LB Jamie Collins (2nd round, 52nd overall) -- After being brought along slowly in the 2013 regular season, playing 25.8 percent of the defensive snaps, he's now in position to become a rare three-down player in the team's system. Expectations have been raised after his breakout playoff performance against the Colts, and he has star potential. But as Bill Parcells might say, "Let's not get the bust ready in Canton just yet."
CB Logan Ryan (3rd round, 83rd overall) -- Praised for his smarts by veteran cornerback Darrelle Revis, Ryan took mostly second-team reps in spring camps behind Revis and free-agent signing Brandon Browner. His ball skills produced a team-leading five interceptions last season and he'd probably be the starter opposite Revis if the season started today and Browner was serving his four-game suspension.
S Duron Harmon (3rd round, 91st overall) -- After playing 36.9 percent of the defensive snaps in his rookie season, he's the leading candidate to assume more of a full-time role at safety next to Devin McCourty. He started two of the biggest games last season -- at Carolina and home against Denver -- and the game didn't seem too big for him. He's a heady player with a good understanding of the scheme who hopes to improve his consistency when it comes to tackling.
WR Josh Boyce (4th round, 102nd overall) -- The speedster who had entered the draft after his junior season projects as a top kickoff returner and had built momentum in spring camps as a receiver (likely No. 4-5 option) prior to tweaking his knee on June 18 and being held out of the team's final practice. The status of his injury and availability for the first day of training camp warrants a follow-up.
DE Michael Buchanan (7th round, 226th overall) -- After opening last season as the team's nickel rusher and struggling to maintain discipline in his rush lanes at times, Buchanan hopes to prove he is worthy of the role again in his second season. It will be easier to prove that in full-pad practices in training camp, but at the least, Buchanan has a good chance to stick because of his contributions on special teams. Most importantly for him, he was a full participant in all 13 spring practices and has seemingly built as much momentum as possible.
LB Steve Beauharnais (7th round, 235th overall) -- Described as a film junkie by teammate Dont'a Hightower, Beauharnais has been seen leading the defensive huddle when starter Jerod Mayo heads to the sideline in practice. He played in just two games last season and remains a bit of an unknown in the team's competitive battle for backup linebacker roster spots.
WR Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted) -- He was one of the team's more consistent receivers in spring camps, generating momentum heading into training camp as a potential complement to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola in the three-receiver set. One thing that stands out is how he competes for the ball in 50-50 type situations. Some have wondered if he might be the odd-man-out on a pretty deep receiver depth chart, but it's hard to imagine that happening.
P Ryan Allen (undrafted) -- After winning the job last year, he doesn't have a punter challenging him in camp. One area of potential improvement is control, as his 12 touchbacks were a league-high.
DL Chris Jones (waivers) -- Led all Patriots defensive linemen in snaps played last year, and is at his best penetrating gaps as a pass-rusher.
DT Joe Vellano (undrafted) -- The type of hard-working player who fits any team, he was thrust into a top role at times last season because of injuries to others and competed his tail off. With increased competition this year, he could be challenged to stick on the roster.
Sure-fire locks (15)
QB Tom Brady
QB Jimmy Garoppolo
RB Shane Vereen
RB James White
WR Julian Edelman
WR Aaron Dobson
TE Rob Gronkowski
TE Michael Hoomanawanui
LT Nate Solder
LG Logan Mankins
RT Sebastian Vollmer
OT Marcus Cannon
C Bryan Stork
G Jon Halapio
OT Cameron Fleming
Near locks (9)
QB Ryan Mallett
RB Stevan Ridley
RB Brandon Bolden
WR Kenbrell Thompkins
WR Josh Boyce
WR Brandon LaFell
WR Danny Amendola
FB James Develin
G Josh Kline
Quick-hit thoughts: With 24 offensive players falling into the category of lock or near-lock, it highlights how there aren't too many major roster-based questions at this time. An injury can always change the picture, as can a standout performance from an undrafted player who isn't currently on the radar.
