AFC East: Jabar Gaffney

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Facing arguably the greatest challenge of his 14-year NFL career, stripped of his go-to receiver Wes Welker and then some, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady arrived at training camp hoping to do more.

Never before has the team had such a youthful look at the position, where there have been more struggles than successes in drafting and developing talent. The Patriots opened training camp with 12 receivers on the roster, six of whom are rookies.

Three of those young pups -- second-round draft choice Aaron Dobson, fourth-rounder Josh Boyce and free-agent Kenbrell Thompkins -- have taken more repetitions with Brady through the first three days of training camp than most could have imagined. One reason the results have looked fairly sharp is the extra work that was put in thanks to Brady's early arrival (rookies reported the day before Brady).

It is almost as if Brady is more than just the team's quarterback now; he's part coach, too. Unlike his record-breaking 2007 season, when there was an immediate connection with veterans Randy Moss, Welker and Jabar Gaffney, there is a certain teacher-student dynamic in play now. Brady, a stickler for detail, can be tough to please.

"He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game, so he’s definitely demanding,” said the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Dobson, a smooth-strider from Marshall who the Patriots hope will fill the outside role that Chad Johnson (2011) and Brandon Lloyd (2012) filled the past two years. “[He’s] definitely tough to play for.”

Some used to say the same thing about Miami Dolphins great Dan Marino, and there is a connection in play between Marino and what Brady currently faces. Because Marino had played for so long in Miami (1983 to '99), the offense grew so much each season that it was difficult in Marino’s later years for any young or new receiver to handle. So when go-to receivers Mark Clayton and Mark Duper were no longer in the mix -- they had grown with Marino in the offense -- it was a challenge to find anyone capable of stepping in.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has acknowledged that’s a similar dynamic to what his team is currently navigating. This is Brady’s 14th year in the Patriots’ offense, which has evolved in many layers since his first year in 2000, and there is a lot there for any receiver to handle, let alone a rookie.

That is a big reason why the Patriots were drawn to Dobson and Boyce in the draft, and why Thompkins -- an older rookie at 25 who went undrafted after two years at Cincinnati -- has been an under-the-radar surprise to this point. All have a high football IQ. And so does free-agent signee Danny Amendola, who has developed a quick rapport with Brady that stands out.

Still, the Patriots might have to “trim the fat” in some areas of the playbook, according to Belichick. There will also be times when patience will be tested.

But watching Brady through the first three days of camp, part of it seems to have invigorated him. Those close to him say he is more committed than ever before; he turns 36 on Aug. 3, craves another Super Bowl championship, and knows that if all the receiver changes are going to produce the desired results -- especially with the rookies -- it is going to take extra work.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Distractions from tight end Aaron Hernandez.

In an unprecedented move, Belichick called a news conference two days before the team’s training camp practice to address Hernandez’s murder charge and its impact on the franchise. Then Brady spoke to reporters the following day. The goal was to balance the fine line between showing empathy and perspective to something bigger than football, but also position the club to move forward.

Because of that proactive approach, Hernandez wasn’t much of a topic of discussion from a media perspective by the second day of training camp. But will that change as new developments come to light in the case against Hernandez?

As one would expect, Belichick addressed players about the situation in a team meeting at the start of camp.

“He had comments, but that’s between him and the team. If he wants to share it, that’s fine,” said offensive lineman Logan Mankins, one of the team’s captains. (No surprise, but Belichick hasn’t been in the sharing mood.)

Mankins, the third-longest tenured player on the team (nine years) after Brady (14) and Wilfork (10), touched on how players are attempting to move on.

“At the time, you kind of reflect, but now it’s football season and everything goes in a drawer; no matter how you feel about it, it’s put away,” he said. “It’s football, it’s straightforward, and that’s all you can concentrate on or you’ll fall behind. Bill puts so much pressure on everyone and demands so much work and focus that if you’re not just focusing on football, then you’re in trouble.”

2. Void at top of tight end depth chart.

By the time the Patriots had blazed a trail through the NFL in 2011 with their innovative two-tight end offense, Rob Gronkowski had played almost 95 percent of the offensive snaps and Hernandez about 77 percent. The results were impressive, and others around the league considered plans to attempt to duplicate it.

