AFC East: Dan Koppen

Click here for a complete list of New England Patriots' roster moves.

Most significant move: New England cut three veterans who were important pieces the past few seasons: wide receiver Deion Branch, center Dan Koppen and backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. Koppen wasn't a huge surprise. New England played the veteran lineman extensively in the fourth preseason game -- and he was part of the issue with struggles on the offensive line this summer. But Branch and Hoyer were surprises. Branch battled some injuries but is reliable and brings plenty of leadership. The Patriots spent the past several years developing Hoyer behind quarterback Tom Brady and decided this was the time to go in another direction. Granted, Hoyer struggled this preseason and second-year quarterback Ryan Mallett played a little better. But it's a little surprising that New England didn't keep him as at least the third quarterback. Hoyer's salary probably has a lot to do with it.

Onward and upward: Jeff Demps' first attempt at the NFL was a short one. The Olympic sprinter suffered an unfortunate leg injury in the fourth quarter of the final preseason game and was put on injured reserve. Demps showed flashes in his limited time this preseason. New England signed him to a three-year contract, and now Demps has to rehab to get healthy for another try. Potential is there for 2013 with New England. I also expect Branch to be on the short list with New England if a receiver gets injured during the season. Branch might know this and not accept an offer from just any team unless it's a viable contender.

What’s next: There’s not much left to do for the reigning AFC champions. This roster is stacked and, based on their cuts, it's clear the Patriots like some of their young players. Cuts like Branch, Koppen and Hoyer prove that New England has a lot of confidence in its youngsters filling key roles.
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.
Did you miss me?

My buddy, "ESPN.com staff," said you all were solid while I was on vacation. So I won't flood the AFC East blog with two Tim Tebow posts per day this week. But that's always subject to change in seven days (wink, wink).

Anyway, a lot happened in the AFC East when I was away. So we are going to skip Monday's "Morning take" in order to catch up on recent issues within the division.

Story No. 1: Dolphins OLB Cameron Wake holds out.

Issue: Wake, who is scheduled to make $615,000 next season, is holding out for more money. He skipped the beginning of the team's offseason workout program last week and reportedly plans to miss more time if a resolution isn't reached.

Walker's take: This is another big blow to a horrific offseason for the Dolphins. I agree that Wake outperformed his contract and is due for a raise. I also doubt the Dolphins disagree with that. The question is, can Miami create enough cap room to fit in another big contract? This will be a tricky situation that probably won't be resolved for a while. This could go well into the spring or summer.

Story No. 2: Should Dolphins trade for the No. 3 pick?

Issue: Former Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill's stock continues to rise leading up to the draft. Reports are now surfacing that Miami may have to trade up to the No. 3 overall pick to guarantee a shot at Tannehill. The Cleveland Browns hold the No. 4 pick and also may consider Tannehill.

Walker’s take: Don't do it, Miami. Sure, the Dolphins need a quarterback. But giving away the farm (a first-, second- and third-rounder?) to move up five spots isn't wise. Miami simply has too many holes to fill on its roster. Tannehill is not Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III. Tannehill has potential but he is far from a sure thing. Miami should stand pat at No. 8 and see what happens. Even if the Dolphins drafted Tannehill, he would not start in Miami next year anyway. Tannehill would hold a clipboard in 2012 behind Matt Moore and David Garrard.

Story No. 3: Dan Koppen re-signs with the New England Patriots.

Issue: Former longtime starting center Koppen re-signed with the reigning AFC champs. This is somewhat a surprise considering New England chose to first re-sign center Dan Connolly, who replaced Koppen after an injury and performed well.

Walker’s take: This move happened late in free agency. So that tells me Koppen examined his options, didn’t like them and decided it was best to return to New England at a discounted rate. This is good news for the Patriots. They gained depth at center by being patient. But New England also may have a competition brewing in training camp. Koppen is a favorite of Patriots starting quarterback Tom Brady, so you can’t rule him out.

Story No. 4: Patriots Rob Gronkowski out of "Madden" tourney.

Issue: Pro Bowl tight end Gronkowski was knocked out of the “Madden NFL 13” tourney by Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson. The final four will be Johnson, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis.

