AFC East: Brian Waters

Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC East:
  • The Miami Dolphins are scheduled to meet this week with free-agent offensive tackles Tyson Clabo and Winston Justice.
Morning take: Miami is doing its due diligence with offensive tackles after missing on them in the draft. In addition to Clabo and Justice, Miami also met with this week with free agent Bryant McKinnie.
Morning take: Dansby would be a solid addition if they can get him affordably. But Dansby always thought he was a Pro Bowler and could be asking for too much.
Morning take: I almost forgot Waters' rights were still with New England. The sides spent last year in a contract dispute that was never resolved. Now it is time for everyone to move on.
  • New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan admits the team did not properly use former quarterback Tim Tebow’s skills.
Morning take: Tebow could have done better as a gimmick quarterback if New York had creative offensive coaches. But Tebow never got a fair chance, and now his NFL career is in doubt.
Tom Brady was on injured reserve with a knee injury the last time his New England Patriots visited the Seattle Seahawks.

The year was 2008.

The Seahawks had a 2-10 record. Seneca Wallace was their starting quarterback. Mike Holmgren was their coach. Pete Carroll was at USC.

Now, for the really different part: The Seahawks' defense, currently ranked No. 1 in yards allowed, ranked 30th back then. It had allowed six total rushing and passing touchdowns in its previous two games, one more than the 2012 team has allowed in five games this season.

Brady is back and leading the NFL's top-ranked offense against Seattle's top-ranked defense in Week 6. The teams kick off Sunday afternoon at CenturyLink Field, Brady's first road start against the Seahawks. The matchup has us talking already.

Mike Sando, NFC West blog: The last time an NFC West team drew New England, Arizona pulled off one of the more shocking upsets of the season, holding Brady to 18 points and leaving Gillette Stadium with a 20-18 victory. New England lost Aaron Hernandez to injury in that game. The Patriots have regrouped. They've scored 113 points in three subsequent games. Was that Arizona game an aberration, or should the Seahawks' defense expect similar results?

James Walker, AFC East: It feels like two different offenses since New England’s loss to the Cardinals, Mike. New England looked shell-shocked after losing Hernandez in that game. He's usually such a big part of the Patriots’ game plan that they had trouble adjusting on the fly. But New England made the proper changes. Tight ends no longer are the first option; now receiver Wes Welker is the top target. New England is no longer passing the ball 60 or 70 percent of the time; its run-to-pass ratio was 54-31 this past week against the Denver Broncos. The Patriots also used a no-huddle offense in all four quarters for the first time in that game. Can New England keep up that kind of pace, especially on the road? The Patriots are concerned about crowd noise in Seattle. Will the 12th man affect this game?

Sando: Yeah, the crowd will be a factor because the defense is good enough to make it one. Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo combined for 19 points in Seattle. Brady and the Patriots are playing better offensively than Green Bay or Dallas, though. One key will be whether Brady can get the ball out to Welker quickly enough to avoid Seattle's pass-rushers. Bruce Irvin, Chris Clemons and Jason Jones could have big games against the Patriots' offensive front if Brady holds the ball. But Welker should have a big advantage against nickel corner Marcus Trufant. Welker leads the NFL with 24 receptions from the slot over the past three games. Seattle's opponents haven't gone after Trufant all that much, but St. Louis slot receiver Danny Amendola did give him some problems. Welker is a tough matchup for everyone and should be a tough one for the Seahawks.

Walker: Seattle’s pass rush is the biggest concern for New England. Brady’s sack totals have gone up each of the past three seasons, and he already has been sacked 12 times in five games. Brady is not a young pup anymore and only has so many hits left in his 35-year-old body. New England’s pass protection hasn’t been the same after losing left tackle Matt Light and Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters in the offseason. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and guard Logan Mankins also have played hurt this year. The Patriots have done things schematically to counter their shaky pass protection. New England is running the ball more, and the no-huddle has slowed down opponents. But you wonder whether the inconsistent pass protection eventually will catch up to New England this season, especially this weekend against a good Seattle defense.

