Quick-hit thoughts around NFL & Pats

April, 20, 2014
Apr 20
Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:

1. The Patriots start their voluntary offseason program on Monday at Gillette Stadium, and excellent attendance is expected. It starts with quarterback Tom Brady, who is in town and planning to be there. When the star player is leading the way, most others usually follow.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady, Stevan Ridley, James Develin
Jessica Rinaldi for The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesMark your calendars: The Patriots should be getting ready to begin training camp the last week of July.
2. Time to get the calendar out and start planning for summer. NFL veterans other than quarterbacks or injured players can report to training camp no earlier than 15 days prior to first preseason game. With the Patriots’ preseason opener scheduled for Aug. 7 at the Redskins, it puts Wednesday July 23 as the earliest possible day for Patriots to open training camp. So projecting ahead to the start of training camp, with the 23rd as the likely veterans reporting date/conditioning test, and considering that the first two days of practice must be held without pads, the weekend of July 26-27 should be the first time we hear pads cracking again on the practice field in New England.

3a. While on the topic of schedule-based items, it seems fair to say we’re in striking distance for the NFL’s release of the regular-season schedule, possibly as early as Tuesday (according to Pro Football Talk). Always an exciting day, and just as a refresher, here are the Patriots’ home and away opponents.

3b. The first thing I look for with the schedule is where the bye week is placed, as a middle-of-the-schedule bye is generally preferred because it splits things up evenly over the 17-week season. The Patriots have been pretty fortunate in recent years, so they might be due for an earlier bye this time around.

2007: Week 10
2008: Week 4
2009: Week 8
2010: Week 5
2011: Week 7
2012: Week 9
2013: Week 10

4. Other than maybe paying a bit more than I expected, I don’t see much downside for the Jets in signing running back Chris Johnson to a two-year deal with a maximum value of $9 million. When a team has a question mark at quarterback with a young player like the Jets do with Geno Smith, the best way to help him is to surround him with more talent (and to also protect the team by signing a capable backup like Michael Vick). More weapons are still likely to come in the draft as well.

5. In studying up for the draft, one scenario that I could envision the Patriots having already discussed is the split between their first two picks (No. 29 and No. 62) and how that might play into the team’s strategy with this year’s center prospects. That’s one spot I could see the Patriots targeting. A late first-round pick for Southern Cal’s Marcus Martin or Colorado State’s Weston Richburg might be viewed as a bit too rich, but it’s questionable to think either of them might be there at 62 because the run on top interior linemen is expected in the second round. It wouldn’t be a sexy pick, but similar to Logan Mankins (No. 32) in the 2005 draft, it’s one that could address a meat-and-potatoes need in both the short- and long-term.

6. One more center thought: It’s sort of similar to last year with the Dallas Cowboys, who surprised many by picking Wisconsin's Travis Frederick No. 31 overall. The pick was viewed by some as a reach but Frederick went on to start all 16 games and is now seen by many as a solid piece to build around with 2011 first-round pick Tyron Smith (left tackle) along the offensive line. Browns center Alex Mack (21st overall, 2009), who just received a big pay day, is another reminder of how making the right pick at the center position can pay off. The tricky part, at least from this view, is that there are only a few plug-and-play centers in the draft each year and 2014 seems to continue that theme. That’s why I’m keeping Martin and Richburg on my radar, with the possibility of elevating them into the late first round based on that unique dynamic surrounding the position.

7. Over the last few days, we’ve heard more about teams informing 2011 first-round draft choices they will have their fifth-year options in 2015 picked up. This is the first time it’s come up because those fifth-year options for first-round picks were part of the new collective bargaining agreement in 2011, and teams have to make the decision by May 3 of this year. In New England, left tackle Nate Solder should expect his option to be picked up as well; it’s a no-brainer for the team because the option is guaranteed for injury only and would only become fully guaranteed at the start of the 2015 league year. So basically it just buys the team an additional year with the player without a real financial commitment at this time.

