AFC East: Wes Welker

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- For those curious how New England Patriots coaches begin the process of getting rookies up to speed in the team's system, consider the situation with wide receiver Jeremy Gallon, the seventh-round draft choice out of Michigan.

Receivers coach Chad O'Shea has turned on the tape of Julian Edelman and Wes Welker, having Gallon study their every move.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
Mike Reiss/ESPNBoston.comPatriots seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon had 1,373 yards receiving at Michigan last season.
"Those are the two I've started on so far," Gallon said Thursday at Gillette Stadium.

Gallon is listed on the Patriots' official roster at 5-foot-8 and 184 pounds and he projects to the slot, where Edelman and Welker have done some of their best work. Since Edelman has played the position in the team's system most recently, he's been the focal point of film study.

"Just seeing how quick he is off the ball, how he uses his hands, how good he is at the top of his routes -- just trying to imitate that and do what he does," said Gallon, who holds the Michigan single-season record for receiving yardage with 1,373 yards.

That's one of the messages that Patriots coaches have stressed to all rookies since their arrival in town Sunday -- "You don't know anything, so watch the veterans and learn."

"I'm just here to follow and fit in," relayed Gallon, who added that the biggest obstacle he's had to overcome in football is his height. "If that means watching Edelman's film every day, that's what I'm doing. If he can give me any pointers, or at practice I'm watching him running routes 1-on-1 or even on air, as much knowledge as I can soak up from him or any receiver here is better for me. That's the way, to me, to becoming a great player."

Film study is a big part of it too for a player who has long admired smaller receivers like Welker and Steve Smith of the Baltimore Ravens.

"I think that's the way to a coach's heart -- stay in the film room and learn everything you can as fast as you to get on the field as quick as you want to be," he said.

Gallon, who attended Apopka High School in Florida (also the alma mater of former Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather), said that he is aware of some of the Patriots' seventh-round success stories in the Bill Belichick era, a group that includes Edelman, quarterback Matt Cassel (2005), outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain (2003), receiver David Givens (2002) and running back Patrick Pass (2000). He hopes to someday add his name to the list, and the first step to doing so is turning on the film.

It's only been five days, but make no mistake, Gallon is already getting his fill of Edelman and Welker.

And then there were two -- two teams that know most of what there is to know about each other, two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks who add to their legacies with every pass, all with a Super Bowl trip on the line.

The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, who have faced each other in each of the past three seasons and in the divisional round of the 2011 season, took it to overtime Nov. 24. The Broncos let a 24-0 halftime lead get away, and the Patriots won 34-31 after a punt bounced off Broncos cornerback Tony Carter's leg in overtime on a frigid night in Foxborough, Mass.

ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss Sunday's AFC Championship Game in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

Legwold: Peyton Manning and Bill Belichick yet again. Do you think, in all your time around Belichick, that he tries to bring something new to the table every time he faces Manning? Or does he assume Manning has done the homework and put his efforts into getting people in the right position?

Reiss: I'd say there's always a new wrinkle or two, Jeff. Belichick has said in the past that Manning is too smart to just do the same thing over and over again -- both within a game and from matchup to matchup. Part of that discussion is also the state of the Patriots' personnel entering the matchup. A player like rookie linebacker Jamie Collins, for example, might give Belichick the flexibility to introduce something unique based on his breakthrough since the Nov. 24 meeting between the teams.

The weather forecast looks promising for Manning. No icy cold forecast. How do you think he approaches this game compared to the Nov. 24 contest? Do you think he will be less reluctant to hand the ball off?

Legwold: It will be a postcard day Sunday with the temperature expected to be 58 degrees with 0 percent chance of rain and light winds. So any decisions the two teams make on offense will have to do with what's in front of them on defense only. Manning will be inclined to hand the ball off if he sees the Patriots in some of those lighter personnel groupings deployed to handle Denver's three-wide-receiver look. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase has a run option built into most things Manning can change into at the line of scrimmage. The Broncos certainly like how Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball are trending in the run game. They have split carries down the stretch, and both run with tackle-shedding power.

Gase, with coaching DNA that includes his time with Mike Martz, is an aggressive sort. With the next-generation numbers the Broncos' offense has put up this season, it's easy to forget they still averaged 28.8 carries per game and topped 30 carries per matchup nine times this season. If they get a look from the New England defense that calls for a run, the Broncos will be inclined to pound away.

Where is Tom Brady's game and the offense right now after some rough moments early in the season? Has Brady benefited from a run-heavy approach down the stretch and into the postseason?

Reiss: The biggest benefit for Brady with the run-heavy approach has been how it opens play-action opportunities. Danny Amendola's 53-yard catch in the divisional round is one of the best examples. Also, part of the reason the Patriots have gone so run-heavy is that it's the area where they have their most assets. They are limited when it comes to pass-catchers who create consistent separation at tight end and receiver. As for Brady's game, there have been no signs of decline in arm strength, accuracy or decision-making. The main reasons for the struggles early in the year, from my view, were more about the changes around him. That's not to say Brady didn't make his mistakes, but it's sort of interesting to look back on some of the media-based discussion around Weeks 6 to 8 about how maybe Father Time had caught up to him.

Now that we're a full season in, how would you sum up the Wes Welker signing? Just as the Broncos hoped for? Better? Worse?