Sando: Seattle's defense was good last season, and it's better in 2012. This is a legitimate top-five defense with big, pressing cornerbacks and the potential for a strong pass rush, particularly at home. The Seahawks are allowing 3.2 yards per carry overall and 3.0 when we remove quarterback scrambles (Brady isn't exactly a running threat). There's speed at every level of the defense. Holding the Patriots' offense to a reasonable level -- say, somewhere in the 20-point range -- should be realistic as long as Seattle fares OK against Welker. The bigger question is whether Seattle's offense can score enough points to win the game. Russell Wilson is coming off his best game, but the offense isn't putting up enough points.

Walker: New England’s defense has improved in a lot of areas. The front seven is more physical and the pass rush is better, specifically with the addition of first-round pick Chandler Jones. However, New England is still 30th against the pass and continues to give up chunks of yards through the air. The safety play has been horrific at times. I think Seattle’s best chance to win is using play-action over the top. Patriots coach Bill Belichick usually tries to take one thing away, and I assume the focus this week will be Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. There will be plenty of opportunities in the passing game if Wilson can take advantage. Speaking of taking advantage, your NFC West division has crushed the AFC East at nearly every turn. What is going on here? Is this a special year for the NFC West, and will Seattle repeat what the Cardinals did by knocking off the top dog in the AFC East?

Sando: I've gone into several of these nondivision games a little skeptical about whether the NFC West team would score enough to win. The offenses in Arizona, Seattle and St. Louis lag in the rankings. But the defenses and special teams have more than made up the difference. I think Seattle has a winning formula and a good shot at pulling it off, but I still think Brady is more likely than Wilson to reach 20-plus points.

I've had similar thoughts before and been wrong. I really thought some of these top opposing quarterbacks would enjoy greater success against the NFC West. Brady, Jay Cutler, Rodgers, Michael Vick, Robert Griffin III, Romo, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford are a combined 2-8 against the division, and both victories were against St. Louis. Those quarterbacks have seven touchdown passes and nine picks against the division. Outside the division, NFC West teams have gone 10-0 at home and 11-3 regardless of venue.

I'll probably wind up picking the Patriots, but Seattle's defense gives the Seahawks a good chance.

Walker: It looks as if the AFC East is having a second consecutive down year, and the arrow is certainly pointing up for the NFC West. But the Patriots are a legit team. Barring significant injuries, I expect New England to carry the banner for the division all season. I’m 15-2 predicting AFC East games this year, so I feel pretty confident in my picks. I think New England will pull this one out. The Patriots’ offense is very balanced, and their tempo puts a lot of pressure on teams. If they score points early, it could put too much pressure on Wilson to answer. Wilson has beaten Rodgers, Romo and Newton this year. But I don’t think Wilson will add Brady to that list.

Brian Waters saga takes another twist

September, 7, 2012
9/07/12
12:35
PM ET
One of the biggest mysteries this summer involves the future of New England Patriots starting guard Brian Waters.

Both the team and Waters have been mum on his status. Waters is under contract for one more season but has yet to report with the Patriots, who will play their first regular-season game Sunday against the Tennessee Titans.

No one is exactly sure why Waters hasn't showed up. But Friday Waters had his name plate removed from the locker room, according to Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com. In addition, Waters' No. 54 jersey was handed to rookie linebacker Dont’a Hightower last week.

Perhaps these are clues the Patriots are ready to move on without Waters. New England's offensive line could certainly use the guard this season. But there are games to play and the team cannot allow this to become a distraction.

Morning take: Marino on Tannehill

September, 5, 2012
9/05/12
7:00
AM ET
Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC East:
  • Miami Dolphins Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino reflects on his rookie year and what that could mean for Ryan Tannehill.
Morning take: Not even Marino played in Week 1 as a rookie, which is what Tannehill will do Sunday. Even the best quarterbacks go through some growing pains and Tannehill will be no different.
Morning take: I'm not sure what the Patriots are doing with their makeshift offensive line. Some players are banged up and we're still not sure if Brian Waters will return. But New England seems willing to go into Week 1 with eight players up front and no injuries.
  • The New York Jets switched punters Tuesday, signing Robert Malone before their Week 1 game against Buffalo.
Morning take: The Jets never seemed too comfortable with their kicking situation this offseason. Malone might get plenty of chances to prove himself with the way New York’s offense performed in the preseason.
Morning take: The Bills didn’t get much respect from the AP or ESPN.com. Buffalo still has a lot to prove after not making the playoffs since 1999.
The New England Patriots continue their 2012 preseason Friday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Patriots are heavy favorites in the AFC East with regular season just two weeks away.

