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.
“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."
“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.”
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.”
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has been cleared to play by doctors and will not be placed on the active/physically unable to perform list to open training camp, coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday.
This puts Gronkowski in position to be ready for the regular-season opener Sept. 7 at Miami. He said last week that he plans to play the full 16-game schedule.
Gronkowski, who was limited to seven games last season, underwent surgery on his right ACL on Jan. 9.
"It's a positive," said veteran offensive lineman Logan Mankins, one of the Patriots' captains. "We were all hoping Gronk would have a good recovery, and so far he has. Any time you can have Gronk on the field, it's great."
The Patriots' first training camp practice is Thursday. Gronkowski spent the majority of the offseason working out at the team's facility, yet his expected presence registers as a bit of a surprise.
"I'm happy to see his progress and see him coming into this season and staying healthy; obviously, that's what everyone is talking about," defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. "I don't want to speak on his behalf, but he's one of the hardest-working guys I've ever seen as well."
Added Belichick: "Rob's always worked hard when he's here."
Gronkowski's work ethic is sometimes overlooked because he's often in the headlines for having fun.
"Gronk is Gronk. 'Yo soy fiesta,' right?" Ninkovich cracked. "Personality-wise, he's one of the best guys you could ever meet. He's a great guy off the field who will say hi to anybody and do anything for you."
This is one of them.
And that's the best thing possible for the team's Super Bowl championship hopes.
The last time we saw the Patriots' defense, it was an injury-ravaged group that was carved up by Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship Game. Not enough pass rush. Not competitive enough in coverage.
There is good reason to think 2014 will be different, and so for all the chatter about if quarterback Tom Brady is still elite and if he's been surrounded by enough weapons, we're putting our chips on the other side of the table.
This looks like Belichick's best unit yet, as there could be seven first-round draft choices in the starting lineup between defensive linemen Chandler Jones ('12), Vince Wilfork ('04) and Dominique Easley ('14), linebackers Jerod Mayo ('08) and Dont'a Hightower ('12), and defensive backs Darrelle Revis ('07) and Devin McCourty ('10).
Add in other talented players like defensive end Rob Ninkovich and linebacker Jamie Collins, the 2013 top pick (second round, 52nd overall) who looked like a budding star in last year's AFC divisional round playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts, and we come to this thought: Assuming relatively good health, the 2014 season will be a good case study as to whether some of the Patriots' recent struggles on defense (e.g. ranking 26th overall on third down last year) have been more related to personnel than scheme.
The presence of Revis is where it all starts, because if he can effectively shut down one side of the field it makes things inevitably easier on everyone else. But what has intrigued us as much, if not more, is how the team's top draft picks the last two years -- Collins and Easley -- represent a significant change in what Belichick has traditionally placed a high value on defensively.
The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Collins was one of the team's most athletic-but-raw draft picks in Belichick's 15-year tenure, a player without a clear-cut position after lining up at safety, linebacker and defensive end during his college career at Southern Mississippi. There was a time when Belichick seemed reluctant to utilize a top pick on such a projection, a point that was often repeated around draft time when it came to assessing how college 4-3 defensive ends might adapt to playing 3-4 outside linebacker.
As for the 6-foot-1, 288-pound Easley, he is a penetrating defensive tackle who in the team's Super Bowl championship run (2001, 2003-2004) almost certainly wouldn't have been viewed as a system fit because he's not a two-gapping, big-bodied 300-plus-pound force. Instead, he wins with his get-off, quickness and explosion.
But he's a system fit now for a defense that has been in its sub packages (5 or more defensive backs) in the mid-to-high 60th percentile in recent years. So whereas Belichick used to build his big, hard-hitting defense with the 3-4 base alignment in mind, now he seems to be doing it with the sub at the forefront of his thinking.
That's why the free-agent defection of run-thumping linebacker Brandon Spikes is less of a concern than maybe it would have been a decade ago.
"When I played, we used to be in our 3-4 base defense more than 50 percent of the time. Now it's down to about 30 percent of the time," said linebacker Ted Johnson, who played a Spikes-like role on the three Super Bowl championship defenses and now hosts a sports radio show in Houston. "You're going to smaller and faster guys now. It's a different game."
It sure is, and perhaps Belichick wasn't as quick to adjust to that as others around the NFL. He has now, and the 2014 Patriots defense – with the potential of having seven first-round picks on the field at the same time -- has a chance to be one of his best.
