New England Patriots: Jake Ballard

Catching up with former Patriots, Week 13

December, 4, 2013
12/04/13
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Every Wednesday during the season, we'll lead off the day with a quick recap of notable former New England Patriots players and their standing with new teams.

Jake Ballard (Cardinals)
Tight end plays four offensive snaps and six on special teams in a 24-21 road loss to the Eagles. Doesn't register on the stat sheet.
Season snapshot: Has been with the Cardinals for four games since signing Nov. 4, playing 53 of 281 snaps and totaling two catches for 44 yards.

Chung
Patrick Chung (Eagles)
Safety starts and plays all 71 snaps in a 24-21 home win over the Cardinals. Has one pass defended.
Season snapshot: Has started six of 12 games and is credited with 36 tackles.

Jermaine Cunningham (Jets)
Outside linebacker plays six defensive snaps and 11 on special teams in a 23-3 home loss to the Dolphins. Doesn't register on the stat sheet.
Season snapshot: Spent the month of October with the 49ers but never appeared in a game. Signed with the Jets on Nov. 20. He dressed Nov. 24 but didn't play, so the Dolphins game was his debut.

Brandon Deaderick (Jaguars)
Defensive tackle plays 23 of 75 snaps in 32-28 road win over the Browns. Totals one tackle.
Season snapshot: Has played 288 total snaps, totaling eight tackles, one sack, one fumble recovery and one pass defended.

A.J. Francis (Dolphins)
Defensive tackle is inactive in a 23-3 road win over the Jets.
Season snapshot: Signed off the Patriots' practice squad Nov. 26,

Kyle Love (Chiefs)
Defensive tackle is inactive in a 35-28 home loss to the Broncos.
Season snapshot: After spending training camp with the Jaguars and being released before the season opener, he signed with the Chiefs on Nov. 19. Appeared in one game, playing two snaps, before being waived Dec. 3.

Greg Salas (Jets)
Receiver is targeted four times and makes one catch in a 23-3 home loss to the Dolphins. Plays 30 of 55 snaps.
Season snapshot: In four games with the Jets since making his debut Nov. 3, he has seven catches for 137 yards. Has played 118 of 231 offensive snaps in those games.

Zach Sudfeld (Jets)
Plays seven snaps on offense and 15 on special teams but doesn't register on the stat sheet.
Season snapshot: Tight end has played 103 offensive snaps in seven games. Has four catches for 56 yards.

Jeff Tarpinian (Texans)
Linebacker plays in a reserve role in a 34-31 home loss to the Patriots, totaling two tackles and a half-sack. Plays 27 of 70 snaps.
Season snapshot: After signing with the Texans on Oct. 28, has played in four games, totaling 12 tackles on defense. Has played 92 of 271 defensive snaps.

Washington
Leon Washington (Titans)
Wearing No. 26, he is the primary kickoff returner and punt returner in a 22-14 road loss to the Colts, totaling three kickoff returns for 78 yards (26.0 avg.) and two punt returns for 43 yards (21.5 avg.), with two fair catches. Doesn't play on offense.
Season snapshot: Released by the Patriots on Nov. 23; signed with the Titans on Nov. 26.

Wes Welker (Broncos)
Receiver finishes with three catches for 38 yards as his presence draws attention and opens things up for fellow receiver Eric Decker to have a big day in a 35-28 road win over the Chiefs. Plays 63 of 70 snaps.
Season snapshot: Has played 722 of 906 offensive snaps (79.6 percent), and has 68 catches for 717 yards and nine touchdowns.

Danny Woodhead (Chargers)
Running back has seven carries for 22 yards and adds two catches for 13 yards in a 17-10 home loss to the Bengals. Plays 27 of 65 snaps.
Season snapshot: Has 61 receptions for 482 yards and five TDs, and has carried the ball 77 times for 288 yards and two TDs. Has played 384 offensive snaps.

Others: Colts starting guard Donald Thomas landed on season-ending injured reserve in Week 2. ... Defensive end Trevor Scott played four games (54 snaps) with the Buccaneers before he was released Oct. 24. ... Punter Zoltan Mesko was released by the Steelers on Oct. 29 after appearing in seven games and ranking 31st in punting average (42.5) and 29th in net punting average (36.7). ... Quarterback Brian Hoyer started two games for the Browns, leading them to two wins, before tearing his ACL in his third start and landing on season-ending injured reserve.