But there are reasons to be hopeful and concerned about the Patriots this year.

Reason for hope: talent, depth

The Patriots are stacked. They have depth at plenty of positions, and New England’s improved depth on defense could take this team to a new level. You know what you’re getting from quarterback Tom Brady & Co. on offense. New England should be among the league leaders in scoring, and the team won’t have to rely on just one threat to produce and stay healthy. Receivers Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and tight end Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are all capable of dominating a game. If the defense improves from last year’s 31st ranking, the Patriots will be very dangerous. New England’s defense only needs to get into the low 20s. Anything more is a bonus.

Reason for concern: offensive line

The Patriots have not looked good on their offensive line. All of New England's great weapons won’t matter much if Brady doesn’t have enough time to throw the football. Brady also is New England’s most precious commodity. If he’s healthy and upright, the Patriots are a lock to win the division. If Brady is battered and injured, the AFC East is wide open. The good news is help is on the way. Starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins are making great strides to return. That’s two starters. If veteran guard Brian Waters decides not to retire, that would be another boost to New England’s offensive line.
Here are the most interesting stories Thursday in the AFC East:
  • Jacksonville Jaguars tailback Maurice Jones-Drew is too pricey for the New York Jets.
Morning take: We wrote as much on Wednesday. The Jets do not have the cap space to extend their own best player -- Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis. It would look really bad if they worked out a trade and big extension with an outside player when that money could’ve gone to Revis.
  • Is New England Patriots guard Brian Waters coming back?
Morning take: The more time that passes, the less likely Waters is returning. The Patriots are preparing as though it won't happen. But if Waters plays this season it will be a bonus.
  • Speaking of retirement, Miami Dolphins guard Eric Steinbach retires from the NFL.
Morning take: Steinbach sat out all of 2011 following major back surgery. He was not the same player in camp he once was, and that clearly bothered him. I got to know Steinbach over his career and he's a good person and a good player. He had solid stints playing for the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns.
  • With Shawne Merriman's release, backup defensive end Robert Eddins rises up the depth chart.
Morning take: The second-year defender gets a chance to play behind Mario Williams, Mark Anderson and Chris Kelsay. The pressure isn't too much. Eddins just needs to respond when his number is called.

Observation deck: Saints-Patriots

August, 9, 2012
8/09/12
10:42
PM ET

The reigning AFC champion New England Patriots began their 2012 preseason with a 7-6 win over the New Orleans Saints.

Here are some notes and observations:

What I liked: It was an impressive night for New England's running game. Second-year tailbacks Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen both were stellar in the Patriots’ preseason debut. Ridley got off to a good start, rushing for 40 yards on eight carries with the first team. Vereen showed his big-play ability by leading New England with 64 yards on 11 carries against the backups. Both tailbacks are pushing for the starting job. There are a lot of questions about New England’s youth at running back, but the preseason opener erased some of those concerns.

What I didn't like: I did not like what I saw from New England's starting offensive line. For now, the Patriots must rely on new faces with the status of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back) and guards Logan Mankins (knee) and Brian Waters (personal) up in the air. But the replacements looked out of sync with penalties and missed assignments. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was crunched in the first quarter on a sack and fumbled. He finished 4-of-7 for 30 yards and a fumble.

Rough day for Solder: Continuing on the trend of the offensive line, it was a tough start for second-year left tackle Nate Solder. He had two holding calls in the first quarter. Solder is an important member of the offensive line -- his job is to protect Brady’s blindside, and he has to play better.

Rookies shine: The Patriots' two first-round picks have looked impressive in training camp, and it was a good sign to see that carry over to the preseason opener. Patriots rookie defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower played well in their NFL debut. Both were active and combined for four tackles. Jones and Hightower are trying to carve out their roles in the defense.

Safeties first: New England's starting safeties both recorded turnovers. Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory both had interceptions. This is a good sign for New England's 31st-ranked pass defense from a year ago. Gregory was a free-agent addition and seems to be meshing well with Chung.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- You would think there was a playoff game at Gillette Stadium this week.