Legwold: Welker finished the regular season with 73 catches for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns. His presence in the slot, along with Julius Thomas at tight end, is part of the reason the offense had a historic season. With the Broncos lining up in a three-wide-receiver set the majority of the season -- and every snap of the divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers -- they force defenses into some difficult choices. Thomas is often in the slot on one side of the formation, and Welker is in the slot on the other side. When Thomas missed two games earlier this season with a knee injury, both the Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs (Dec. 1) elected to double-team Welker. He missed three games after suffering his second concussion in a four-week span Dec. 8 against the Tennessee Titans but played last week against the Chargers without issue.

Welker did have some spells this season when he had a cluster of dropped passes -- three against the Patriots on a frigid night to go with drops against Washington and San Diego in the regular season. Overall, though, he was exactly what the Broncos hoped he would be in their offense. He meshed with Manning quickly and was a big part of the plan right from his nine-catch performance against the Baltimore Ravens in the season opener.

The Patriots did not face Thomas in the Nov. 24 meeting. Do you think they will try to match up Collins on Thomas this time around?

Reiss: That seems like the natural matchup, especially after seeing Collins splitting out wide on Colts tight end Coby Fleener on Saturday night and playing very well. Collins is unique in that, at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, he is fast enough to be competitive down the field in coverage (e.g., fourth-quarter interception versus the Colts) but powerful enough to play in the box and deliver a blow in the running game and as a pass-rusher. The Patriots' top draft pick in 2013, selected 52nd overall out of Southern Mississippi, he is an intriguing player whom Patriots fans really got their first extended look at Saturday as he played every snap against the Colts. He had been groomed behind the scenes up to that point, playing just 25 percent of the defensive snaps on the season in more of a reserve role.

Thomas may not have played in the first game between the teams, but Von Miller did. How does Miller's season-ending knee injury affect the Broncos' defense?

Legwold: Of all the players who were signed in the weeks after the initial leaguewide binge in free agency, the Broncos' signing of Shaun Phillips was easily one of the best. Denver signed Phillips to a one-year, $1 million deal during the draft weekend in April, well over a month after free agency had opened, a deal that didn't have a signing bonus but did have some incentives based on sack totals.

Phillips was initially how the Broncos planned to deal with the loss of Elvis Dumervil in free agency. When Miller was suspended for the first six games of the season, Phillips had 5.5 sacks in those games to lead the way. He finished the regular season with 10 sacks to lead the team. In Sunday's win, with Miller on injured reserve, Phillips had two sacks against the Chargers. He is the single-most important player in the Broncos' pass rush in Miller's absence. Denver may have to take more risks without Miller on the field, and that's always a tough choice against someone like Brady, who can easily find the holes in coverage. But if Phillips can consistently create pressure -- with both sacks on three-man rushes against San Diego -- it allows the Broncos to move things around a little more and cover more of the bases.

Did Belichick make a conscious effort to get big backs like LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley in the lineup when he knew he would get smaller defensive personnel against the team's passing attack?

Reiss: That's fair to say, as the Patriots pride themselves on creating those matchups during the game, with coordinator Josh McDaniels finding his groove in recent weeks. They refer to themselves as a "game plan" offense because they tailor their plan weekly based on what they perceive to be the weakness of the opposition. They'll shuttle in different personnel groupings early -- multiple receivers, two backs, two tight ends, etc. -- to get information on how the opponent is matching up and then focus on the one they like best. This week, what's fascinating to me is that I think they probably see vulnerability in the Broncos' secondary, but I wonder how they feel about their own personnel in being able to exploit it. So that could keep them grounded.

The Patriots have been running the ball very well. How is the Broncos' run defense?

Legwold: In a year when the Broncos have been forced, by injuries and Miller's suspension, to mix and match on defense, their run defense has likely been more consistent in comparison to some of the other issues they've had. When defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson went to injured reserve Nov. 27 with a hip injury, they did wobble a bit, surrendering 159 yards rushing to the Chiefs and 177 yards rushing to the Chargers in two of the three games that immediately followed.

They have regained their balance a bit since, moving Paris Lenon into the middle linebacker spot in the base defense, and rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams has played better each week. Overall, the biggest issue for the Broncos will be how they defend the run if the Patriots get them in nickel or dime personnel on defense and then run the ball at the smaller looks. The Broncos' safeties will have to tackle and tackle well to make it work.

Belichick has always tried to make "other" people beat him and take away an offense's front-line players. How do you think he would rank the Broncos' threats in the passing game, and where do you think the one-on-one matchups will be?

Reiss: One insightful point that ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi made in his weekly chat was the idea of defending the Broncos from the inside-out. Manning is still an accurate marksman, one of the greatest of all time, but I'm guessing that even he would agree that some of the downfield and outside-the-numbers throws he used to make don't come as easily to him. So it makes sense that the Patriots would focus more resources on the inside part of the field, where it would seem we would most likely see Welker and Thomas. With this in mind, I could envision the Patriots matching up cornerback Aqib Talib with Demaryius Thomas on the outside and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard with Eric Decker and taking their chances that those one-on-one matchups will be competitive. Trusting those cornerbacks in those one-on-one matchups would allow the defense to focus extra attention/personnel to the inside part of the field.

Any X factors or special-teams contributors we should keep on the radar?

