New England Patriots Preseason Live

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
9:00
AM ET
Welcome to New England Patriots training camp! ESPN.com reporter Mike Reiss has live updates and the latest news from Foxborough, Massachusetts.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- We’ve made the point that the New England Patriots' hopes for a Super Bowl championship are most tied to defense. So what about the offense? Have they done enough to surround quarterback Tom Brady with quality weapons?

Those questions are pertinent as well, and as the team hits the field for its first training camp practice Thursday morning (9:45 a.m. ET), there is no shortage of offensive storylines.

Most of the faces are the same, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering the Patriots averaged more than 70 plays per game last season (only the Broncos had more), ranked second in total first downs, and third in points scored.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
AP Photo/Steven SenneRob Gronkowski is healthy again, and the Patriots are much more efficient in the red zone when the big tight end is in the lineup.
But the struggles, as we remember, came in critical situations that often decide games -- third down (16th) and in the red zone (15th, 36 touchdowns in 65 trips).

So why might 2014 be different?

Tight end Rob Gronkowski is a good place to start, and the Patriots already received good news this week as he has been cleared to play by doctors. It is no longer a medical decision with Gronkowski, but instead a pure football one and it will be interesting to see how Bill Belichick brings him along in camp.

It’s easy to forget that Gronkowski was one of the Patriots’ most durable players in his first two seasons (2010-2011), never missing a practice as a rookie and playing in every game. The past two years haven’t been as kind to him (18 of 32 games played because of knee and arm injuries) and the complexion of the Patriots’ offense changes dramatically with his presence -- especially in the red zone.

This stat says it all: When Gronkowski was playing last season (weeks 7-14), the Patriots had a 69-percent efficiency rate in the red zone. When Gronkowski wasn’t playing -- from weeks 1-6 and 15-17 -- it was 43.5 percent.

So if Gronkowski can turn back the clock to his first two years in the NFL, look out.

But relying on that comes with risk, and it’s why some have rightfully asked if the Patriots are better equipped to play without Gronkowski in 2014 than they were in 2013 when they also weren’t expecting to be without tight end Aaron Hernandez.

Fair question, and also fair to have doubts at this time that they are.

Outside of Gronkowski, there are no other tight ends on the roster that put stress on an opposing defense.

The receivers are the same as last season, with one notable addition: Free-agent Brandon LaFell of the Carolina Panthers, a bigger target at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds who lines up all over the formation and probably would best be described as a No. 3-4 type of option with potential added value in the red zone. Thus, the Patriots are banking on the development of their second-year receivers Aaron Dobson (active/PUP list, recovering from March foot surgery), Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce, as well as the health of Danny Amendola.

The running back group is also mostly the same. What the Patriots have essentially done is redistribute things a bit more evenly between their bigger power backs (Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden) and passing backs (Shane Vereen, rookie James White), with big bruiser LeGarrette Blount departing in free agency to Pittsburgh. The selection of White in the fourth round now gives them a second shiftier back adept in pass protection in the event Vereen (26 of a possible 48 games played over three seasons) isn’t available because of injury.

We have talked plenty about elite status and the quarterback spot this offseason, which leads us to the final area that could ultimately determine if the Patriots’ offense will soar in 2014: The up-and-down offensive line. All five starters return, but some of the best competitions in camp are expected at center and right guard with incumbents Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly looking to hold off a hungry group of youngsters. There is also the significant change on the coaching staff with Dante Scarnecchia retiring and local guy Dave DeGuglielmo taking over.

The offensive line is usually in the far corner at training camp, the greatest distance away from where spectators and media members watch, which makes this a good year to upgrade the binoculars.

We did just that, most interested to see how this offense looks when it comes into sharper focus.

Wake-up call: First practice of camp

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
5:00
AM ET
Every day of training camp, we'll have a wake-up call that previews the day ahead.