Sure-fire locks (16)
DT Vince Wilfork
DT Dominique Easley
DT Chris Jones
DE Chandler Jones
DE Rob Ninkovich
DE Zach Moore
LB Jerod Mayo
LB Dont'a Hightower
LB Jamie Collins
CB Darrelle Revis
CB Brandon Browner
CB Kyle Arrington
CB Alfonzo Dennard
CB Logan Ryan
S Devin McCourty
S Duron Harmon
Near locks (6)
DT Sealver Siliga
DT Tommy Kelly
DE Will Smith
DE Michael Buchanan
S Nate Ebner
S Jemea Thomas
Quick-hit thoughts: With 22 defenders falling into the category of "sure-fire lock" or "near lock," it is similar to the offense in the sense that most of the roster seems pretty well set. The backup linebacker spot is one area that seems to have the most possible outcomes, which brings the defensive numbers down a bit.
Sure-fire locks: K Stephen Gostkowski, P Ryan Allen, captain Matthew Slater
Quick-hit thoughts: Not much drama in this area, which is unlike 2013, when Allen successfully challenged incumbent Zoltan Mesko.
Overall, there were 49 players across the roster placed in the "sure-fire lock" or "near lock" categories, and all teams will carry a 53-man roster. If everyone's healthy, it provides a snapshot of the odds facing some of those players who are in the "trying to get in the door" category of this series.
Date: Jan. 19, 2002 Site: Foxboro Stadium
The voting is complete for the top play in Patriots history, and I'm in agreement with the majority. My vote is also for Adam Vinatieri's "Snow Bowl" kick.
Here are a few thoughts from this viewpoint:
I kept coming back to the 2001 season throughout the process of this "top play/memorable moment" project and felt that my choice would come from that year because of what it meant to the franchise.
Drew Bledsoe getting knocked out by Mo Lewis, opening the door for Tom Brady? Adam Vinatieri's "Snow Bowl" kick? The tuck rule play in which Patriots followers will always thank referee Walt Coleman for his knowledge of the rule book? Vinatieri's game-winning kick in Super Bowl XXXVI? Ty Law's interception return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl?
I even considered the Patriots coming out for Super Bowl XXXVI as a team, passing on individual introductions, as a possible "top play/memorable moment" because it was such a powerful statement and captured a big part of the franchise's unexpected run to its first title.
There are many other top plays from other years -- a personal favorite was the record-setting long touchdown pass from Brady to Randy Moss in the 2007 regular-season finale to cap an undefeated regular season -- but '01 trumped them all to me.
Vinatieri's kick just might be the best, most clutch, toughest field goal in the history of this great game.
Near locks: Nate Ebner, Jemea Thomas
Trying to get in the door: Tavon Wilson, Patrick Chung, Kanorris Davis, Shamiel Gary
Analysis: With the Patriots releasing veteran starter Steve Gregory in late February, it opened up a top role on the depth chart next to McCourty, and 2013 third-round pick Harmon is the leading candidate to fill it. Harmon served as the No. 3 safety last year, making three starts and playing on 36.9 percent of the defensive snaps during the course of the season. Special teams figures to play a significant role in which players earn the backup spots, and third-year player Ebner was working as the personal protector on the punt team in spring practices, which is a key role. Depending on how many safeties the Patriots keep, 2012 second-round pick Wilson could be on the outside looking in after his defensive plays dipped from 42.5 percent as a rookie to 1.6 percent in 2013.
Brady turns 37 on Aug. 3 and wants to play into his 40s. The Patriots hope that is the case, but as evidenced by the selection of Garoppolo, they are also planning for the possibility it isn’t. That’s smart business.
At the same time, we'll follow up with another question: Anyone here willing to bet against Brady?
This reporter isn’t. Those who watched all or some of the Patriots’ 13 spring practices would be hard-pressed to say anything looked different with Brady, whose arm strength still looks to be top-notch. He keeps himself in tiptop shape and still carries a sixth-round-draft-pick chip on his shoulder.
As long as Brady is still playing at a high level over the next three years, the Patriots have the often-elusive piece to make them a contender.
Trying to get in the door: Justin Green, Dax Swanson, Malcolm Butler, Travis Hawkins
Analysis: This is one of the most clear-cut positions on the Patriots' roster, in part because of the team's aggressive free-agent approach with Revis and Browner. They are the projected starters and their ability to play effective press coverage at the line of scrimmage could be a major factor in improving the team's third-down defense (26th in the NFL last year). With Arrington the top option in the slot and Dennard and Ryan with 23 regular-season starts between them, that's some quality depth. One factor to consider: Browner is suspended for the first four games of the regular season and won't count against the initial 53-man roster. That could potentially create an early-season opening for one of the younger corners to sneak onto the initial roster. Of that group, Green showed he was competitive in limited action in 2013, and Swanson, Butler and Hawkins all had notable pass-breakups in spring camps. This position looks to be in good shape, assuming Dennard comes back from reported offseason shoulder surgery.
