AFC East: Brandon Meriweather

Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday morning in the AFC East: Morning take: Buffalo wants to make Williams one of the NFL's highest-paid players, and money talks. The Bills' best chance is to reach an agreement with him now before Williams visits other teams.
Morning take: Robinson is coming off a career year in Dallas filling in for the injured Miles Austin. Miami needs someone to fill in following the Brandon Marshall trade in a thinning crop of receivers.
  • The New York Jets reportedly are interested in free-agent safety Brandon Meriweather.
Morning take: Meriweather has ties to the AFC East as a former Patriot. The Jets need safeties in the wort way, which explains the interest.
Morning take: The Patriots laid low on the first day of free agency. But you have to wonder how much Brandon Lloyd's price tag went up Tuesday after Vincent Jackson and Pierre Garcon hit it big.

Patriots: Fit in or get out

February, 2, 2012
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Albert Haynesworth, Deion BranchAP Photo/US PresswireFormer Patriot Albert Haynesworth, left, and starter Deion Branch exemplify the "Patriot Way."
INDIANAPOLIS -- As displayed in his video documentary "A Football Life," New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick enjoys fishing in his free time. It's fitting, because in football Belichick is not afraid to cut bait.

Many players have come and gone in New England. Some have worked out better than others. But the culture of winning remains the same.

There are only seven players remaining from the Patriots' last Super Bowl team in 2007. In four years, nearly the entire roster has been remade into a championship contender.

Big-name players like Randy Moss, Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison all left New England for various reasons. Some were released, retired, or traded and wound up on television.

You also have recent malcontent situations this past season such as former Pro Bowl safety Brandon Meriweather and former Pro Bowl defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth. Meriweather had off-the-field issues last season and surprisingly didn't make the 53-man roster. He landed with the Chicago Bears. Haynesworth was acquired in a big trade this summer and released about midway through the season.

Football is a cruel business. But it's particularly cruel in New England if you're underperforming and not buying into the program. You can multiply that by 10 if you're a malcontent.

"Most head coaches and GMs, they're never really willing to swallow their pride and admit that they made a mistake," former Patriots fullback and NFL Network analyst Heath Evans explained. "Bill just says 'Well, I thought we could fix [Haynesworth]. We couldn't. So bye-bye.' Most guys will sit there and hurt their team by allowing a cancer to infiltrate the system, the mindset, how you get something done. But Bill never hesitated.

"He saw enough. He gave [Haynesworth] enough chances and, boom, he's gone. That's an aspect of the structure and discipline. Bill doesn't care how it makes him look or what he's doing. He's going to do what's best for the team."

Haynesworth and Meriweather were cut because they no longer fit. Moss, Seymour and Vrabel were traded while the value was still high enough to get something for them. Belichick is always thinking about the next move.

Patriots starting receiver Deion Branch was fortunate.

The former Super Bowl MVP held out for more money during New England's training camp and the preseason in 2006, and was eventually traded to the Seattle Seahawks for a first-round pick. Branch got the money he wanted. Seattle signed him to a $39 million extension. But Branch never had the same success in Seattle and was traded back to New England for a fourth-round pick in 2010.

Branch was a good teammate, but the holdout with New England left a bad stench. The Patriots showed they were willing to forgive, and now Branch is one of the veteran leaders of this year's team.

"I was very honored," Branch said. "Not many have the opportunity to come back to the same team that drafted you. Guys don't get the opportunity to go through that phase. I was just very thankful."

New England receiver Chad Ochocinco is an interesting case. He's caused issues in the past with the Cincinnati Bengals. But he's quickly -- and wisely -- bought into the "Patriot way."

Ochocinco only has 15 receptions, but fellow Patriots have described him as the model teammate. He accepted his role in New England, no matter how small it is, for the greater goal of trying to win a championship. Moss also caused problems elsewhere and quickly changed his stripes when coming to New England. The talkative Ochocinco received advice from Moss this season on how to handle the transition.

"I learned to shut the [expletive] up," Ochocinco said this week.

Why doesn't this work everywhere? Why isn't every NFL team selfless and without internal issues?

"I think it doesn't work everywhere, because everyone has to buy in. I mean coaches, players, front office and owner," said former NFL executive Michael Lombardi, who once worked with Belichick. "With the Patriots, everybody buys in from the top all the way through. It's a way of life in New England. It's not just a daily job."

According to veteran guard Brian Waters, star quarterback Tom Brady plays a major role with team chemistry. Brady is an extension of Belichick in the locker room. No one is more competitive and works harder than the team's highest-paid player.

"Everybody's got egos, everybody's got their own way of doing things or what they think is the best way of doing things," Waters said. "But to have a coach set the tone and a player follow the tone as good as Tom, it's hard for any player on your team to even think about having a different thought process. If the best player on your football team is buying in 100 percent, then who are you to be any different? That’s something you have an appreciation for."

