AFC East: Nick Kaczur

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When analyzing news that defensive end Ty Warren, tight end Alge Crumpler and offensive lineman Nick Kaczur have been released, creating salary cap space appears to be one reason.

Warren was due to earn a base salary of $3.1 million, Crumpler $2.4 million and Kaczur $3.4 million.

The cuts help clear room to take on Chad Ochocinco, Albert Haynesworth and possibly even Matt Light, should he be re-signed.

The salary cap has been set at $120 million this year, and teams will soon have to be in compliance with that number based on the top 51 players on the roster.

Warren, a longtime starter at left defensive end who had missed the 2010 season with a hip injury, opened training camp on the active/physically unable to perform list. Kaczur was coming off a back injury and Crumpler had offseason shoulder surgery.

So all were dealing with physical ailments.

Crumpler was a captain last season, credited with helping to bring along Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The Patriots lose a strong presence in the locker room at a time in which they are bringing two strong personalities into the room (Ochocinco & Haynesworth). The Patriots now have Gronkowski, Hernandez and fifth-round draft choice Lee Smith, who was considered one of the better blocking tight ends in the draft, atop the depth chart.

With Warren no longer in the picture, the Patriots could revisit someone like free-agent Gerard Warren if they plan to keep the 3-4 alignment as a core philosophy. Or perhaps the Patriots will shift their core philosophy to tap Haynesworth's biggest strength, as a penetrating 3-technique defensive tackle, which could alter the picture.

Kaczur's release wasn't a surprise, given his salary and projection as a backup. With Light's possible return, the emergence of Sebastian Vollmer and the drafting of Nate Solder in the first round, Kaczur was going to be deep on the tackle depth chart. The Patriots had extended his contract in 2009, but didn't get much return on that investment after the deal was signed.

Draft Watch: AFC East

March, 10, 2011
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: biggest team needs.

Buffalo Bills

Where would you like to start?

Offense? How about left tackle, right tackle, tight end and -- if there's a great one still on the draft board -- quarterback?

Defense? How about the line, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, cornerback and safety?

Special teams? OK, the Bills are fine there.

But kicker, punter and running back are about the only positions the Bills can draft third overall and not help themselves.

The most pressing needs, however, are tackle and outside linebacker. The Bills haven't drafted an offensive tackle earlier than the fifth round since taking Mike Williams in the first round in 2002, and their line play shows that. They have tried to coach up late draft picks (Demetrius Bell, Ed Wang) and rummaged through free agency (Cornell Green, Mansfield Wrotto, Jonathan Scott, Jamon Meredith) rather than acquire that prized blindside protector.

The Bills were so desperate at outside linebacker they plucked the injury-ravaged Shawne Merriman off waivers last year and then, even though he got hurt again minutes into his first workout, gave him a contract extension.

They can't bank on Merriman to anchor their pass rush. Yet even if he can contribute, they'll need more help. The Bills recorded 27 sacks last year. Only three teams had fewer.

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins probably will need a running back. They could stand to upgrade at quarterback if they can.

But they definitely need interior offensive linemen.

They recently re-signed left guard Richie Incognito to an extension, but they still have problems at center and right guard. Although they have two solid book-end tackles in Pro perennial Bowl left tackle Jake Long and veteran Vernon Carey, they've been a mess in between for the past three years.

The Dolphins need to upgrade their power running game. Despite having a capable and healthy backfield tandem in Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams last season, the Dolphins ranked 21st in rushing yards, 29th in yards per carry and 29th in rushing touchdowns.

A stud running back certainly can help, and the Dolphins might have little choice but to take one with their 15th selection. Brown's and Williams' contracts are up. That's why so many draft analysts project the Dolphins will take Alabama running back Mark Ingram and then address the O-line later.

New England Patriots

Funny how things work for the Patriots when it comes to draft picks. The reigning AFC East champs might have the fewest needs but have the most draft picks at their disposal.

The Patriots went 14-2 last season and own two draft choices in each of the first three rounds. So the Patriots have the flexibility to go any number of directions.