Source: Pats work out five players

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
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The Patriots worked out five players on Monday, including former tight end Jake Ballard and defensive end Justin Francis, who were both released by the team near the conclusion of training camp, according to a league source.

Ballard, however, who was originally claimed by the Patriots off waivers during the 2012 offseason, was signed by the Cardinals on Monday.

Meanwhile, Francis was waived/injured at the end of training camp and eventually released off of the injured reserve list. A 2012 undrafted free agent out of Rutgers, he landed on the Patriots' 53-man roster as a rotational reserve defensive end and special-teams player.

The Patriots also worked out running back Cierre Wood, wide receiver Greg Orton and linebacker Marcus Dowtin.

Wood went undrafted in 2013 after a productive career with Notre Dame, signing with the Texans as a free agent. He was recently released after violating team rules during a road trip in Kansas City. The violation reportedly involved the use of marijuana.

Orton has spent time with both the Bengals and Broncos, who released him on Aug. 26. Originally an undrafted free agent in 2009, Orton is 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds.

Dowtin also was an undrafted free agent, coming out of North Alabama in 2012. He has spent time with the Jets, Eagles and most recently the Bills. In five games for Buffalo this season, he recorded six tackles.

Sharing some midday cut-down thoughts

August, 31, 2013
8/31/13
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Sharing non-Tim Tebow-based thoughts on some of the Patriots' roster moves today:

1a. The change at punter, with Zoltan Mesko out and rookie Ryan Allen in, has many layers. Both showed this preseason that they are deserving of punting in the NFL this season and that's why I took the unconventional approach of keeping both on a final 53-man roster projection (the idea being that maybe it would have been easier to slide Allen to the practice squad after a few weeks). Allen's upside is obvious; his leg is a bit stronger than Mesko's. But Mesko's control and directional punting seemed a notch above over the course of training camp and the preseason. However, Allen's three second-half punts on Thursday might have been the clincher, which showed his potential when it comes to control and directional punting.

Mesko
Allen
1b. Economics shouldn't have been the primary reason for the decision to go with Allen over Mesko, but it has to be a consideration. Mesko was due to earn $1.3 million in the final year of his contract. Allen has a three-year contract and is due to earn $405,000 this season.

1c. There is a trickle-down effect when it comes to the field-goal operation, as Mesko has served as the primary holder for kicker Stephen Gostkowski. Allen didn't hold at Louisiana Tech, but he's worked on the skill since joining the Patriots. Allen will likely become the primary holder, although backup quarterback Ryan Mallett could also be a consideration for the role.

1d. In 2005, the Patriots released rookie kicker Robbie Gould after an impressive camp and later regretted it when Adam Vinatieri departed in free agency the following year. I wondered how much that experience might have played a factor in this decision.

1e. Mesko goes down as one of the players who was most fun to cover. He also seemed most genuine and his farewell message to fans was most classy. One of my favorite personal memories of Mesko was how he was brought to tears after receiving the team's community service award in 2012. It meant so much to him and the emotions took over.

2. The biggest surprise has come among the reserves at defensive end, with Justin Francis, Marcus Benard and Jermaine Cunningham all being cut. They projected to the 3-4-5 spots on the depth chart. Health was likely a factor with Francis and Cunningham, as they have been sidelined. There is always the possibility for them to return if not picked up elsewhere, but an initial thought is that 2013 seventh-round pick Michael Buchanan (previous film breakdown) has impressed to the point that the coaching staff felt comfortable letting go of more experienced depth at the position. Buchanan was impressive on Thursday.

3. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was scheduled to earn $1.3 million, but he's agreed to reduce the salary this year with the chance to recoup some of the earnings in incentives, which helped him stick on the roster. Hoomanawanui's smarts, professionalism and dependability made an impression on the coaching staff last season. That he was the last tight end standing among the group of himself, Jake Ballard and Daniel Fells is a minor surprise.

4. The release of defensive tackle Marcus Forston was a mild surprise from this viewpoint. This could mean that rookie defensive tackle Joe Vellano is the top backup behind Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. Vellano caught the eye early in training camp, but still didn't think he'd top Forston at this point.