9:15 a.m. ET -- Bill Belichick's opening news conference
9:45 a.m. ET -- Practice (open to the public)
approx. 12 p.m. ET -- Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo interviews

The New England Patriots made an adjustment to the schedule for the first training camp practice open to the public, pushing things back by a half-hour. There is also the possibility of rain in the forecast. Those making plans are urged to call the training camp hotline at 508-549-0001 for the latest information. The Patriots usually don't move inside unless there is thunder/lightning or high winds.

Among the storylines we'll be following:

1) With tight end Rob Gronkowski cleared to practice, how much does he do?
2) Keeping tabs on any players possibly coming off the active/physically unable to perform list or active/non-football injury lists.
3) Cornerback Darrelle Revis' first practice in front of Patriots fans.

In addition to post-practice interviews with Brady, Wilfork and Mayo, assistant coaches might also be made available to reporters.

Weekly Patriots chat at 3 p.m.

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
4:30
AM ET
Every Thursday on ESPNBoston.com, there is a New England Patriots chat. Today's chat will kick off at 3 p.m. ET, providing a chance to recap the team's first training camp practice.

Questions can be submitted in advance.

Happy camping.

Remaining Patriots players avoid PUP

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
6:25
PM ET
Rookies, most players returning from injury and quarterbacks had reported to the New England Patriots on Sunday, with the first step undergoing physicals and then the conditioning test. Those who weren't cleared were placed on either the active/physically unable to perform list or the active/non-football injury list.

Wilfork
The remaining players, about 50 percent of the roster according to Bill Belichick, reported on Wednesday and went through the same process. Of that group, none were placed on the PUP or NFI lists.

This is promising news for players like defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who participated in spring camps on a limited basis as he recovered from a ruptured Achilles sustained Sept. 29, 2013.

The Patriots' first official practice of training camp is Thursday (9:15 a.m. ET).

After minor move, resetting Patriots' WRs

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
5:50
PM ET
The Patriots made a minor move at wide receiver on Wednesday, signing first-year player Greg Orton and waiving rookie Tyler McDonald.

Orton spent time on the Patriots' practice squad last year after signing Dec. 31, 2013. In practice leading up to the AFC Championship Game, the 6-foot-3, 199-pound target played the role of Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas on the scout team. Orton, 28, had been released on May 22.

He will wear No. 16.

The 6-3, 190-pound McDonald, of South Carolina State, had just joined the Patriots on July 18.

Patriots projected training camp WR depth chart
Julian Edelman
Aaron Dobson (active/PUP)
Danny Amendola
Kenbrell Thompkins
Brandon LaFell
Josh Boyce
Jeremy Gallon (active/PUP)
Wilson Van Hooser
Derrick Johnson
Greg Orton
(special teams captain Matthew Slater, who is on active/PUP, also takes positional reps here)

Gronkowski 'super excited' to be back

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
5:15
PM ET
Hours after Bill Belichick announced New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski had been medically cleared to return to the field, the tight end tweeted the following:

 

Following up on TE Byham's contract

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
3:45
PM ET
The Patriots announced the signing of tight end Nate Byham on Sunday, and here are the contract terms:

Length: 1 year
Base salary: $645,000
Split salary: $373,000 (in the event of injury)
Salary-cap hit: $645,000

QUICK-HIT THOUGHTS: This is a modest deal, with no bonus money, that reflects a player competing for a backup spot behind Rob Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui. With the Patriots not re-signing veteran Matthew Mulligan, who filled a blocking-based role last season, the 6-foot-4, 264-pound Byham is a candidate to possibly step into that void. Byham is coming off a torn ACL last season, and the injury split gives the team some protection along those lines. Meanwhile, Byham has a chance to play in a Tom Brady-led offense, increase his value, and potentially hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent again next year.

Expect Gronk to be eased in

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
2:35
PM ET
video

Wednesday’s news that New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has been cleared by doctors was a significant step, as it means he will not begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list.

It’s now in the hands of Bill Belichick and the coaching staff to determine how quickly they want to work Gronk into the mix. It’s a football decision rather than a medical one at this point, and that’s good news for Patriots fans.