Evans, who played with the Patriots from 2005-08, went on to tell a great story involving future Hall of Famer Junior Seau. He was a 12-time Pro Bowl linebacker who joined the Patriots late in his career in 2006.

"Junior Seau, when he first got there, I don't think Junior had ever been yelled at a day in his life, or maybe even coached," Evans recalled. "Junior was over the center, trying to time the snap count, and he must have jumped offsides three times in our first practice. So Bill had it all teed up -- 'the lowlight film' is what he called it. Everyday we had a lowlight reel, and you do not want to be on that lowlight reel, because 52 other players are watching your bad mistake.

"So Junior is there jumping offsides and Bill just goes into his rant. Junior is like, 'Is he really doing this to me?' It was to the point where Junior stood up and said 'Buddy' ... He couldn't believe Bill was giving him the business like that."

No one player is bigger than the team in New England. The Patriots have done a great job of consistently sending that message and getting rid of players who don't understand. It's resulted in another Super Bowl appearance Sunday against the New York Giants.

The 2011-12 Patriots are particularly close-knit. Owner Robert Kraft says it's arguably his favorite group since owning the team, and they are one game away from capping a special season.

"One thing I've learned is that many games are lost and won in the locker room before the game starts," Kraft said this week. "Now, they have to go out and execute [against New York]."

Final Word: AFC East

September, 23, 2011
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 3:

Rex on the road: The New York Jets have been very comfortable on the road under coach Rex Ryan. According to ESPN's Stats & Info, Ryan is 6-0 on the road against non-divisional opponents. Sunday the Jets will travel across the country to face the Oakland Raiders. New York to Oakland is one of the longest road trips in the NFL. It spans approximately 2,900 miles.

[+] EnlargeRex Ryan
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesJets coach Rex Ryan is 6-0 on the road against non-divisional opponents.
Looking ahead: Despite a 2-0 start, the Jets' game against Oakland is bigger than you think. New York follows this week with brutal back-to-back road games against the Baltimore Ravens (Oct. 2) and New England Patriots (Oct. 9). Both will be tough to win away from home. If New York beats Oakland and gets off to a 3-0 start, it takes some pressure off the next two weeks. But a loss to the Raiders on Sunday could put New York in a tough spot.

Safety a concern: New England's safety position continues to be a concern. The combination of injuries, defections and lack of performance has made it one of New England's few areas of weakness. The latest is the recent thumb surgery for Patrick Chung, who hasn't practiced this week. He is out for Sunday's big game against the Buffalo Bills (2-0). The Patriots are ranked No. 31 against the pass after two games. New England is lacking depth at the position with Chung's injury and the recent release former Pro Bowler Brandon Meriweather.

Jackson factor: The Bills' player with the best chance of slowing down Patriots quarterback and MVP candidate Tom Brady doesn't play defense. Buffalo running back Fred Jackson, the NFL's leading rusher, could be a headache for New England's defense. Jackson is running with a purpose. He's averaging 114.5 rushing yards per game and 6.5 yards per carry. The more first downs Jackson gains on the ground, the more Brady stays off the field. Both teams are expected to score a lot of points.

Must-win for Miami: The Dolphins' road game against the Cleveland Browns is pivotal. Not only would a 0-3 start put the Dolphins in a huge hole, but a lot of people in Miami's organization would be on the hot seat. It starts with coach Tony Sparano. He has been a lightning rod in Miami this past week. Dolphins fans and sports talk shows in South Florida already are starting to discuss potential replacements. Quarterback Chad Henne, who has improved this year, has been a hot topic the past couple of years. The Dolphins can quiet the talk for at least a week with a road win against Cleveland. Miami was one of the NFL's top road teams last season, posting a 6-2 mark away from Sun Life Stadium.

Update: Meriweather agrees with Bears

September, 4, 2011
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Earlier Sunday we mentioned the Miami Dolphins should be one of the teams gauging the interest of former New England Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather.

Now it's too late. The Chicago Bears were the first team to pounce and reportedly agreed to terms with Meriweather on a new contract.

This is good news for New England. Meriweather is far away from the Patriots' AFC East rivals. The Bears are not on New England's 2011 schedule. So both sides can have a fast, easy parting without looking back.

Update: Another notable release by New England also found a new home Sunday. Former Patriots receiver Brandon Tate was claimed off waivers by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Remember the Lawyer Milloy signing by the Buffalo Bills in 2003?

Meriweather
Meriweather
New England Patriots and coach Bill Belichick cut Milloy just before the regular season. The Bills -- New England's Week 1 opponent -- swooped in, quickly signed the safety, and Milloy helped pound the Patriots, 31-0.