That’s also when the Patriots extended the contracts of both players -- Gronkowski through 2019 and Hernandez 2018 -- with the idea of building their offense around them (over Welker).

The plans obviously haven’t worked out as desired, and if Gronkowski isn’t ready for the regular-season opener Sept. 8 at Buffalo after a surgery-filled offseason, it sparks the questions: Who fills the void, and how does it impact plans to play with multiple tight ends?

[+] EnlargeJake Ballard
AP Photo/Charles KrupaThe Patriots may lean heavily on former New York Giants TE Jake Ballard early in the season as Rob Gronkowski rehabs from injury.
Former New York Giant Jake Ballard (6-6, 260) and returning veterans Daniel Fells (6-4, 260) and Michael Hoomanawanui (6-4, 260) are the top candidates, while rookie free agent Zach Sudfeld (6-7, 260) is a potential sleeper.

“I don’t want to say this is Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig, but that’s the classic story … it’s there if they can do it,” Belichick said.

Still, it would be a surprise if the Patriots run as many multiple-tight end sets as they did in 2011. The numbers were down to about 50 percent last year when Gronkowski and Hernandez missed significant time with injuries.

3. Tim Tebow’s role.

On a scale of 1-10 in terms of importance to the team’s success, No. 3 quarterback Tim Tebow is closer to the “1” than the “10.” Yet there is intrigue.

Tebow hasn’t been consistent as a drop-back passer in practices and appears to be at his best on the move or as a runner. That explains why he has been the only quarterback in the drill in which ball carriers run with the football in a confined space after making a catch, and then the defenders execute proper tackling technique.

Do the Patriots see enough value in him, possibly as a scout-team quarterback, to reserve a coveted spot on the 53-man roster? That’s a hot-button topic that has generated passionate response from both circles.

“He’s a good guy first, a super-nice guy and a good guy to talk to,” Mankins said of Tebow. “He works his butt off, so we’ll see if he can find a role.”

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Since Brady is the quarterback, Belichick is the coach, and the team is playing in the AFC East, what’s not to like? And we’ve made it to this point with nary a mention of the team’s defense, which should be improved when factoring in that 10 of 11 starters return and the addition of a few complementary pieces, such as veteran safety Adrian Wilson, who brings size (6-3, 230) and an intimidating presence.

Last year, the Patriots traded up in the first round for defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and they could be difference-makers. Jones was hobbled by an ankle injury for most of the second half of last year and said one of his primary goals this offseason was to improve his upper-body strength. Hightower played 51 percent of the defensive snaps in 2012 but looks primed to possibly become more of a three-down option this year.

Furthermore, cornerback Aqib Talib had a significant impact -- both on the field and in the meeting room -- after he was acquired in November. Having him for a full year, in theory, should help the defense improve.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

There has been too much turbulence this offseason, including starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard’s arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence. Dennard is due in court in Lincoln, Neb., on Aug. 27 to determine if he violated his probation and could potentially face an NFL suspension.

Uncertainty with Dennard, the unknown in the passing game, Gronkowski’s health questions, and layers of the roster that appear thin on depth (interior DL) mean that the margin for error the Patriots traditionally have doesn’t seem as big as before.
Finally, the departed Welker was known for his consistency and durability. The Patriots are hoping Amendola can fill the void -- and the early returns are positive -- but there are questions about whether he can play a full 16-game season based on his injury history.

OBSERVATION DECK

• The Patriots’ coaching staff returns intact from 2012, marking only the second time in Belichick’s 14-year tenure that has happened. Former Chiefs offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who joined the Patriots in January, has the title of “offensive assistant.” At times in practice, he’s worked closely with Tebow.

Devin McCourty, the 2010 first-round draft choice who made the Pro Bowl as a cornerback in his first season, appears to be settling into the safety position nicely. McCourty first moved to safety in the middle of last season, and his command of the defense, along with strong communication and sideline-to-sideline skills, make him a solid fit at the new position.

• Teammates call Wilson “The Incredible Hulk” because of his chiseled physique. Wilson and fellow veteran Steve Gregory are the top candidates vying for a starting role next to McCourty at safety.