We've seen Patriots make major strides from Year 1 to Year 2 of late, including defensive end Chandler Jones and running back Stevan Ridley.
Collins lands at No. 5 on NFL.com's Around the League blog in their "Making the Leap" series, a countdown of 25 players in total.
Gregg Rosenthal, who pens the piece, captures Collins' uniqueness succinctly in his lede:
"Jamie Collins is a cornerback trapped in a 250-pound body. While most linebackers are forced into pass coverage duties, Collins looks at home on an island."
As Rosenthal notes, Collins' role should blossom this season, as he played just 302 defensive snaps in 2013. With that number expected to increase dramatically, so too will expectations.
Just how high will expectations increase?
"Collins' ceiling would be to emerge as the AFC's answer to Lavonte David and Thomas Davis," Rosenthal writes. "In an era of multiple defenses and pass-catching tight ends, every team is looking for hybrids at linebacker. The Patriots found a good one."
Hard to argue with that assessment.
At a hearing Wednesday to determine whether the New England Patriots could be compelled to hand over Aaron Hernandez's medical records, Judge Raymond Veary said that scouting/combine reports on the former tight end are relevant, but whether the defense gets them won't be determined until another hearing on July 22.
Hernandez's attorney argued that the Patriots withheld Hernandez's psychological assessment as well as medical and scouting records, adding that his "state of mind" is critical to his defense.
"Everyone in this world knows your client's state of mind is an issue in this case," Judge Veary said.
The Patriots say they'll turn over hundreds of pages of medical and other records to lawyers for Hernandez but object to producing scouting reports and a psychological profile.
Patriots attorney Andrew Phelan said Wednesday the team has agreed to produce 317 pages of materials sought by Hernandez's defense attorneys. But Phelan says scouting reports are proprietary and irrelevant. He says the team has offered lawyers the option of reviewing the psychological assessment at its office.
Hernandez has pleaded not guilty to murder in the 2013 shooting death of Odin Lloyd, a semi-professional football player who was dating the sister of Hernandez's fiancée. Two of his associates have also been charged with murder. Hernandez has also pleaded not guilty in a second case in which he is charged with killing two men in Boston in 2012. He's being held without bail.
After Wednesday's hearing, Hernandez was transferred from the Bristol County House of Corrections to the Suffolk County Jail in Boston so that he could be closer to his lawyers.
Hernandez likely will be moved back to Bristol County when he goes on trial on the first of the three murder charges, for the killing of Lloyd.
Some Patriots' season-ticket holders have received their annual package and the theme this year is "20 years as one" -- a reflection on some of the great moments from Robert Kraft and his family's 20 years of ownership.
Each ticket has a photo that captures some of the more meaningful moments of the past 20 years, with a tie-in to each regular-season opponent, and this is the rundown:
Eagles -- Bill Belichick introduced as head coach (1/27/00).
Panthers -- Tom Brady drafted in the sixth round (4/16/00).
Raiders -- Adam Vinatieri's "Snow Bowl" kick against Oakland in AFC Divisional Round (1/19/02).
Bengals -- Kevin Faulk scores a TD in a 35-28 win against Cincinnati to clinch a playoff spot (12/12/04).
Jets -- Ty Law (pictured, at right) returning INT 38 yards for a TD in 38-10 win against New York Jets; the first of Law's seven INTs returned for a TD (12/8/96).
Bears -- Tom Brady fakes out LB Brian Urlacher on a third-down scramble in a 17-13 win against Chicago (11/26/06).
Broncos -- Julian Edelman dives over the goal-line for a TD in Patriots' 34-31 comeback win against Denver (11/24/13).
Lions -- Corey Dillon scores 3 TDs as the Patriots overcome an 8-point fourth-quarter deficit to post a 28-21 win against Detroit (12/3/06).
Dolphins -- Fans throwing snow in the air during a 12-0 win over Miami after 16 inches of snow blanketed the region the morning of the game (12/7/03).
Bills -- David Givens goes up for a catch in a season-ending 31-0 win against Buffalo that avenges a 31-0 loss to the Bills in the season opener (12/27/03).