Could history repeat itself eight years later with another solid safety: Brandon Meriweather? I think it's worth a shot for the Miami Dolphins. Miami will be underdogs against the Patriots on "Monday Night Football."

New England just released Meriweather on Saturday. Not only is Meriweather a good player, but he carries plenty of institutional knowledge about New England's defense, which appears to be using more 4-3 concepts and alignments this season. (Belichick won't confirm that, by the way.)

Wouldn't the Dolphins' coaching staff benefit from learning New England's defensive keys and tendencies from Meriweather? Couldn't Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne use an additional edge entering his dual with NFL MVP Tom Brady?

If a motivated Meriweather can have the "Milloy effect" against the Patriots in Week 1 -- leading to a Miami upset -- that alone would be worth the investment. On top of that, the two-time Pro Bowler is an upgrade over what the Dolphins currently have this year.

In fact, I can't think of any reason the Dolphins shouldn't pick up the phone to see if Meriweather is interested in Miami.

Can you?
Check here for a complete list of the New England Patriots‘ roster moves.

Surprise move: There was plenty of speculation about safety Brandon Meriweather's future after he played into the fourth quarter with the second unit in Thursday’s exhibition finale against the New York Giants, but it was still a surprise when the Patriots outright released the former first-round pick (24th overall in the 2007 draft) on Saturday. After releasing veteran James Sanders as part of the previous cutdowns, the Patriots further turned over that position, waving goodbye to a player who’s been to the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons.

The team also raised some eyebrows by releasing defensive end Eric Moore, a starter at season’s end last year, but the additions of veterans such as Mark Anderson and Shaun Ellis on the defensive line made him expendable. Wide receiver Brandon Tate, who was the team’s primary kick returner and No. 3 receiver last year, got edged by more versatile bodies, and veteran running back Sammy Morris was a victim of an influx of young talent at running back.

No-brainers: First-year players like offensive lineman Thomas Austin, running back Eric Kettani, and defensive back Ross Ventrone, as well as rookies linebacker Markell Carter, defensive lineman Aaron Lavarias, defensive end Alex Silvestro, tight end Lee Smith and tight end Will Yeatman were longer shots to make the roster. The release of two young tight ends (Smith and Yeatman) is a bit surprising given New England’s love of three tight-end sets and no pure fullback. (Could veteran Alge Crumpler be on the radar?)

What’s next: The Patriots are certainly in the market for safety help, and with backup guard Rich Ohrnberger placed on season-ending injured reserve, the team is thin on the interior line. Remember that this team rarely sits idle after cutdowns. Expect the Patriots to tweak their roster further based on what becomes available from cutdowns across the league.

Rapid Reaction: Giants 18, Patriots 17

September, 1, 2011
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Rapid reaction from the Patriots' preseason finale against the Giants, with the Patriots falling 18-17:

Tom Brady and starters play into second quarter. In all, Brady was on the field for 18 snaps (including penalties), as coach Bill Belichick wanted to get his first-unit offense some more work. The Giants were playing second-stringers from the start -- they had a quick turnaround after playing Monday night -- which adds context when considering the Patriots led 10-3 after the first quarter and 17-3 at the half. The Giants made a second-half comeback against the Patriots' second and third units, sparked by a fake punt which was taken 65 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter. If Belichick's goal was to generate momentum after Saturday's preseason dud in Detroit while keeping top players healthy, this was a case of "mission accomplished."

Albert Haynesworth's debut. The big defensive lineman played for the first time this preseason, totaling 16 snaps -- seven coming in the first quarter and nine in the second quarter. Haynesworth started and made an immediate impact, delivering a strong interior rush on his first play in which the Patriots forced a fumble and returned it 18 yards to the Giants' 1. But after a stretch of five straight plays in the second quarter, he looked winded. After the second quarter, he spent the rest of the night chatting up his fellow defensive linemen on the sidelines. He was credited with two tackles on the night (1 solo, 1 assist) and it looks like he's still working himself into game condition.

Shaun Ellis gets sack in first game. Veteran defensive lineman Shaun Ellis, the former New York Jet who signed a one-year deal with New England, also made his debut as the Patriots opened with a four-man line of Ellis at left end, Haynesworth and Vince Wilfork at defensive tackle and Andre Carter at right defensive end. Ellis registered a sack of quarterback David Carr at the end of the second quarter, as the Patriots gave him an extended look in sub packages with nickel rusher Mark Anderson not dressed.

Following up on Chad Ochocinco. There has been a lot of chatter about receiver Chad Ochocinco and how he is integrating into the team's offense. He started, played a total of 11 snaps (including penalties), and was targeted twice while finishing with one reception. On the incompletion, Ochocinco couldn't gain separation deep up the left side. His completion was a 9-yarder to open the Patriots' second drive of the night that looked smooth across the middle. After going without a catch Saturday in Detroit, it was the type of performance that Ochocinco could feel good about entering the regular season.