Walker’s take: This is great news for Gronkowski, even if he doesn’t realize it. He made a strong push for the “Madden” cover with a series of videos, but fortunately for him and fortunately for the Patriots, Johnson prevailed. Regardless of whether you think the curse is legit, players who get on the cover usually have bad seasons. The playoffs proved last season how much the Patriots need a healthy Gronkwoski.

Story No. 5: Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and receiver Santonio Holmes together in Florida

Issue: Sanchez and Holmes are working out together in Florida. This follows their high-profile falling out at the end of last season.

Walker’s take: This is another good step in the right direction for the duo. The pair need each other for the offense to work. They may never be best friends, but that doesn’t mean they can’t work together on the field. Sanchez and Holmes can repair their relationship, but ultimately it will come down to how they perform next season.

Now that we are all caught up, we have plenty of blogs in store for you this week. Enjoy the ride.

Thoughts on C Nick Mangold's injury

September, 19, 2011
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Here is more injury news in the AFC East: Jets center Nick Mangold (ankle) is expected to miss at least two weeks with a high-ankle sprain, ESPNNewYork's Rich Cimini reports.

Here are some thoughts on the injury:
  • It's no secret that this is a big blow for the Jets. New York already had trouble running the football. Mangold anchored the center of the offensive line. In many ways, he was the "quarterback" of that unit. Rookie Colin Baxter is expected to start in Mangold's place Sunday against the Oakland Raiders.
  • I saw a lot of high-ankle sprains with the Cleveland Browns the past two years, and they're not pretty. There's various degrees of sprains and every player heals differently. But in my experience, two weeks could be generous. Some players with the Browns took about a month to recover. Mangold is very tough and will be pushing to return quickly. New York needs Mangold for the long-term and needs to guard against that, as well.
  • Mangold is the second starting center in the AFC East to suffer a leg injury. Patriots center Dan Koppen broke his fibula in Week 1 and will be out for a significant period. New England adjusted well Sunday against the San Diego Chargers. The Jets hope they can do the same without Mangold.

Final Word: AFC East

September, 16, 2011
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 2:

[+] EnlargeChad Henne
Robert Mayer/US PresswireChad Henne had arguably the best performance of his career against the Patriots Monday, throwing for 416 yards.
All eyes on Henne: Few quarterbacks received more heat this offseason than Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne. But the fourth-year player had the best outing of his career in Week 1. Henne threw for 416 yards and had three total touchdowns (two passing, one running) against the New England Patriots. But was it a fluke, or will Henne keep that momentum going Sunday against the Houston Texans? This is a make-or-break year for Henne. He needs to continue to play well to erase doubts from his previous three seasons.

Last shot for a while at home: Miami's struggles at home are well documented. The team is 1-8 in its past nine games at Sun Life stadium dating to last season. But Miami could be in trouble if it drops back-to-back home games to start this season. Miami will hit the road for three straight games following Sunday's matchup against Houston. The Dolphins were road warriors (6-2) in 2010. But winning six road games two years in a row is very difficult. Miami will play at Cleveland (Sept. 25), at San Diego (Oct. 2) and at the New York Jets (Oct. 17) after a bye week.

Stacking the box: On paper, the offense of the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-0) appears to be a favorable matchup for the New York Jets' defense. Look for the Jets' game plan to be simple: Stack the box against the run, and see whether Jaguars quarterback Luke McCown can beat them. Jacksonville ran the ball 47 times last week to protect its journeyman quarterback. Most likely that approach wouldn't get very far against the Jets' front seven. McCown needs a good game to beat New York.

Another RB test for Bills: There are plenty of great matchups to watch in Week 2 in the AFC East. But one I'm really looking forward to is the run defense of the Buffalo Bills (1-0) versus Oakland Raiders (1-0) tailback Darren McFadden. The Bills held Kansas City Chiefs Pro Bowl tailback Jamaal Charles to 56 yards rushing last week. McFadden is coming off a 150-yard rushing performance in a win over the Denver Broncos. Winning this battle should go a long way toward determining which team stays undefeated.

The new guy at center: New England Patriots veteran center Dan Koppen reportedly will miss eight to 10 weeks with a fractured fibula. This puts Dan Connolly, who filled in at guard last season, in the middle at center against the San Diego Chargers (1-0). New England ran a lot of no-huddle and quick-huddle on offense last week. That requires a lot from the center, who has to work with the quarterback to make the proper adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had great chemistry with Koppen. That will be hard for Connolly to replicate.