8. Running backs might not be as prevalent in the first round in recent years, but is it really possible that the back might not be picked until the end of the second round this year, as ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper forecasted in his most recent mock draft Insider? If we look at last year’s second-round running backs -- Giovani Bernard (No. 37, Bengals), Le'Veon Bell (No. 48, Steelers), Montee Ball (No. 58, Broncos), Eddie Lacy (No. 61, Packers) – they are all now viewed as critical pieces to their team’s success. So while a first-round pick might not be advised on a running back, a move in the second round for someone like Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde this year seems more than reasonable. As Kiper forecast, it would be something to seriously think about if the opportunity presented itself to the Patriots at that No. 62 spot because they don't have a running back under contract past this season with an NFL carry on his résumé.

9. One random nugget that stood out to me when looking closer at the NFC North, the division the Patriots face in 2014: Mike McCarthy enters his ninth season as Packers head coach, making him, by far, the dean of head coaches in the division. At 50 years old, he is also the youngest head coach in the division by quite a bit when compared to the Lions’ Jim Caldwell (1st year, 59 years old), Vikings’ Mike Zimmer (1st year, 57 years old) and the Bears’ Marc Trestman (2nd year, 58 years old). This is what happens when one team hits on a smart young coach (McCarthy in 2006) and the rest of the division turns over and trends older in its choices.

10. In past years when the NFL draft was held in mid-to-late April, the Patriots would have a rookie minicamp on one of the following weekends to begin the process of introducing the newcomers to the team’s system. The traditional photo shoot with the top pick and owner Robert Kraft and president Jonathan Kraft served as the first public welcome for the rookie class and the rookies would then return home a week or so later before making the permanent move up to the area to begin their first year with the franchise. But things are likely to be changing and it’s a result of the draft now being pushed back to May 8-10. With the condensed schedule, which culminates with the Patriots’ mandatory full-team minicamp June 17-19, rookies will probably now arrive and stay through the full-team minicamp. With two less weeks to work with, there’s no time to waste. From this view, it just adds to the already significant challenge that rookies have in getting up to speed with their new teams.

Patriots players and workout bonuses

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
The Patriots begin their offseason workouts on Monday, and one factor to consider is that many players have a bonus tied to a certain level of participation in these workouts.

While it varies from team to team, generally speaking, most teams require their players to participate in at least 80-90 percent of the workouts to realize the bonus.

Below is an overview of each Patriots player with an offseason workout bonus:

CB Brandon Browner: $250,000
TE Rob Gronkowski: $250,000
G Logan Mankins: $250,000
LB Jerod Mayo: $250,000
DT Vince Wilfork: $200,000
K Stephen Gostkowski: $100,000
DE Rob Ninkovich: $100,000
WR Matthew Slater: $100,000
RB Shane Vereen: $100,000
S Patrick Chung: $60,000
S Devin McCourty: $50,000
LS Danny Aiken: $25,000
CB Logan Ryan: $20,000
S Duron Harmon: $5,500
DE Jake Bequette: $5,000
Total possible payout: $1,740,500

It should be noted that injured players do not have to actively take part in these workouts in order to collect the bonus. However, they do need to be present at the facility and operating under the guidance of the medical staff. So a player like Rob Gronkowski won’t be penalized if he’s unable to take part in the workouts as he continues his rehab -- provided he is present and following the proper rehab protocol set out by the medical staff, he will collect that $250,000 bonus.

Beyond the 1st round: Wide receiver

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
Each day over the next 10 days, this space will focus on one position in the NFL draft by highlighting a prospect in Rounds 2-7 who might fit for the Patriots. With so much attention placed on the first round in mock drafts, "Beyond the first round" focuses on lesser-publicized options beyond the first 32 picks. Today, it's wide receiver.

Second round: Jarvis Landry (LSU)
A team captain, the 5-foot-11 1/2, 205-pound Landry comes out of a pro-style system under former NFL coordinator Cam Cameron. He didn't run well at the NFL combine, followed up by accounting well for himself at his pro day, and is considered a sure-handed, intelligent, savvy route-runner.

[+] EnlargeBruce Ellington
AP Photo/Michael ConroyBruce Ellington lacks prototypical size, but scouts love his intangibles.
Third round: Bruce Ellington (South Carolina), Brandon Coleman (Rutgers)
We'll split the category with a smaller, shiftier type in Ellington (5-foot-9 3/8, 197 pounds) and the bigger-bodied type in Coleman (6-foot-6, 225 pounds). Ellington opened eyes with a 39.5-inch vertical leap, which highlights his athleticism and explosion, and he is viewed as having strong intangibles. Coleman looks the part and has 34-inch arm length, and is also considered to have top-end smarts and intangibles.