For the Patriots to bring the Lombardi Trophy back to New England, this is where it starts.
8:30 a.m. ET -- Bill Belichick's opening news conference
8:45 a.m. ET -- News conferences with DE Rob Ninkovich, S Devin McCourty and G Logan Mankins
Wednesday marks the official reporting day for New England Patriots veterans, which usually includes the annual conditioning test. The rookies and most injured players have been in since Sunday.
Remarks from Belichick, Ninkovich, McCourty and Mankins will preview the first practice of camp, which is scheduled for Thursday morning. Based on the current forecast, the first practice could be a wet one, similar to last year. Quarterback Tom Brady, linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork are already lined up to speak with reporters on Thursday after practice.
One question that is often asked from fans planning to attend is what conditions could move the practice inside and thus close it to the public. It is usually lightning, thunder or high winds that would lead to that decision. Otherwise, the Patriots usually practice outside. Those making plans are urged to call the training camp hotline at 508-549-0001 for the latest information.
As for Wednesday's news conferences, they will be much different than at this time last year, when it marked the first time Belichick addressed everything involving Aaron Hernandez.
We have our questions prepared and are ready to roll. More updates to come throughout the morning.
Finch not expected to be sidelined for long. Rookie running back Roy Finch, the undrafted undersized jitterbug who looked shifty in spring camps, landed on the active/non-football injury list Monday but isn't expected to be there for an extended period. There has been no serious injury with Finch from the time he participated in spring camps to when rookies reported Sunday. This adds some context to his inclusion on the injured Patriots players list from Tuesday morning.
Fan lottery for those interested in Washington-New England joint practice. When the Patriots travel for joint practices with Washington, it will be a ticketed event because of limited space at the team's practice facility. Those considering a trip would need to enter the lottery by July 25.
ESPN is scheduled to be at Patriots practice Friday. ESPN will have a live television set at Patriots training camp on Friday, with Hannah Storm and Tedy Bruschi leading the coverage.
Updating the roster with Manumaleuna and Byham. Jersey numbers for defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna (64) and tight end Nate Byham (84) have been issued.
Another No. 4 power ranking. Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com puts together his power rankings and has the Patriots fourth, which is the same spot as ESPN.com and Pro Football Talk. "Don't buy the idea that Tom Brady is running out of time. He is still playing at a high level, but just needs a little more help," Prisco writes.
Count Outsiders among Mallett fans. In putting together a list of 25 "breakout prospects" on ESPN.com, Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders lists Patriots quarterback Ryan Mallett among the group. Safety Duron Harmon lands in the honorable mention category.
1. There's only one cure for the illness "list-itis" -- actual football.
2. Assessing levels of concern with players placed on the physically-unable-to-perform and non-football-illness lists.
3. Revisiting one "bold prediction" on veteran defensive tackle Tommy Kelly.
4. When it comes to the Patriots' defense, is talk of a potential No. 1 ranking justified?
5. How Coach K, LeBron James, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are linked.
6. QB Ryan Mallett's potential value as a free agent next year.
7. Nate Solder and the idea of an offensive lineman serving as a blocking-type tight end at times.
FALL RIVER, Mass. -- A dispute over team records that lawyers for Aaron Hernandez had sought from the New England Patriots has been resolved, the defense said Tuesday, though it's unclear whether the documents were turned over.
Hernandez attorney Michael Fee said during a morning hearing in Fall River Superior Court that the matter has been resolved. That prompted the cancellation of a separate hearing before a different judge that was scheduled for the afternoon.
Defense attorneys declined to comment outside court. The Patriots' attorney, Andrew Phelan, referred questions to team spokesman Stacey James, who said the team had no comment.
The Patriots had agreed to turn over 317 pages of personnel records sought by the defense, including medical and training records. But the team objected to producing nine pages of scouting reports and a 1½ page summary of a psychological assessment produced by an outside company.
Hernandez, 24, has pleaded not guilty to murder in the June 2013 killing of Odin Lloyd, a semi-professional football player from Boston who had been dating the sister of Hernandez's fiancee. Lloyd's bullet-riddled body was found in an industrial area not far from Hernandez's North Attleborough, Massachusetts, home.
The team released Hernandez on the day of his arrest.
The defense had called Hernandez's full team records necessary to prepare for trial, and said they may contain critical information about the former player's state of mind.