The most obvious need is outside linebacker. The Patriots' entire outside linebacking corps mustered 13.5 sacks last year. Dolphins outside linebacker Cameron Wake generated 14 sacks all by himself.

Offensive line is another concern because there are so many question marks. Right guard Stephen Neal retired. Left guard Logan Mankins is upset. Left tackle Matt Light isn't signed. Nick Kaczur is coming off serious back surgery. The timing is right to bring in some fresh O-line blood.

The Patriots had one of the NFL's most entertaining backfields last year, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushing for over 1,000 yards and Danny Woodhead making the Jets look foolish for cutting him. But each running back has his limitations, and the Patriots could be on the lookout for an all-purpose back adept at catching a pass and converting a third-and-short.

New York Jets

The Jets are in a weird spot. They finished the season as a team with talent at virtually every position.

But they have a crowded group of free agents and couldn't bring themselves to sign any (aside from giving inside linebacker David Harris the franchise tag) until a new collective bargaining agreement was in place. The Jets want to know what the new salary cap is before moving forward.

That leaves a lot of loose ends for the Jets heading into the draft. Will they need a receiver to replace Santonio Holmes or Braylon Edwards? A cornerback to replace Antonio Cromartie?

The needs we can bank on are outside linebacker and safety.

The Jets must generate a better pass rush and still need to recover from the Vernon Gholston pick that set them back. Outside linebacker Bryan Thomas is competent, but no star. He led the Jets with just six sacks. Calvin Pace had 5.5 sacks. The recently released Jason Taylor added five.

Safety is an area of emphasis because they could have stood to upgrade even before Brodney Pool, Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo became free agents. Jim Leonhard is a Rex Ryan favorite but recovering from a broken shin.

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

AFC East moves: Neal retires, Gholston cut

March, 2, 2011
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One of the NFL's more remarkable careers has come to an end.

New England Patriots right guard Stephen Neal announced his retirement after 10 seasons.

Neal didn't play a down of college football. He was a wrestler at Cal State-Bakersfield and signed as an undrafted rookie project. He didn't make the team, and was signed to the Philadelphia Eagles' practice squad. But the Patriots saw enough that they signed him to their active roster later that year.

Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia helped Neal evolve into a quality player for several years.

Injuries always seemed to be a problem for Neal. He started nine or fewer games three seasons and just 37 games over his past four seasons. His 2010 campaign came to an end after eight games because of a shoulder injury.

Neal's retirement increases backup Dan Connolly's profile on the Patriots' roster and could keep Nick Kaczur around. Connolly started capably at left guard until Logan Mankins ended his contract standoff. Connolly then switched over to right guard for the injured Neal.

Boston Herald beat writer Ian R. Rapoport reported over the weekend that the Patriots approached Kaczur about a salary cut, but he refused.

Neal's decision was one of a few AFC East personnel moves Wednesday.

Rapoport also reported the Patriots extended a qualifying offer to restricted free agent running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

The New York Jets officially released defensive end Vernon Gholston and tight end Ben Hartsock.

Report: Patriots, Kaczur headed for split

February, 27, 2011
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The New England Patriots appear on the verge of lopping offensive lineman Nick Kaczur from the roster.

Kaczur
Kaczur
Boston Herald reporter Ian R. Rapoport, citing an unnamed source, writes the Patriots have approached Kaczur about taking a pay cut, and Kaczur has declined.

The source told Rapoport the Patriots will have to cut Kaczur if they don't want to pay him a base salary of $3.4 million.

Kaczur missed last season with a back injury that required surgery in training camp. He was pegged to start at left guard until Logan Mankins' contract dispute concluded.

The Patriots got along just fine without Kaczur. Mankins came back and earned first-team All-Pro honors and started in the Pro Bowl. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was voted second-team All-Pro. Dan Connolly emerged as a quality backup.

Kaczur has been a starter since the Patriots drafted him in the third round out of Toledo six years ago. Left tackle Matt Light was able to play only three games in 2005, giving Kaczur 11 starts at left tackle as a rookie. Kaczur flipped to right tackle the next season and stayed there.

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.