5. Still waiting to hear the fate of presumed bubble players like Vellano, safety Adrian Wilson, running back Leon Washington, linebacker Jeff Tarpinian, fullback James Develin and linebacker Steve Beauharnais.

Examining Patriots' latest cuts

August, 30, 2013
8/30/13
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Click here for a look at the New England Patriots' latest roster moves.

Most significant move: Releasing tight ends Jake Ballard and Daniel Fells. Ballard, who was claimed on waivers in June, wasn't as widely considered being close to the roster bubble as Fells and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (who is still with the club). The Patriots have to decide whether to place recovering tight end Rob Gronkowski on the active roster or reserve/physically unable to perform list by Saturday at 6 p.m. ET, and with Ballard and Fells no longer part of the mix, this could be a sign Gronkowski will land on the active roster.

Still 12 more moves to get to limit: By making 10 cuts, the Patriots now have a roster of 65 players. That means 12 more moves must be made by Saturday's deadline.

Tebow remains in the mix: Quarterback Tim Tebow is still on the roster and his fate will be one of the most-watched storylines across the NFL into Saturday. He still faces longer odds for a roster spot from this viewpoint, but if the past 13 years have taught us anything with Bill Belichick, it's always to expect the unexpected. So the question remains: Did Tebow do enough over the course of the preseason to earn a spot? He played the entire second half in Thursday's 28-20 victory over the Giants and it was easily his best performance of the preseason as he finished 6-of-11 for 91 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He added six rushes for 30 yards and was sacked four times. Asked what he would bring to the team if he sticks on the roster, Tebow said, "Someone that will just work hard, loves the game of football, will always hopefully, Lord willing, have a great attitude, a great work ethic, and someone that tries to be an encourager in here."

Minor surprise with Benard: Defensive end Marcus Benard had been one of the feel-good stories of training camp. He had a career-high 7.5 sacks with the Cleveland Browns in 2010, but barely registered on the radar the past two seasons, mainly because of injuries. He had seemingly carved out a niche for himself as a capable reserve and interior substitute rusher in training camp and preseason games, so his release came as a mild surprise.

Patriots cuts: TE Jake Ballard, FB Ben Bartholomew, DE Marcus Benard, TE Daniel Fells, WR Johnathan Haggerty, OL Luke Patterson, DL Gilbert Pena, LB Mike Rivera, C Matt Stankiewitch, DL Scott Vallone

Patriots announce release of 10

August, 30, 2013
8/30/13
2:42
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The New England Patriots announced the release of the following 10 players today:

TE Jake Ballard
DE Marcus Benard
TE Daniel Fells
WR Johnathan Haggerty
LB Mike Rivera
OL Luke Patterson
FB Ben Bartholomew
DL Gilbert Pena
C Matt Stankiewitch
DL Scott Vallone

The moves with Ballard, Benard and Fells were previously accounted for in the Patriots blog. The rest of the moves were expected.

Source: Patriots to cut TE Jake Ballard

August, 30, 2013
8/30/13
1:46
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The Patriots have informed veteran tight end Jake Ballard that he will be released today, a source confirms.

The Patriots had waited a year to work with Ballard, who was claimed on waivers from the Giants on June 12, 2012, after undergoing serious knee surgery. Upon his return to the field in 2013 spring camps and then training camp, Ballard said that his knee wasn't back to the point where it was pre-injury, but that he was still working into form. He didn't always appear to be running well.

The 25-year-old played in all four of the team's preseason games, and his primary effectiveness came as an in-line blocker. He didn't catch a pass.

The release of Ballard is a mild surprise, although he did play deep into Thursday night's preseason finale. At the time, it was unclear if that was related to him gaining more comfort with his knee in game action, or if his spot was in jeopardy.

Now we have the answer.

With both Ballard and Daniel Fells told of their release today, the Patriots now have Rob Gronkowski, Zach Sudfeld and Michael Hoomanawanui on the roster at tight end. This could be a sign that Gronkowski has a good chance to open the season on the team's 53-man roster.

Ben Volin of the Boston Globe first reported the news on Ballard.

Picked-up pieces after 2nd-quarter review

August, 23, 2013
8/23/13
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After reviewing the second quarter of the Patriots’ 40-9 preseason loss to the Detroit Lions, here are some picked-up pieces and observations:

[+] EnlargeJoe Vellano
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY SportsJoe Vellano is one of five undrafted free agents to make the Patriots' 53-man roster.