Patriots logoIn front of a packed house, the New England Patriots hosted the New Orleans Saints for a pair of high-quality joint practices. Even famous musician Jon Bon Jovi and supermodel (and Tom Brady's wife) Gisele Bundchen showed up for a glimpse of the action.

The talent on the practice field was immense. You had future Hall of Famers Brady and Drew Brees at quarterback, Pro Bowl tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham and two hungry defenses eager to improve. The tempo was fast and intense.

The Patriots could have easily practiced against themselves this week like the rest of the league. But there is a method to Bill Belichick's madness. It's Super Bowl or bust for New England. And even in August, the Patriots want to test themselves as much as possible against another playoff contender.

"We know that there are a lot of other great organizations and teams and players and coaches out there," Belichick explained. "It’s a good challenge every week, and certainly the Saints are one of the top teams in professional football. As I said, they're well-coached, they have great talent, good players, good scheme [and] they win a lot of games. We played against them two years ago, practiced against them two years ago in their championship season. There isn’t any team we have more respect for than the Saints from top to bottom."

The reigning AFC champions are loaded. Their roster is deeper and more talented than last year's team that finished 13-3. With the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL, the Patriots are expected to match or surpass last season's win total. Some pundits even believe a 16-0 regular season is within reach. But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. How much better is the defense? The Patriots' defense has improved. New England was ranked 31st in total defense and 31st against the pass in 2011. So the Patriots cannot get much worse.

The Patriots invested all their draft picks except a seventh-rounder in defense. The biggest coups were first-round picks Dont'a Hightower at linebacker and defensive end Chandler Jones. Both rookies received a lot of reps with the first team this week and appear to be learning fast. They also provide athleticism and aggressiveness to New England's front seven.

Second-round pick and defensive back Tavon Wilson also has looked better than advertised. Belichick received a lot of criticism for drafting Wilson that high when most projected him to be a fifth- or sixth-round pick. Free agent Steve Gregory also is New England's starting safety and is an upgrade over the rotating door New England had at the position last year.

With a high-powered offense, the Patriots don't need a top-10 defense. But if the defensive-minded Belichick can get this group in the top 20, New England will be very hard to beat.

"We're just trying to be aggressive and be competitive in everything out there," Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty said of improving. "From the front all the way throughout the secondary, guys are just trying to develop an attitude. Defense has a lot to do with attitude and how you approach the game, so we’re trying to keep attitude and trying to do it day in and day out."

[+] EnlargeNate Solder
Stew Milne/US PresswireSecond-year left tackle Nate Solder has shined early in Patriots training camp.
2. Who will man the offensive line? It is difficult to gauge the performance of the offensive line in training camp. About half of training camp practices are in shorts, and that significantly reduces contact in the trenches. But replacements need to be ready because four of New England's starters from last year are injured, retired or contemplating retirement.

New England's offensive line is a M.A.S.H. unit. Starting guards Logan Mankins (knee) and Brian Waters (personal reasons) have yet to practice with the team, and starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has a back injury. Longtime starting left tackle Matt Light retired, and so did free-agent signee Robert Gallery.

The Patriots are trying to find the right combination up front in training camp in preparation for Week 1 of the regular season. So far, the best lineman in camp has been second-year left tackle Nate Solder, who gained some starting experience last year in his rookie season.

Holdovers such as guard Dan Koppen, Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell and Marcus Cannon are all trying to carve out roles -- at least until starters Mankins, Vollmer and (maybe) Waters return. Brady and the Patriots will pass the football a lot this year, so development of the offensive line is important.

"We're going to play whoever is here, and whatever happens, we're going to be here working hard," Solder said this week.

3. Who will run the football? Dependable tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis bolted to the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency. That leaves second-year tailbacks Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen trying to pick up the slack in 2012. Neither player has much experience. Ridley did pretty well in limited playing time his rookie year, amassing 441 yards and a touchdown. Vereen was injured most of his rookie season and wasn’t a factor.

Ridley has the inside track and has looked impressive. He has good vision and burst. Ball security has been the only question. But Ridley believes he made rookie mistakes that he will fix in Year 2.