This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in team history. Over a span of three days we’ll also feature the Snowplow Game of 1982, in which the New England Patriots beat the Dolphins 3-0, and Adam Vinatieri's game-winning 48-yard field goal to beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. Please vote for your choice as the Patriots' most memorable play.
Score: Patriots 16, Raiders 13 (OT)
Date: Jan. 19, 2002 Site: Foxboro Stadium
Oakland Raiders, tying the game with 27 seconds remaining, makes Vinatieri's kick one of the truly special moments in Patriots history.
Many talk about the "tuck rule," the controversial play in which Patriots quarterback Tom Brady appeared to lose a fumble that would have ended the game but was instead ruled an incomplete pass by referee Walt Coleman. And that was a big play, too.
But it wouldn't have its place in history if not for Vinatieri's improbable 45-yard game-tying field goal that came after it, which is why it could be argued that one can't have the tuck without the kick, or can't have the kick without the tuck.
They must be paired together.
Vinatieri most recently revisited the kick in an interview on the NBC Sports Network, estimating he might make it 10 to 20 percent of the time.
"Four or five inches of snow on the ground, pretty good blizzard, backs against the wall and it’s a 45-yarder; it’s probably a low percentage kick, but thank God everything worked out well that time and I got it over the line of scrimmage and on line," he said. "It took a long time, I think I prayed about 10 prayers in the three or four seconds it took to get to the upright."
Vinatieri's 45-yarder sent the game to overtime, when he drilled a more manageable game-winning 23-yard field goal on the Patriots' first possession, as the Raiders never had the ball.
The Patriots, of course, went on to win their first Super Bowl.
Sure-fire locks: Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins
Trying to get in the door: Chris White, Steve Beauharnais, James Anderson, Ja'Gared Davis, Darius Fleming, Cameron Gordon, Josh Hull, Taylor McCuller, Deontae Skinner
ANALYSIS: There is a clear breaking point between the top three of the depth chart and the backups, as we could envision various scenarios when it comes to reserves (probably 3) on the roster. Special teams are always a significant factor, and Chris White was a core member of the kicking-game units in 2013, which would seem to give him an early edge. But there is no shortage of competition. Former Carolina Panther and Chicago Bear James Anderson offers the most starting experience among the backups, as well as solid pass-coverage skills that could warrant him consideration in the "near-lock" category. But in the end, because of the possibility of younger players like Steve Beauharnais, Ja'Gared Davis, Darius Fleming, Cameron Gordon and Co. flashing potential that warrants a roster spot, putting him with the rest of the group seemed like the better play. The battle for backup linebacker spots looks like one of the team's most intense training camp competitions to monitor.
Sustained success in the NFL, especially when compared to its major North American professional sports counterparts (NBA, NHL and MLB), is arduous to achieve.
The Atlanta Falcons slid from the top seed in the NFC in 2012 to the basement of the NFC South in 2013. The Washington Redskins went from being a middling squad to the playoffs in 2012, only to regress back to the bottom of the NFC East last season.
Windows don't close gently in the NFL. They often collapse.
In evaluating teams whose window could soon shut, we need to establish whose is currently open. For that, we turned to the top of our Future Power Rankings list, which will be unveiled Thursday on ESPN Insider.
There are many contributing factors to a team dropping in the standings from one season to the next: crippling injuries and difficult schedules (especially following a year with a favorable schedule) are among them. But for the purpose of this exercise, we're not going to predict or project injuries. They're unpredictable. (Case in point: A healthy Andrew Luck keeps the Colts among the Super Bowl contenders for the next 10-12 years. A major injury to Luck sends them spiraling toward a 6-10 season based on the talent around him.)
The bottom line for teams whose windows close after sustained success is that it almost always derives from two factors: a change (injury, free agency departure, etc.) in quarterback, or the exposure of mediocre talent surrounding a franchise quarterback. With that in mind, let's dig deeper on three candidates whose window could close in the next three years.
The skinny: Injuries terrorized the Patriots in 2013. Tight end Rob Gronkowski, linebacker Jerod Mayo, nose tackle Vince Wilfork, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and linebacker Brandon Spikes all finished the season on injured reserve. That's not even an all-encompassing list. And yet, the prevailing narrative as the Patriots marched on to their third straight AFC Championship Game was that with head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, they're always in the hunt.