Fourth round: Kevin Norwood (Alabama)
The 6-foot-2, 198-pound Norwood has big hands (10 inches) for the position, runs precise routes, and comes from a Nick Saban-led program that has earned the respect of many, including Bill Belichick. He is considered a heady receiver who understands the nuances of the passing game.

Fifth round: T.J. Jones (Notre Dame)
Jones (5-foot-11 5/8, 188 pounds) played in every game over his four-year college career, gets high marks for his route-running, and was a team captain -- all things that figure to appeal to the Patriots.

Sixth round: Jeff Janis (Saginaw Valley State)
With standout production at a lower level of competition, and then impressive testing results such as a 6.64 three-cone drill, Janis (6-foot-2 7/8, 219 pounds) is naturally drawing attention. Assuming he's still on the board at this point, which might not be realistic, he has unique traits worthy of a long look.

Seventh round: Quincy Enunwa (Nebraska)
At this stage in the draft, teams are often looking for one standout trait and with Enunwa it's his physical makeup -- 6-foot-2, 225 pounds. Combine that with him serving as a team captain and having potential versatility as a "move" tight end (an adept receiver and used all over the offensive formation), we could envision the Patriots taking a look.

(Round projections aided by Scouts Inc., NFL.com and independent analysis.)

Previous entries:
1. Defensive tackles
2. Tight ends
3. Defensive end
4. Linebacker/outside linebacker
5. Quarterback

Chandler Jones moves up in re-draft

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
If the 2012 draft was held today, the Patriots wouldn't be selecting defensive end Chandler Jones. The reason: He wouldn't be available.

At least that's the way former scout and current NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks sees it.

Brooks has been going through past drafts and "re-drafting" as a way to determine which teams hit on their picks and which teams would be better off with a "re-do." In his 2012 analysis, Brooks bumps Jones up from the 21st pick to the 15th overall to the Seahawks (who had actually selected Bruce Irvin that year).

"Irvin flashed pass-rush skills during his rookie season, but Jones is a superior player on the edge," Brooks writes. "More important, he is a natural defensive end capable of staying on the field in every situation."

Brooks also sees the Patriots doing the same thing with the 25th overall pick and selecting linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

"Hightower has been a great fit in Bill Belichick's defense -- a big-bodied, versatile second-level defender with rush skills," Brooks writes.

The Patriots seem to be happy with both Jones and Hightower. It's also interesting to consider how Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith (29th overall, Vikings) might have fit here in New England.

In other "re-do's", Brooks gives the Patriots running back Matt Forte over linebacker Jerod Mayo in 2008 (Mayo goes three picks later at No. 13), while running back Brandon Jacobs gets the nod in 2005 at No. 32 because guard Logan Mankins went earlier at No. 23 to Oakland.

Leftovers from weekly Patriots chat

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
A few leftovers from the weekly Patriots chat:

Eric (Buzzards Bay, Mass.): Mike, what is the Pats sub defense going to look like this season? I don't particularly like the idea of taking one of the projected starting LBs off the field for more than 50 percent of defensive snaps.

Eric, the sub defense will vary each week depending on the game-plan. Sometimes they go with a heavier defensive line to account for the running game. Other times they'll go a bit lighter up front and want some more speed at the linebacker level. The key player when this discussion comes up projects to be linebacker Dont'a Hightower because Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins look like locks to stay on when in sub. Does Hightower come off, like Brandon Spikes did, when the Patriots take a linebacker off the field? Or does he move closer to the line of scrimmage, like he did at times at Alabama? He's a versatile player and that will be interesting to watch because I think he can help the team in different ways we haven't seen to this point.

Jason (Hopkinton, Mass.): After all the QB draft prospects visit, do you think the Pats is seriously about drafting a QB in the early rounds or it was just smoke screen? How would you rank the needs on drafting a QB this year comparing to other positions?