"This year I'm going to go and do the best that I can to keep the ball high and tight," Ridley said. "I know that if I can keep the ball in my hands, I'm going to be on the field. So my work is cut out for me."

Backup running back Danny Woodhead also will assist Ridley and Vereen, particularly on third downs.

Reason for optimism

This is the best collection of talented skill players Brady has ever had. If everyone stays healthy, I do not see any reason the Patriots cannot be near the top of the league in scoring and passing offense. New England should average at least 30 points per game.

Brady has a Pro Bowl tight end in Gronkowski, a Pro Bowl receiver in Wes Welker, a top-five tight end in Aaron Hernandez and a much-needed deep threat in Brandon Lloyd. The Patriots' passing game should be able to do it all. Brady can go underneath to Welker and Gronkowski or deep to Lloyd and Hernandez. It will be very difficult for opponents to game plan.

"We're not taking anything for granted," Brady said. "We're trying to come out and string practices together."

Reason for pessimism

I'm still not confident in New England's secondary. This was the weakest part of the Patriots last year, and 2012 could be a repeat.

Cornerbacks McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Sterling Moore and Ras-I Dowling all have question marks. The Saints’ offense had their way with New England’s corners during this week’s joint practices. No one among the Patriots’ corners made enough plays to really stand out.

Perhaps the biggest problem is New England's corners are not shutdown, man-to-man defenders. That forces New England to play a lot of zone to try to get stops. That leads to a bend-but-don’t-break mentality we saw last year.

Expect many opponents to attack New England's cornerbacks until this group proves it can cover and shut down receivers consistently.

OBSERVATION DECK

    [+] EnlargeAaron Hernandez
    AP Photo/Robert E. KleinNot many tight ends have the athletic ability to be a punt returner. The Patriots' Aaron Hernandez does.
  • Speaking of McCourty, he is playing exclusively at corner in training camp. It shows the coaching staff is comfortable that McCourty will bounce back from a shoulder injury and poor play that led to a position change to safety late last season. McCourty is competing hard and trying to get back to his rookie form, when he made the Pro Bowl in 2010.
  • How athletic is Hernandez? New England is experimenting with its No. 2 tight end at punt return and running back. Hernandez did a good job running the football in the Patriots' playoff win over the Denver Broncos. It was a nice wrinkle added by Belichick. Hernandez is elusive in the open field and has good hands, so returning punts could make sense as another way to get the ball into Hernandez's hands.
  • I'm not sure why more teams do not have joint practices in training camp. Both the Patriots and Saints gave rave reviews of how well things went this week. It was well organized; both teams got a lot of work done; and there were no injuries. Most importantly, it is a change of pace from hitting your teammates the entire summer. In talking with players, they got a kick out of practicing against an unfamiliar opponent.
  • The Brady-to-Lloyd combination is still a work in progress. Brady missed Lloyd on several opportunities this week, as the first-time teammates continue to work on their chemistry. Lloyd is the best deep threat Brady has had since Randy Moss. Brady and Moss got on the same page quickly in their first season together. Brady hopes for the same results with Lloyd.
  • Keep an eye out for undrafted rookie defensive end Justin Francis. I wasn't familiar with the Rutgers product before my training camp visit, but after a few practices, I noticed Francis stood out. Francis has a good motor and athleticism for a defensive end. Francis is a sleeper pick to make New England's 53-man roster, but he must show that he can translate his play on the practice field to the preseason games.
  • The No. 2 quarterback race between Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett favors Hoyer at this stage of camp. Hoyer had a solid week of practice leading into Thursday's preseason opener. Hoyer was more accurate and made some nice throws. Mallett has a lot of physical ability but has a lot to work on. He had trouble with taking some of the velocity off his passes when needed. The preseason games will matter most, but Hoyer has the lead so far.
  • Linebacker Bobby Carpenter has been a pleasant surprise for New England. The former first-round pick has underachieved at his previous stops in Dallas, Miami and Detroit. But Carpenter has fit in well as a backup linebacker for the Patriots in training camp and is in good shape to make the team. Carpenter even got a little work with the first team this week because of injuries.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Offensive linemen are dropping like flies around New England Patriots left tackle Nate Solder.