[+] EnlargeTommy Kelly
Mike Reiss/ESPNDT Tommy Kelly should add some punch to the middle of the Patriots' defense, forming a strong 1-2 duo with Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork.
• Former Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Tommy Kelly (6-6, 310) projects as a starter next to Vince Wilfork; defensive end Rob Ninkovich called Kelly an under-the-radar player who is making a mark. Mankins said: “He’s been impressive so far, very athletic for his size. He’s quick for an inside guy. I like his work ethic. He’s been giving great effort, and if he gives us that kind of effort all season, I think he’ll have a good season.”

• Running back Stevan Ridley lost two fumbles in the team’s third practice, with Belichick sending him to run two punishment laps. Ridley led all Patriots running backs in playing 45 percent of the snaps last season, and the projection is that he should match that number this year. But if he struggles to hold on to the ball, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back LeGarrette Blount and second-year man Brandon Bolden are the top candidates to step in to that bigger back role. Blount was 2-for-2 in a goal-line running drill on Sunday. Shane Vereen looks primed to fill the void created by Danny Woodhead’s defection to the Chargers to serve as the team’s “passing back.” On Sunday, he was featured as a pass-catcher when the team worked on the screen game.

• The entire offensive line returns intact, although there could be a competition at right guard, where third-year player Marcus Cannon (6-5, 335) has been working with the top unit while incumbent Dan Connolly (shoulder) works his way back.

• Top draft choice Jamie Collins, the linebacker/defensive end from Southern Mississippi (52nd overall), has received his initial work at linebacker. He’s the first linebacker to rotate into 11-on-11 drills, often replacing middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, who has been more of a two-down player.

• Former Canadian Football League defensive lineman Armond Armstead opened training camp on the non-football illness list. Belichick said the illness is different from the heart condition that led him to leave Southern Cal in 2011 and land in the CFL, and there is no indication when/if Armstead might join the team at practice. In addition, receiver Julian Edelman and Gronkowski opened camp on the physically unable to perform list.

Leon Washington, who signed with the Patriots after three seasons with the Seahawks, has served as the primary kickoff returner, where the Patriots are banking on improved results after ranking 25th in the NFL last season (21.2-yard average).

• Ballard, who said he played at 278 pounds in New York, is down to 260. The hope is that it doesn’t affect him at the line of scrimmage as a blocker, but makes him faster and takes pressure off his knee.

• Incumbent punter Zoltan Mesko, who is entering the final year of his contract, is joined on the roster by rookie Ryan Allen, the two-time Ray Guy Award winner from Louisiana Tech. Both are lefty punters; Belichick has employed a left-footed punter in each of his 14 seasons as coach.

What went wrong with Jabar Gaffney?

November, 21, 2012
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The Miami Dolphins made an interesting roster move by releasing veteran wide receiver Jabar Gaffney.

Here are some thoughts on what went wrong:
  • There was always a health issue with Gaffney this year. It’s a major reason why he was cut by the New England Patriots this summer and it factored into Miami’s decision. Miami worked out Gaffney in September but waited until October to sign him in order to allow Gaffney to get healthy. But Gaffney had knee issues once again and missed Miami’s last game against the Buffalo Bills.
  • It took an unusually long time for Gaffney to get up to speed. That was due to a combination of health and adjusting to Miami’s West Coast offense. I spoke to Gaffney in Miami’s locker room a few weeks ago and asked about his toughest adjustment with the Dolphins. He said it was getting used to learning the hand signals in the offense, because Miami runs a lot of no-huddle.
  • Finally, the production just wasn’t there. After waiting weeks for Gaffney to get healthy and up to speed, he didn’t produce. Gaffney caught just four receptions in three games. Backups Marlon Moore and emerging rookie Rishard Matthews also are improving, which made Gaffney expendable.

Bills-Dolphins final injury report

November, 14, 2012
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The Buffalo Bills will host the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night in a nationally televised game on the NFL Network.