1. Looking for signs of life from any of the Patriots’ reserve defensive tackles because of the team’s shortage of depth, I had a few thoughts on the 23 first-unit snaps played by rookie Joe Vellano, who started in place of Vince Wilfork. The highlight came on a second-and-goal rush early in the second quarter on which Matthew Stafford threw incomplete into the end zone, as Vellano (aligned as a 3-technique, outside shade on guard) showed nice initial quickness to beat veteran left guard Rob Sims on a one-on-one rush to the inside. He caught Sims lunging and made him pay. That’s one area in which Vellano has flashed at times in camp -- first-step quickness as a rusher in tight spaces. But other times, Vellano’s relative lack of size (6-foot-2, 300 pounds) was evident against the Lions when he was more easily blocked in the running game (e.g. Montell Owens’ 6-yard run with 7:05 remaining in the quarter). The Patriots are thin at defensive tackle, and Vellano, at the least, looks like a strong practice-squad candidate.

2. The Patriots didn’t have a good night rushing the football, but there were a few positive flashes when fullback James Develin was in the game. Stevan Ridley’s 4-yard run with 12:55 remaining in the quarter came out of the two-back set, as did Ridley’s 5-yard run on the next drive. One of the downers out of the two-back set was a Ridley rush for a 1-yard loss on first-and-10, on which left end Jason Jones was unblocked (likely a busted assignment somewhere). Develin played nine snaps with the first-unit offense and also was inserted on the first-unit kickoff return unit in the wedge. He’s built some momentum over the past two weeks in terms of potentially earning a roster spot. Running out of a two-back set, as compared to a two tight-end set, gives the defense a different look and seems to be something coordinator Josh McDaniels has been interested in incorporating into the attack since his return.

3. Coming into the game, there was plenty of talk about the Lions’ strong defensive tackle duo of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, and they came as advertised. But it was actually the ends who might have produced more havoc, as it was an off night for Patriots tackles Nate Solder (left) and Sebastian Vollmer (right). It’s rare to see Vollmer beaten so cleanly, as he was by Jones with 4:58 remaining in the second quarter. That seemed to be an example of how a simple technique error can lead to a play being blown up, as Vollmer’s pass set didn’t appear deep enough, which gave Jones a clear path to Tom Brady, who had taken a seven-step drop on play-action. The play never had a chance because Jones was there as Brady completed his play-action fake. The Patriots were relying on Vollmer to handle Jones one-on-one because right guard Will Svitek and center Ryan Wendell had doubled Suh. Overall, there seemed to be a lot of pressure off the edges, forcing Brady to step up, where Suh and Fairley were mostly waiting.

4. More of a general point, but we heard Bill Belichick talk last week about how the Patriots have more versatility at cornerback this season than in the past in terms of players who can play inside and outside. A good example of this came on back-to-back series in the second quarter when the Patriots were in the nickel package (five defensive backs). On one series, rookie cornerback Logan Ryan lined up outside, while Kyle Arrington was in the slot. On the next series, Ryan was in the slot (playing competitively on tight end Tony Scheffler) and Arrington was outside.

5. Remember how tight end Rob Gronkowski first broke his forearm, playing the wing position on the field goal protection unit? One line of thinking is that perhaps a different player could fulfill the assignment so as not to subject a top player to additional risk of injury. Belichick, however, hasn’t changed his thinking since Gronkowski’s injury as the Patriots had Chandler Jones in that role on Thursday night.

6. The Patriots were stopped short on fourth-and-1 late in the second quarter when Develin was stopped for no gain. That was the one play of the half on which the offense went with three tight ends (Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui and Zach Sudfeld) and then two backs (Develin and Ridley). Sudfeld couldn’t hold his block on Ziggy Ansah, who crossed his face and crashed down the line to make the tackle. We touched on Sudfeld’s blocking earlier in the day as the area to watch for him to become a more complete tight end, and this play stood out as one he’d like to have back. In the regular season, perhaps the Patriots will turn to an offensive lineman as an eligible receiver on that type of play. Also, in fairness to Sudfeld, there was no certainty that Develin would have made the first down had he held his block. The Lions had pretty good push across the board.