Veteran free agent Robert Gallery retired over the weekend. So did Matt Light. Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins (knee) is on the physically unable to perform list, and fellow guard Brian Waters' playing status is still to be determined. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer also is dealing with a back injury, leaving Solder as one of the few starting and healthy linemen from February's Super Bowl team.

[+] EnlargeNate Solder
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaNate Solder is being counted on to take a bigger role this season.
"I think it's a team effort, and I’m just one of the parts to that," Solder said Monday after practice. "It takes all five of the O-lineman. It takes all of the wide receivers and everyone working together. We’re going to play whoever is here, and whatever happens, we’re going to be here working hard."

Solder entered the offseason as a young, budding left tackle. Now, he's being relied upon in training camp as though he's one of the veterans.

Solder has one of the most important responsibilities on the team protecting quarterback Tom Brady's blind side. But you wouldn’t know it from Solder's mentality. He is calm and low key. Solder says he's taken this important second season day by day, which is exactly how the Patriots like their players to think.

All indications are that Solder has been the most consistent lineman in training camp. Part of it is due to injuries to veterans. But the second-year tackle also is meeting -- and perhaps exceeding -- expectations as a 2011 first-round pick.

"We thought Nate was a good football player when we drafted him,” Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said. "He’s come in and had a decent first year. And the most important thing with any player is you try to improve on a day-to-day basis and become a more consistent player."

Solder isn't backing down in training camp. He got into a big scuffle in practice last week with Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes. When we asked about it Monday, Solder chuckled and said, "We're moving on."

Solder has a lot to look forward to. It began the day Light announced his retirement. That catapulted Solder into the starting left tackle role full time in just his second season. The Patriots are legitimate Super Bowl contenders and Solder has a big responsibility in that.

"My reaction [to Light retiring] was it's time for me to get better and work harder," Solder said. "I want to contribute to this team anyway I can. I feel blessed with my opportunities here and it’s worked out phenomenally. But it's up to me to really step up and play well."
Here are the most interesting stories Sunday morning in the AFC East: Morning take: Leonhard visited the Buffalo Bills earlier in the week but didn't sign; he must have liked his chances to get more playing time in Denver. He would have been coming off the bench for Buffalo.
Morning take: Gallery had a long career in the NFL and was struggling some with the Patriots. New England now has a lot of questions at guard with Gallery retiring, Logan Mankins hurt and Brian Waters' status uncertain.
Morning take: Fields is a great punter who is underrated. The Dolphins did the right thing to secure him for four more years.
Morning take: The team has begged Mangold to go and he refused until now. This is a good time to get a breather and spend time with family.
The New England Patriots began training camp Thursday, but the status of guard Brian Waters remains a mystery.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick addressed the media and said the situation is still "day-to-day." Waters has not participated in any offseason workouts and will not practice for the start of training camp. Neither the team nor Waters have been clear on the reason. But it's been speculated that Waters, 35, might be contemplating retirement.

The Patriots could have major changes at guard to start the season. In addition to Waters' uncertain status, fellow Patriots starting guard Logan Mankins is on the active/physically unable to perform list following offseason ACL surgery.

Patriots Camp Watch

July, 25, 2012
7/25/12
12:00
PM ET
NFC Camp Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Dates

Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:

One thing I'm certain of: The New England Patriots will have a younger, more athletic defense in training camp. The Patriots were 31st last year in total defense. It’s questionable how much this group improved, but the Patriots certainly will be faster. Additions in the draft such as first-rounders Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower help.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick needs to find the right balance for his defense right now. This is a team that did not cover well and had issues at times rushing the passer. The combination made it rough for the Patriots to keep opponents from racking up yards. They did several things in minicamp to mix it up defensively and find the right combination. That will continue in training camp.

One thing that might happen: New England could see major changes at both guard positions. The training camp status of Patriots Pro Bowlers Brian Waters and Logan Mankins are both up in the air. Waters is contemplating retirement, while Makins is recovering from ACL surgery.

Waters’ absence has been a mystery. He has not participated in any offseason workouts, but also has not officially made a decision on his playing career. Mankins was put on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.

One thing we won't see: I’m sure we will not see any distractions. That simply is not the “Patriot Way.” New England is a veteran team with great leadership. It is the consummate football culture that has kept this team focused on winning, and away from outside distractions.