Brandon Meriweather plays with backups. With the Patriots taking an extended look at safety Josh Barrett in the first half, two-time Pro Bowl safety Brandon Meriweather played throughout the second half with many who won't be on the New England roster come Saturday. Looking ahead, Meriweather's standing on the team bears watching. It was unusual to see him playing so deep into the game, and one might say it was a message being sent by the coaching staff.

Wes Welker dresses but does not play. The receiver injured his neck Saturday in Detroit, but in a sign that it isn't serious, he dressed for the game and went through his regular pre-game warmups. Welker didn't play, but it looks like he should be ready to go in the season opener.

Three injuries of note. Cornerback Kyle Arrington (limping while not putting weight on his right leg), linebacker Niko Koutouvides (looked like a concussion) and running back/fullback Sammy Morris (looked like a concussion) were looked at by members of the medical staff and never reutrned to the game.

Focus now turns to roster cuts and season opener Sept. 12. Expect the page to be turned quickly by Belichick and players, with the focus on trimming the roster from 80 to 53 by Saturday, and then preparations intensifying for the season opener, on "Monday Night Football" against the Dolphins (Sept. 12).

Previewing the New England Patriots

September, 1, 2011
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All five panelists asked to pick the AFC East had the Patriots finishing first. Here's my intelligence report on New England:

Five things you need to know about the Patriots:

1. Defense changing its style: The Patriots have primarily utilized a two-gapping 3-4 defense in Bill Belichick's tenure as coach, which was often described as a read-and-react style of play. But things have looked significantly different this preseason, with the defense adopting more of a 4-3 look and attacking at the snap. It's a change that players are embracing. The Patriots ranked 32nd in the NFL on third down last season, but there have been early signs of improvement this year, sparked by the new emphasis on getting up the field. Belichick has already said the team is likely to keep more defensive linemen this year.

2. No surprise, Brady looks like the 2010 MVP: In the second preseason game against the Buccaneers, Tom Brady looked to be in midseason form, getting the offense in and out of the huddle at such a quick pace that Tampa defensive lineman Gerald McCoy said after the game, "Um, Mr. Brady, can we line up?" Brady has been sharp, showing no signs of trouble from the right foot surgery he had in January. A big part of his training camp has been devoted to spending time with receiver Chad Ochocinco as the two work to develop a rapport. Brady still looks like he has top arm strength.

3. Ochocinco easing into mix: Learning a new offense, and seeing the game through Brady's eyes so the two can communicate on the field without talking, has challenged Ochocinco. He is basically playing Randy Moss' old role and projects to be part of every receiver package. In the second preseason game, Ochocinco and Belichick had an animated discussion on the sideline, with Belichick pulling Ochocinco out of the game for two plays, seemingly because he wasn't pleased with his blocking down the field. For his part, Ochocinco said he has appreciated the hard coaching.

4. Big plans for Haynesworth: Despite rumors that the Patriots might cut Albert Haynesworth before the season, it was never a serious consideration. The team has big plans for him as a defensive tackle in its new-look defense, and believes that pairing him inside with Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork could be a lethal combination. Owner Robert Kraft signed off on the Haynesworth trade despite Haynesworth's off-field issues, noting that he didn't come for the money ($1.5 million base salary) and that he "found him to be genuine and sincere." Belichick said Haynesworth has done more than has been asked of him.

5. Meriweather in the doghouse: Brandon Meriweather -- the safety who was selected in the first round of the 2007 draft and has made the Pro Bowl twice -- could be on the outs. When the coaching staff rested all Pro Bowl players in the preseason opener, Meriweather played the entire first half. Then in the second preseason game, coaches adopted a three-man rotation at safety, with Meriweather coming off the field on the third series of the game. Clearly, coaches are trying to light a fire under him. If it doesn't ignite, that will be a key situation to monitor when rosters are trimmed to 53.
Of all the roster moves the Patriots made over the last few days, the release of safety James Sanders was most surprising. He had been a lock on previous 53-man projections as a steady presence along with Brandon Meriweather and Patrick Chung.

So when looking at ESPN's fourth version of dueling roster projections, the safety position now has a new look. Meriweather, Chung and second-year man Sergio Brown top the depth chart, and now a fourth spot could be open for either Josh Barrett or James Ihedigbo.

Barrett was claimed on waivers from the Broncos last year but spent the season on injured reserve. He has a background with special teams coach Scott O'Brien when the two were both in Denver. Meanwhile, Ihedigbo played on the "Big 4" special teams units (kickoff coverage, kickoff return, punt coverage, punt return) on Saturday, a sign that he could become a core special teamer.

Tough call.