Tracking starters in recent AFC East drafts

April, 22, 2011
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While working on a feature about Tom Modrak's draft record as Buffalo Bills vice president of college scouting, ESPN researcher John Fisher dug up some interesting data.

The Bills actually were the AFC East's most efficient club when it came to drafting starters since Modrak came aboard in 2002.

Several factors certainly play into that from team to team. Importance of the position, holes that allow for immediate contributions and reliance on free agents to fill out a roster all make a difference. So do the number of players drafted.

But, in general, I thought it was an interesting snapshot to share. Because the research was done to put Modrak's tenure in perspective, numbers are from 2002 through the present.

Buffalo Bills

First through third rounds: 28 players; 804 starts (15th)

Fourth through seventh rounds: 45 players; 417 starts (eighth)

Analysis: Among AFC East teams, only the New England Patriots generated more starts within the first three rounds. No other division opponent found more starts from the fourth round and beyond. The Bills have whiffed badly on some early picks, as noted in Thursday's story about Modrak. But they have done well in locating solid help in the later rounds, namely 1,000-yard receiver Steve Johnson (seventh round), Pro Bowl defensive lineman Kyle Williams (fifth round) and top cornerback and Pro Bowl kick returner Terrence McGee (fourth round).

Miami Dolphins

First through third rounds: 25 players; 599 starts (31st)

Fourth through seventh rounds: 43 players; 333 starts (16th)

Analysis: The Dolphins have done well with their recent first-round picks. Although receiver Ted Ginn with the ninth pick in 2007 was controversial, they found keepers with tackles Jake Long and Vernon Carey and running back Ronnie Brown. But the second and third rounds have been a wasteland: quarterbacks John Beck and Pat White, running back Lorenzo Booker, receivers Patrick Turner and Derek Hagan, linebacker Eddie Moore. Miami's best later-round pickups since 2002 have been franchise-tagged nose tackle Paul Soliai (fourth round), Pro Bowl safety Yeremiah Bell (sixth round) and tight end Randy McMichael (fourth round).

New England Patriots

First through third rounds: 31 players; 823 starts (12th)

Fourth through seventh rounds: 50 players; 379 starts (11th)

Analysis: The Patriots have found their share of gems in the later rounds, including four eventual Pro Bowlers. They picked up cornerback Asante Samuel and kicker Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth round, center Dan Koppen in the fifth and quarterback Matt Cassel in the seventh. They've also done incredibly well with their first-round selections. Five of their past six first-rounders have gone to the Pro Bowl. Where the Patriots have been shaky is in the second and third rounds. They've gotten receiver Deion Branch, tight end Rob Gronkowski, tackle Sebastian Vollmer and safety Patrick Chung there, for instance, but they've also misfired with quarterback Kevin O'Connell, receivers Chad Jackson and Bethel Johnson and cornerback Terrence Wheatley.

New York Jets

First through third rounds: 24 players; 766 starts (19th)

Fourth through seventh rounds: 32 players; 314 starts (18th)

Analysis: The Jets' start totals look worse because they haven't drafted as many players as the other AFC East teams. Their early round players average 32 starts, about 5 1/2 more than the Patriots. But the team that accumulated the most starts here -- the Jacksonville Jaguars with 1,172 -- averaged an extraordinary 43 per player. The Jets obviously failed with 2008 sixth overall pick Vernon Gholston and 2003 fourth overall pick Dewayne Robertson, but they've generally identified quality players inside the first three rounds, including All-Pros Nick Mangold and Darrelle Revis and franchise quarterback Mark Sanchez.

Making millions in the AFC East

March, 4, 2011
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Mark SanchezRichard A. Brightly/Icon SMIMark Sanchez is set to earn $14.75 million in base salary next season, the most in the AFC East.
Sports labor squabbles often are described as billionaires arguing with millionaires over money.

While that's a catchy rhyme that sums up fan frustration, the phrase is not entirely true.

Inspired by a blog entry from the minister of all things AFC South, Paul Kuharsky, I looked at NFL Players Association files to count up the number of AFC East players scheduled for $1 million base salaries in 2011.

