmie Ward of Northern Illinois and Terrence Brooks of Florida State, while Washington State’s Deone Bucannon is a bit of a rare breed as a bigger prospect at 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds. There has been some media-based chatter in New England about the Patriots adding a bigger safety, but it doesn’t seem like Kiper is on board with the thought. “The intimidator isn’t necessarily needed any more,” he said. “The big hitter, you don’t need that. The days of that big, intimidating safety are just about over.”

Carr highlights polarization on QB views: When asked about this year’s quarterback class, Kiper pointed to Fresno State’s Derek Carr as an example of wide-ranging opinions from various teams. According to Kiper, some teams view Carr as being on the same tier as Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles, while others see him more in the eight to 10 range at the position and closer to a fifth-round talent. “There is a lot of polarization on a lot of these quarterbacks,” he said. Kiper adds that some view Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois as the best quarterback in this year’s draft. “This is incredible. There are about a dozen quarterbacks that could be starters, and out of those dozen, there are some that argue that all 12 will never be a successful starter. This is a crazy year for quarterbacks. A lot of them. A lot of quantity. How much quality is debatable.” Pittsburgh’s Tom Savage, who we’d project is of interest to the Patriots, is viewed in the range of the third or fourth round by Kiper.

Getting a feel on the top cornerbacks: Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert and Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard are viewed as the top two cornerbacks in the draft. "It’s kind of a split around the league as to who the top corner is,” according to Kiper. Gilbert’s versatility might give him a slight edge. Kiper sees a line of demarcation to the third player at the position, but this is viewed as a deep position in the draft and a good year for those with a need.
In a move that has been expected, veteran safety Adrian Wilson was informed of his release by the New England Patriots on Friday, and he followed up by tweeting a thanks to the organization.

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Signed last offseason and dubbed "The Incredible Hulk" by teammates because of his chiseled physique, Wilson was placed on season-ending injured reserve at the end of the preseason. He had appeared to be on the roster bubble before landing on IR.

Wilson, who was in town for a physical on Wednesday, also tweeted: "Can't make the club in the tub."

Wilson was scheduled to earn $1.5 million in 2014 and his release comes one day after the Patriots signed safety Patrick Chung to a one-year contract with a maximum value of $1.1 million.

A bigger safety at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Wilson's signing was compared by some to when the Patriots signed hard-hitting safety Rodney Harrison in 2003. But things didn't unfold as either side anticipated.

The Patriots will have a net cap savings of $671,666 from Wilson's release.
Each ESPN.com reporter covering an NFL team shared a thought on if their club might be interested in soon-to-be free-agent running back Chris Johnson, and here's what I wrote:
"The Patriots have a need at the position after LeGarrette Blount signed with the Steelers, but there is doubt that they'd be aggressive suitors for Johnson, in part because of his limitations in pass protection and how highly the team values that skill with its backs. Just don't see the Patriots getting into any type of bidding competition at a position they have shied away from spending even moderate dollars the last two years."

We know Bill Belichick and Johnson seemed to hit it off at the 2011 Pro Bowl. Others, such as former Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik, have made the connection between Johnson and New England.

In the end, I wouldn't be surprised if the Patriots explore the possibility in the event a strong financial market doesn't develop. They were in on Maurice Jones-Drew (according to the player himself) before he signed in Oakland and had Michael Bush in for a free-agent visit as well.

So we'd expect the team to add a running back, but I have doubts it ultimately would be Johnson.
The New England Patriots have set their schedule for offseason camps, which will culminate with the team's mandatory minicamp June 17-19.

Here is how it breaks down:

Offseason program begins
April 21

Organized team activities (voluntary)
May 27
May 29-30
June 2-3
June 5
June 9-10
June 12-13

Full-team minicamp (mandatory)
June 17-19

The Patriots traditionally have excellent participation in the voluntary offseason program, using the time as a chance to go through the playbook and build up to the final minicamp.

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