Here is the final injury report and what it means for both AFC East teams:

Bills (3-6)

Out: CB Aaron Williams (ankle), RB Fred Jackson (concussion), DE Mark Anderson (knee), DE Chris Kelsay (neck)

Probable: DT Marcell Dareus (shoulder, hamstring), WR Marcus Easley (shoulder), OT Chris Hairston (knee), DT Spencer Johnson (ankle), G Andy Levitre (knee), CB Leodis McKelvin (groin), CB Justin Rogers (knee), S Da'Norris Searcy (hand), WR Brad Smith (hamstring), RB C.J. Spiller (shoulder), DT Kyle Williams (ankle), DE Mario Williams (wrist, knee), C Eric Wood (knee)

Analysis: The Bills will miss Aaron Williams, Jackson and Anderson. All three players are starters, but that was expected. Buffalo expects to get back Williams and Jackson in the next game or two. Jackson’s absence will allow more carries for backup tailback Spiller, who leads the NFL at 7.2 yards per carry. Buffalo coach Chan Gailey has struggled to provide enough carries for Spiller, but this is the perfect opportunity to change that. Buffalo defensive tackle Chris Kelsay also will miss his second straight game after injuring his neck in practice last week. Buffalo will enter this game thin on the defensive line.

Dolphins (4-5)

Questionable: WR Jabar Gaffney (knee), TE Jeron Mastrud (hamstring)

Probable: LB Karlos Dansby (bicep), WR Brian Hartline (knee), DT Tony McDaniel (knee), LB Koa Misi (calf), WR Marlon Moore (neck), C Mike Pouncey (knee, ankle), DT Paul Soliai (ankle, elbow), DE Olivier Vernon (knee)

Analysis: The Dolphins have been fortunate to avoid significant injuries. They are remarkably healthy considering it is Week 11 in the NFL season. Despite a quick turnaround, they expect to have most or all of their available players. Gaffney is the only concern. He’s getting an increased role with the team as a reserve receiver. But injuries won’t be an excuse if the Dolphins don’t end their two-game losing streak on Thursday.

Can WR Jabar Gaffney boost Dolphins?

October, 25, 2012
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DAVIE, Fla. -- The Dolphins have been getting by this season with a thin group of receivers. After starters Brian Hartline and Davone Bess, there isn't much proven depth.

That is where Jabar Gaffney comes in. The Dolphins signed the veteran receiver Oct. 3, but he has yet to play in a game.

Gaffney was a surprise cut this summer by the New England Patriots. He caught 68 passes for 947 yards with the Washington Redskins last season, though health was an issue.

Now, Gaffney is on his second AFC East team and learning a new up-tempo, West Coast offense in Miami.

What’s been the biggest challenge?

“Just picking it up and seeing the signals like I’m hearing it,” Gaffney explained. “I’m always used to just hearing the play calls in the huddle. Now you got to see the signal, and that’s how you know the call.”

Gaffney, 31, is a proven playmaker. He’s done well in previous stops in Washington, Denver and New England.

Hartline, Bess and a healthy and productive Gaffney could be a solid trio for rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The Dolphins have yet to determine Gaffney’s role, but the receiver seems open.

“I’m comfortable inside or outside,” Gaffney said. “I can play either one. It doesn’t really matter.”

The Dolphins (3-3) will travel to play the New York Jets (3-4) Sunday in a big game for both teams.

Dolphins at the bye: Three things

October, 17, 2012
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The surprising Miami Dolphins (3-3) are tied for first place in the AFC East.

Here are three things Miami should accomplish during its bye week:

No. 1: Continue to develop Tannehill

Miami rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill is doing relatively well in his first six starts. He has thrown for 1,454 yards, four touchdowns and six interceptions. But more than his statistics, Tannehill is showing great poise and the ability to make quick reads and handle pressure. He is playing faster than a typical rookie and doesn’t appear overwhelmed. This two-week break is a good chance to get some extra work in the film room and point out Tannehill’s mistakes. The rookie should be even better coming out of the bye in two weeks when the Dolphins travel to face the Jets.

No. 2: Nurse injuries

The Dolphins have been fortunate so far not to suffer any significant injuries this season. But they do have some players banged up. Starting cornerback Richard Marshall (back) has missed the past two games with a back injury. The Dolphins are counting on two weeks of rest to get Marshall back in the lineup. Backup running back Daniel Thomas also missed Week 6 with a concussion and will try to return for Week 8 against the Jets. Starting tailback Reggie Bush has played through a knee injury and will get two weeks to rest.