Picked-up pieces from 1st-quarter review

August, 23, 2013
8/23/13
2:45
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After reviewing the first quarter of the Patriots’ 40-9 loss to the Lions, some picked-up pieces and observations:

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Patriots' compact formations gave the Lions a numbers advantage in the box.
1. The Patriots' offense opened the game with a focus on compact formations. On their first play, a Stevan Ridley run for no gain, tight end Zach Sudfeld initially lined up in a lead-blocking fullback position before motioning to the left side of the line as a wing (a step behind the line of scrimmage and standing up). Tight end Jake Ballard was aligned in a similar position to the right side, although he crouched before the snap, almost as if he was on the field-goal protection unit. Receivers Julian Edelman and Kenbrell Thompkins aligned closer to the line of scrimmage, giving a true run-based look. The compact alignment brought safety Louis Delmas into the box before Tom Brady snapped the ball, giving Detroit a numbers advantage in the box -- 8 on 7. It’s hard for an offense to win in those situations, especially against a powerful defensive front like the Lions.

2. Edelman is one of the Patriots’ better blocking receivers, and in opening the game in some compact alignments, it seemed as if the Patriots were hoping to play to Edelman’s strengths in this area. But on a Ridley run for minus-1 yard on the Patriots’ third snap, Edelman looked to be responsible for picking up safety Louis Delmas, who again came down into the box and nicely timed the snap before surging through the defensive right side. Edelman couldn’t get over quick enough, in part because his path was altered as Ballard was engaged with Lions rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah and had been pushed back by a strong initial punch from Ansah. Unblocked, Delmas easily made the tackle. From Ridley’s perspective, this was a good example of how there was often simply nowhere to run.

3. The local broadcast crew on WBZ-TV had a nice isolation shot of Thompkins on his first catch, a 37-yarder down the left sideline in the first quarter. It showed Thompkins’ terrific footwork at the start of his route to get off the line of scrimmage and gain initial separation on Lions cornerback Darius Slay (second-round pick, Mississippi State). When it comes to receivers, plenty of focus is placed on 40 times and leaping ability, but the subtleties of route-running can sometimes be overlooked. Thompkins has struck us as a tactician in training camp, and this was a perfect example of that. It helped that Brady made a pre-snap adjustment after reading the defense, knowing he had Thompkins against man-coverage in a spot where the safety had a long way to go to help. Looked like a sharp pre-snap call by Brady, followed by an excellent throw. But it all started with Thompkins’ ability to get off the line cleanly.

4. On the play in which Sudfeld lost a fumble to end what had been a promising opening drive, the Patriots aligned both Sudfeld and Ballard to the right side of the line in a run-based look (YY wing). Receivers Aaron Dobson and Edelman were split wide to the left side. The Lions again had eight defenders in the box and when Brady executed a play-action to Stevan Ridley, the Lions’ linebackers had committed to the point that it opened a wide space between the linebackers and safeties in the middle of the field, which is what Sudfeld, up the seam, exploited. Everything about the play appeared to be perfectly executed ... except for the fumble. Some credit goes to Lions safety Glover Quin for jarring the ball free, but it still seemed as if Sudfeld could have tucked the ball away tighter.

5. One follow-up on Sudfeld: We’ve talked a lot about his pass-catching abilities, which look like they are at competitive NFL levels, but haven’t focused as much on his blocking and how that is probably the one area that calls for the most development. On the play in which receiver Kenbrell Thompkins dropped a pass to end the Patriots’ second drive, Sudfeld, initially lined as a wingback on the left side was called upon to block fourth-year end Willie Young one-on-one. Young got him off balance and beared down quickly on Brady, speeding up Brady's clock to get rid of the football. For Sudfeld to be viewed as more of a pure tight end, as opposed to a receiver playing tight end, this is the area to focus on. On Brandon Bolden's 6-yard run with four minutes left in the quarter, Sudfeld had a nice seal block on end Jason Jones, showing he’s willing to mix it up.