No kidding: Tom Brady named top O player

February, 1, 2011
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A drumroll was unnecessary.

As expected Tuesday night, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was named The Associated Press 2010 Offensive Player of the Year.

Brady produced one of the greatest quarterbacking seasons of his generation.

Brady had a dominant campaign despite a transitory cast. The Patriots traded Randy Moss after two games. Wes Welker was coming back from reconstructive knee surgery. Brady's tight ends were rookies. The running backs were undrafted players who'd been waived in the past. All-Pro guard Logan Mankins missed the first seven games. Right guard Stephen Neal missed the last nine games. Last year's right tackle, Nick Kaczur, missed the entire season.

Oh, and Brady played the final two months with a broken foot.

Yet he completed 66 percent of his throws for 3,900 yards and a league-best 36 touchdowns. He had an NFL-low four interceptions and broke a 19-year-old record for consecutive attempts without an interception. Brady's 111.0 passer rating ranks fifth all-time.

Such a prolific season made Tuesday night's announcement a formality. Earlier in the day I tried to stimulate a little OPOY discussion by trying to determine who should be second.

Brady received 21 of the AP panel's 50 votes. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick was second with 11 votes followed by Houston Texans running back Arian Foster with seven, San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers with five and Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson two apiece.

The over on the national anthem is not the safest football bet you can make on Super Sunday. It's that Brady also will be named MVP. There was an interesting debate developing between Brady and Vick with a few weeks left in the season, but Vick sputtered in December while Brady finished the season with 14 wins.

Study shows painkiller abuse big NFL issue

January, 28, 2011
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A study commissioned by ESPN and assisted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows retired NFL players misuse painkillers at a rate of 4-to-1 compared to the general public.

Results of the study are being reported Friday on ESPN's "SportsCenter" and "Outside the Lines" and in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. Enterprise reporter John Barr also wrote a series of stories on the findings for ESPN.com.

Miami Dolphins tight end Dan Johnson's teammates called him "King of Pain" because of the myriad injuries he suffered throughout his career from 1983 through 1987. He became addicted to painkillers after two back surgeries.

"I was taking about 1,000 Vicodins a month," Johnson told ESPN. "People go, 'That's impossible. That's crazy.' No, it's exactly what I was taking. I mean, believe me, I'd love to be off medications. That's my worry every day, to make sure I have medication."

Johnson broke down in tears when he admitted he contemplated suicide.

Dr. Linda Cottler and colleagues at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis oversaw the study of 644 ex-players. It was the first time researchers explored how and to what extent retired NFL players use prescription pain medications.

More than half of the surveyed former players reported using prescription painkillers during their playing days. Of that same group, 71 percent admitted misusing the drugs during their time in the NFL.

One of the most notable cases involving a current NFL player occurred in 2008. New England Patriots offensive lineman Nick Kaczur was found with 202 OxyContin pills after being stopped for speeding. Kaczur cut a deal to help the Drug Enforcement Administration bust his dealer. Court documents state Kaczur bought about 100 OxyContin pills every three or four days.

"This is the most frightening epidemic I've seen probably since the methamphetamine epidemic in the beginning of the early '90s," Dr. Alex Stalcup said. "All the professional sports that involve physical combat create guys who need pain treatment."

Jets, Bills dodged 'starter games lost'

January, 20, 2011
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Back in my days covering the National Hockey League, "man games lost" were insightful stats we used frequently. The figures helped illustrate how injuries were impacting a team's season.

Man games lost aren't avidly tracked in the NFL. Rosters are more volatile than in the NHL, where fully guaranteed contracts generally cement a roster coming out of training camp.

NFL teams cut and sign players more frequently. Injured players can dress because there's one game a week, and they can be used situationally. In the NHL, you have to play offense and defense. There are no third-down specialists you can safely insert for a shift or two.

Football Outsiders managing editor Bill Barnwell has compiled a worthwhile chart for the NFL.

Better than man games lost, it's starter games lost.

The Indianapolis Colts led the NFL with 89. The Chicago Bears and Kansas City Chiefs were tied for fewest at 11.