No. 3: Get Gaffney up to speed

The Dolphins need as much depth at receiver as possible. That is why the team signed veteran free agent Jabar Gaffney earlier this month. Gaffney was released by the New England Patriots this summer and is continuing to learn Miami’s offense. He’s been inactive since signing with the Dolphins. Miami could definitely use Gaffney, either as a slot receiver or on the outside. These two weeks will be crucial for Gaffney to learn so he can eventually contribute. A trio of Brian Hartline, Davone Bess and Gaffney could be a decent group in the second half of the season.
The New England Patriots made a surprise cut this week by releasing veteran receiver Jabar Gaffney. But here is something that's not a surprise: The Miami Herald reports Gaffney is on the Dolphins' radar.

Miami is waiting for Gaffney's leg injury to heal. But Gaffney is more interested (and hopeful) to return to New England once he's healthy, Armando Salguero reports. You can't blame Gaffney for wanting to play for a contender and making the Patriots his first option. He is one of Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady's favorite receivers, but just wasn't healthy enough in training camp.

But if things fall through with New England, Gaffney is good enough to carve out a sizable role in Miami. The Dolphins are looking to remake their receiving corps, and Gaffney is an upgrade over most of what Miami has.
Ryan TannehillRonald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesRyan Tannehill's supporting cast in Miami lags behind those of other rookie QB starters.

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is about to accomplish something even the great Dan Marino couldn’t with the Miami Dolphins.

Tannehill, a rookie, will be Miami’s Week 1 starter Sept. 9 against the Houston Texans. Marino, a Hall of Famer, didn’t see his first NFL action until Week 3 of his 1983 rookie season and finished with nine starts in 11 games.

The Tannehill era is beginning sooner than expected. A surprising series of events -- which included a knee injury to veteran quarterback David Garrard and struggles from former starter Matt Moore -- propelled him into the starting lineup. This year’s No. 8 overall pick has been a fast learner, in part due to his collegiate experience in a West Coast system run by current Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman.

Sept. 9 is not only historic for the Dolphins, but it’s a good personal moment for Tannehill. He gets to make his NFL debut where it all started -- in his home state of Texas.

"If it would have been in Buffalo or San Diego, I’m excited," Tannehill said this week. "Obviously, it’s nice to go back to my home state. I’ll have a lot of friends and family there, but I’m just excited to play in my first real NFL game, a real season opener. I’m excited for this team. I’m excited for what we can do."

But what are realistic expectations for Tannehill in 2012? He is one of five rookie quarterbacks -- including four first-rounders -- who will start in Week 1. That’s an NFL record.

The AFC East blog, with an assist from ESPN Stats & Information, crunched some numbers on rookie quarterbacks who started in Week 1 from the past five years. Here's what we found:


These average numbers are respectable for Tannehill and should be the bar for his rookie season. If he throws for more than 3,100 yards and has more touchdowns than interceptions, it would be a great first season. The average passer rating also was 77.2, which is not bad.

But you have to consider what many of these quarterbacks had around them as rookies and how that compares to Tannehill’s supporting cast in Miami. For example, Stafford had stud receiver Calvin Johnson in Detroit. Ryan had Roddy White in Atlanta. Dalton had A.J. Green in Cincinnati and Newton had Steve Smith in Carolina. These are all legitimate No. 1 receivers who make the job of a rookie quarterback much easier.

Tannehill has no receiver close to that caliber, and it certainly will hurt the rookie. Tannehill is working with one of the worst receiving corps in the NFL. His top targets include Legedu Naanee, Davone Bess and, if healthy, Brian Hartline.

Miami needs receivers in the worst way. There is no getting around it. The Dolphins have an unproductive group that’s having trouble making plays and catching the football this preseason. Miami has to be concerned that this could stunt Tannehill’s growth.

"Well, they haven't helped matters," Sherman said of his receivers. "I wish they would say, ‘Hey, I’m the guy’ and jump up on the table by having a knockout performance, and that hasn’t necessarily happened just yet. ... I think we’ll keep Bess. I can pretty much guarantee that, but there’s only one of him. We need to fill in the other spots."

