AFC East: Logan Mankins
"It's not all on us, but there is enough of it that is on us. The perfect example is the other night. We come out in the third quarter -- sack, sack -- a lot of that was on us. Mental assignments, guys just getting beat," Mankins said of the quarter in which the Jets took control of the game, erasing a 21-10 halftime deficit. "Whenever the line is not playing well, it's hard to score points."
The Patriots' starting line returned intact for 2013 with left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Mankins, center Ryan Wendell, right guard Dan Connolly and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Thus, expectations were high that the unit would be a strong point for the offense.
The results, however, have been uneven.
"The expectations start high in our room also. We expect a lot out of ourselves also [and] I think that's why we were disappointed after the game the other night," Mankins said. "We thought we played well until the end of the second [quarter] there. The third quarter was bad and then I thought we played better in the fourth quarter. But we had that lull right there in the third quarter that really hurt us, and hurt the team. We just can't play like that. ...
"There are times when we've played really well and times we've played really bad, like the other night, for a little stretch there, was just about as bad you can get. The thing is, everyone in that room wants to do it perfect. It's just not going to happen all the time; we're playing against good guys. The frustrating thing is when we do things wrong and that's the reason for a sack. We want to make them earn it and we didn't make them earn it every time."
As part of improving on those results, the Patriots practiced in full pads Wednesday, with Mankins saying it always helps to go back to the basics after an inconsistent performance. Looking ahead to Sunday's home game against the Dolphins, Mankins pointed to their deep defensive line as a strength.
So it will be another big test for an offensive line looking to string together a full 60-minute effort.
"It's a big division game. We let one get away last week and now we're facing a team that is very good, especially on their front seven on defense, and their front four. Those are good defensive linemen," he said. "It's going to be tough for our offense again this week. Hopefully we can do a better job."
Following up with Tommy Kelly: The veteran defensive tackle, who left the game in the fourth quarter with a knee injury and didn't return, was one of the last players to leave the locker room. Unlike Vince Wilfork last week, who left Atlanta on the back of a cart after tearing his Achilles, Kelly walked out under his own power and his injury didn't appear, on the surface, to be as serious as Wilfork's. Kelly said he planned to speak with reporters later in the week, but when asked briefly about the knee, he said "everything's good." What that exactly means remains a bit unclear.
Crediting the Bengals' defense: As is often the case in a losing team's locker room, there was plenty of focus on the team's mistakes. At the same time, receiver Julian Edelman -- who singled out the red zone as the key area in the game -- pointed out that some credited belonged on the Bengals' side as well. "They were mixing it up, spinning the dial, doing what they do. They flat-out beat us. Sometimes you have to tip your hat," he said. "We have no excuses."
Letting the defense down: Offensive lineman Logan Mankins said, "The truth right now is that we're so inconsistent offensively. ... Today, the defense played great, as they have all year. I think we really let them down." No further explanation required.
Amendola's groin responds well: Receiver Danny Amendola was charted on the field for 38 of 64 snaps (including penalties), as he was managed in his return from a groin injury. He drew a large crowd of reporters at his locker after the game and said he felt good, although there were a few plays he wanted to have back. Amendola also said he felt he had scored on a play in which he was ruled just shy of the end zone.
Media scene: Players drawing large media crowds Wednesday included tight end Rob Gronkowski, safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory, cornerback Kyle Arrington and receivers Aaron Dobson and Julian Edelman. Quarterback Tom Brady held his weekly news conference in the new media workroom, while Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano and running back Doug Martin held conference calls with reporters ahead of Tampa Bay's visit Sunday.
Dobson attempts to keep even keel: After a debut in which he scored a touchdown on his first offensive snap but later struggled to catch the ball, rookie Dobson talked Wednesday about keeping an even keel. "You can't ride the highs too much or the lows too much," he said. "What happened last week happened, and I'm just trying to move on, improve, and have a better game this week."
Mankins wants to see more consistent running game: The Patriots offense struggled in last Thursday's 13-10 victory over the Jets, with guard Logan Mankins saying the unit had one good drive the entire contest. A more consistent running game could help. "We had one good week of running it, and last week we didn't run it that well," he said. "I know we played a good run defense last week, but you still have to be able to produce yards in the run game. We didn't. This week, we have another very good run defense, so it will be a tough challenge. They have quick guys that play very hard, and their scheme makes it hard to run against because they're never sitting still. They're always running somewhere and they do a good job of staying in their lanes."