AFC East links: Pressure on Meriweather

August, 30, 2011
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Buffalo Bills

Linebacker Kirk Morrison is excited about joining the Bills.

Six players who had been sidelined by injury returned to practice on Monday.

Miami Dolphins

Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland and coach Tony Sparano continue to use their connection to the Dallas Cowboys in building the Dolphins.

Following practice on Monday, Sparano defended the play of his offensive line this preseason.

New England Patriots

Quarterback Tom Brady spoke very highly of wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and the work he has put in since joining the team.

Parting ways with James Sanders puts added pressure on Brandon Meriweather.

New York Jets

Plaxico Burress was held without a catch by his former team Monday night.

Steve Politi of the Star-Ledger: "[T]he new-and-improved offense looked a lot like the 2010 version, one that repeatedly needed the defense to keep it in games."

Camp Confidential: New England Patriots

August, 18, 2011
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Now in his 37th season, Bill Belichick owns the distinction of having the most NFL experience among current head coaches. That gives him a unique perspective on the evolution of the NFL.

“It’s changed through the years, a lot of things are different from when I started coaching, on a lot of levels -- players, technology, the equipment we use," he said. "That’s the way it is for all of us. Bob Dylan talked about that 50 years ago."

For Belichick and his fellow coaches, Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” is a perfect theme song for the 2011 season.

Coaches must adjust to new rules as part of the new collective bargaining agreement, which means there are no more two-a-day practices, fewer full-pad practices and expanded training-camp rosters. And when it comes to Belichick’s New England Patriots club, which he leads for a 12th season, another year has brought unexpected change.

Few saw the acquisitions of controversial defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth and high-profile wide receiver Chad Ochocinco coming. Their arrivals made the start of 2011 training camp different from the norm in New England.

Usually the focus would be squarely on quarterback Tom Brady as camp opened, but in this unusual year, the NFL’s 2010 Most Valuable Player was on the back burner as he returned from January surgery on his right foot.

Indeed, things have changed.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeAlbert Haynesworth
Stew Milne/US PresswireWith a low price tag and modest salary, aquiring Albert Haynesworth was a low-risk move for the Patriots.
1. How does Haynesworth fit in? All eyes were on Haynesworth when he took the field for the first time July 31, and he didn’t disappoint.

The crowd cheered his arrival, which he acknowledged with a wave (almost like a baseball pitcher tipping his cap). Then he dominated a running drill. On the first play, he exploded through the line to blow up the play, which led to an eruption from the crowd. Haynesworth had a few other disruptive plays.

“It's going to be awesome. It's a refresher, and it kind of revived me, playing football again,” said Haynesworth, who was acquired for a fifth-round draft choice after two tumultuous seasons with the Redskins.

Haynesworth’s arrival could change the way the Patriots, who used a 3-4 alignment about 40 percent of the time last season, play defense. There have been more traditional four-man lines used in training camp, with linemen attacking more rather than controlling two gaps. Haynesworth would line up at tackle next to Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork in that type of plan.

The Patriots have managed Haynesworth’s health closely in camp, keeping him out of practice since Aug. 3. Although the reason Haynesworth is not practicing is not clear -- speculation is it’s simply maintenance of his troublesome knee -- Belichick doesn’t sound concerned.

"I think Albert has been great since he's been here,” he told WEEI sports radio Aug. 15. “He's worked hard. He's done more than really what we've asked him to do. He's put in a lot of extra time and a lot of extra effort to get back on the field, to study, to catch up on things from a playbook standpoint that's he a little behind on."

As for Haynesworth’s off-field issues, owner Robert Kraft explained how the organization developed a comfort level in acquiring him.

“I met with him, and I like the guy,” Kraft said. “He didn't come here for the money. He came here to be part of a team and win [and] I think in some ways to improve his reputation. So it's like a lot of meetings I have with these guys, I found him to be genuine and sincere. Now I hope he gets out on the field and does his thing.”

Haynesworth agreed to restructure his contract to consummate the trade. His new deal calls for him to earn a base salary of $1.5 million this season (he can earn more in incentives) before the salary spikes to $6.7 million in 2012. There was no signing bonus as part of the pact, making it a low-risk acquisition for the Patriots.

2. Will Ochocinco conform to the Patriot Way? On his first day on the practice field, Ochocinco tweeted, “It’s 1 thing to jump and be able to land on 2 feet but I had no idea I was landing in Heaven.”
He has quickly integrated himself into the mix, lining up in two-receiver packages with Wes Welker. Veteran Deion Branch joined the mix in three-wide looks.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady and Chad Ochocinco
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesChad Ochocinco is clearly still working on mastering the Patriots' offense.
Although there has been a higher-than-expected total of dropped passes, things have otherwise been smooth as Ochocinco has made the transition from Cincinnati to New England. The biggest challenges have been adjusting to offensive terminology that isn’t numbers-based (like the Bengals) and on-field communication with Brady through various signals.