The good thing I noticed about Tannehill is that he hasn't appeared to be shaken by the drops and poor play from his receivers. In many cases, he’s taken the blame, which is a smart move on his part. He must stay poised throughout this process and weather the initial growing pains.

Getting Tannehill better receivers could come via trade or free agency. The Dolphins have a wealth of draft picks. Miami has a first-round pick, two second-rounders and two third-rounders in the 2013 draft. That is valuable ammunition that could potentially land a receiver for this season. We mentioned Green Bay Packers backup receiver James Jones as a potential target. Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin coached Jones when Philbin was the offensive coordinator in Green Bay.

But the most likely option is scanning the waiver wire for veterans released by other teams. There will be plenty of receivers becoming available Friday when teams are mandated to trim rosters from 75 to 53 players. Veteran pass-catchers such as tight end Chris Cooley and receivers Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth already have hit the open market.

Until then, Wednesday night will be the final tune-up for Tannehill with the group he has. The Dolphins travel to play the Dallas Cowboys in the preseason finale. But after that, the Dolphins and Tannehill are playing for keeps.

"I don’t know exactly how many snaps I’ll get, but I want to go out and take advantage of every rep," Tannehill said. "Really play like we can as an offense [and] really move the ball and be consistent. I think that’s the one thing that I’ve kind of focused on is being more consistent as an offense, being more consistent as a quarterback."

 
The New England Patriots made two significant cuts at wide receiver on Monday, releasing veteran receivers Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth. They were two of five cuts the Patriots made to get under the NFL-mandated 75 player limit.

The Patriots also released veterans Ross Ventrone, Gerard Warren and Tim Bulman.

Defensive backs Will Allen and Josh Barrett, as well as fullback Spencer Larsen, were placed on injured reserve.

But the most surprising cut was Gaffney. He was one of Tom Brady's favorite receivers and was expected to make the team after re-signing with New England in free agency this offseason. Stallworth also was competing for a roster spot and was considered on the bubble for the 53-man roster.

In addition, the Patriots claimed wide receiver Kerry Taylor off waivers from the Minnesota Vikings.
Here are the most interesting stories Friday in the AFC East: Morning take: Plenty of receivers are on the bubble in Miami, as the team tries to pick its top five or six players to keep. That is a position to watch in these final two preseason games. The Dolphins must also decide what to do with young backup quarterback Pat Devlin.
Morning take: The group hasn't looked sharp in the preseason, but I expect more when the real games begin. Buffalo's defensive line must lead this group and provide a boost for the other two levels.
  • New York Jets receiver Santonio Holmes (ribs) is confident he will play Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.
Morning take: The Jets need a jolt to their struggling offense, and Holmes, New York's No. 1 receiver, can provide it. He's one of the few offensive playmakers on the team.
Morning take: Receivers Wes Welker and Jabar Gaffney are the big names. But both players are resting up for the regular season. This is the “dress rehearsal” game for New England and a final chance for many of the starters to prepare for Week 1 of the regular season.
The New England Patriots have strengthened one of their thinnest positions from a year ago: wide receiver.

But with that comes some decisions to make in training camp. New England has nine solid players at the position and will only keep the top six or seven.

Our friend and colleague Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com provided an in-depth update of where each Patriots wide receiver stands as training camp nears its conclusion.

Here is our take:
The Patriots' receiver race will come down to how many they want at the position. If it's six receivers, New England most likely will choose between veterans Branch and Stallworth. Branch brings leadership and dependability, but he's been injured much of training camp. Stallworth has the deep speed New England wants to add to its offense this year.

If it's seven players, both Branch and Stallworth are safe, and Ebert and Holley won't make the 53-man roster. That's where it stands for now. But the Patriots have shown recent interest in Plaxico Burress, which would shake things up a little.

'Plax' to the Pats? No thanks

August, 12, 2012
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The New England Patriots really are leaving no stone unturned this year.

The latest example is the reigning AFC champ's surprising interest in free-agent receiver Plaxico Burress. The veteran receiver is working out with the Patriots on Sunday, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. Today happens to be Burress' 35th birthday.