McCourty on Martin's elusiveness: McCourty explained what makes Tampa back Martin a challenge to tackle, starting with finding him. At 5-foot-9, he can be elusive. "Especially from a secondary standpoint, he's not a big guy. He kind of can stay behind blocks and then he shoots out of there. The biggest thing is getting a lot of guys around him and bringing him down."
Mankins takes jab at Jets on dust-up: Guard Logan Mankins is one of the Patriots' enforcers, and he took exception to Nick Mangold's tackle of cornerback Aqib Talib on the game-sealing interception. The play occurred in front of the New England sideline -- it led to both teams pushing and shoving -- and Mangold was ultimately penalized for a personal foul; offensive linemen D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Willie Colon were ejected. "It was a cheap shot," Mankins said. "He chose the wrong sideline to do that. We were standing up for our guy."
Edelman delivers career performance: Without receiver Danny Amendola (groin), the Patriots leaned heavily on five-year veteran receiver Julian Edelman, who had a career-high 13 catches (bettering his 10 in the 2009 regular-season finale) and was effective as a punt returner as well. Edelman drew a huge media crowd and was one of the last players to leave -- and on a night when Brady kept looking in his direction, it was clear that he had earned his quarterback's trust. That's something the team's rookies are still trying to accomplish, as Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson were targeted 17 times and combined for just five receptions. "What gets that [trust] is consistency, doing it in practice, executing that in practice and making that a game reality," Edelman said.
Defensive players feel good about performance: On a night when New England's offense was as ugly as we've seen since Brady became a starter in 2001, the defense had to rise up. The unit was pleased to pick up the offense. "We have guys banged up. We have some young guys over there, and we know it's going to take time for them to learn and develop," safety Devin McCourty said. "That's how a team works. There will be nights, maybe next game, where we don't play as well, and we'll need them to step up and they'll do that. We just need to keep playing off each other."
1. It seemed like the Patriots wanted to take a closer look at veteran safety Adrian Wilson and his effectiveness as a blitzer. Wilson blitzed on the first play of the game (the ball was out quickly) and then on the third-and-7 play (incomplete pass) that ended the Giants’ second drive. On the second blitz, Wilson was met by running back Andre Brown and ridden out of the play, as quarterback Eli Manning stepped up to make his throw on the run. Then there was a third blitz from Wilson on the Giants’ opening play of the third drive (off the defensive left side), when Manning completed a 37-yard pass to receiver Louis Murphy as Wilson was again picked up by running back David Wilson. He then blitzed again on the Giants’ touchdown later in the quarter (wasn’t close to disrupting the play). As the Patriots consider whether Wilson has a spot on their 53-man roster, I could envision them looking at these blitzes today and attempting to determine if Wilson can help them in that role.
2. Rookie defensive end Michael Buchanan (6-6, 255) was disruptive off the defensive left side, showing good power and multiple pass-rush moves, as well as how his long arms can affect passing lanes for opposing quarterbacks. In addition, he showed strength and technique to effectively set the edge, which is a necessity for any end (4-3) or outside linebacker (3-4) in the team’s scheme. We got a good look at that on the Giants’ second offensive play when Buchanan locked up with pulling guard Chris Snee, held his ground, and kept Wilson hemmed in as he was stopped for a modest 1-yard gain.
3. A good contrast to that play was seen later in the quarter on Wilson’s 16-yard run on a pitch from Manning around left end. The Patriots’ run force broke down, with right end Jake Bequette taking his first step inside, which was enough to lose containment. With linebacker Dane Fletcher also sealed off by left tackle Will Beatty, and cornerback Marquice Cole cleared out of the area because he was covering receiver Hakeem Nicks, it left a wide swath of real estate for Wilson. Some credit goes to the Giants for a well-blocked run, but it looked like it also could have been executed better from the Patriots’ standpoint.
4. The top seven offensive linemen appear set for the Patriots (Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, Will Svitek), so I spent some time watching the reserves beyond that to see if anyone stood out. Center Matt Stankiewitch (6-4, 305) would be the choice. The first play might have been his worst -- he was pushed back into quarterback Ryan Mallett by Linval Joseph -- but he seemed to settle in nicely over the remainder of the first quarter against first-unit competition. His athleticism to get to the second level of the defense was seen on receiver Josh Boyce’s 18-yard reverse, when he sealed off linebacker Dan Connor. A nice play like that was later balanced off by failing to hold his block against defensive tackle Mike Patterson as Patterson pressured Mallett early in the second quarter. Like most rookies, Stankiewitch will benefit from some physical development, but he showed a scrappiness that made us take note.