Legwold: The Broncos have usually been lockdown tight on special teams -- opening the season with two touchdown returns and two blocked punts, one of those returned for a score, in the first four weeks of the season. Those normally reliable units, however, have wobbled plenty down the stretch. The Chiefs' Knile Davis had a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the Titans' Leon Washington had a 95-yard kickoff return, and the Texans' Keshawn Martin had a 51-yard punt return. Toss in the first blocked punt of Britton Colquitt's career in Oakland to go with Trindon Holliday's occasional adventures catching the ball, and it's been an unpredictable stretch. But Holliday is always a threat to uncork a return because of his breathtaking speed. The Broncos used wide receiver Decker as the primary punt returner against the Chargers last week, and he had a 47-yarder. So the Broncos have the potential to pop one at any time, especially in Denver, where Holliday returned both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in last January's playoff loss to the Ravens.

 

Memories resurface about Texans' field

November, 27, 2013
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The New England Patriots make their first trip to Houston to face the Texans since the 2009 regular-season finale, a game that was unforgettable because it was when then-Patriots receiver Wes Welker tore his ACL in a non-contact injury.

The natural-grass playing surface at Reliant Stadium was pieced together in certain areas that day, and was a concern to some members of the organization before the game.

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
AP Photo/Dave EinselThe last time the Patriots played at Houston, Wes Welker tore his ACL in a non-contact injury.
This topic was brought up to Bill Belichick during his Tuesday conference call, as those who watched the Texans' Nov. 3 home game against the Colts couldn't have helped but notice the field looked much the same as it did in 2009.

"We looked at the films and we’ll do what we usually do when we play on the road -- talk to teams that have played there before in order to at least have the proper footwear options and that type of thing and then check out the conditions and the environment before we go out there," the Patriots' coach said.

Belichick was then asked if he noticed that the field looked different this year.

"Yeah, there’s a little bit of discoloration or different colors on the surface. But, you know, again, I think that’s normal. Any time you play on another field, especially one that you haven’t been on, prior to the game that’s one of the things you talk about is making sure that you go out there, walk the field, get familiar with the environment, the 40-second clock, the game clock, the lights or the wind conditions, whatever it happens to be.

"So when you go out for pregame warm-up, you’re prepared for all those things. Then you go out there in pregame warm-up and test it out. You test out your footing, you test out the lights or the sun or the wind conditions in various points in the stadium and that’s part of getting familiar with environment, the surroundings that you’re going to play in. We do that every week; we’ll do it this week. It will be like that in all of our away games."

Wes Welker's return doesn't go his way

November, 25, 2013
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Wes WelkerAP Photo/Elise AmendolaWes Welker had four catches for 31 yards in his return to New England.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It was a situation that Wes Welker has been in countless times: Pressure moment. Gillette Stadium. A high, spiraling punt making its way through the air toward him as he stood deep in his own territory.

Welker often has turned those situations into something special, or at the least ensured that disaster was averted. That’s why what unfolded in overtime late Sunday night was a cruel twist for the New England Patriot-turned-Denver Bronco, as his slight indecisiveness contributed to the game-changing play -- the punt touching teammate Tony Carter with New England safety Nate Ebner recovering to set up the winning 31-yard field goal in the Patriots' 34-31 victory.

Welker said it’s his job to race up, wave his arms, and yell, “Peter! Peter! Peter!” if he decides against fielding the punt.

“I was probably a little late getting it to him,” he acknowledged. “I have to do a better job of getting up to him and getting those guys out of the way. I was a little bit in between, and you can’t be that way.”

Carter had been blocking Patriots gunner Marquice Cole, and thought he was setting up a return for Welker on the sky-high 42-yard punt that landed at the Broncos’ 15.

Welker explained his mindset as the ball soared through the air on a frigid, wind-whipped night, fans chanting his last name in an attempt to distract him.

“I just felt like there was a lot of traffic, it was a high ball, and basically didn’t want to get into a situation where somebody is running into me or anything else. It ended up with the situation that I didn’t want to happen in the first place,” he said.

Truth be told, this whole night could fall into that category for Welker.

He didn’t say it, but his highly anticipated return to Gillette Stadium, where he was an instrumental part of six successful Patriots seasons, had to be a bit bittersweet. One just had to follow him out of the Broncos' locker room afterward and see the meaningful embraces he had with several former teammates to understand that.

When Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia gave him a hug and the two exchanged a warm greeting, Welker said, “Miss you too, bud.” Then it was safety Devin McCourty, linebacker Dane Fletcher ... and right down the line. Welker even popped into the Patriots' players lounge after the game in a reminder that the strong bonds formed from 2007-2012 don’t just disappear.

On the field, his emotional day began when Patriots owner Robert Kraft approached him during warmups and the two hugged. Kraft must have told Welker to keep an eye on the scoreboard because Welker looked up about 10 minutes before kickoff to see a highlight montage the club put together for him, followed by a thank-you note that read: “The Kraft Family, the New England Patriots thank Wes Welker for six memorable seasons.”

Welker was touched.

“It was very, very classy of them to do something like that. I appreciate it very much,” he said. “It was a little different, for sure. It was great seeing Mr. Kraft. I have a lot of respect for him as a man and as an owner of a team. He’s a good one.”

