AFC East: Stephen Neal

Patriots draftee Cannon coping with cancer

May, 9, 2011
If not for the controversial Ryan Mallett selection, Marcus Cannon would have been the most fascinating New England Patriots draft choice.

Cannon, a Texas Christian tackle, was diagnosed with cancer last month. He began chemotherapy treatments for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma on April 28, the day the draft began.

Boston Globe reporter Shalise Manza Young went to Fort Worth to speak with Cannon and those who know him about how he has dealt with the shocking development.

"I was trying to be strong and then I just started crying while I was talking to my dad," Cannon told Manza Young. "My mom said, 'You need to start praying,' and then my dad told me to start praying. And that's one thing that I really didn't hear out of him growing up, was talking about God. He told me to start praying, and that got me to start praying."

Almost certainly because of his diagnosis, Cannon slid to the fifth round, where the Patriots grabbed him with the 138th overall choice.

Scouts Inc. graded him out as a second-round pick and remarked about his versatility to play either guard or tackle.

Cannon joins a New England offensive line that has question marks. Right guard Stephen Neal retired. All-Pro left guard Logan Mankins is unhappy. Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Light is a free agent. The Patriots also drafted Colorado tackle Nate Solder in the first round.

"I'm doing exactly what I want to do," Cannon said. "I know where I was supposed to go in the draft, and for me to look back on that is dwelling on the past. And what's in the past is already gone; it's only the future. I'm keeping my eyes forward.

"You know, this happened for a reason. We'll see in the days to come why it happened, and then we'll look back and say 'Good thing I didn't care about when I went,' but I'm not going to look back."

Patriots stick at 17, add Solder to O-line

April, 28, 2011
In a mild upset, the New England Patriots didn't trade the 17th draft pick. Then they used it to draft 6-foot-8 Colorado tackle Nate Solder.

Why the Patriots took him: The Patriots seem to have strength at tackle. Young right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was voted second-team All-Pro, and veteran left tackle Matt Light went to the Pro Bowl last season as an alternate. But Light is a free agent and will turn 33 in a few weeks. O-line stability is important to keeping Tom Brady on the field, and the Patriots grabbed the second tackle off the board.

How it affects the roster: Patriots right guard Stephen Neal retired, and All-Pro left guard Logan Mankins is unhappy. If Light does come back, a shuffle might be in order. But Patriots fans should feel comfortable knowing O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia will get it all sorted out.

Scouts Inc. says: Exceptional combination of size and natural athleticism. Long arms. Tough to get around him in pass protection when he gets proper depth. Great feet for size. Does a nice job of locking on with long arms and flashes ability to control rushers once in position. However, he does not have a powerful punch and he lacks upper body strength (only 21 reps on bench press confirms what we see on tape).

Patriots snag Watkins in AFC East mock

April, 21, 2011
With the 28th pick in the 2011 AFC East reader mock draft, the New England Patriots select ... Danny Watkins, offensive lineman, Baylor.

Despite a surprisingly low number of votes, this was the most varied nomination process of our project. Ten players were presented for the second of New England's first-round draft picks. The first eight ballots cast named six different prospects.

Watkins, who can play guard and tackle, emerged as the choice ahead of Arizona defensive end Brooks Reed and Georgia outside linebacker Justin Houston. Others to get multiple votes were Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward, Texas cornerback Aaron Williams and even Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett.

Many predicted the Patriots would trade out of this slot.

Reliable mock voter zack10bearden wrote:
No question they trade this pick. Too many teams will want to give up too much to get back into the late 1st for a reach at QB. Then they will use the 1st overall pick in the second round on Justin Houston. If by some freakish miracle they actually take this pick it will likely be Houston which only means they will have traded the 33 overall pick instead.

Patriotslove12 liked the idea of Watkins to bolster a line with a couple question marks. Right guard Stephen Neal retired. Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins is unhappy.
If they don't trade down from this spot, I can see them selecting Danny Watkins from a value standpoint. He is most likely rated behind only Pouncey at his position on the Patriot's board, whereas there has already been a run on OT's.