5. There is a risk-reward that comes with every blitz, and the risk was evidenced on the Giants’ first touchdown. On third-and-2 from the Patriots 3-yard line, the defense sent seven rushers. That created a man-to-man situation with receivers and defensive backs, with rookie cornerback Logan Ryan matched up against Nicks. The rush didn’t get there and Manning had time to lock in on Nicks to complete a relatively easy touchdown. If you’re going to send seven, that’s a case where the rush has to get there quickly to help out the defensive backs. Didn’t happen in that case.
In the case of Patriots right guard Dan Connolly, who is currently recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, it was Marcus Cannon who was called upon to fill in. A subsequent injury to Cannon opened the door for Markus Zusevics to earn guard reps, and then missed time for Zusevics led to veteran Will Svitek playing on the interior part of the line, rather than his customary tackle spot.
Head coach Bill Belichick recently highlighted Svitek's versatile skill set, noting that he can play either tackle position, a desirable skill set for teams looking to build their line depth.
The Patriots have long valued versatility among their offensive linemen, as there can be several moving parts along the line that force a team to shuffle the deck.
Focusing on the Patriots projected top seven linemen, position versatility is among the common denominators.
Guard Logan Mankins: Belichick said during the 2012 season that he believed Mankins was probably capable of playing any of the five line positions if needed, though Mankins is entrenched at the left guard spot, where he's among the best in the game. He was also a standout left tackle in college at Fresno State.
Center Ryan Wendell: Wendell took over starting center duties for the 2012 season, though he can flex to either guard spot as well. His modest size (6-2, 300) is offset by his technician-like approach and ability to leverage defenders. He's developed into one of the better centers in football.
Tackle Sebastian Vollmer: Another player who has been entrenched in his current spot at right tackle, Vollmer has the requisite skills to swing to left tackle as well. In fact, he was likely the Patriots back-up left tackle last season, though Nate Solder was on the field for virtually every offensive snap.
Tackle Nate Solder: Solder was a chess piece on the line as a rookie, playing at both tackle spots, as an extra lineman, and even getting preseason guards snaps. With his uncommon length and movement skills, playing multiple positions is well within his capabilities.
Guard Dan Connolly: Like Wendell, Connolly has interior line flex. He started at center in 2011 before kicking out to guard last season. As things currently stand, he'd likely be called upon to take over at center if Wendell were to ever suffer an injury.
Guard Marcus Cannon: A college tackle prospect, Cannon seems to be working more at guard these days. That being said, he can still serve as a reserve right tackle, and might be able to play left tackle in a pinch, too.
Tackle Will Svitek: As we said off the top, Svitek has four position versatility, with the tools to swing to either tackle spot and play each guard post as well.
Among the remaining linemen on the roster, we have the best feel for Zusevics, who we've seen at both tackle and guard. The book is still out on Josh Kline, Luke Patterson, Brice Schwab and Chris McDonald, who we've seen in small doses this camp.
The Patriots could keep one or more of these five on the practice squad, or one could also emerge as a surprise keep on the 53-man roster. One has to figure that if any of them stick around, he'll have the versatility to play multiple line spots.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The third preseason game is often considered the “dress rehearsal” for the regular season, and that’s the way it seems coach Bill Belichick and Patriots players are treating Thursday’s road contest against the Lions in Detroit.
“It’s the game you get to play the most in, so we’ll see how our conditioning is,” said guard Logan Mankins, one of the team’s captains in 2012. “We’ll play more than we have in the past and I’m sure they’ll play more. It’s always a good challenge.”
Mankins added that players watched some Lions film on Monday morning, with linebacker Jerod Mayo saying, “Each and every week is big, but this third game we really get into studying our opponent.”
The Patriots also turned up the noise at practice Monday. Preseason or not, they expect a loud atmosphere at Ford Field, which puts more stress on an offense that often relies on the silent snap count while on the road.
Then there’s personnel, such as defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
“That’s the strength of their team, I think personally, their defensive line,” Mankins said. “They have good tackles and good ends. They put a lot of pressure on you in the run game and pass game.
“Suh is probably one of the strongest tackles you’re going to find in the league and very athletic for his size also. They’re good at what they do and they’re always a handful for whoever they’re playing.”
This marks the second time in three years that the Patriots will visit the Lions for the third preseason game. In 2011, the Lions rolled, 34-10.
“We’re going on the road, tough environment; we went there a few years ago and didn’t do very well, which we’ve already heard about for three days now,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “So we’re going to have to do better than we did the last time.”
Danny Amendola: In 20 snaps played, he is targeted seven times and makes six catches for 71 yards and a touchdown. The type of night we grew used to seeing from Wes Welker from 2007-2012.
Tom Brady :In command for the second week in a row, Brady shows no signs that his injured left knee will be a factor. With all the new faces on offense, the results look similar with him leading the charge.