Jason, I think they'll come out of the draft, or free agency, with at least one more quarterback. They can't go into training camp with just two like they have right now. The question is "how early do you take that plunge?" I'd think third round at the earliest, with the caveat that the late second-round pick (62nd) is almost like a third-rounder. I put that need at No. 7 on the list when projecting the short- and long-term picture. Of course, just because it's No. 7 doesn't mean it will be picked seventh in the order. If the right player is there in the third round, for example, the team likely wouldn't wait to strike it (e.g. Ryan Mallett in 2011, Kevin O'Connell in 2008).

Bob (Apollo Beach, Fla.): Do you think it's possible that Bill Belichick is bringing in all these high profile QBs for visits in an effort to make teams think twice about waiting to pick those players in the second round? In other words, forcing teams to use their first round pick on a QB so that players who the Patriots are actually interested in will fall to 29.

Bob, I wouldn't put anything past Bill Belichick, but my feeling is that the Patriots are simply trying to get a better feel on this overall quarterback class. There is a lot of varied opinion on the class, and given that backup Ryan Mallett has a contract that expires after the 2014 season, there is a strong likelihood they wind up drafting/signing a rookie signal-caller. A residual benefit of bringing the quarterbacks is to create the perception the team would select them in the first round, or perhaps to get a better feel for how they think if the Patriots ever face them. But I don't think that's the primary reason the Patriots hosted those visits.

Chris (Houston): There is excitement regarding this draft and I understand it. But don't the Pats have to take next year's draft into consideration when fielding possible trade transactions? And also, you wouldn't happen to know next year's draft picks per round?

Chris, projecting a draft a year out can be tricky business. Outside of a few positions such as quarterback, I think the projection is more general in nature in terms of saying, "Regardless of the strength of next year's draft, having a '15 first-rounder instead of a '14 second-rounder has more value." So that thought process is always in play with trades, the idea of building future flexibility, sort of like the Browns did last year with 2014 in mind. In 2015, the Patriots have picks in the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth rounds. The seventh-rounder went to the Rams in a trade for receiver Greg Salas.

Bill Lenkaitis Fan (Charlotte, N.C.): Can you provide a little more context in Raymond Clayborn's "why did it take so long" comment on the Patriot Hall? Was he being playful, or did he sound bitter? If he was frustrated, it was quite the contrast to Ty Law's "now that I'm more mature" approach to reacting to the nomination--and not in a good way.

I think Clayborn, who followed up that comment in his next answer by saying "I'm really honored", was honest in his response. I didn't take it as playful. I also wouldn't hold it against him. He's recovering from November prostate surgery and has strong feelings about his career.

Scout's notebook: Quarterback

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
(Revisiting notes on how teams scout for players at each position, focusing on quarterback today.)

DESIRED TRAITS: A multitude of factors go into finding a successful NFL quarterback, but no two play a more integral role in on-field success than decision-making and accuracy. Many confuse talented quarterbacks with those that can the throw the ball the longest distance (Kyle Boller infamously boasted a strong arm before being drafted in 2003) and, to a degree, athleticism, a trend that has formed more recently.

However, a quarterback who is unable to comprehend the play call, decipher the defense opposing him, efficiently make the right decision and deliver a pass accurately will not succeed. It should come as little surprise that Brady has consistently completed roughly 65 percent of his passes in recent seasons and has never thrown more than 14 interceptions in a given year.

Decision-making also relates to the ability of a quarterback to operate within the pocket. That involves understanding and sensing pressure, being able to step up into the pocket (perhaps no one does this better than Brady) rather than break outside of it and maintain mechanics under duress. Mechanics and footwork tie into each other, and are an important part of a quarterback’s success. These are two areas that coaching can truly impact; Bill Belichick was heavily involved with the tutelage of the quarterbacks during the Patriots' first Super Bowl-winning season in 2001, as the team dealt with the sudden death of quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein early in training camp.

From an intangibles standpoint, a quarterback must be confident and assiduous. He must understand every nuance of the playbook and work as hard as any of his teammates, something Brady has long been known for. Quarterbacks must be able to fight off adversity, something they’ll face in a variety of ways throughout a game, be it from an oncoming pass rusher or working against the clock.

SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: Quarterbacks' contributions on special teams are rare, save the occasional backup who serves as a holder.

PATRIOTS TAKE: Brady turns 37 in August and is signed through the 2017 season. Top backup Ryan Mallett's contract expires after the 2014 season and thus the Patriots could be in the market for a developmental prospect this year.