Then there was Belichick, who sought Welker out after the game for an embrace, along with several others, including receiver Julian Edelman, who sprinted across the field to find him. Welker had joked with ESPN’s Tedy Bruschi in an interview that whatever exchange he’d have with Belichick would probably be awkward, but he struck a different tone after the game.

“It wasn’t awkward at all. It was good to see him. I have a lot of respect for him as a coach,” Welker said. “He came over and he was like, ‘Good job, we’ll see you all again, I’m sure.’”

Welker never did get to see his best pal, quarterback Tom Brady, even though he waited for him on the field afterward, only to call it off when Brady was pulled away from an NBC interview. “I kind of looked for him, but he’s Mr. Paparazzi after games,” Welker cracked.

Turns out Welker waited for Brady after both conducted interviews but the two couldn’t connect, adding to the downer of a night for Welker.

“You try to make it just a regular game. It’s hard at times, but you try to just go out there and focus and try to do your job,” he said, adding that he was unsure what the home crowd was chanting when he was back fielding punts.

It was “Wel-ker! Wel-ker! Wel-ker!” While the fans cheered Welker in the pregame during the classy highlight montage, they also razzed him a bit when he couldn’t hold on to a short pass on third-and-8 in overtime. “I just have to squeeze the ball in tighter on that and make that play,” he said.

Between that and the final punt, Welker was a big part in the outcome. Just not the way he hoped it would be.

Asked if the night helped give him closure from the Patriots chapter of his career, he shrugged.

“It probably would have been a lot better closure if we would have won,” he answered. “I had a lot of good years here and things like that, but I feel like I’ve had closure before and I’ve kind of moved on.”

Maybe so. But the words, much like the way Welker approached the game-changing punt in overtime, just weren’t very decisive.

Edelman outshines big-name receivers

November, 25, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- On the night when Wes Welker returned to Gillette Stadium for the first time as a member of the Denver Broncos, it was another receiver who often operates out of the slot who shined brightest.

Julian Edelman, the lone holdover from the New England Patriots' wide-receiver corps who had a reception last season, had his finest game of 2013, totaling 110 yards on nine catches, including two for touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeJulian Edelman
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaJulian Edelman goes the extra yard for one of his two touchdowns against the Broncos.
For perspective, the dynamic trio of Broncos wide receivers -- Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker-- combined for just nine catches, 77 yards and a single score on a chilly, windy New England night.

Beyond his receiving efforts, Edelman returned three punt returns for 39 yards, including a 20-yarder.

“Julian did a great job,” coach Bill Belichick said. “First of all, he did a good job of handling the ball, especially in the third and fourth quarter there. Made a couple good runs with the ball in his hands, also got open, caught the ball. The end route he got there gave us the field position in the overtime, it was a big play.”

The narrative of Edelman coming through for the Patriots this season has become almost commonplace, as he’s up to 61 catches, a career high and tied for 11th in the NFL with Dez Bryant and Jordy Nelson, names many associate with descriptors such as "elite."

“He’s been so dependable and consistent all year for our team,” quarterback Tom Brady said of Edelman. “He’s been the one veteran player on our offense that’s been in there and has been around. He always does a great job. He’s tough, smart, disciplined. It’s fun to see him do well because he deserves it.”

Edelman, the former college quarterback who generated minimal interest in free agency this offseason, is playing on a one-year, incentive-laden deal that carries a maximum value of just over $1 million. He’s well on his way to hitting his maximum incentives, as he needs just nine more catches to earn a $250,000 bonus.

But he has proven time and time again this season that his value to this offense is difficult to quantify.

"He’s been a good receiver," Welker said. "I've told a lot of people that he’s a good player. People are finally starting to take notice."

On few nights has that been more apparent than it was on Sunday, as Edelman was the star receiver in a game featuring the aforementioned trio of Broncos wideouts, as well as Danny Amendola, the free-agent acquisition who many envisioned would replicate Welker’s role in New England.

Edelman, true to form, remained humble following his effort.

“You know, I haven’t even thought about it,” he said. “Today, my number was called a few times and I was able to have to some opportunities and I just tried to take advantage of them.”

Patriots show Wes Welker highlights

November, 24, 2013
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Welker
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- On the scoreboard about 10 minutes before tonight's game, the Patriots showed a collection of highlights of Wes Welker's time with the team.

After the highlights was a note in which the Kraft family thanked Welker for six memorable seasons. Fans cheered after the highlights.

This is Welker's first game back in New England since signing with the Broncos this offseason.

Bruschi: One-on-one with Welker

November, 24, 2013
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video

ESPN analyst and former teammate Tedy Bruschi sat down with Denver Broncos receiver Wes Welker about his relationship with Bill Belichick, differences between the locker rooms in New England and Denver, similarities between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and more (video above). Here’s a partial Q&A:

Bruschi: Any hard feelings about the way things ended in New England?

Welker: "No, not at all. It's part of it. It’s the way the business model is set up. It's the way things go in pro sports these days. There's no hard feelings."

Bruschi: In an interview shortly after you signed with the Broncos, you mentioned Belichick was still in the back of your mind when you were answering questions. Are you over that?

Welker: "That was early on in the offseason, so you know how you’ve been ingrained being there for so long, ‘say this, say that,’ it’s just a way of thinking, the way you go about things. It was kind of weird. It was an honest quote at the time.”

Bruschi: Was there an immediate difference going from the Patriots' locker room to the Broncos' locker room?