Logan Ryan: One week after the rookie cornerback drops a relatively easy interception, he cashes in this week, with a 53-yard pick-6 of Mike Glennon.
Brandon Spikes: Linebacker is a tone-setter on defense. His steamrolling of Buccaneers running back Doug Martin to register a sack on the Buccaneers first play is impressive. Few players, if any, hit harder.
Zach Sudfeld: Rookie free-agent tight end snares a two-point conversion from Brady and makes an impressive 22-yard touchdown grab up the seam on a deflected pass from Ryan Mallett.
Ryan Allen: Rookie punter who had been challenging incumbent Zoltan Mesko has a touchback on a plus-50 attempt and then doesn't strike the ball as well as he desires on a 35-yard punt in the third quarter.
Logan Mankins: Left guard is penalized for a personal foul on the team's first drive, one of the only blemishes for the first-unit offense.
Tim Tebow: Quarterback doesn't generate positive momentum in the second half and throws an errant high pass that is intercepted.
Tavon Wilson: Holding penalty in the end zone in the second half gives the Buccaneers a new set of downs.
Kickoff coverage: Giving up returns of 63 and 40 yards in the first half isn't going to cut it.
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?
“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.
• 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.
• 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.
Here are Nos. 9-12:
2012 stats: 12 starts
Analysis: It was just a couple of seasons ago when Long was arguably the best left tackle in the NFL. But those times have changed after back-to-back struggling seasons and numerous injuries. Long is on the decline but he's still better than 80 percent of starting left tackles. That will make Long one of the more interesting unrestricted free agents this offseason. Reportedly, Long is seeking $10 million per year. The Dolphins know better than anyone that is a high price for a struggling and injury-prone player. But that doesn't mean another team won't offer Long a large contract based on past performance and name value.
2012 stats: 35 tackles, three INTs
Analysis: Sometimes adversity brings out the best in a player, and that was apparent in 2012 with Cromartie. He raised his game to a new level after star cornerback and teammate Darrelle Revis went down for the year with a knee injury. Cromartie proved he can still be a No. 1 cornerback and guarded the opponent’s best receivers most of last season. Thanks to Cromartie, New York was second in the NFL in pass defense despite not having Revis most of the season. Cromartie's length and athleticism consistently gave receivers fits. He even showed the willingness to lay a few big hits, which is not his strength. The performance landed Cromartie in the Pro Bowl and also could lead the Jets to putting Revis on the trade market.
2012 stats: 51 receptions, 483 yards, five TDs
Analysis: New England tight ends just could not stay healthy this season. When Hernandez was out, teammate Rob Gronkowski was healthy. But when Gronkowski was out, Hernandez was healthy. Neither tight end really caught their stride in 2012, although the Patriots' offense did fine shuffling them in and out of the lineup. Still, Hernandez is a unique and versatile talent. He has a knack for making dynamic plays and is surprisingly elusive for his size. Hernandez and Gronkowski, also known in the AFC East blog as the "Boston TE Party," will be a matchup problem for opponents for many years to come.
2012 stats: 10 starts
Analysis: Mankins had arguably the toughest season of his career, but it was still enough to get voted into the Pro Bowl. Mankins is one of the toughest players in the NFL. He returned early from a torn ACL and made it back for Week 1 of the regular season. Mankins also suffered through hip and calf injuries that hampered his play. Still, Mankins remains one of the top guards in the NFL. He just needs to get back to 100 percent for the Patriots.
New England did a solid job keeping the Texans off Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the first meeting in Week 14. Houston only sacked Brady once and was trounced by the Patriots, 42-14. Brady had plenty of time in the pocket and threw for four touchdowns.
But New England veteran guard Logan Mankins doesn't expect things to go as smooth in the rematch. He knows the Texans' defensive line will be much more determined.
"Well, it’s going to be really tough," Mankins said "You have probably the best D-lineman in the league in J.J. Watt and then you’ve got Antonio Smith, another very good defensive lineman. So those two together are very tough and then you put all four of them out there at one time and they’re a tough matchup for anyone.
"You see the problems they give teams every week. Cincinnati scored six points on offense, so that says a lot right there, to hold a team to six points in the playoffs."
The Patriots had a lot more success against Houston. New England head coach Bill Belichick did a masterful job of scheming against Watt by keeping extra running backs and tight ends in to protect Brady. Watt was active and still had four tackles and a forced fumble.
Watt is one of the game-changers for Houston who is capable of making huge plays to win this game. And if Mankins says Watt is the best defensive lineman in the NFL, that's very high praise from a credible source.