In the AFC East, the Miami Dolphins had the most with 62, ranking seventh in the league. They were banged-up all along the offensive and defensive lines. Receiver Brian Hartline, cornerback Will Allen and rookie defensive end Jared Odrick went to injured reserve among a few others.

The New England Patriots were tied for 10th with 54 starter games lost. Tom Brady played through a foot fracture, but they most notably lost cornerback Leigh Bodden and offensive linemen Stephen Neal and Nick Kaczur.

The Buffalo Bills were tied for 21st with 42 starter games lost. That's a great development after what happened to them in 2009, when they finished with 21 players on injured reserve, including left tackle Demetrius Bell, right tackle Brad Butler, inside linebacker Kawika Mitchell, starting cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Terrence McGee and Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd.

The New York Jets lost starters 38 times, ranking 23rd in the league. Their biggest losses were nose tackle Kris Jenkins, safety Jim Leonhard and right tackle Damien Woody.

What do these numbers say, especially when four of the top five most injury-riddled teams (Colts, Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks, Philadelphia Eagles) made the playoffs?

It means that depth (or playing in the NFC West) is imperative to surviving.

Barnwell offered to break down the chart by upper-body and lower-body injuries, but I haven't gotten that file yet.

Brady's passing guru hasn't seen him better

January, 12, 2011
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Tom Brady Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireQuarterback Tom Brady has thrown 36 touchdown passes and only four interceptions this season.
Tom Martinez might've known in the summer what kind of season Tom Brady was about to have.

Martinez is the man who taught Brady how to pass. They've been together for about half of Brady's life, since before his first junior varsity start.

As usual, they got together during the offseason in Southern California to hone Brady's mechanics. Martinez identified a few areas to tweak.

"By the end of it all, I'd never seen him better," Martinez said from his home in Menlo Park, Calif.

"It was hard to stand there and watch it. You've got to shake your head that you're really looking at what you think you are. He was so precise. You go, 'Holy mackerel. He's got to throw some balls away.' It was unbelievably impressive."

Even with that knowledge, Martinez was surprised to see Brady's remarkable season unfold the way it has. The numbers Brady has posted in his MVP-worthy season can't be chalked up merely to refined mechanics.

With a diminished supporting cast that features rookies, castoffs and injury replacements, Brady posted the fifth-highest passer rating in NFL history, led the league in touchdown passes, threw the fewest interceptions and broke records for turnover efficiency.

"To watch him play is like watching Pavarotti," Martinez said. "He's in total command."

The big man who coaches the New York Jets sounds like he's trying to disrupt Brady's virtuosity. Rex Ryan has been belting out news-conference arias in advance of Sunday's playoff game against the Patriots. Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie took a less subtle approach to insulting Brady.

Brady's response: "We're just going to do our talking on the field."

The Patriots have performed impeccably all season. This year's production is more remarkable than what they accomplished in 2007, when they set the NFL record with 589 points and went 18-0 before losing in the Super Bowl.

The Patriots scored 518 points this season, seventh most in league history.

But the season becomes more incredible when you consider New England traded receiver Randy Moss, didn't have Wes Welker at full speed, relied on rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, didn't have Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins for half the season, lost right guard Stephen Neal after eight games and lost right tackle Nick Kaczur in training camp.

"Those two running backs," Martinez said of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, "might not make some of the teams in the league."

And yet Brady made it all work, guiding the Patriots to 14 victories despite a transitional defense that used four rookies in the starting lineup some weeks.

Brady has worked with Martinez since he was 15 years old. Brady's father took him to see Martinez, then head coach at the College of San Mateo, for pointers. Brady became Martinez's star pupil.

Much like a highly sought session musician, Martinez has worked with players on an individual basis but never joined a team. His pre-draft tutelage famously helped JaMarcus Russell turn into the No. 1 overall draft pick. This year, he will work with Iowa's Ricky Stanzi and Mississippi's Jeremiah Masoli.

Most amazing about Brady's stat line are his four interceptions, the fewest from any quarterback with at least 300 attempts in NFL history. He hasn't thrown an interception since Week 6, a streak of 335 consecutive attempts.