6. Lions running back Reggie Bush is dangerous in space, as the Patriots experienced on his 67-yard catch-and run on third-and-10 with 9:18 left in the first quarter. The Patriots were in a dime package (6 defensive backs), with linebacker Jerod Mayo entering for his first play of the game along with Adrian Wilson, the safety who aligned to the left of Mayo in a linebacker-type role. Those were the two defenders who had the best chance to limit Bush’s yards after the catch, but both over-pursued toward the sideline, leaving Bush the inside part of the field to shake free. Safety Steve Gregory had blitzed as a fifth rusher off the defensive right side, forcing a quick release from quarterback Matthew Stafford, so between the blitz and the over-pursuit by Mayo and Wilson, it led to the big play. It looked like a good play-call by the Lions against the blitz, but still one that shouldn't have gone for 67.

7. End Rob Ninkovich looked like one of the team’s best defensive players and a three-play series on the Lions’ second drive highlighted his versatility. On first down, he was unblocked off the left side as Stafford handed off to Bush, and Ninkovich brought down Bush -- who could have had an open cutback lane if Ninkovich hadn’t maintained his edge -- for a loss of minus-4 yards. On the next play, Ninkovich was dropping back into coverage (incomplete pass). Then on third down, he initially rushed, but when the ball was out quickly he chased down Bush from behind and was credited with a tackle that forced a punt. Ninkovich wears Mike Vrabel’s old No. 50 jersey and the more you watch him, you can see some similarities. Who knows? Maybe he’ll be catching passes as a goal-line tight end next week.

8. Veteran defensive tackle Tommy Kelly is a powerful presence at 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, and plays with what Bill Belichick described as “long levers.” On a “sudden change” situation, in which the Patriots’ defense had to stem the momentum after Bolden lost a fumble at the New England 19 with 3:21 remaining, Kelly simply powered his way through rookie right guard Larry Warford. Too powerful -- the veteran schooling the youngster on how it’s done. With Kelly on the interior, the Patriots have the potential to get more interior penetration in 2013. He looks like a decisive upgrade over last year’s co-starters Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love.

Snaps: RBs learn cost of fumbling

August, 23, 2013
8/23/13
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DETROIT -- In tabulating the snaps played by skill-position players with the first-unit offense, one aspect stood out -- after losing fumbles, Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen didn't play again for the rest of the half.

Here is the breakdown of snaps played (includes penalties, not half-ending kneel-down):

QB Tom Brady -- 46 of 46
WR Julian Edelman -- 45 of 46
WR Aaron Dobson -- 31 of 46
WR Kenbrell Thompkins -- 31 of 46
TE Jake Ballard -- 27 of 46
RB Stevan Ridley -- 21 of 46
TE Zach Sudfeld -- 19 of 46
TE Michael Hoomanawanui -- 16 of 46
RB Shane Vereen -- 10 of 46
FB James Develin -- 9 of 46
RB Leon Washington -- 8 of 46
WR Josh Boyce -- 6 of 46
RB LeGarrette Blount -- 4 of 46
RB Brandon Bolden -- 3 of 46

QUICK-HIT THOUGHTS: Julian Edelman filled in for the hobbled Danny Amendola, playing every snap but the short-yardage fourth-and-1 run in the second quarter when the Patriots called on three tight ends and a fullback and running back. ... Edelman and Kenbrell Thompkins opened the game in the two-receiver package, with Aaron Dobson coming on as the third receiver. The Patriots utilized the three-receiver package quite a bit, even turning to a four-wide look at times. ... At tight end, Jake Ballard and Zach Sudfeld opened as the top combination. Ballard has gradually upped his workload this preseason, with his 27 snaps a high. ... At running back, Stevan Ridley was the clear No. 1 option.

W2W4: Five things we'll be focused on

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
9:29
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Patriots host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday in the second preseason game for both teams (Fox, 8 p.m. ET), and here are a few things we'll be keeping a close eye on:

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1. Brady and the quarterback reps. After Wednesday's scare, in which he suffered a bruised left knee, quarterback Tom Brady returned to practice Thursday and wore a knee brace while going through the entire practice without limitation. Brady played 16 snaps in the preseason opener, and perhaps the coaching staff alters its plans against the Buccaneers based on the injury. Top backup Ryan Mallett played 25 snaps in the opener and could be line for more work. Tim Tebow was on for 31 snaps in the opener. One more thought on this: Let's also watch the matchup of Patriots left tackle Nate Solder versus Buccaneers defensive end Adrian Clayborn, since it was Clayborn's bull-rush -- during which he pushed Solder back -- that led to Brady's injury.