Watkins has a great story. He's a Canadian who used to be a firefighter and didn't start playing football until 2007 at Butte Junior College.

With three picks to go, here's our rundown so far ...
  1. Carolina Panthers: Auburn quarterback Cam Newton
  2. Denver Broncos: Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus
  3. Buffalo Bills: Texas A&M outside linebacker Von Miller
  4. Cincinnati Bengals: Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert
  5. Arizona Cardinals: Louisiana State cornerback Patrick Peterson
  6. Cleveland Browns: Georgia receiver A.J. Green
  7. San Francisco 49ers: Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara
  8. Tennessee Titans: Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley
  9. Dallas Cowboys: USC tackle Tyron Smith
  10. Washington Redskins: Alabama receiver Julio Jones
  11. Houston Texans: North Carolina defensive end Robert Quinn
  12. Minnesota Vikings: Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers
  13. Detroit Lions: Boston College tackle Anthony Castonzo
  14. St. Louis Rams: Illinois defensive tackle Corey Liuget
  15. Miami Dolphins: Alabama running back Mark Ingram
  16. Jacksonville Jaguars: Missouri defensive end Aldon Smith
  17. New England Patriots: Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt
  18. San Diego Chargers: California defensive end Cameron Jordan
  19. New York Giants: Florida center Mike Pouncey
  20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan
  21. Kansas City Chiefs: Wisconsin tackle Gabe Carimi
  22. Indianapolis Colts: Colorado tackle Nate Solder
  23. Philadelphia Eagles: Mississippi State tackle Derek Sherrod
  24. New Orleans Saints: Temple defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson
  25. Seattle Seahawks: Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith
  26. Baltimore Ravens: Miami cornerback Brandon Harris
  27. Atlanta Falcons: Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn
  28. New England Patriots: Baylor offensive lineman Danny Watkins

The Chicago Bears hold the 29th selection. For those unfamiliar with their needs or the players still hanging around our imaginary draft board, feel free to do some research on's draft page.

Once you've done that, drop your choice in the comments section below this article.

We're almost done, folks.

Draft Watch: AFC East

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

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the 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.

Belichick marvels at Stephen Neal's career

March, 3, 2011
The New England Patriots have released a statement from head coach Bill Belichick on right guard Stephen Neal's retirement Wednesday:
"They don't come any better than Steve Neal. In terms of improvement and development as a player, Steve may have accomplished more than any player I have ever been around. His toughness, intelligence and competitiveness were at rare levels and all contributed to him going from being a champion in an individual sport to being an integral part of championship teams.

"I congratulate Steve for an incredible career and thank him for everything he did for me personally, our team and organization."

AFC East moves: Neal retires, Gholston cut

March, 2, 2011
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.

Patriots wise to franchise Logan Mankins

February, 11, 2011
Logan Mankins previously warned the New England Patriots he would be upset if they placed the franchise tag on him.

Boston Herald beat writer Ian R. Rapoport reports the Patriots "definitely" will use the franchise tag on their All-Pro left guard.

Despite objections from the NFL Players Association, the NFL has allowed teams to apply franchise tags for two weeks, starting Friday.

[+] EnlargeLogan Mankins
Tom Croke/Icon SMILogan Mankins earned All-Pro honors despite playing in just nine games this season.
The team's decision to franchise Mankins could cause angst among Patriot Nation. Fans don't want their stars to be unhappy or at odds with the organization. The franchise tag would prolong a messy rift between Mankins and the front office that has lasted many months and involved owner Robert Kraft reportedly demanding a public apology.

But the Patriots are making the absolutely proper move here.

If Mankins is unsatisfied, so what? He was disgruntled last season and played so dominantly he was voted first-team All-Pro and selected as a Pro Bowl starter by the fans, coaches and players -- even though he played only nine games.

Mankins is a proud competitor who will block just as hellaciously regardless of his situation. He's not wired to go half-speed or pull back just because he's displeased with his deal. A guy like Mankins doesn't pout when the ball is snapped.