Welker: "Yeah, absolutely. I think it's just different as far as the media in general. You have 15 reporters [in New England] trying to get you to slip up, just even a little bit, while in Denver it's a little bit of a different feel."

Bruschi: What’s the biggest similarity between Brady and Manning?

Welker: "One of the key things they really do is keep their teammates accountable. They do a great job of staying on top of guys and yelling when they need to, and lifting guys when they need to, and having private talks with guys when they need to. It's all those things that make a great quarterback."

Bruschi: Do you still have a good relationship with Belichick?

Welker: "I think so."

Bruschi: When you see Bill on Sunday night and there's a possible interaction, is it the head nod, is it the handshake, is it the hug or is it nothing?

Welker (laughing): "I think whatever the most awkward situation that could possibly happen, that’s probably what it's going to be."

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In speaking to Patriots players this week about the return of Wes Welker to Gillette Stadium on Sunday night, their message has been two-fold: a mash-up of reverence for Welker as a player and an acknowledgement that playing against former teammates is a reality often faced in the NFL.

“That’s the one thing about the NFL, you’re playing against old teammates, guys that are going other places, every year,” defensive end and captain Rob Ninkovich said. “It’s not a new thing to play somebody you had on a team before, or were teammates with in college.

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“Wes is a great football player, but he’s not a part of the team,” he added. “We’re going to play him like we play everybody.”

The double-barreled sentiment is understandable.

Before heading to the Denver Broncos, Welker’s contributions over six seasons with the Patriots were immeasurable, and not just from a statistical sense.

“To me, I think it’s toughness,” fellow defensive captain Devin McCourty replied when asked what trait stuck out most about Welker. “Being able to run a route over the middle or run routes outsides, he’ll block you, he’ll do everything at that position, and I think that’s what makes him not just a good player, [but] a complete player.”

But the challenge for the Patriots this Sunday isn't simply finding a way to slow down Welker, as the Broncos boast the league’s best offense that is complete with an All Pro talent flanking Welker in Demaryius Thomas and upstart tight end Julius Thomas, as well as talented receiver Eric Decker.

And the defense, while less heralded, presents a unique challenge of its own.

“I’ve already expressed in the past how much [Welker’s] done for me,” wide receiver Julian Edelman said before adding. “And ultimately right now, I’m not going to jump into that because I’m [more] focused on the defense than who’s playing on offense.”

From that standpoint, it makes sense that the Patriots aren’t simply treating this Sunday with the feel of a reunion tour for a band that once was, presuming Welker takes the field after suffering a concussion last Sunday night.

Few doubt Welker will play, as McCourty echoed Tom Brady’s presumption from earlier this week that he will indeed suit up.

“We know he’s probably going to be out there, he doesn’t miss many games,” McCourty said. “We know that from playing with him and we expect to see him Sunday.”

On the outside, the return of Welker has generated more buzz than the storyline of the 14th game featuring Tom Brady and Peyton Manning sharing the same field.

For six seasons, the incomparably tough Welker produced on the field while maintaining a likable yet business-like approach off of it. He absorbed and shook off hits from hulking safeties and linebackers as if he had the stature of a fullback, getting up and back to the line of scrimmage like he had a coat of armor protecting him from contact. He played and practiced through injuries, displaying a toughness McCourty alluded to and that earned him respect from an entire region of fans.

Ultimately, the Patriots and Welker were unable to come to terms on a multi-year contract, leading him to sign with Denver.

It’s enticing to play the “what if” game and wonder if the Patriots' early offensive woes would have been partially alleviated had Welker been on the team this year.

Danny Amendola, the nominal Welker replacement, has dealt with injuries throughout the season, but, when healthy, he and Edelman have combined to give the Patriots more than respectable production from the slot position.

Would the Patriots have been better off keeping Welker? It’s a question we can never answer with certainty.

What we do know, both from the 672 regular-season catches he produced as a Patriot and the way his former teammates have spoken of him this week, is that Welker’s impact in New England was greater than anyone anticipated when the team acquired him in a trade during the 2007 offseason.

Far greater.

That’s why, despite some uncertainty surrounding his status for Sunday night’s game, the return of Wes Welker looms larger than any other storyline this week.

Wes Welker limited at Broncos practice

November, 21, 2013
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There were no changes to the New England Patriots' practice report on Thursday, as tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (knee) was once again the lone absence from the on-field workout. Eight players were limited in their activity.

For the Broncos, all players were present at Thursday's practice session, including WR Wes Welker (concussion), who had sat out on Wednesday. Welker and three others had limited participation.



Patriots don't have time to lick wounds

November, 19, 2013
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Call it a case of football déjà vu.

Four weeks ago, the New England Patriots found themselves with more questions than answers relating to a controversial penalty call in an overtime loss to the New York Jets, with a matchup against a divisional rival ahead of them.

Today, questions remain over a controversial non-call that proved costly for the Patriots in their 24-20 Monday night defeat at the hands of the Carolina Panthers, and a high-powered passing attack now waits in the wings.

There’s nothing that can be done to atone for what looked like an obvious officiating error (the league stands by the call), and there’s no time for disappointment within the walls of Gillette Stadium.

That’s because the Patriots will welcome the Denver Broncos and their 39.8 points per game to Gillette this Sunday for one of the most highly anticipated games of the regular season.