2. Sturdy run defense with the front seven. Buccaneers running back Doug Martin can be a handful and represents a good test for a Patriots front seven that should have Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones at end, Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly at tackle and a linebacker trio of Brandon Spikes (middle), Dont'a Hightower (strongside) and Jerod Mayo (weakside). Not that there figures to be any big game planning for a preseason game, but the Patriots talk often about making the opposition one-dimensional by taking away the run. With limited opportunities in preseason to work on run fits with live tackling, this will be one of their best chances to do so.

PatriotsBuccaneers3. Ballard ready for increased workload? Tight end Jake Ballard remains a player of interest from this perspective. Returning from serious knee surgery in 2012, he has been managed carefully in practice and played 12 snaps in the preseason opener, all with the first-unit offense. The top tight-end pairing of late has been Ballard and rookie free agent Zach Sudfeld. With veteran Daniel Fells unlikely to suit up -- he's been out of practice the past few days due to an undisclosed injury -- is Ballard ready for some more work? If so, the areas we'll be watching closest are his inline blocking and how more snaps might affect his knee.

4. Bounce-back for Gostkowski and field goal operation. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed field goals from 44 and 53 yards in the preseason opener -- not exactly chip shots -- and, as Bill Belichick sometimes points out, it isn't always on the kicker. It's the entire operation -- snap, hold, kick. Gostkowski, who hit from 34 yards in the game, looks like he's had a strong week of practice. Also on special teams, the ongoing competition between incumbent punter Zoltan Mesko and rookie Ryan Allen is a good one. Allen has a strong leg but the key for both is going to be consistency.

5. Can the rookie receivers do it again? We've spent a lot of time focusing on the rookie trio of Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted) and their assimilation into the offense. So far, so good. Brady had made the point that by the middle of training camp the team would have a better feel on its receiving corps, and one thing is clear: The rookies are a big part of it. Of the group, Thompkins might be the most impressive to this point. He had four catches in the preseason opener and was on the same page with Brady early.

Belichick: TE Ballard 'showed up positively'

August, 10, 2013
8/10/13
5:15
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Patriots coach Bill Belichick held his standard day-after-game conference call on Saturday, and here were a few of the areas that caught our attention:

Following up on Jake Ballard. It was a meaningful night for tight end Jake Ballard, who returned to game action for the first time since undergoing serious knee surgery in 2012. He played 12 snaps, over the first two series of the game, and then his night was over. Belichick acknowledged that Ballard is still being managed health-wise. "It seemed to go well, so we’ll just continue to go along with both his input as to how he's progressing and our medical staff, in consultation with them, to continue to try to let him work his way back to maybe a more extended role than where he’s at now hopefully," he said. "But that will just have to take some time. We’ll continue to go through the process, but I thought he did well. He showed up positively on a number of plays."

Revisiting the Michael Vick-to-DeSean Jackson long touchdown. In trying to gain a better understanding of where the Patriots' defense might have broken down on DeSean Jackson's 47-yard touchdown reception (e.g. was it Steve Gregory at safety who got over late, could Aqib Talib have played it differently, etc.), Belichick was asked what coverage the defense was playing. He didn't get into specifics, but offered this: "As a defensive coach, there are times where you just have to give credit to the offense. That was a great throw -- perfectly thrown, great route by DeSean and the ball was as on the money as it could possibly be. Overall our defense wasn't good enough any time you give up a play like that but it was an exceptional play that we were close on, but obviously not close enough. There are things we need to do better -- coach better, play better -- but that was an excellent, outstanding play. It probably would have been a big play on a lot of different players or calls or anything else. It was just very well-executed."

Tommy Kelly and his 'long levers'. Belichick has liked having veteran defensive lineman Tommy Kelly on the club, touting his instincts, height and "long levers inside" even though at 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds he's a different build than the 6-foot-2, 325-pound Vince Wilfork. Kelly teamed with Chandler Jones for a strip sack on the third series on Friday night. "Tommy’s been a really, really solid guy for us all the way through. Works hard, in early, stays late, does a lot of extra things, extra conditioning, things like that to really take care of himself and prepare for the game. I have a lot of respect for Tommy," Belichick said. "... He's been a great guy to work with. He's a very talented player. He's been an excellent teammate and team member since he's been here."