So when can we expect to see him practicing with his teammates? He’ll likely be out there for Thursday’s first practice, which will be held without pads. The first real question comes Saturday, when the team is scheduled to be in pads for the first time.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Gronk is eased in rather than going full bore from the get go because you are talking about a player who had surgery for a torn ACL less than seven months ago. They’re going to want to bring him along slowly.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It's never too early to get into nitty-gritty football talk, and with that in mind, one area that has been pinpointed by players to improve is defending the screen pass -- especially on third down.

The New England Patriots ranked 26th in the NFL on third down last season, with opponents converting 42.2 percent of the time, and screens on third-and-long were a notable part of the problem.

"One of the big things is just getting to the ball. You try to get the linemen to rush up the field, guys are dropping in coverage, so just effort and everything on that simple basis can help improve the screen game," safety Devin McCourty said.

[+] EnlargeDevin McCourty
AP Photo/Jim MahoneyDevin McCourty says the Patriots should pay close attention to screens on third-and-long in order to improve from last season.
The process of hopefully turning things around has been ongoing.

"That started in the spring, trying to develop those things and look at them, just so all the players can be aware of what hurt us last year and what we need to be ready for this year," McCourty said. "Third down is always a key. A lot of times it comes down to your season."

A few more sound bites from McCourty:

If he now considers himself solely a safety: "I still try to look at myself as just a football player. I always feel like you never know what can happen. Being able to play safety and corner has helped me in my career so far, so I don't think I should ever get to the point where I just lose one of them. In the offseason, I'm always doing drills for both so I can be a complete football player."

Training for a few weeks with Darrelle Revis in Arizona before training camp: "A lot of that stuff we did was working on technique, working on your conditioning, being ready for training camp. It's not as much when we're up here going over scheme and all of that. I think it's always good when you work out with your teammates. You just develop a stronger friendship, a stronger bond. It was really good for all of us to be out there [Revis, McCourty, Logan Ryan and Tavon Wilson] because we all got to work hard together and get better as player and doing it together as teammates."

On third-year safety Tavon Wilson: "I'm excited for him. I think sometimes guys get killed from the outside view and they're still putting in the work. That's why I'm excited. Tavon never budged at any second and just got down on himself and stopped working. This offseason in the spring time he's been working incredibly hard just to get out there and play more. Each year guys come in and it's a new year. You have new opportunities, new chances to get out there and play more. He's just one of those guys that have come in here and I think he's put himself in pretty good position to come in here and compete and try to get on the field."

On second-year safety Duron Harmon: "Same thing [with] Tavon, a younger guy who works incredibly hard, too. From the spring time until now going into training camp, he's pushed himself, he's done everything he could do just to be in this position and get himself a chance to be on the field as well. A bunch of guys on this team come back ready because they know if you don't go out there and work hard, there's somebody else on the team that's working hard to get on the field. I love this time of year. It's going to be so competitive at camp each and every day, not just one position, but really every position across the board. Guys want to get out there and play. I'm ready and I think Duron along with Tavon and other guys on the team have pushed themselves to be ready for training camp."

Ninkovich: 'Going to be a better defense'

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
12:00
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Defensive end Rob Ninkovich recognizes that the rest of the NFL knows the New England Patriots should have a better defense this season. But with training camp set to start on Thursday morning, Ninkovich is ready to put the work in with his teammates to accomplish that.

With the signings of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner and veteran defensive end Will Smith, the focus has been around the new additions to the defense. Even Ninkovich cannot ignore that having a player like Revis gives the team the ability to shut down any receiver it wants.

Ninkovich
While the Patriots added key players this offseason, they also lost a significant number of players to injury in 2013, especially along the defensive line. Ninkovich is looking forward to having his teammates healthy around him to start training camp.

“Last year it was tough when we lost [Jerod] Mayo and Vince [Wilfork] and Tommy [Kelly],” Ninkovich said. “Having those guys next to you definitely gives you more confidence.”