Martinez chalks up that number to happenstance more than anything else. He claimed it's not necessarily indicative of Brady's excellence.

"That's like Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak," Martinez said. "He couldn't do that again if he lived to be 580 years old. There's a series of things that have to happen to keep that kind of a string going. When they all go together, you break the records.

"He could go back and play the season over again and throw 15 interceptions."

From Martinez's perspective, Brady's dominance can't be found in any box score.

"The key to me is that he's in total command both physically and mentally of what he's doing," Martinez said. "If you really study their offense, he's going to the open guy probably 85 percent of the time.

"If you go to the right guy, chances are you're not going to throw interceptions because that's the guy that's got single coverage, or that's the guy that gets open in the zone. He's not throwing into double coverage. He's not forcing balls. He knows who to go to, and he has the mechanics to make the throw."

Martinez also said Brady is thriving with the aggressive offense called by quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien. The Patriots are no longer running what Martinez calls "dead plays," conservative calls that do little more than burn time off the clock.

The Patriots have scored at least 31 points in eight straight games, tying the NFL record held by the 2007 Patriots and 2000 St. Louis Rams.

"What they're doing now is they're constantly attacking, and he's getting them into the correct play," Martinez said. "They don't run many dead plays where you ask: 'What are they running that for?' They're constantly attacking."

Deion Branch was a Patriots receiver from 2002 through 2005 and was traded back Oct. 12. Branch was asked Tuesday what has been the biggest difference he has noticed in Brady and specifically mentioned Brady's deep ball.

"Early in his career, that was a weakness," Martinez said. "But that was such a part of Randy's game that [Brady] had to step his part of it up because Randy was outrunning the throws. That was one of his goals. Because he didn't throw them that often, mechanically they weren't thrown well."

That's one way Moss made Brady a more complete quarterback. When the Patriots traded Moss three games into the season, Martinez figured they would suffer.

"When Randy was gone, I don't think anybody predicted this," Martinez said. "I thought that Randy stretched the defense, which allowed all the other guys to run underneath stuff. With Welker doubled and Moss gone, it was hard to see them throwing it all over the yard."

Any yet Brady has compiled his most extraordinary season.

He'll be the consensus MVP. He'll almost certainly be voted first-team All-Pro for only the second time of his career. His name dots the record books even more.

And none of that will count if Brady doesn't remain in command like he has up until now and win the Super Bowl.

"The funny thing is, no matter what has happened to this point, this is one and done," Martinez said. "Somebody blocks a punt or picks one off and runs it back and all of a sudden you lose and didn't have that good a year.

"You're walking a fine line between being awesome and not getting it done."

Patriots regular-season wrap-up

January, 5, 2011
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 1
Preseason Power Ranking: 10

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Luc Leclerc/US PresswireTom Brady leads the league with an 111.0 passer rating.
Biggest surprise: The idea of Tom Brady putting together yet another sterling campaign couldn't have been weird to any sane football fan before the season began. But how Brady went about it was amazing even by his standards. The Patriots' offense was prolific even though it went through a systemic transformation. No longer did the Patriots spread out their receivers and operate exclusively out of the shotgun. They preferred two-tight end sets and dumped their noted downfield threat, Randy Moss. Brady's supporting cast was comprised of undrafted running backs who'd been waived multiple times (BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead), two rookie tight ends (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez), a receiver recovering from reconstructive knee surgery (Wes Welker) and a receiver who couldn't make an impact for a losing team and was traded (Deion Branch).

Biggest disappointment: A loss to the New York Jets at the Meadowlands in Week 2 was forgivable. But getting destroyed by the Cleveland Browns 34-14? Totally unacceptable. The Browns, with two wins at the time, gained 404 total yards. The Patriots didn't hold a lead the entire game and left the North Coast humiliated. The Patriots weren't demoralized, though. The loss seemed to stoke their intensity. They haven't loss since, bouncing back the next week to dominate the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field and then defeat the Indianapolis Colts at home. The Patriots beat playoff-bound teams in five of their next seven games after losing in Cleveland.