Granted, up-front bonuses and incentives can make base salaries misleading. But base salaries are the only figures that create a common ground, player for player.

You'll see a vast majority of NFL players make much less than $1 million a year. Although many will make seven figures before they walk away from the game, careers are short and treacherous. They'll never see that kind of cash again for the rest of their lives.

That's why they're fighting for every dollar now.

Of the 226 players under contract in the AFC East, only 62 of them (27.4 percent) will make base salaries of $1 million or more.

The NFLPA hasn't acknowledged any franchise tags that have been signed. Those players are marked with an asterisk and not factored into the totals.

Buffalo Bills
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 19

Players under contract: 54

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 35.2

Miami Dolphins
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 15

Players under contract: 55

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 27.3

New England Patriots
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 14

Players under contract: 60

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 23.3

New York Jets
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 14

Players under contract: 57

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 24.6

John Madden names Patriots top O-line

February, 3, 2011
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The New England Patriots already had the NFL's best quarterback, best offensive player and best coach for 2010.

Now they have the best offensive line, too.

John Madden -- the actual guy, not the video game -- announced the Patriots won the 2010 Madden Most Valuable Protectors Award, an honor established last year to recognize the NFL's best offensive line.

The award is based on a combination of criteria including O-line stats (sacks allowed, rushing and passing yardage, time of possession, penalties, conversion percentages and red-zone efficiency), fan voting and Madden's evaluation.

"All season long, these guys proved they had the mental and physical toughness that enabled the Patriots offense to put up impressive numbers on the ground and in the air," Madden said.

Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia's boys beat out the other finalists: the Atlanta Falcons, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints and New York Giants.

Patriots left guard Logan Mankins was first-team All-Pro and started in the Pro Bowl despite a contract dispute that caused him to miss the first seven games of the season. Left tackle Matt Light was chosen for the Pro Bowl as an alternate. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was voted second-team All-Pro.

The Patriots also endured two significant O-line injuries. Last year's right tackle and projected left guard Nick Kaczur missed the entire season with a back injury. A bad shoulder placed right guard Stephen Neal on injured reserve after eight games. Dan Connolly was the super sub who filled in at left guard for Mankins and Kaczur and then at right guard for Neal.

The Patriots led the NFL in scoring. They ranked eighth in total offense, ninth in run offense, 11th in pass offense and fourth in sacks allowed.

New England surrendered 25 sacks. Ten of them came in a three-game stretch in October and nine more in a three-game stretch in December. That left 10 games in which New England gave up zero or one sacks.

Overachievers prevailing in AFC East

December, 9, 2010
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Fred Jackson and Tom Brady and Davone BessGetty ImagesFred Jackson, Tom Brady and Davone Bess came into the league as unheralded long shots but have made the most of their chances.
It's no mystery why we love underdogs.

Respected football minds who get paid to assemble NFL teams dismissed them out of hand, scratched them from their draft lists, cut them in training camp.

Yet these players survive. They're too driven to give up. Not all of them become stars, but that's not necessary to become a precious asset on a team.

"As a coach, you love those stories," said former New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards. "They don't let you down."

Said Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey: "You have to have them. There's no way to play the game without them."

Overachievers have dominated the AFC East this year. Late-round draft picks, players who weren't drafted at all and castoffs from other teams have starred for every team, including the MVP favorite (Tom Brady), two leading rushers (BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Fred Jackson), three leading receivers (Wes Welker, Steve Johnson, Davone Bess) and three sack leaders (Cameron Wake, Mike Wright and Kyle Williams).

These thriving underdogs are a substantial reason why the AFC East has been so compelling this year.

"It's football," said Jim Jensen, the ultimate survivor with the Miami Dolphins. They drafted the Boston University quarterback in the 11th round in 1980, and he stuck around until 1992 as a receiver/wedge buster/long snapper/third-down fullback/holder/tell me where to go, Coach, and I'll hit them.

"I like to watch guys that are working hard and working for the team," Jensen said. "They're working for a goal. They're not selfish. Wes Welker is a great example. He just loves to win. He's unselfish. Davone Bess is another one who's an inspiration to watch."

There's a reason the conquering underdog is such a common theme in Hollywood.