Mankins' situation was worth our empathy heading into the 2010 season. He was supposed to be an unrestricted free agent, but rules governing the uncapped year altered the criteria. The new rules rendered him a restricted free agent. That allowed the Patriots to make a $3.26 million qualifying offer to retain his services, although market value pegged his value at more than twice that.

For example, New Orleans Saints guard Jahri Evans signed a seven-year, $56.7 million contract in May.

A month later, Mankins demanded a trade and vowed never to sign the qualifying offer. When a deadline passed without Mankins' signature, the Patriots were allowed to slash the offer to $1.54 million.

But he couldn't forfeit a season of NFL experience and risk being a restricted free agent again this year. So he finally relented and reported to the team on Nov. 3

Mankins deserved better treatment then, but the franchise tag will mean he receives a projected $10.5 million salary next season.

Franchise tags pay the average of the top five players at a given position, and the league doesn't differentiate between spots along the offensive line. That means highly paid left tackles factor into Mankins' franchise figure.

A franchise tag for Mankins would be bad news for Miami Dolphins fans, who were hopeful they could get a shot at him to solidify their interior offensive line. Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland reportedly spoke to the Patriots about a Mankins trade before the star guard finally went back to work in November.

Unlike past years, however, the franchise tag is not a guaranteed process. The NFL Players Association disputes the legality of the tags this year because the collective bargaining agreement is about to expire and there are no guidelines for a free-agency period.

Teams would be wise to use the tag while they can and then let the courts sort out the rest. The New York Jets expect to use their franchise tag on inside linebacker David Harris.

AFC East draft season: Who needs what?

February, 9, 2011
Gabbert, Ingram & Ayers US PresswireBlaine Gabbert (Bills), Mark Ingram (Miami), and Akeem Ayers (Patriots) could all fit in the AFC East.
Nobody can say for sure when the 2011 NFL season will begin or what the free-agency period will resemble.

But we do know there will be a draft in April.

Rather than depress everybody with labor musings, let's focus on the only player personnel activities we can count on.

To set the stage for draft season and the NFL scouting combine in two weeks, I canvassed four evaluators I respect to compile a list of positional needs for the AFC East.

I asked National Football Post scouting guru Wes Bunting, Scouts Inc. draft analyst Steve Muench, Pro Football Weekly senior editor Nolan Nawrocki, and senior analyst Rob Rang to share their rundown of shortcomings for each club.

I merged their insights to come up with a consensus. From there, I targeted some candidates who fit the profile of need combined with draft position.

The new collective bargaining agreement can impact these projections significantly. If a CBA can be hammered out before the draft, then perhaps teams will be able to address some needs via free agency. Otherwise, front offices will have more roster uncertainties than usual when they're on the clock in Radio City Music Hall.

Buffalo Bills

Pick: Third.

Consensus needs: Offensive line, quarterback, defensive tackle, outside linebacker.

Analysis: An asterisk should be affixed to any Bills forecast. Few experts would have rated running back as a target area last year, but they selected C.J. Spiller ninth overall out of Clemson. So who knows what they're thinking?

All four analysts rated offensive line either first or second among the Bills' most needful areas. Nawrocki and Muench were specific about tackles -- a position the Bills haven't drafted earlier than the fifth round since 2002. Nawrocki called tackle the No. 1 priority.

Muench and Bunting rated quarterback as the most important position.

The good news for the Bills is that they likely will be able to take the first quarterback or tackle off the board if they choose.

But none of the analysts projected the Bills to take an offensive lineman third overall. The best prospects simply aren't considered worth that high of a slot.

"Ryan Fitzpatrick is an excellent backup and stopgap, but he's an adequate at best starter," Muench said. "If the Bills can get Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert at No. 3, then I think they pull the trigger."

Rang labeled defensive line Buffalo's biggest concern, noting opponents averaged a gaudy 169.6 rushing yards last season, and this year's draft class is deep along the defensive front.