As if the challenge of facing the Broncos on its own were not enough, the Patriots have a short week to do so, as they’re already a day behind after playing on Monday night. The players received their customary day off on Tuesday, meaning they’ll likely spend little -- if any -- time reviewing Monday night’s defeat, focusing instead on what lies ahead with Denver.

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/MCT/Getty ImagesDemaryius Thomas is one of three Broncos with at least nine touchdown receptions.
The Broncos, riding high at 9-1 and fresh off of a win over the Kansas City Chiefs, own the AFC’s best record (by virtue of a tiebreaker over the Chiefs) with an eye toward a top-two seed in the conference for a first-round playoff bye.

It won’t be hard for Bill Belichick and his staff to size up the challenge ahead, as the Broncos are on pace to score nearly 50 more points than the Patriots did during their record-setting 2007 regular season.

Peyton Manning is on pace to break Tom Brady’s record for touchdown passes in a season, and the Broncos have three players who already have at least nine touchdown receptions this season (there are just five such players in total).

Manning is the orchestrator of the offense that has endured the loss of its best lineman, left tackle Ryan Clady, and still has surpassed 40 points in five games this season. His cast of receivers is unrivaled, with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker dominating the perimeter, while old Patriot Wes Welker and upstart tight end Julius Thomas present a nightmarish duo in the middle of the field. Welker's status for Sunday's game is uncertain, however, as he suffered a concussion in the win over the Chiefs.

This offense would be a challenge for the Patriots to contain even if they were at full strength, but the defense is dealing with injuries to each of its top three cornerbacks. Aqib Talib (hip) was forced out late in Monday night’s game, Alfonzo Dennard (knee) sat it out entirely and Kyle Arrington (groin) had to leave the game temporarily for stretch and recuperation. Their status for Sunday is unknown, but it’s fair to assume the secondary won’t be at 100 percent. Add in the potential absence of starting safety Steve Gregory (thumb), and the Patriots will have their hands full while possibly leaning on reserve-level players.

It’s nothing new for the Patriots, as they’ve weathered a litany of injuries already in 2013, led by season-enders to nose tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo. Those have led to the ascension of little-known players such as Joe Vellano and Chris Jones in addition to the acquisition of veteran defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga.

The Broncos aren’t an imbalanced foe, however. The defense doesn’t draw the same attention as the offense, but for the second consecutive week the Patriots will have their hands full with a pair of talented edge rushers, Von Miller and Shaun Phillips. And though the numbers are slightly skewed because they are so often playing with a sizable lead, the Broncos also boast one of the stingier run defenses, surrendering just 92.7 yards per contest.

Simply put, getting things going against this defense is no small feat.

Following their last controversial finish, the Patriots started slowly against the Miami Dolphins, falling behind 14-0 early. The Patriots flexed their resolve in scoring 27 of the game’s final 30 points, catapulting them past their AFC East rival and putting to bed any lingering disappointment from the Jets game.

Falling behind against the Broncos is a recipe for trouble, something the Patriots are well aware of.

So that’s why, as difficult as it may be given the circumstances surrounding Monday night’s defeat, the Patriots have no time to feel bad for themselves.

With Peyton & Co. coming, the Patriots know it’s time to go to work.

Rapid Reaction: New England Patriots

November, 18, 2013
11/18/13
11:33
PM ET

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A few thoughts on the New England Patriots' 24-20 loss to the Carolina Panthers:

What it means: Great game as Cam Newton outdueled Tom Brady. Brady brought his "A" game but this was Newton's night. He had some dazzling runs against a defense that couldn't make the stop at the critical time. The Patriots fall to 7-3, and they will look back at some lost opportunities as this game was there for the taking. This was a limited-possession game -- the Patriots had just seven offensive drives -- which magnified mistakes on both sides. The Patriots had more of them early and trailed 10-3 at the half before the teams combined to play an exciting second half. A third-and-1 incomplete pass through the back of the end zone forced the Patriots to settle for a field goal to go up 20-17, which set up the Panthers' game-winning touchdown drive. The Patriots fought to the finish, but their final drive fell short with the clock also working against them. Should a penalty have been called on the final play? Fair question.

Aqib Talib vs. Steve Smith: This was the matchup within the matchup and the win goes to Smith, the Panthers' veteran receiver. The two were jawing from the get-go and had to be separated several times after plays. Talib appeared to lose his cool early. Smith beat Talib for a 42-yard gain down the left side in the first quarter, which was a tone-setter of sorts for a one-on-one battle that was especially fun to watch. Talib ultimately left the game in the fourth quarter with a hip injury and didn't return.

Stock watch: Patriots running back Stevan Ridley's ball-security issues resurfaced. He fumbled on the team's second drive and was kept on the sideline for 18 snaps before the coaches went back to him. Ridley runs hard, but if he continues to struggle holding on to the ball, it will likely lead to a drop in his playing time.

Injuries to monitor: Patriots No. 2 tight end Michael Hoomanawanui left the game in the second quarter with a knee injury and did not return. In his absence, five-year veteran Matthew Mulligan bumped up the depth chart and fullback James Develin was utilized a bit more. Also, as noted above, Talib left with a hip injury in the fourth quarter.

Leg whip by Cannon draws scrutiny: Patriots tight tackle Marcus Cannon's leg whip on Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson, which knocked Johnson out of the game with a knee injury, wasn't penalized. But Cannon will likely hear from the NFL in terms of a fine.