Phelan, meanwhile, had accused Hernandez's attorneys of being on a "fishing expedition." He said the scouting reports contained trade secrets and were irrelevant to the case. He also said the Patriots had offered the defense the option of reviewing, but not copying, the psychological assessment summary.
"Solder has stepped in for Matt Light after the latter’s retirement and been an above-average left tackle for the past two seasons," Barnwell writes. "Those guys retail at about $8 million per year. Solder will make $2.7 million in the fourth year of his rookie contract, and New England has already exercised the fifth-year option on his deal, which will pay him $7.5 million in 2015. After one year with Bruce Armstrong, Belichick turned the left tackle slot over to Light for the next 11 seasons; it would not be a surprise if Solder were Belichick’s third and final regular at left tackle as Patriots head coach."
Cornerback Darrelle Revis is the other Patriots player on Part I (at No. 35), while we'd expect quarterback Tom Brady to land somewhere in the top 10.
Specific to Solder, he was selected 17th overall in the 2011 draft with the pick the Patriots received from Oakland in a 2009 trade for defensive lineman Richard Seymour. Solder has played in 47 of a possible 48 regular-season games, with 44 starts.
When it came down to it, it's my belief the Patriots were debating between Solder and defensive lineman Cameron Jordan that year with the 17th pick.
Turns out they wouldn't have gone wrong either way.
As the on-field work draws nearer, it's a natural time to assess the injury issues that the Patriots are dealing with to open camp. This an overview of the best information that we have to this point.
Josh Boyce -- Second-year receiver tweaked his knee on the second day of the team's mandatory minicamp June 18 and didn't practice again. But Boyce wasn't among a group of players landing on the physically-unable-to-perform list Monday, which could be a sign that he'll be ready to go.
Alfonzo Dennard -- Cornerback didn't participate in spring camps after reportedly undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. He was officially placed on the active/physically-unable-to-perform list on Monday, but can come off at any time.
Aaron Dobson -- Second-round draft choice from 2013 didn't participate in spring camps after undergoing surgery for a stress fracture in his left foot on March 10. He was officially placed on the active/physically-unable-to-perform list on Monday, but can come off at any time.
Dominique Easley -- First-round draft choice tore both ACLs in college at Florida, and had seemingly taken a big step forward by joining teammates in drills for the first time on the final day of mandatory minicamp June 19. But on Monday, he was officially placed on the active/non-football injury list. He can come off at any time.
Roy Finch -- Undrafted rookie running back was a full participant in spring camps yet was placed on the active/non-football injury list for the start of training camp.
Jeremy Gallon -- Seventh-round draft choice from Michigan practiced sparingly in spring camps with an undisclosed injury. He was officially placed on the active/physically-unable-to-perform list on Monday, but can come off at any time.
Rob Gronkowski -- Tight end said Friday that he plans to play the entire season as he recovers from a torn ACL. He hasn't been placed on the PUP list at this point, but that's still an option prior to the first practice of training camp Thursday.
Tommy Kelly -- Veteran defensive tackle who in June had expressed optimism in his recovery had participated in 11-on-11 drills in mandatory minicamp. But he was officially placed on the active/physically-unable-to-perform list on Monday, and can come off at any time.
Ryan Mallett -- No. 2 quarterback was held out of the final two weeks of spring camps with a knee injury, but it doesn't appear to be anything that will keep him off the field for the start of training camp.
Jerod Mayo -- Linebacker tore his pectoral muscle on Oct. 13 and was a full participant in spring camps. He looks good to go for the start of training camp, where absorbing contact is the next step for him to tackle.
Matthew Slater -- Special teams captain didn't participate in team drills in spring camps with an undisclosed injury. He was officially placed on the active/physically-unable-to-perform list on Monday, but can come off at any time.
Will Smith -- Veteran defensive end is coming back from a torn ACL that sidelined him for the 2013 season. He was taking part in 11-on-11 drills by the end of spring minicamps and hasn't been placed on the PUP list at this time.
Sebastian Vollmer -- Starting right tackle, who broke his ankle on Oct. 27, appears to have made it all the way back. He was a full participant by the end of mandatory minicamp.
Vince Wilfork -- Veteran defensive tackle is coming off a ruptured Achilles and was optimistic about his progress back in June. Similar to Will Smith, whom he jogs next to in the team's warmup line, Wilfork has not been placed on the PUP list at this time.
D.J. Williams -- A strained calf kept the fifth-year tight end off the field in spring camps, but it looks like he's ready to go for the start of training camp.