"These guys have something to prove," said film producer Mark Ciardi. "There's enough of these stories where these guys just survive and climb over players teams have a lot of money invested in. It's just a different thing when you've got to prove people wrong. They know they've got to check way more boxes than other people to succeed."

Ciardi pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers despite being a 15th-round draft choice in 1983.

"I got no money to sign," Ciardi said. "I was the last guy on the pitching squad of 17 guys in rookie ball. I had no chance."

Four years later, Ciardi made it to the majors. He started three games and pitched another in relief. He defied the odds, which is why he finds stories about unlikely heroes so appealing.

Among his true-story films: "Invincible" (about Philadelphia Eagles walk-on Vince Papale), "Miracle" (about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team), "The Rookie" (about 35-year-old rookie pitcher Jim Morris) and "Secretariat."

All of those motion pictures portrayed an undeniable will to win, a theme that has carried Ciardi throughout his career. He sees it in such players as Brady and Patriots running back Danny Woodhead.

"What I realized was you've got to work extra hard," Ciardi said. "Nothing will be given to you, but you have an opportunity. The only way you're going to succeed is to snatch it and force them to keep you. If they don't have money invested in you, chances are you're not going to get the same kind of shot."

But having overachievers on the roster means more than a compelling storyline and increased jersey sales.

They often become team leaders and examples for other players to emulate. Underdogs help manage the salary cap because they're cheaper (at least in the beginning). They make draft mistakes much more bearable. They help a front office sell the team to future free agents.

"They're so coachable," former Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick said. "Once they get into it, they realize how tenuous it is to stay in the NFL. Nothing came easy for them. You love having guys like that on your team."

Inquiring about a coach's favorite player is like asking a parent to name his favorite child. But it's easy to guess what type they admire most: the relentless survivors.

"You know what they have done to get to where they are," Gailey said. "As a competitor, you appreciate that. Everybody doesn't end up with a bunch of God-given talent. Guys have to go fight for what they want in life. When those guys get it, it's very satisfying to see it for those guys to make it."

[+] EnlargeJim Leonhard
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesJim Leonhard went from the NFL scrapheap to being a vital player on defense and special teams for the Jets.
Two players New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan identified as critical to his establishing his defense last year were inside linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard. Neither was drafted. Leonhard had been waived by the Bills, re-signed and then cast adrift in free agency because the Bills viewed him as no more than roster filler. When Leonhard suffered a season-ending shin injury last week, Jets fans got nervous because he was integral to the secondary and special teams.

The NFL-leading New England Patriots are loaded with examples of perseverance. Brady has been such a superstar in the league for so long, it's sometimes strange to think of him as an underdog. But as the 199th pick in the 2000 draft, Brady might be the game's greatest overachiever.

Wake, the Miami Dolphins outside linebacker, leads the league with 12 sacks. He wasn't drafted and went five years between his last down at Penn State and his first in the NFL. Pro Bowl safety Yeremiah Bell was a sixth-round pick who got waived as a rookie and placed on the practice squad.

Buffalo's offense features late-round picks or undrafted players at the three marquee spots. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was a seventh-round draft choice and a career backup. Jackson didn't start a game for his high school team and came up through Division III and the arena leagues before emerging in NFL Europa. Top receiver Johnson was a seventh-round draft choice.

As inspirational as these players are, they also make slackers look that much worse. Those healthy first-, second- and third-round players who can't get on the field unfortunately aren't wired to battle that way.

"A lot of these guys think it's a right that they have to play," Gailey said. Overachievers "realize it's a privilege to play this game.

"When you got a guy who knows how to fight and understands the fight, understands competition, understands working through adversity and he becomes a good player on your team, then that helps set a tone."

Billick and Edwards emphasized the impact of undrafted players and late-round successes on a roster's overall well-being. Edwards, an undrafted player who started for the Eagles from the opening day of his rookie season, said unearthing overlooked gems are "like getting a free draft pick." Billick noted that they're instrumental to managing the salary cap.

"The residual effect is you don't have to spend those resources," Billick said, "whether they be draft choices or a procurement through free agency to go fill that spot.

"You pick Tom Brady up in the sixth round. Are you kidding me? What that does for your organization ... Even the difference between that and having to draft Matt Ryan third in the draft, the resources you have to spend is just a gift from above."