“Once we’re on the field, there is no talking. I just look in his eyes and that’s it and that’s how we communicate,” said Ochocinco, who restructured his contract and received a $4.5 million signing bonus and base salaries of $1 million in 2011, $3 million in 2012 and $3 million in 2013. “That’s what I like about it here. [It’s] really, really cool.”

Patriots coaches and players have cited Ochocinco’s work ethic and passion for football on a daily basis, with some players laughing at the fun he has had off the field, which included attending a Red Sox/Yankees game and sitting in the front row along the third-base line, requesting a group hug from reporters and announcing that he would be living with a fan who had an Internet connection and Xbox for the first few weeks of the season.

In a classy move, second-year tight end Aaron Hernandez gave up his No. 85 for Ochocinco when the trade was consummated, the Patriots giving up fifth- and sixth-round draft choices in the move. Hernandez didn’t receive anything in return for the jersey swap, which set a positive tone.

3. Can Patriots get over playoff hump? Few would argue the Patriots aren’t top contenders for the Super Bowl. But those who don’t put them atop the list can make a strong case by pointing to their last three playoff games.

  • Feb. 3, 2008: Giants 17, Patriots 14. With the chance to close out their perfect season, the Patriots fall just short.
  • Jan. 10, 2010: Ravens 33, Patriots 14. A stunning home blowout in the wild-card round of the playoffs in which the Ravens stomped all over the Pats.
  • Jan. 16, 2011: Jets 28, Patriots 21. Having earned the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, the Patriots had a chance to bury the Jets early, but two first-quarter miscues halted the momentum. The Jets built confidence and stunned the Pats in the divisional round.

Simply put, the Patriots won’t be able to answer one of their biggest questions for at least five months.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Saying goodbye to veteran tight end Alge Crumpler. The Patriots were so pleased with the addition of Crumpler last season, and the role he played in mentoring 2010 draft picks Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez, they named him a captain a few weeks into the season.

Crumpler’s steadying presence in the locker room was considered key in righting one of the team’s trouble areas from 2009 -- a fractured locker room.

So it was surprising when the team released him a few days into training camp, turning the position over to Gronkowski (10 TDs in 2010), Hernandez and either rookie Lee Smith (fifth-round pick out of Marshall) or Will Yeatman (rookie free agent out of Maryland).

Crumpler played 53 percent of the offensive snaps last season, contributing mostly in the running game. Only three other offensive skill-position players were on the field more.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

[+] EnlargeRon Brace
AP Photo/Michael DwyerRon Brace hasn't been healthy enough in camp to seize a spot in the starting lineup.
It’s a tie between third-year defensive lineman Ron Brace and fifth-year safety Brandon Meriweather.

Brace is a 2009 second-round draft choice out of Boston College who is close to hitting a fork in the road of his NFL career.

For the second year in a row, he has opened camp on a reserve list, not ready to practice. With the team releasing longtime starter Ty Warren, the opportunity was there for Brace (6-foot-3, 330 pounds) to rise up the depth chart, but he hasn’t been able to seize the opportunity.

Meanwhile, the coaching staff seems to be sending a message to Meriweather, a two-time Pro Bowl safety. Meriweather played the entire first half of the preseason opener, even though the club’s other Pro Bowl players -- cornerback Devin McCourty, linebacker Jerod Mayo and Wilfork -- did not suit up for the game.