The reigning AFC champs have most of their roster spots filled. So there won’t be many position battles drawing attention. The one potential controversy could be Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker. He expected a long-term extension this offseason but got the one-year franchise tag for $9.5 million. Welker certainly will be asked about his feelings on this. But an educated guess is Welker will say he is happy to be a Patriot for at least one more year and he’s ready to concentrate on football.
The AFC East blog continues its series this week on pre-training camp grades in the division. On Tuesday, we conclude with a look at the reigning AFC champion New England Patriots.

Offense: A-

New England has one of the most dangerous and dynamic passing attacks in the NFL. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady still is playing at an elite level and has a bevy of weapons at receiver (Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney) and tight end (Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez). The status of Pro Bowl guards Logan Mankins (knee surgery) and Brian Waters (possible retirement) are up in the air for the start of the season, but the Patriots have depth up front and should be fine. The real question is the running backs. New England will rely on inexperienced second-year players Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen to carry the load, while veterans Joseph Addai and Danny Woodhead compete to provide support on third down.

Defense: C-

The defense was atrocious in 2011, finishing 31st in the NFL. If not for New England's aggressive offseason additions, this grade would be worse. The Patriots made a lot of moves to improve their pass rush and front seven. Top draft picks Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower, for example, should immediately help New England's front seven. The big question is how much will the secondary improve. The struggling cornerbacks are pretty much the same. New England added safeties in the draft and free agency but no impact players.

Coaching: A

What more can you say about Patriots head coach Bill Belichick? He built a dynasty in New England by winning three Super Bowls. Belichick also has dominated the AFC East nine of the past 11 years. He’s arguably the top coach in the NFL and one of the best of all time. His surly public persona and ultra-secretive ways may not be media friendly, but Patriots fans could care less as long as New England annually remains in contention.

Intangibles: A

You never hear of locker-room issues in New England. This team has great leadership and it starts at the top with Belichick and Brady. Everyone knows to fall in line or get out in New England. That is why the Patriots are not afraid to take a few chances. Some work (Randy Moss) and some do not (Chad Ochocinco, Albert Haynesworth), but it rarely hurts the team in the long run.

Overall: A

New England enters the year as one of the Super Bowl favorites -- and deservedly so. There are not many holes on the team outside of the defense. But the offense should be so good that the Patriots should only need marginal improvement defensively. No team in the AFC East can match New England in coaching or personnel. It was be a major upset if the Patriots do not repeat as division champs, which should pave the way for another postseason run. The only thing I can see derailing the Patriots from being a contender is significant injuries.
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday morning in the AFC East: Morning take: The Dolphins should be interested in all receivers with potential. I'm not convinced the team is happy with its current group. The Dolphins have the draft capital with two third-round picks next year thanks to the Brandon Marshall trade.
Morning take: Sanchez took a beating last season, and probably had wear and tear, but no surgery was needed. I'm a little tired of Burress talking about his former team seemingly to keep his name in the news while he searches for a job.

  • Buffalo Bills rookie receiver T.J. Graham is signed and ready to get to work.
Morning take: Buffalo has all of its draft picks signed, and rookies now can join the team on a voluntary basis. First-year players like Stephon Gilmore, Cordy Glenn and Graham all could have big roles this season.
Morning take: McDonald isn't a big name, but his versatility to play guard and center gives him a shot. McDonald's chances mostly rest on the availability of starting guards Logan Mankins and Brain Waters early in the season.
Here are the most interesting stories Friday morning in the AFC East: Morning take: There are a lot of good vibes coming out of that Bills locker room. But you hope this team doesn’t start believing in its own hype. Buffalo is not a Super Bowl contender but it can make some noise this season -- if the team stays focused.
  • New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis was voted the fifth-best player in the NFL by his peers.
Morning take: This is quite an honor for Revis, who is on his way to being an all-time great. It’s clear he has the respect of his fellow players.
Morning take: Yes, both players give you Pro Bowl production at a relatively good price. The Patriots front office knows what it is doing.
Morning take: Gaine will work right under general manager Jeff Ireland in running the Dolphins. This is another step forward as the front office moves on from the Bill Parcells era.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

AFC EAST SCOREBOARD