Turnover streak snapped: The Patriots had forced a turnover in 36 straight games entering the night, which was the longest active streak in the NFL, but that came to an end.

What's next: The Patriots return home to host the Denver Broncos on Sunday night. Another Brady versus Peyton Manning matchup will be a top storyline, along with receiver Wes Welker's return to town. Welker sustained a concussion in the Broncos' win over the Chiefs on Sunday and his status will be monitored closely.

Wes Welker evaluated for concussion

November, 18, 2013
11/18/13
12:20
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Welker
One of the top storylines for next Sunday, when the New England Patriots host the Denver Broncos in a prime-time game, is the return of former Patriots receiver Wes Welker. It is a storyline that now has an added twist after what unfolded in the Broncos' 27-17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Welker left the game in the fourth quarter, with the Broncos saying he was being evaluated for a possible concussion.

Welker was knocked out of the game on a 20-yard catch-and-run with 11:22 remaining. He appeared to lose control of the football on the play, but ultimately came out of the pile with the ball. He later returned to the game and caught a pass with 7:44 to play.

His status will be closely watched and dissected throughout the week.

Update: Welker did suffer a concussion. As ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold notes, Welker will be limited in practice this week. Even if he passes a baseline test on Monday, the earliest Welker could practice fully would be Friday, in accordance with the league's concussion protocol.
Every Wednesday during the season, we'll lead off the day with a quick recap of some notable former New England Patriots players and their standing with new teams.

Patrick Chung (Eagles)
Misses his second straight game, a victory over the Giants, with a shoulder injury.
Season snapshot: Has started three of five games and is credited with 18 tackles.

Jermaine Cunningham (49ers)
After reaching an injury settlement with the Patriots at the end of the preseason, defensive end/outside linebacker signs with the 49ers on Oct. 1.
Season snapshot: Wearing jersey No. 50, he has yet to play in a game.

Brandon Deaderick (Jaguars)
Plays 33 snaps and totals three tackles in road loss to the Rams.
Season snapshot: Has played 122 total snaps; has totaled seven tackles, one sack, one fumble recovery.

Brian Hoyer (Browns)
Quarterback tears his ACL in his third start and is out for the season.
Season snapshot: Led the Browns to two wins in two starts before his injury; 57-of-96 for 615 yards with 5 TDs and 3 INTs.

Zoltan Mesko (Steelers)
Bye week after the Steelers had dropped to 0-4 in loss to Vikings in London.
Season snapshot: 20 punts for 41.9 average (31st in NFL) and 37.6 net (27th in NFL)

Trevor Scott (Buccaneers)
Bye week.
Season snapshot: 45 total snaps at defensive end.

Zach Sudfeld (Jets)
Claimed on waivers on Oct. 4
Season snapshot: Wearing jersey No. 44, tight end was inactive for Monday's win over the Falcons.

Donald Thomas (Colts)
Lands on season-ending injured reserve after injuring his quadriceps in Week 2 home loss to Dolphins.
Season snapshot: Was opening-day starter at left guard and now faces long rehab.

Wes Welker (Broncos)
Five catches for 49 yards and one touchdown in 51-48 win over Cowboys; plays 73 of 79 snaps.
Season snapshot: Receiver has played 275 of 373 offensive snaps (73.7 percent), and has 31 catches for 315 yards and seven touchdowns.

Danny Woodhead (Chargers)
Running back plays 45 of 72 snaps in road loss to Raiders and totals nine rushes for 13 yards, and adds nine receptions for 58 yards and TD. Also fumbles (returned for TD) and is stopped on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
Season snapshot: Is second on the team with 31 receptions (for 220 yards and 3 TDs), and has carried the ball 28 times for 103 yards. Has played 154 offensive snaps.

Quick-hit thoughts around NFL, Patriots

September, 8, 2013
9/08/13
5:00
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Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the New England Patriots:

1. Last week it was noted that 14 of the NFL’s 32 teams kept just two quarterbacks on their initial 53-man roster. The Patriots are one of them, and I wanted to take it one step further by seeing how many of those 14 teams also didn’t have a quarterback on their practice squad, leaving themselves potentially vulnerable in the event of an injury. Surprisingly to me, it’s a high total of six teams -- the Patriots, Ravens, Bears, Panthers, Seahawks and Rams. The Patriots did have three quarterbacks, a group including Graham Harrell, in for tryouts last week.

2a. In 2007, the Patriots played a Monday night game at the Bengals, which presented a neat opportunity to head to the Midwest a day early to take in the Broncos at Colts game the day before. I remember it because then-Colts quarterback Peyton Manning couldn’t have been more accommodating to a Boston-based reporter after the game -- not to mention insightful -- when discussing how impressed he was with the early chemistry Tom Brady had developed in his short time with Randy Moss that year. He explained, from a quarterback’s perspective, how hard that is to do. This past Thursday, I thought of that conversation because it looks like Manning has the same thing going with Wes Welker. It’s special stuff, very rare, when that connection happens so fast.

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsFormer Patriot Wes Welker seems to have developed chemistry quickly with Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
2b. After the hubbub about Welker’s declining snaps early last season with the Patriots (turns out the coaching staff was managing him with the long-term in mind), I was curious how the Broncos managed Welker’s snaps in Thursday's season-opening blowout win over the Ravens. The final numbers: Welker was on for 56 of 71 offensive snaps. Receivers Demaryius Thomas (68) and Eric Decker (64) logged more snaps, and one could draw the conclusion that the Broncos’ staff is thinking along the same lines as the Patriots were in 2012. Smart.