The team also offered free-agent safety Dashon Goldson a contract before Goldson re-signed with the 49ers, while Meriweather’s practice reps of late have been split with second-year player Sergio Brown.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Great competition at backup quarterback between third-year man Brian Hoyer and rookie Ryan Mallett (third round, 74th overall). Hoyer has been the No. 2 the last two seasons after making the club as a rookie free agent out of Michigan State, and he has solid command of the complex offense. Meanwhile, Mallett’s arm strength and work ethic are notable. He often stays late after practice, working with offensive assistant George Godsey on the finer points of the position (e.g., footwork).
  • It has been a common occurrence to see Mallett carrying the shoulder pads of Tom Brady and Hoyer off the field after practice. Some humble pie for the highly touted signal-caller from Arkansas.
  • Belichick gets involved in a drill in which the goal is for quarterbacks to maintain their concentration and perfect their footwork while under duress, and Belichick creates that duress by firing a blocking pad at them. Belichick has cranked Hoyer and Mallett in the head. No 15-yard penalties for that in practice.
  • A lot of defensive linemen in camp. Counting hybrids, the Patriots have 20 in camp entering their second preseason game, and Belichick acknowledged to Sirius XM NFL radio that the team will probably keep more defensive linemen than linebackers this year.
  • Second-round draft choices Ras-I Dowling (cornerback, 33rd overall) and Shane Vereen (running back, 56th overall) pulled up with hamstrings issues after just one practice, and they haven’t practiced since. Both signed contracts late -- this could be filed under the “lockout effect.” When Vereen was on the field, his speed stood out.
  • Second-year receiver Taylor Price, whose chance to break through for a top spot at receiver was made more challenging by the acquisition of Ochocinco, is stating his case. He has had a solid camp and was the star of the preseason opener (5 catches, 105 yards and a TD). He said his next step is developing the trust of Brady that he’ll always be in the right spot. Right now, he looks like a solid No. 4 option.
  • The Patriots struggled to generate a pass rush off the edge in 2010. Veteran defensive ends Mark Anderson and Andre Carter have been solid in that area to this point, providing what looks to be an upgrade over Tully Banta-Cain, who was released.
  • First-round draft choice Nate Solder, the team’s left tackle of the future, has responded well to his crash course since joining the team a week into camp. He’s big (6-foot-8, 319 pounds) and sometimes struggles with an inside move, but the potential is easy to see.
  • Veteran cornerback Leigh Bodden has turned in a solid camp as he returns after missing the entire 2010 season with a torn rotator cuff. A starter at right cornerback opposite McCourty, Bodden has worked in the slot in sub packages, a role he last played in 2007 with the Browns. Bodden’s size (6-foot-1, 193) is a good fit there from a run-support and jamming-receivers perspective.
  • Don’t expect All-Pro left guard Logan Mankins to get too comfortable now that he has signed a six-year, $51 million contract extension. He looks like his typical nasty self on the field, and his early-camp battles with Haynesworth were a highlight.
  • The Patriots had a minor scare when Gronkowski was helped off the field Aug. 8. But he returned a few days later and looks primed to build off his impressive rookie campaign.
  • Sixth-year kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed the last half of the 2010 season with a torn right quadriceps muscle, but his recovery is on track. The right-footed kicker is not yet taking kickoffs -- UMass product Chris Koepplin is in camp to handle those duties -- but he looks strong on field goals. Gostkowski has hit from a long of 53 yards in practice and was good from 43 and 46 yards in the preseason opener.

AFC East links: Sean Smith's new approach

August, 16, 2011
8/16/11
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Buffalo Bills

Sal Maiorana of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: "Aaron Maybin's status as arguably the most seismic draft bust in Buffalo Bills history was secured Monday when the team waived the undersized outside linebacker, a move that likely surprised no one."

Chan Gailey was pleased with the way his offense performed in rainy conditions during Monday's practice.

Miami Dolphins

Cornerback Sean Smith's new approach appears to be paying off.

The Dolphins hope Will Allen is able to make his preseason debut Friday night.

New England Patriots

Wes Welker says how he feels right now is the best he's felt in his career.

Are the Patriots looking to part ways with safety Brandon Meriweather?

New York Jets

Rich Cimini weighs in on the Jets' preseason opener.

Mark Sanchez and Rex Ryan laughed off the quarterback's "GQ" comments.
What was the Patriots' biggest weakness in 2010? Pass defense.

That won't be the case in 2011.

First off, let’s start with the cover guys. I am not entirely sold on the safeties, and the depth at this position in particular is a concern. But overall, you could do worse than Brandon Meriweather, Pat Chung and James Sanders. Still, I do think this is the weakest position now on New England’s defense.

[+] EnlargeLeigh Bodden
Luc Leclerc/US PresswireThe Patriots needs Leigh Bodden to return from the injuires that hampered his 2010 season.
The cornerback play should be vastly improved, though. First off, Leigh Bodden returns from injury. If he returns to his 2009 form, Bodden is an above-average starting corner who can excel in many different schemes. Last year’s first-round pick, Devin McCourty, would have been a legitimate candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2010 -- if it weren't for Detroit's Ndamukong Suh, that is. As great as McCourty was last season, expecting improvement in his second season seems logical as well.

The Patriots also used an early second-round pick this year on Ras-I Dowling. Dowling would have been a first-round pick if not for injuries. He has a lot of ability, and along with Bodden and McCourty, gives the Patriots excellent size at corner.

In addition to the latest two early round picks, New England has a slew of younger corners in Kyle Arrington, Darius Butler and Jonathan Wilhite. Collectively, this group has been underwhelming, but expecting improvement from these young cover men also doesn’t seem far-fetched. Even if just one of the three steps up, New England will be stacked at the position, which will allow Bill Belichick to be even more creative with his sub-package personnel. It should be noted, though, that it doesn’t yet appear Dowling is back to full health, which could stunt his growth and open the door for one of these three for early playing time.