The injuries hurt the depth of the line, which contributed to Ninkovich playing more than 90 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. Only teammate Chandler Jones took more defensive snaps among all defensive linemen in the NFL last season. Ninkovich has nine years of experience, but he is still feeling young after a long 2013 season.

“Whatever it is, I’m going to be out there,” Ninkovich said of his playing time. “If it’s 90, 100, if it’s 80, I’m going to be out there playing just as hard.”

The Patriots will need Ninkovich as the team looks to improve on third down and get off of the field. After ranking 26th in the NFL in defensive third-down conversions last season, Ninkovich emphasized working together in coverage and the rush, especially in third-and-long situations.

As a returning veteran, Ninkovich knows what to expect at camp after going through the hard days.

“This is where you kind of set the tone for the season,” Ninkovich said. "I think that the NFL knows we’re going to be a better defense. But we have to put the work in."

Logan Mankins not thinking end game

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
11:00
AM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – It’s hard to believe that it’s been 10 years since offensive lineman Logan Mankins arrived at Gillette Stadium for the first time, the New England Patriots’ top draft choice in 2005 having grown up on a cattle ranch and buying his first business suit for the occasion.

Mankins
The fit, all around, has been a good one. Now the question is how much longer the 32-year-old plans to stay in the football business.

“That’s a good question. It depends on health, I think, and if they want to keep me around here still,” Mankins said Wednesday morning. “I just want to play until I think I don’t feel good. If I can’t do it, I don’t think I’ll keep going once I don’t think I’m playing the way I want to.”

Mankins, a perennial Pro Bowler, obviously hasn’t reached that point.

“I feel great right now,” he said, before considering the grind of training camp ahead: “I’m sure in a few days, I’ll feel like crap.”

A couple of soundbites from Mankins:

On new offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo: “It’s been great. Googe is a good guy, a hard-working guy, he’s very loud and he gets his point across well. He’s funny. Once the pads come on, we’ll really see how he wants things done and the way he coaches. We haven’t experienced him in a game situation yet. We’re still getting to know him, he’s still getting to know us, and that’s what all these practices are for.”

Despite continuity, no guarantees on the offensive line: “We do have a lot of veterans returning. We have some new young guys that are fitting in nicely so far. It’s always good to know the guys you’re with that you can trust them. This is the time of year you’ve got to go out and prove it. You’ve got to earn your job. That’s what training camp is for.”
video

ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discusses TE Rob Gronkowski's optimism that he will be able to play in the season opener after being cleared for the start of training camp.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Top takeaways from Bill Belichick’s Wednesday morning news conference, leading into the first training camp practice on Thursday:

Belichick
Setting the scene. Belichick arrived at the podium in shorts and a gray Patriots hoodie and said, “Welcome to football season. We’re here. It’s always an exciting time of year to start training camp. I thought we had a real productive spring, with a lot of our players and a couple new coaching staff members [DL coach Brendan Daly and OL coach Dave DeGuglielmo], kind of pulling it all together. That’s really kind of to put us in position to start camp and kind of get it going today with some conditioning stuff.”

From teaching focus to more competitive setting. Belichick stressed how the spring camps were more about teaching and the focus shifts at this time on the calendar. “Now we start competing,” he said.

Better feel for condition of team in a week. Asked if it was too early to assess the general condition of the team, Belichick said it’s something he’ll have a better idea of after a week of training camp. The team won’t be in full pads until Saturday.

Following up on Armstead’s retirement. Belichick was asked if he had been prepared for the retirement of defensive lineman Armond Armstead, or if it was something the team had to react to. “Armond had a problem, an issue, come up later in the spring. Then it was resolved when it was resolved. It was a little bit of a process, but I think after everything had come through, it was the decision that he made. As the process was going on, we realized that was certainly a possibility.”

Deflecting questions on Hernandez. The news conference ended with three questions on former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, specific to text messages that had been exchanged between Belichick and Hernandez. “I think that was addressed by a lawyer last week, and I don’t have any further comment on it.”

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