Heaven-sent is how Patriots fans must view a good chunk of their division-leading team. Dolfans can't be more thrilled with Wake or Bess. The Jets will depend on undrafted starters such as right guard Brandon Moore, defensive end Mike Devito and Scott down the home stretch while certainly missing Leonhard.

And about the only pleasure Bills fans have had this season is watching their unlikely stars because they're such gripping characters.

"An underlying factor to all these stories," Ciardi said, "is the will and the heart that makes them extraordinary on the field."

Patriots' offense measuring up to '07

December, 6, 2010
12/06/10
12:50
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Three years ago, the New England Patriots left jaws agape by operating almost exclusively out of the shotgun, spreading out their receivers, sending Randy Moss deep, zipping quick passes to Wes Welker and mixing in throws to Jabar Gaffney, Donte Stallworth and Kevin Faulk. The run game and tight ends were afterthoughts.

This year, Tom Brady's hands are underneath center Dan Koppen. Nine quarterbacks, including Ryan Fitzpatrick for the Buffalo Bills, have attempted more passes out of the shotgun than Brady has. No other team uses two-tight end sets more than the Patriots, who have no established deep threat since trading Moss.

Not much of a resemblance, right?

Football Outsiders writer Doug Farrar compared this year's Patriots' offense to their sublime 2007 unit and found more similarities than you might think.

Farrar wrote in a column for ESPN Insider subscribers:
This offense has been just about as efficient, especially when adjusted for opponent, and especially in the last few weeks. The current team has an offensive DVOA of 45.2 percent, the second-highest total of any team after 12 weeks (since our numbers begin in 1993). It's the exact same figure the 2007 offense finished with after reality set in.

Farrar explained how Football Outsider's metrics show this year's Patriots and their record-setting '07 offense are alike. While the numbers might not be as explosive this year, the Patriots are producing against defenses that rate better than the ones they faced three years ago. In the division, the Patriots twice played the Jets in a down year, a 1-15 Dolphins club and the perennially subpar Buffalo Bills.

This year's Patriots have played four of Football Outsiders' top 10 passing defenses and only one in the bottom third, the Bills.

Farrar notes Brady's numbers have gotten stronger as the season has evolved, suggesting a growing comfort with rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead and receiver Deion Branch, who was reacquired in Week 5. It probably also helps that Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins is in front of Brady again after missing the first seven games.

Connolly stepped up in Mankins' absence

November, 3, 2010
11/03/10
3:38
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears was asked for a reaction to left guard Logan Mankins' return to the team.

"Are you kidding?" Fears said with laugh. "The guys are jumping for joy."

[+] EnlargeDan Connolly
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIPatriots guard Dan Connolly is stepping back into his back-up role.
You can't blame New England's running backs for being ecstatic. Mankins is a two-time Pro Bowler and a mauler. He'll make it easier to run, especially in short-yardage situations.

At least one player on the Patriots roster cannot be so thrilled.

Dan Connolly rose from third on the depth chart over the summer and has played admirably at left guard in Mankins' absence. Connolly is about to go from starter on the team with the NFL's best record to backup again.

"It'll be a little bit of a bummer and a little bit of setback for him personally to not play for a while," said ESPN.com columnist Ross Tucker, a former NFL offensive lineman. Tucker was with the Patriots in Mankins' rookie year.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick said the Patriots will evaluate Mankins on a day-to-day basis and hasn't committed to when Mankins would return to the field or the starting lineup.

Regardless of his conditioning, Mankins must reacquire his command for pass sets, get used to pulling to the right side or bursting to the perimeter to block on a screen.

Connolly might remain in the lineup Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, but it's only a matter of time until Mankins takes his familiar spot between left tackle Matt Light and center Dan Koppen.

"A lot of it's just getting back into your stance," Tucker said. "But I don't care how in shape you are. You're still not ready for a two-minute drill. You're still not ready for a 14-play drive.

"There are a lot of different body movements you need to work on to get ready to perform on the offensive line. No matter what he has being doing on his own, they have to make sure he looks comfortable before they put him in a game."

Rather than write about Mankins' return, let's take a few moments to salute the often overlooked and underappreciated interchangeable grunt.

Connolly, a former Patriots practice squad player, has been solid despite preseason fears he would be their weak link.