Biggest need: The Patriots' offensive line had an impressive season. Even with star left guard Logan Mankins missing seven games with a contract dispute, right guard Stephen Neal on injured reserve with a shoulder injury, and right tackle Nick Kaczur out the entire season with back surgery, only three teams allowed fewer sacks. The Patriots also tied for 10th in average yards per carry. But the offensive line likely will need bolstering. It's getting older. Neal contemplated retirement last offseason. Mankins is thrilled to be winning now, but does he still harbor some of the bitterness that compelled him to make a public trade demand in June? He could be gone. Left tackle Matt Light also has an expiring contract.

Team MVP: Brady, quarterback. He led the NFL with a 111.0 passer rating, threw 36 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He broke a 19-year-old record for consecutive attempts without an interception, helping New England set the NFL record for fewest turnovers in a season.

A case for the defense: Brady was so remarkable that he made sure the Patriots kept winning despite their susceptible and inexperienced defense. Even in early December, they owned terrible defensive rankings despite standout contributions from nose tackle Vince Wilfork and inside linebacker Jerod Mayo. The Patriots were on pace to have one of the worst third-down defenses in NFL history. With rookie Devin McCourty and undrafted Kyle Arrington at cornerback, they gave up the most passing yards in the league. But the defense improved every week. While their overall rankings remained mired by earlier performances, Bill Belichick's defense surged toward the postseason, allowing seven or fewer points in four of their last five games and coming up with takeaways at critical times.

Connolly stepped up in Mankins' absence

November, 3, 2010
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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."

Bye week inventory: New England Patriots

October, 8, 2010
10/08/10
9:47
AM ET
A look at the New England Patriots heading into their bye weekend ...

Reason for hope: The Patriots went into their break with an emphatic reminder they must be taken seriously as a division contender. They showed their resourcefulness with a gargantuan special-teams performance to compensate for a questionable defense in Monday night's victory over the Miami Dolphins.

[+] EnlargeBenJarvus Green-Ellis
Doug Murray/Icon SMIBenJarvus Green-Ellis is averaging 5.45 yards per carry over the past two games.
Wes Welker still isn't 100 percent recovered from his knee injury, but he's close enough to be dangerous. The Patriots seem to have morphed successfully into a base offense that includes two tight ends about 60 percent of the time. Rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski are contributors already. BenJarvus Green-Ellis might be the running back Patriots fans have been awaiting for a few years. And as long as Tom Brady is at quarterback and Bill Belichick is running the program, it's foolish to count them out.

Cause for concern: The Patriots can't depend on 100-yard kickoff returns and 21 points off special teams to bail them out every week. Pass defense remains the biggest question mark. They rank 28th at 272.2 yards allowed per game. The secondary needs to get settled. Inexperienced cornerbacks Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington and Darius Butler need to grow up quickly. A pass rush needs to come from somewhere. They've registered seven sacks.

The subtraction of Randy Moss from the offense will weaken New England. It won't be able to stretch the field like before. Defenses can key on Welker more. As effective as Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead have been out of the backfield, the Patriots will miss injured veteran Kevin Faulk.

Time to heal: The Patriots' active roster is in decent shape. Running back Fred Taylor certainly could use a week off to help overcome his toe problem. Welker's knee certainly will benefit, too. Left guard Nick Kaczur has the most serious injury. He's recovering from back surgery, and Belichick recently said Kaczur was doing well in his recovery. Cornerback Terrence Wheatley is nearing a return from a foot injury late in preseason.

AccuScore forecast: The Patriots are projected to win 10 games, with a 33 percent chance to claim the division title and a 61 percent chance to reach the playoffs.

Patriots at Dolphins inactives

October, 4, 2010
10/04/10
7:26
PM ET
MIAMI -- Here are the inactives for Monday night's game between the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins in Sun Life Stadium:

New England Patriots
Miami Dolphins

Bills at Patriots inactives

September, 26, 2010
9/26/10
12:09
PM ET
Here are the inactives for Sunday's game between the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium:

Buffalo Bills
New England Patriots

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