3. Since Sunday, Sept. 1, the day after rosters around the NFL had to be trimmed to 53 players, the Patriots have made a whopping 16 transactions on the roster (not including practice squad). Five players have been cut and brought back -- running back Leon Washington, guard Josh Kline, fullback James Develin, defensive back Marquice Cole and center Braxston Cave (practice squad) -- and it could be six if defensive lineman A.J. Francis clears waivers and decides he wants to remain in New England on the practice squad. One of the big questions that has been asked over that time is, “Why?” The best answer from this view is that it all ties in to Bill Belichick’s team-building approach with a 61-player snapshot in mind (53 on the active roster, eight on the practice squad). The practice squad, and building depth at specific positions, seems like a big part of this. The Patriots target some young players from other teams, show an initial commitment to keep them on the 53-man roster by being willing to risk losing veterans they probably have a good feeling won’t sign elsewhere, and it develops some currency with the young players to keep them around on the practice squad if they clear waivers when later released. The timing of the Patriots’ decisions also seems to have a layer of strategy, as practice squads around the NFL are mostly formed quickly which can make it less likely for another team to pursue one of the young players they waive.

4. One could excuse second-year Penn State coach Bill O’Brien if he has some mixed emotions when it comes to today’s Patriots-Bills season opener. First-year Bills coach Doug Marrone is one of O’Brien’s closest friends; their wives were college roommates at Boston College. And O’Brien’s connections with the Patriots are well-known. Some of his closest friends in coaching are on the New England staff from his time here (2007-2011). O’Brien might be the only person happy today if the game ends in a tie. “When we talk, it’s rarely about football,” O’Brien relayed of his connections to both sides. “It is always about families and probably more about Penn State than anything.”

5. With the Saints placing starting inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma on the injured reserve/designated to return list, that eliminates him from playing the first eight weeks of the season, a stretch which includes an Oct. 13 game against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Vilma’s absence means free-agent signees David Hawthorne (Seahawks) and Curtis Lofton (Falcons) start at the two inside linebacker spots in Rob Ryan’s revamped defense. Every team can place one player on the injured reserve/designated to return, and the Patriots have yet to take advantage of the opportunity this year. Last year’s choice, tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, didn’t pan out as desired.

6. One of the Patriots’ surprising roster decisions at the 53-player cutdown came with second-year defensive end Justin Francis, who was waived/injured. Francis started last season’s AFC Championship Game and had seemingly carved out his spot as a top reserve behind Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, and also as an interior sub rusher. But he missed time in training camp with a sprained ankle and probably needed only a couple of weeks into the regular season before he’d be ready. Instead of waiting, the Patriots moved on. I spoke with two people last week (one agent, one former personnel man) who felt more teams across the NFL seemed to be showing less patience in situations like Francis’. Not sure why that's the case. The Patriots and Francis worked out an injury settlement that became official Saturday, in which Francis gets paid a negotiated sum and now he could potentially play in the NFL later this season. The same thing happened with Patriots defensive end Jermaine Cunningham.

7. The Patriots did right by receiver Julian Edelman, giving him a chance to earn a good portion of a $50,000 offseason workout bonus when he later needed clean-up surgery on his foot and couldn’t fully participate in the offseason program. The club shifted the workout bonus into a $40,000 roster bonus if Edelman was on the roster for the first week of the regular season. Edelman will be on the roster today and don’t be surprised if he plays a significant role in the season-opener against the Bills. With the Patriots expecting plenty of man coverage with a single-high safety, it puts a premium on the ability to get off the line of scrimmage. That’s one of Edelman’s strengths.

8. Jets coach Rex Ryan took some heat from some in the media for attending his son’s first collegiate football game during cut-down weekend instead of being at the team’s facility, but from what I understand, he’s not the only NFL head coach who has taken that approach in recent years on cut-down weekend. Ryan is on the hot seat and an easy target, but this was one of those stories that seemed overblown from this perspective.

9. Something that interested me from a New England college football perspective: The Ravens’ starting (nickel) defense in Thursday’s NFL opener included a cornerback who played at the University of New Hampshire (Corey Graham) and a safety who played at the University of Massachusetts (James Ihedigbo). While good for New England college football, I’m not sure how good that truly is for the Ravens after the Broncos hung 49 points on them.

10. Watching Bills rookie Marquise Goodwin’s blazing speed returning kickoffs in the preseason, here is a stat that probably should have been mentioned more this week leading up to the Patriots-Bills season-opener: New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski ranked fourth in the NFL last season with 52 touchbacks. We don’t often refer to kickers as weapons, but that shouldn’t be overlooked Sunday. It will be a successful day for Gostkowski if he keeps the football out of Goodwin’s hands.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Facing arguably the greatest challenge of his 14-year NFL career, stripped of his go-to receiver Wes Welker and then some, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady arrived at training camp hoping to do more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Distractions from tight end Aaron Hernandez.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Void at top of tight end depth chart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Tim Tebow’s role.

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

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

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

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

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

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

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

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

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

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

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

OBSERVATION DECK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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