As it became clearer Mankins was entrenched in his contract demands, the Patriots shifted last year's starting right tackle, Nick Kaczur, to left guard. Kaczur suffered a season-ending back injury early in camp.

Connolly took over with four career starts -- all last year for injured right guard Stephen Neal -- in five NFL seasons.

Before we knew Mankins would choose this week to end his contract dispute with the Patriots, I had the chance to ask Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Neal about Connolly's contributions.

Using a scale of 10 -- with one being total peace and 10 being sheer panic -- I asked Neal how he would describe his mindset when Kaczur went down.

Neal's response: "Zero."

"Dan plays good football and has just been waiting around for an opportunity," Neal said. "I don't think it's a surprise to anyone in this locker room what he's doing out there.

"I know how hard he works. I know he's going to do everything he can. As a line, it's not about each individual. It's about all of us collectively. If we can all work together we can slay the monsters out there."

Connolly has started every game at left guard, has lined up at fullback in jumbo packages and is on the kickoff unit.

"We have asked Dan to do a lot," Belichick said. "He has played left guard obviously, but has also played fullback in our short-yardage and goal-line packages. Smart guy. Good technique player.

"He has really improved a lot over the time he has been here. He has gotten a lot of playing time this year and has continued to improve. So he is doing a solid job."

The Patriots believe in plug-and-play backups. If Belichick doesn't have confidence in someone being able to handle the job on Sunday, that player won't stick around long. Connolly has been working with offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia for four seasons.

With that plug-and-play mentality, however, comes a strong possibility of relinquishing the job at some point -- and starting again if Mankins, Neal or Koppen gets hurt.

"Connolly is smart enough to realize Logan is a rare player," Tucker said. "Logan is a powerful, powerful blocker in the run game. He is a tone-setter. He's the intimidating force of that offensive line.

"It's fun to play. Practice stinks. Meetings stink. All the other stuff is not fun. The games are fun. For Connolly, it must be neat to get out there with the guys and win games. They're 6-1. But for him, he should take it as a positive because he has now shown he can start NFL games and play at a competent level. This has been really good for his career."

Mankins' return great news for Patriots

November, 2, 2010
11/02/10
12:11
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Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins is about to finally sign a contract with the New England Patriots, according to multiple reports.

Mankins
Mankins
Mankins is expected to sign his restricted free-agent tender of $1.54 million Tuesday and report for duty.

While the Patriots have the NFL's best record at 6-1, Mankins certainly will make them better.

He is a hellacious run blocker, and the Patriots have struggled with pass protection this year. Tom Brady wasn't sacked in Sunday's victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Gillette Stadium, but he had been dropped 10 times in the previous three games. Brady was sacked 16 times all last year.

ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss put together a quick analysis of what Mankins' return will mean for the offensive line and left guard Dan Connolly in particular.

Mankins, while technically not a holdout because he wasn't under contract, was the last player to report to his team.

He has been upset with the Patriots for at least six months over failed negotiations on a long-term contract and demanded a trade in June. He might have sat out the entire season had NFL labor uncertainty compelled him to return.

Mankins was supposed to be an unrestricted free agent this year, but when owners opted out of the collective bargaining agreement, an uncapped season with new free-agency guidelines kicked in. Players needed a sixth accrued season to be unrestricted, but Mankins had only five.

Nobody knows what the new CBA will entail. To help him gain unrestricted status after this year, Mankins needed to accrue another season. Thus, he's showing up to sign a contract he doesn't like.

But once he gets in the Patriots locker room -- they kept his stall just the way he left it -- I'm sure those competitive juices will kick in. He'll play proudly between left tackle Matt Light and center Dan Koppen as he has since the Patriots drafted him in 2005.

And it's hard to imagine Bill Belichick holding a grudge with a standout player who can help the Patriots chase another championship.

Oh, snap! Center-QB exchange important

September, 29, 2010
9/29/10
11:35
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Indianapolis Colts fixtures Peyton Manning and Jeff Saturday are about to set a record.

Unless an injury befalls one of them, Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars will be the 158th start together for Manning and Saturday.

That will be the most quarterback-center exchanges since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, breaking the record held the past 14 years by Jim Kelly and Kent Hull with the Buffalo Bills.