Beyond the 1st round: Quarterback

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
Each day over the next 10 days, this space will focus on one position in the NFL draft by highlighting a prospect in Rounds 2-7 who might fit for the Patriots. With so much attention placed on the first round in mock drafts, "Beyond the first round" focuses on lesser-publicized options beyond the first 32 picks. Today, it's quarterback, a position in which the Patriots have devoted significant time and resources in the pre-draft process.

Second round: Tom Savage (Pittsburgh)
Good size (6-foot-3 7/8, 228 pounds) and arm strength, he might not be available by the time the Patriots pick at No. 62. He's been our target from the get-go as the best development type for the Patriots, but it now seems as if his stock is rising to a level where he won't be available. Even at 62, that seems a bit rich for the team to consider a quarterback.

[+] EnlargeTom Savage
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsAs the NFL draft nears, it appears that Tom Savage's stock is rising.
Third round: Zach Mettenberger (LSU)
The 6-foot-4 7/8, 224-pound Mettenberger combines good size and arm strength. He has a background in running a pro-style system under LSU coordinator Cam Cameron, the longtime NFL coach, and is coming off a torn ACL.

Fourth round: Stephen Morris (Miami)
The 6-foot-1 7/8, 213-pound Morris is shorter than teams would probably prefer, and could be viewed as a challenging evaluation in that he played under three coordinators over four years, thus affecting part of his development. He showed a knack for running the two-minute offense, is a two-time captain, and his hand size (10 1/4 inches) figures to appeal to the Patriots because gripping the ball in inclement weather often takes on added importance in New England.

Fifth round: David Fales (San Jose State)
The 6-foot-1 5/8, 212-pound Fales started 25 games over the past two seasons and worked mostly out of the shotgun in a spread offense with a knack for delivering the accurate pass. He was a team captain.

Sixth round: Jeff Mathews (Cornell)
Has ideal physical makeup at 6-foot-3 3/4 and 223 pounds to go along with strong football IQ and a strong arm. He is a three-year captain and four-year starter.

Seventh round: Kenny Guiton (Ohio State) The 6-foot-3, 208-pound Guiton was a backup who performed well when called upon, putting him in a similar category as Matt Cassel in 2005. Perhaps lightning could strike twice for the Patriots.

(Round projections aided by Scouts Inc., NFL.com and independent analysis.)

Previous entries:
1. Defensive tackles
2. Tight ends
3. Defensive end
4. Linebacker/outside linebacker

Picking up more Patriots draft pieces

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
It was a pleasure to listen to NFL Network draft analysts Daniel Jeremiah and Charles Davis on a media conference call Thursday, as their passion and knowledge of prospects was apparent.

Here were a few picked-up pieces with a Patriots twist:

Second-tier QBs generate buzz. The Patriots are devoting notable time and resources to top quarterbacks by having them in for visits (Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Jimmy Garoppolo) and figure to be looking to add to the position at some point. Jeremiah thinks this is a good year to do so. "I think there's a lot of [quarterback] depth in the draft class, and I think we're getting more and more buzz building on this second-tier group as we get closer to the draft," he said, also adding that the wide receiver group is as deep as he can remember and that he also sees plenty of depth at cornerback. Areas that aren't as deep, according to Jeremiah, are edge rusher and inside linebacker. Those are both areas the Patriots figure to explore.

Hageman a challenging evaluation. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper has Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman going to the Patriots at No. 29 in his mock draft 4.0, and he's been a popular choice in other mocks. Jeremiah explained how Hageman was a challenging player to evaluate. "He's one of the trickiest evaluations for me in this draft because you can watch games where he does nothing, just completely disappears, then you flip on other games and you see some real dominant stretches, just has a rare combination of size and athleticism, just one of these guys that hasn't put it together."

Why Hyde could fit in New England. Many analysts don't project a running back to go in the first round, but Jeremiah envisions a scenario where the Patriots would pounce. "Carlos Hyde and Jeremy Hill are two big backs that you could make a case. In past years, they'd be first-round picks, but now talking about the position being devalued," he said. "I just wouldn't put it past a team ... a team I'd keep an eye on is the Patriots because the Patriots are always kind of one step ahead of the curve and trying to be creative. I wouldn't be shocked if they just sit there and said, 'OK, everybody else wants to pass on all these running backs; Carlos Hyde is a really good player. LeGarrette Blount is not here anymore, we're going to pluck him, and we've got ourselves a back of the future.'"

ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson discusses the significance of the arrest of Oscar Hernandez Jr. on the Aaron Hernandez case.

Leftovers from Logan Mankins

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
A few leftover soundbites from Thursday's media availability with offensive lineman Logan Mankins:

Responding to Brandon Spikes predicting two Bills wins over the Patriots: "I don't pay too much attention to the media that much anyways. I've only heard guys joking around about what he said. I think it's just Brandon being Brandon. He has a pretty good sense of humor, I think. I don't know if it's good, but he likes to make jokes. I don't know if he was joking or if he was serious. That's just Spikes being Spikes.”

More on Spikes: "Everyone has their own opinions. Everyone likes to think they know it all. It doesn't really bother me too much. I know what we have here. I know the owner very well now over the years and I know our head coach, and those guys care about the team and care about winning football games. So what anyone says kind of rolls off our backs. We know what we have here.”

Meeting new O-line coach Dave DeGugliemo: "We didn't really talk about too much, just get to know each other a little bit and talk about what he's done and what he kind of has in store for us. He seems like a great guy and I look forward to working with him.”

Adjusting to life without O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia: "It's going to be a big change. I was lucky enough to have him for nine seasons and wish it could have continued. He put in his time and earned the right to retire. The last time I talked to him, he's enjoying life right now and staying busy. It will be a lot different; that's the only O-line coach I've known for quite a while now.”

His expectations for any coach: "Me personally, I just want a coach that's fair, who is going to treat everyone the same. There is no one on a pedestal. He's going to work us hard and not let us get away with things. I think I learned to appreciate that from Dante -- he was a hard coach, but he was a fair coach. We always knew he had our backs. He demanded a lot from us, but I think that's what made a lot of us good players. That's why he was such a successful coach and lasted so long.”

Weekly Patriots chat recap

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
Every Thursday on ESPNBoston.com, there is a New England Patriots chat in the late morning/early afternoon. Today's chat kicked off at 12 p.m. ET, can be recapped here, and included some of the following topics:

1. A closer look at some of the big safeties in the draft, including Washington State's Deone Bucannon.

2. More on the Patriots' interest in quarterback prospects.

3. Are we overrating the need for a "move" tight end?

4. Dissecting how great of a need the team has at receiver.

5. Evaluating when it might be too early to draft a running back.

6. Replacing linebacker Dane Fletcher with a prospect from this year's draft.

Analyzing Kiper Mock 4.0: Patriots 

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
The Patriots will get bigger along the defensive line and at running back if things unfold the way ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper projects in his fourth mock draft. But are they the right picks?

To start, the choices hit two areas in which the Patriots could use more of a long-term boost, first at defensive tackle and then in the offensive backfield.

The defensive tackle spot is well stocked in the short term from a personnel standpoint with Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Armond Armstead, Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga and Joe Vellano, so the need doesn't seem as pressing right now. Thus, any pick at the position would be made as much with 2015 upside in mind more so than the present snapshot, sort of like the Patriots did in 2004 with Wilfork as a first-rounder.

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Mankins, Connolly team up to train

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Patriots offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly have teamed up when it comes to offseason training, which has brought them back to their roots in a sense.

“It’s been a good partnership right now,” Mankins said Thursday at Gillette Stadium. “In years past, I had surgeries, he had surgeries, we had the whole lockout thing. We used to [train] a long time ago until certain things changed that, so this year was nice to get back together.”

[+] EnlargeLogan Mankins
Mike Reiss/ESPNLogan Mankins talks to reporters at Gillette Stadium.
Mankins, of course, is the starting left guard and team captain who has been with the club since 2005. Connolly, who first joined the Patriots in 2007, has been the team’s starting right guard the past two seasons.

“We meet every morning at a certain time and get after it for a few hours then go home. It’s always nice to have someone to work out with, especially at your own position, that you are working on the same things,” Mankins said. “We’ve been pushing each other and it’s been working out well.”