Who could be there: Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers are top candidates. Gabbert should be on the board when the Bills pick. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton almost certainly will be available. The two teams drafting ahead of the Bills, the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos, aren't expected to take a quarterback.

Miami Dolphins

Pick: 15th.

Consensus needs: Running back, interior offensive line, quarterback.

Analysis: Of the four AFC East teams, the Dolphins presented the most straightforward consensus among the panel. Three of four rated running back as the chief concern. Three of four listed guard second.

Two experts listed quarterback, with Bunting deeming it the greatest deficiency. Even so, Bunting added Alabama running back Mark Ingram is an attractive possibility in the first round.

Free agency mysteries could put the Dolphins in a backfield bind. Contracts for Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are about to expire.

"Running back is an obvious concern," Rang said. "Lex Hilliard could surprise if given a real opportunity, but many believe the Dolphins will be tempted by Ingram in the first round."

Muench found quarterback to be an interesting position for Miami in the draft.

"The argument could be made that quarterback is the Dolphins' top need," Muench said, "but not from a draft perspective. Miami won't find a better quarterback than Chad Henne at pick 15, and trading up will prove difficult.

"If the Dolphins have decided to move on from Henne, then signing a free agent or trading for a quarterback makes the most sense. Regardless, they should take a chance on a developmental prospect in the middle rounds."

Who could be there: The Bills' slot is the only one in the AFC East that comes with some clarity. The middle of the first round is dicey to predict. Will Ingram still be on the board? The Dolphins also could be tempted to grab Newton if he's still waiting by his phone or Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett, although multiple reports suggest Mallett's stock is plummeting. As for interior linemen, the 15th slot seems way too soon for anybody in this year's class. The top candidate is Florida guard Mike Pouncey, younger brother of Pittsburgh Steelers rookie Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey.

New England Patriots

Pick: 17th and 28th.

Consensus needs: Outside linebacker, offensive line, running back, defensive end.

Analysis: The Patriots have a pair of first-round choices to address their needs. They also have two picks each in the second and third rounds. With so much inventory to wheel and deal, it's hard to speculate what Bill Belichick will do or where he will end up picking within the first couple rounds.

None of the four analysts prioritized the same top position for New England, but all of them ranked outside linebacker among their top three needs.

Nawrocki was specific in stating the Patriots need a five-technique defensive end, although veteran Ty Warren is returning from a hip injury that sidelined him for 2010.

Bunting's emphasis was on a do-it-all running back. BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a nice campaign as the AFC East's lone 1,000-yard rusher, but he's not a threat in the passing game. Danny Woodhead is a top-notch complementary player, but he doesn't have the size to be a workhorse.

[+] EnlargeLogan Mankins
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaThe contract status of guard Logan Mankins could impact New England's draft needs this year.
Three of the four analysts viewed New England's offensive line as an issue dependent upon the ability to re-sign Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins and ambiguity over the futures of veteran left tackle Matt Light and right guard Stephen Neal.

"Light has been a solid bookend for the past 10 years, but he turns 33 this offseason, and explosive edge rushers gave him problems last year," Muench said. "It's also worth pointing out that New England wants its young tight ends making plays downfield and not helping in pass protection."

Who could be there: Pass-rushers always are a hot commodity, and this year is no different. Defensive ends and outside linebackers can be difficult to sort because teams will project them into different roles. UCLA outside linebacker Akeem Ayers and Missouri outside linebacker Aldon Smith are strong possibilities. It's foreseeable New England will be considering the fifth or sixth best defensive end on its board at No. 17 -- if you believe the Patriots will keep that pick, of course. Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan and Wisconsin's J.J. Watt project in that range. Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure is considered second in this year's class behind Ingram.

New York Jets

Pick: 30th.

Consensus needs: Outside linebacker, wide receiver, defensive line, safety.

Analysis: Analysts were fragmented on the Jets, and a major reason for that is their volume of free agents and the degree of difficulty general manager Mike Tannenbaum will have in re-signing the most important ones.

"Collectively, their roster is one of the strongest in the league, but they do have some questions to answer," Nawrocki said.