"It starts with he’s got all of the physical tools: he’s big, strong, fast and then he plays relentless," Mankins explained. "He's a high-motor guy that hustles a lot and he's got a great playing style, so that’s why he's good."
Perfect sense: Most of the seven New England Patriots were easy calls. Quarterback Tom Brady and receiver Wes Welker were immensely productive, as usual, and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork was stout once again. Even Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski made the Pro Bowl despite missing five games with a broken forearm. But Gronkowski still leads AFC tight ends with 10 touchdowns. He averaged a touchdown per game this season. Miami defensive end Cameron Wake made his second Pro Bowl after leading the Dolphins with 15 sacks. Wake also doesn't get enough credit for holding his own against the run in Miami's stout front seven. This nod was well deserved. It also was good to see Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie get credit for his good year by making the Pro Bowl as a reserve. Cromartie really stepped up his game in Darrelle Revis' absence and showed that he is still capable of being a No. 1 corner.
Made it on rep: Most of the selections for the AFC East were solid. However, Patriots guard Logan Mankins wasn't his usual self this season. He came back early from ACL surgery and was bothered by other injuries. Mankins missed six games but was still voted as a starter. Jets safety LaRon Landry has been a bright spot, but I didn't think he had a Pro Bowl year. Still, Landry's 95 tackles, four forced fumbles and two interceptions are proof that he stayed around the football this year. He will be a free agent this offseason and his price tag for the Jets just went up. New York will have salary-cap issues and could have a hard time keeping Landry.
Got robbed: You would be hard pressed to find a center who had a better season than Mike Pouncey of the Dolphins. Pouncey made tremendous strides in his second year but was snubbed in favor of his twin brother, Maurkice Pouncey, of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chris Myers of the Houston Texans. Mike Pouncey was pivotal in Miami rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill's rapid development and tailback Reggie Bush being on pace for his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. Dolphins punter Brandon Fields is another major snub. Fields has been underrated for years and continues to boom kicks. Fields averaged a career-high 50.3 yards per punt and had 26 land inside the 20. Fields was beaten out by Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt. I also tend to have a soft spot for Buffalo Bills tailback C.J. Spiller. After watching him all season, the eye test tells me Spiller is one of the most dynamic talents in the NFL. But his numbers (1,185 yards, six touchdowns) aren't overly impressive because Spiller didn't get enough opportunities. The Bills are the only AFC East team without a Pro Bowl player.
Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.
Want proof? Look no further than the NFL Pro Bowl voting.
The reigning AFC champion New England Patriots are dominating the fan voting from the division. They have two of the top-seven players overall in quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski. Fans also have three New England players voted in the starting lineup: Gronkowski, linebacker Jerod Mayo and guard Logan Mankins. Brady is the second-leading vote getter but trails Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning at his position.
One of the more interesting fan votes is Miami Dolphins punter Brandon Fields. He's been underrated for years and is finally getting noticed.
Fields, who averages 50.4 yards per punt, is trying to make his first Pro Bowl this year.
- Is the New England Patriots’ offense built for success in the playoffs?
- Hall of Fame coach Don Shula sees good things ahead for the Dolphins.
- After calling the people who run the New York Jets "idiots,” receiver Braylon Edwards was waived, with an injury designation, by the Seattle Seahawks.
- Buffalo Bills tailback C.J. Spiller says everything starts with the running game.
New England will win the division again this season. But there are still five games left to play until the playoffs.
Here are some things New England must take a look at moving forward:
Chase down Houston or Baltimore
The chase for the top two seeds in the AFC is going to be exciting down the stretch. New England (7-3) trails both the Houston Texans (9-1) and Baltimore Ravens (8-2).
Houston is two games up but must play the Patriots in December on “Monday Night Football.” The Ravens beat New England earlier this year and own the head-to-head tiebreaker.
All the Patriots can do is keep winning and hope one of those two teams slip up down the stretch. But New England is guaranteed a home playoff game by locking up the AFC East.
Continue to improve secondary
New England’s struggling secondary is most likely the biggest thing that could derail the team this season. But this group has made strides the past two games.
The trade for talented but troubled cornerback Aqib Talib is paying some early dividens. Talib already has a pick six in his first two games and should only get better once he fully gets used to the system. Rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard also is playing well and showing some confidence.
Get healthy for stretch run
It is scary to think that New England is playing this well while not at full strength. Key starters like Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski (arm), Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins (calf) and rookie defensive end Chandler Jones (ankle) are all sidelined with injuries.
The Patriots have performed well through injury and expect all these key plays back by December. This will allow the team to mesh well at full strength before the postseason.