The training is “grunt work and big boys in there throwing around weights”, according to Mankins, who expects more running next week when more teammates join as part of the voluntary offseason program.

With center Ryan Wendell signing a two-year deal in late March, he’s since joined the workouts at Gillette, while veteran offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer and youngsters Jordan Devey (tackle) and Chris Barker (center/guard) have been regulars at the facility as well.

Vollmer is coming off a broken leg/ankle sustained Oct. 27 in a game against the Miami Dolphins.

“He looks good right now, too. I don’t know his whole update right now, but he looks good and I know he’s working hard,” he said. “There’s good promise there.”

Mankins is ready for the Patriots’ voluntary offseason program starting Monday.

“I look forward to seeing everyone get back and everyone getting to work together finally,” he said. “It’s always exciting, kind of like your first day back at school, I guess. You get to see everyone after the break, get to catch up with some friends you haven’t seen too much of lately, and get to work together, push each other, and see if other guys have been working as hard as you have.”

Preseason dates & times finalized

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
The NFL previously announced the preseason opponents for all teams, and what weeks those games will take place. On Thursday morning, the league finalized the specific dates and times of those games.

This is what it looks like for the New England Patriots:

Thursday Aug. 7 -- at Redskins (7:30 p.m.)
Friday, Aug. 15 -- vs. Eagles (7:30 p.m.)
Friday, Aug. 22 -- vs. Panthers (7:30 p.m.)
Thursday, Aug. 28 -- at Giants (7:30 p.m.)

The expectation is that the Patriots and Eagles will hold joint practices at Gillette Stadium in the days leading up to the Aug. 15 game.

All games will be broadcast on the Patriots Preseason Television Network.

Beyond the 1st round: LB and OLB

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
Each day over the next 10 days, this space will focus on one position in the NFL draft by highlighting a prospect in Rounds 2-7 who might fit for the Patriots. With so much attention placed on the first round in mock drafts, "Beyond the first round" focuses on lesser-publicized options beyond the first 32 picks. Today, it's linebacker and outside linebacker, with the outside linebacker spot having some crossover with defensive end in the Patriots' multiple system.

Second round: Jerry Attaochu (Georgia Tech)
More of defensive end/outside linebacker type, he has experience in a pro-style system having played under Al Groh in a 3-4 defense (OLB) and then in a 4-3 his final year (DE). He is a high-effort pass-rusher who has good production in that area (31 1/2 career sacks). The 6-foot-3 1/4, 252-pound Attaochu was a team captain.

[+] EnlargeJeremiah Attaochu
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsJerry Attaochu showed that he can get into the backfield with 31 1/2 career sacks at Georgia Tech.
Third round: Adrian Hubbard (Alabama)
He has the ideal physical makeup for a defensive end/outside linebacker in the Patriots' system at 6-6 and 257 pounds with good arm length (33 1/2) and a 4.69 time in the 40-yard dash. Offers a mix of coverage abilities, playing the run, and rushing the passer.

Fourth round: Prince Shembo (Notre Dame)
At 6-1, 253 pounds, Shembo has 10.5-inch hands, good strength, and has played in a two- and three-point stance as well as on special teams. He has some versatility that could appeal to the Patriots, as his 38.5-inch vertical leap highlights his explosion.

Fifth round: Jordie Tripp (Montana)
The 6-2 3/4, 234-pound Tripp has a special-teams mentality with upside to potentially factor into the defensive mix as an off-the-line linebacker. His 6.89-second three-cone drill time was among the best at the position, he is a two-time team captain, and he is one of the more versatile prospects at the position.

Sixth round: Chris Kirksey (Iowa)
A two-time captain, he is 6-1 3/4 and 233 pounds, which is a bit undersized for what the Patriots have traditionally preferred. He's more of an off-the-line/sub linebacker projection with an initial fit on special teams. He is said to have outstanding intangibles.

Seventh round: LB Tyler Starr (South Dakota)
Outstanding time in the three-cone drill catches the eye (6.64) as he projects to a core role on special teams and could ultimately help as a coverage-based option or a sub-rusher as a potential end-of-the-line option. At 6-4 and 250 pounds, he has long arms (32 3/8) and is viewed as a high-effort player.

(Round projections aided by Scouts Inc., NFL.com and independent analysis.)

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