Now, let’s discuss the pass rush, which like the coverage, should be improved. There has been a great deal of speculation that New England will be switching to more base 4-3 looks. Due to the team’s roster moves this offseason, that seems entirely likely. But I also expect Belichick to utilize many different looks from his front seven, changing on a week-to-week basis depending on the Patriots’ opponent.

If nothing else, the addition of Albert Haynesworth will pay dividends in this area. He can really get after the passer. Whether it is from a defensive end or nose tackle position in the 3-4 or as a 3-technique in the 4-3, Haynesworth will wreak havoc on quarterbacks. During his time in Tennessee, Haynesworth was used all over the defensive line, including as an outside edge rusher.

Haynesworth should pair with another newcomer, Shaun Ellis, as one of the most potent interior pass-rushing forces in the league on clear passing downs. Ellis will also contribute in the pursuit of quarterbacks from an end spot in New England’s odd front. The presence of both these players -- along with several incumbents -- should allow the Patriots to keep Haynesworth and Ellis quite fresh.

Off the edge, Jermaine Cunningham did some good things as a rookie and could be poised for a substantial step forward as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 or as a designated pass-rusher on throwing downs. He also could play some end when the Patriots use an even front. Andre Carter has consistently performed poorly when asked to move to outside linebacker in a 3-4, but he is well suited for defensive end in the 4-3. Belichick surely recognizes this and should use him accordingly.

The foursome of Haynesworth, Ellis, Cunningham and Carter as a pass-rushing front on passing downs is a vast improvement from a season ago. Mark Anderson, another guy who is much better suited for end in the 4-3, could also factor in, especially on early downs.

To say that New England has been aggressive to cure what ailed it in 2010 is a massive understatement. I fully expect this aggression to pay off in a big way.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.

AFC East links: Leigh Bodden set to return

July, 20, 2011
7/20/11
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Buffalo Bills

Buffalo Rumblings continues its countdown of the 10 Bills who will impact what happens in 2011. Coming in at No. 7 is running back C.J. Spiller. Brian Galliford: "Opposing defenses paid more attention to Spiller last season than any other Bill aside from Lee Evans. Speed alone makes Spiller a player that teams must account for on every snap, and his versatility makes that all the more difficult."

Miami Dolphins

Quarterback Tyler Thigpen hasn't ruled out a possible return to Miami.

Former Dolphins linebacker Bryan Cox is ready to make an impact as an assistant coach.

New England Patriots

ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss caught up with safety Brandon Meriweather on Tuesday at former teammate Ellis Hobbs' football camp.

After missing all of last season, Leigh Bodden is anxious to start hitting. "I’m ready for contact. No red jersey. I don’t plan on wearing that when I get there,” Bodden said last week when asked about the state of his shoulder. “I’m definitely ready. I’ve been working out. I feel great. I’m just ready to play."

New York Jets

If the Jets want to be active in free agency, they are going to have to create some room to get under the salary cap.

Cornerback Antonio Cromartie made it clear Tuesday that he plans to test the free-agent waters. "I'm not giving anybody a hometown discount," Cromartie said during an interview with Sirius XM Radio. "I'm definitely going to see what the organization says and also let them know I want to go out and test the market and see where my value is."

Bart Scott isn't a fan of the reported elimination of two-a-day practices during training camp.

More data shows Mayo all over the field

June, 24, 2011
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Football Outsiders overlord Aaron Schatz busted out some research to illustrate the NFL's best tacklers against the pass.

Mayo
Mayo
And once again, New England Patriots inside linebacker Jerod Mayo looked strong.

Mayo led the NFL with 72 pass tackles, and his numbers look even more impressive when noticing he was one of only two non-cornerbacks in the top 12. Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway was tied for 10th with 61 pass tackles.

For added context on Mayo's production, the differential drops precipitously when looking solely at linebackers. San Francisco 49ers star Patrick Willis ranked eighth but had 20 fewer tackles than Mayo.

No other AFC East cornerback or linebacker ranked in the top 10 at his position.

Buffalo Bills safety Donte Whitner ranked eighth among his peers with 43 pass tackles, with New England Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather one behind. Miami Dolphins safety Yeremiah Bell and Patriots safety Patrick Chung recorded 41 pass tackles, tying for 10th.

Schatz also broke down stop percentages on pass tackles. Football Outsiders defines a "stop" as preventing an opponent from gaining 45 percent of needed yards on first down, 60 percent on second down and 100 percent on third or fourth down.

New York Jets defensive back Drew Coleman made a stop on 36 percent of his pass tackles to rank 10th.

On the flip side, Bills sophomore Jairus Byrd had the worst stop rate among all NFL safeties. He made one stop on 37 pass tackles.

Mayo also scored remarkably well in a recent Football Outsiders report about broken tackles. Mayo allowed one ball carrier to break free while making 118 tackles, ranking second in efficiency among all defenders with at least 50 tackles.

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