"The chemistry between those two is a must for a quarterback to be successful," Kelly said. "I was blessed because I had Kent Hull for more than 90 percent of the snaps that I took in the NFL."

Although the quarterback gets the credit for audibles at the line of scrimmage, something Manning is famous for, the center plays a crucial role.

"We would go up to the line and Kent would turn to me and say 'Get out of it,' " Kelley said. "He knew based on the alignment of the nose tackle whether it was a 3-4 or a 4-3. He always knew if the play was going to work by their initial alignment when we'd get up there. I wouldn't even ask any questions or wait to look."

In the AFC East, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and center Dan Koppen are on the verge of breaking into the top five. They've started 103 games together and should surpass Phil Simms and Bart Oates on Halloween. Brady and Koppen have been to four Super Bowls together and won the first three.

New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and All-Pro center Nick Mangold have a long way to go to catch up, but they're next at 19 starts.

The Miami Dolphins have rotated their centers every year. Young quarterback Chad Henne and center Joe Berger started six games last year and all three this year.

New Buffalo Bills starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has started nine games with center Geoff Hangartner.

AFC East High Energy Player of the Week

September, 28, 2010
9/28/10
3:00
PM ET
NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 3.

The New England Patriots badly needed a backfield boost.

[+] EnlargeBenJarvus Green-Ellis
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaBenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed 16 times for 98 yards and a touchdown against Buffalo.
Five days after they traded Laurence Maroney, trusted veteran Kevin Faulk went down with a season-finishing knee injury last week.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis stepped in and propelled the Patriots to a 38-30 victory over the Buffalo Bills in Gillette Stadium. The undrafted and seldom-used running back rushed 16 times for 98 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown that virtually ended the game.

"No matter who goes down, the train has to keep rolling," Green-Ellis said. "So everybody has to go out and do their part."

Green-Ellis went into Sunday with only 52 carries over his previous 18 games dating to November 2008.

ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss charted Green-Ellis for 23 of the Patriots' 68 offensive plays, more than any other back.

"He gets it downhill," Patriots center Dan Koppen said. "He finds what's there to get and keeps positive yards. He's a great running back to block for."

Another undrafted runner, Danny Woodhead, had a big game in his Patriots debut with three carries for 42 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown.

Patriots lead way in Scouts Inc. Top 200

August, 24, 2010
8/24/10
7:04
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Scouts Inc. has evaluated more than 2,500 players and on Tuesday unveiled its Top 200 rankings for the year Insider.

You can view the entire list, see how players compare around the NFL and sort them by position if you have an ESPN Insider subscription. Insiders also can check out the ratings for every player on a given roster by visiting a team page and clicking on the "Scouting" tab.

I've been given special dispensation by the Bristol High Court of Data Dissemination to share with you AFC East players in the top 200.

All things being equal, every division should have 25 players and each team should have 6.25 players on the list. The AFC East has 23 players, but the Buffalo Bills have only one representative.

The New England Patriots lead the way with nine players. The New York Jets have eight, and the Miami Dolphins five.

Here are the AFC East rankings along with their Scouts Inc. scores.

3T. Tom Brady, Patriots quarterback 93

3T. Darrelle Revis, Jets cornerback 93

14T. Nick Mangold, Jets center 91

22T. Jake Long, Dolphins tackle 89

22T. Randy Moss, Patriots receiver 89

22T. Vince Wilfork, Patriots nose tackle 89

37T. Brandon Marshall, Dolphins receiver 88

39T. Wes Welker, Patriots receiver 87

46T. Kris Jenkins, Jets nose tackle 86

51T. Karlos Dansby, Dolphins inside linebacker 85

51T. Logan Mankins, Patriots guard 85

99T. Vernon Carey, Dolphins tackle 82

99T. Ty Warren, Patriots defensive end 82

112T. David Harris, Jets inside linebacker 81

122T. Antonio Cromartie, Jets cornerback 80

133T. Lee Evans, Bills receiver 79

133T. Santonio Holmes, Jets receiver 79

133T. Randy Starks, Dolphins nose tackle 79

157T. Brandon Meriweather, Patriots safety 78

157T. Dan Koppen, Patriots center 78

157T. Jerod Mayo, Patriots inside linebacker 78

157T. Bart Scott, Jets inside linebacker 78

191T. D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Jets tackle 77

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