For instance, receiver either could be a huge offseason weakness or a major strength. Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith are free agents, but Tannenbaum stated he intends to re-sign them all. The likelihood of that happening is dubious, as illustrated by three of the four panelists rating wide receiver either second or third for the Jets.

Nawrocki and Rang each listed outside linebacker first.

"The Jets must account for the failure of Vernon Gholston, who likely will be released soon, and get younger at outside linebacker," Nawrocki said.

Gholston was the sixth overall selection in the 2008 draft and has failed to record an NFL sack. Jason Taylor had five sacks last season, but he'll turn 37 at the start of next season and might not be back.

"The Jets need a pass-rusher to take the next step," Rang said. "If there is a 3-4 outside linebacker prospect they like on the board at No. 30, he's the favorite."

Muench rated free safety as the Jets' biggest need. Not only could the Jets stand to upgrade that position, but also Brodney Pool and Eric Smith are free agents.

"As good as this defense is," Muench said, "imagine if Rex Ryan had a safety that can match up with receivers and play a center-field role like he had with Ed Reed in Baltimore."

Who could be there: Draft boards are highly unreliable by the end of the first round. Prospects you thought would go in the top 15 drop into the 20s. A player expected to be available early in the second round is long gone. Nawrocki's mock draft has Ayers slipping to the Jets. Bunting and Rang each have Baylor defensive tackle Phil Taylor slotted 30th.

John Madden names Patriots top O-line

February, 3, 2011
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
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.

Undrafted rookies may be stuck on sidelines

January, 31, 2011
In the event of a prolonged labor dispute, another potential problem that hadn't occurred to me would impact players like Wes Welker, Davone Bess and Danny Woodhead.

There will be an NFL draft in April, but there won't be free agency until a new collective bargaining agreement has been hammered out. senior writer Steve Wyche points out that would prevent undrafted rookies from signing with teams.

Rosters are loaded with undrafted contributors, and that's plainly evident in the AFC East.

The Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots were led in rushing by undrafted backs Fred Jackson, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Woodhead.

Rookie free agents are necessary to building a roster and maintaining a personnel budget. The Patriots have masterfully collected players nobody pegged worthy of a pick. In addition to the Patriots' top two running backs and wide receiver, right guard Stephen Neal, defensive end Mike Wright, linebacker Gary Guyton and cornerback Kyle Arrington fall in this category.

Even the New York Jets, who readily turn over their roster and pursue star veterans, have a few undrafted starters: right guard Brandon Moore, defensive lineman Mike DeVito, linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard.

Wyche astutely points out how important it is for these long-shot gems to get into a team's offseason conditioning program as quickly as possible, and that they generally make their way through special teams. With that in mind, Wyche writes, special-teams play "could actually be worse if those type of players can't get signed in time for a fairly lengthy offseason of work."

Jets, Bills dodged 'starter games lost'

January, 20, 2011
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
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
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.

Aaron Hernandez among Patriots scratches

December, 26, 2010
The New England Patriots will be shorthanded Sunday in Ralph Wilson Stadium.

On Christmas night they announced six players wouldn't dress against the Buffalo Bills because of injuries.

Most notable is rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez, who is battling a hip problem. Hernandez had two touchdown receptions last week against the Green Bay Packers.

His absence could mean a big day for rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski in his homecoming. Gronkowski is from suburban Buffalo.

Also out are right guard Dan Connolly (concussion), outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham (calf) and defensive linemen Mike Wright (concussion), Myron Pryor (back) and Brandon Deaderick (shoulder). All have started this year.

Connolly, who made highlight reels with his 71-yard kickoff return last week, has been one of New England's most valuable depth players. He has started 13 games, filling in at left guard until Logan Mankins ended his contract dispute and then at right guard when Stephen Neal suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

Ryan Wendell or Quinn Ojinnaka will replace Connolly at right guard.

Cunningham has started 11 of the Patriots past 12 games.

Wright, Deaderick and Pryor have combined for 11 starts.