Credit the Patriots for always looking for talent. But New England is fine on offense. Its passing game will be elite with or without Burress.

New England has more than enough receivers. The Patriots have a deep and talented group that includes Pro Bowler Wes Welker, deep threat Brandon Lloyd and veterans Jabar Gaffney, Deion Branch, Donte Stallworth and Julian Edelman.

At best, Burress would be fourth or fifth on New England's depth chart. Why take on another aging receiver if you're the Patriots? This possible signing would have "Chad Ochocinco circa 2011" written all over it.

The only plus I can see for the Patriots is Burress might come cheap. Burress is still looking for work and may be willing to play on the veteran minimum. If so, New England might take flier on a potential red zone threat. But other than that, New England should pass on adding another receiver.
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.
Tom BradyJim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesHistory is against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots returning to the Super Bowl this season.
The reigning AFC champion New England Patriots have the talent, experience and depth to get back to the Super Bowl in February. Many football pundits agree the Patriots -- led by quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick -- are one of the safest picks to represent the AFC in New Orleans.

But history suggests New England is better off not showing up this season. The Patriots were runners-up in Super Bowl XLVI -- and historically that is an awful position to be in.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, it's been 39 years since a team bounced back from a Super Bowl loss to win a championship. The Miami Dolphins won Super Bowl VII in January 1973 after losing Super Bowl VI the previous year. In fact, it's only happened twice in the Super Bowl's 46-year history.

New England is trying to become just the third team to accomplish the feat -- and the first in nearly four decades. Thirty-eight consecutive teams have tried and failed. That is a ton of history against the Patriots as they chase their fourth Super Bowl title in the Belichick-Brady era.

Mathematically, only 4.3 percent of NFL teams have been able to accomplish what New England is trying to do this year. Those are long odds, indeed.

"The Patriots played more games than any other team but one last year and I think that takes a toll," Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson said of difficulty of getting back to the Super Bowl. "Those playoff games are really intense and you have to do more physical damage to your roster than teams that didn’t make it deep into the playoffs. So I think it’s a little more difficult to be fresh when your season comes around. Your offseasons aren't as long and you're more beat up."

To Williamson's point, the Patriots are still ailing from last year's playoff run.

Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins tore his ACL in the postseason and had surgery in February. He is questionable for Week 1 and could begin the year on the physically unable to perform list. Patriots Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski needed ankle surgery this offseason after getting injured in the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens. He continues to rehab and hopes to be back by training camp. Neither star was able to participate in offseason workouts.

The numbers are a little more in New England's favor in terms of getting back to the big game. Seven Super Bowl runners-up have repeated as conference champions in 46 years, which is 15.2 percent. Most recently, the Buffalo Bills bounced back from three Super Bowl losses to return to the title game in the 1990-93 seasons. The Denver Broncos also lost Super Bowl XXI in the 1986 season and made it back to Super Bowl XXII the following year. But 17 consecutive Super Bowl runners-up have not returned to the big game. The Patriots will try to end the drought this season.

History is not on New England's side, but there are reasons to believe the Patriots can shake the runners-up curse.

For starters, New England is stacked this year. There is depth at nearly every position, and the defense should be much improved from the 31st-ranked unit we saw a year ago. Second, New England has the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL. The Patriots play just four teams with winning records in 2011. A 12- or 13-win season appears very attainable for the Patriots.

Finally, New England's offense is a juggernaut. Brady is playing some of the best football of his career and he has a supremely talented supporting cast that includes Gronkowski, Brandon Lloyd, Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker, dynamic tight end Aaron Hernandez, veteran receiver Jabar Gaffney and a young, exciting group of running backs.

"They would be No. 1 on my power rankings. I'm not saying they will win the Super Bowl, but if I had to pick one team, they would be my pick," Williamson said. "The key to me is you can't outscore them. The Patriots were one of the two or three best offenses last year and they had some flaws. They had nothing outside the numbers and no deep-ball capabilities, and they went out and changed that with Brandon Lloyd. That's a big step forward on offense, and now you're going to have to score 40 to beat them."

The AFC appears to be the weaker conference, which also plays into New England's favor. There are only a handful of serious contenders. Besides New England, the list includes the Ravens, Houston Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers and maybe the Broncos if future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning can return to full strength.

But the first step for the Patriots is conquering the AFC East. New England has won the division nine of the past 11 years under Brady and Belichick. Williamson does not see any reason the Patriots cannot win their 10th AFC East title in 12 years.

"I think the Jets are declining and the Bills are rising, but I don't think either one is close to the Patriots’ level," Williamson said. "I don't think the rest of the division is that good. The Bills have come a long way -- for the Bills. But I still think they're an 8-8 or 9-7 team if everything goes well. No one in the division has a quarterback close to Brady. No one has the big-game experience, and none of them have a coach on Belichick’s level."

Barring significant injuries, the Patriots are a safe bet to make the postseason for the fourth consecutive year. But when it comes to getting to the very top of the NFL mountain, history suggests New England's 2012 journey will fall short.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The throws in team drills were crisp and on the money.

There were completions with zip to receiver Wes Welker for two deep touchdowns. Tight end Aaron Hernandez made vertical catches, and several timing routes to Jabar Gaffney and Deion Branch were precise.

Brady
Still, the future Hall of Fame quarterback throwing those passes was not satisfied.

"I got a long way to go," Tom Brady said after Wednesday's practice. "So, I'm nowhere near where I want to be."

Brady is a perfectionist. He looked great in practice and made plenty of plays, especially compared to the two quarterbacks I saw up close Tuesday: Tim Tebow and Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets. Brady's arm looks strong and accurate. Brady also says he is sitting at his ideal playing weight of 228 pounds.

But Brady and the Patriots are not letting up. They want to improve. They want to be near perfect by the time the regular season begins.

Want proof? On a soggy, rainy day at Gillette Stadium, Patriots coach Bill Belichick practiced outside. The Jets had a similar dilemma on Tuesday and chose to practice inside the fieldhouse.

"Rain or shine, whatever it is," Belichick said. "Rain, wind, hot, we have a little bit of everything. So it’s been good. Sooner or later, we will have to play in those conditions."

Belichick said the players are aware that most of the evaluations will happen next month in training camp. This time is more about teaching than anything else.

Mistakes were made Wednesday, but overall I thought the Patriots looked pretty good for a June practice. Brady and the first-team offense were particularly sharp in team drills. But you can't tell that to New England's starting quarterback.

"No one is ready to play a game yet, I can assure you of that," Brady said. "We got a lot of work."
The New England Patriots will hold a mandatory three-day minicamp this week. The AFC East blog will be at Gillette Stadium to catch some of the action.

Here are three things we are keeping an eye on:

No. 1: Defensive improvements

There is only one big question I have about the reigning AFC champs: Can the defense make improvements following a horrible 2011 season? The Patriots know their 31st-ranked defense is a problem. They drafted all defensive players this year until the seventh round. Rookies such as defensive end Chandler Jones, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Tavon Wilson are expected to make immediate contributions. Will the pass rush improve? Can the Patriots get better play from their corners and safeties? New England's offense will be a juggernaut again this year. But the defense must carry its weight.

No. 2: Who takes over at running back?

The Patriots have mostly unproven players at running back. But the coaching staff was confident enough in this group to let sure-handed tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis walk in free agency. Second-year players Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are expected to make up for the production lost when Green-Ellis left. Ridley and Vereen have just 102 career carries between them. Free-agent pickup Joseph Addai and backup Danny Woodhead also will be in the mix. The Patriots like to have a committee of running backs at their disposal and often go with the hot hand. We will keep an eye on which tailbacks are separating from the pack early.

No. 3: Wide receivers

The Patriots have so much depth at receiver that they didn't flinch to cut six-time Pro Bowler Chad Ochocinco last week. That provides some clarity to the position, but there is still work to be done. Free-agent additions such as Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney are virtual locks, along with Pro Bowler Wes Welker. But other players such as Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Donte' Stallworth, Matthew Slater and rookie Jeremy Ebert will compete for roster spots. It will be a competitive summer for this group, and minicamp is part of that evaluation.

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