Don't forget the wideouts in the running game. When one thinks of a dominating rushing performance, the role of wide receivers usually isn't spotlighted. But Belichick specifically noted that area when discussing the Patriots' work in the run game Friday. "I thought the receivers did a good job of handling the secondary. That opened up a couple opportunities for us to get longer runs," he said. Rookie Aaron Dobson, in particular, looks strong in that area, and of course, tight end Zach Sudfeld's effort on LeGarrette Blount's 51-yard touchdown run -- helping clear the final 10 yards for Blount -- is the type of work that would make any coach smile.

Situations a good teaching tool. Belichick pointed out that the preseason opener presented more situations than normal for the club to learn from; things like being backed up in their own end zone, four fourth-down plays on defense, two-minute offense at the end of the half, and two-minute defense at the end of the half. "It was a real good teaching experience," he said.

Rapid Reaction: Patriots 31, Eagles 22

August, 9, 2013
8/09/13
10:39
PM ET
PHILADELPHIA -- Rapid reaction from the New England Patriots' preseason opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, a 31-22 victory:

PatriotsEagleGood start for the top offense. The Patriots’ top offense couldn’t have had a much better night. Quarterback Tom Brady played 16 snaps, and on the first play from scrimmage, out of a two-tight end set with Jake Ballard and Zach Sudfeld, running back Stevan Ridley burst up the middle for a 62-yard gain. It was a tone-setter, as the Patriots ran on every play of their six-play opening touchdown march. On the second drive, which resulted in another touchdown, Brady was impressive through the air, with running back Shane Vereen's touchdown catch in the back left-hand corner of the end zone a beauty to cap it off. New faces, same explosive results. The second unit came on after the first two series.

Early entrance for Tebow: The plan wasn't for third-string quarterback Tim Tebow to come into the game late in the second quarter, but when top backup Ryan Mallett was knocked out with a head injury, Tebow entered with 1:22 remaining in the first half. He played the rest of the game, leading one touchdown drive, with the Patriots unveiling an offense with read-option concepts. That’s been one of the interesting parts of watching Tebow in practice, as he hasn’t always been running the traditional Patriots offense; Brady and Mallett would almost never run a read-option offense. The Patriots could see value in that from a scout-team perspective, as they’ll see it this season from foes, which is a reminder that when judging Tebow’s performance, it should be done outside the realm of the traditional Patriots attack.

Top defense with shades of '12 performance: The Patriots’ top defense played three series for a total of 11 snaps. Things started somewhat similarly to what we saw last season from the unit, with the Eagles attacking early and scoring on a 47-yard long-bomb touchdown from Michael Vick to DeSean Jackson. Cornerback Aqib Talib was in coverage. But the unit then forced a punt before defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and defensive end Chandler Jones combined on a strip sack recovered for a turnover. So, some ups and downs for the top group. The big takeaway: Kelly looks like the surefire starter next to Vince Wilfork at defensive tackle and could be an upgrade over last season’s tandem of Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick.

Blount makes his case for RB spot: If there was one player who might not have been considered a roster lock who most improved his standing, running back LeGarrette Blount is a good choice. The 6-foot, 250-pound bruiser had a highlght-reel, zig-zagging 51-yard touchdown run against the Eagles' second-unit defense in the second quarter. Ridley was the Patriots' lead back, and projects to that role during the regular season, but Blount made a case to be a strong No. 2 option. The first-half running back snaps broke down this way: Vereen 16, Ridley 15, Leon Washington seven, Blount five, Brandon Bolden two. The Patriots could keep all five on the final roster given the special-teams value that Washington and Bolden provide.

Injury updates: Outside of Mallett, the Patriots' second-string quarterback who left late in the second quarter with a head injury and didn't return, there were no major injuries for the Patriots. Mallett watched the rest of the second half from the sideline.

Learning experience a good one for young pass-catchers: The Patriots played 46 offensive snaps in the first half, and with rookie receiver Aaron Dobson in for 26 of them and rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld ion for 22, it was a reminder how important the preseason is for players like them. The Patriots, as they have in training camp, threw them right into the mix. Sudfeld will score points for some nice hustle on Blount's 51-yard touchdown to help him earn his last 10 yards with a final block. Rookie receivers Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins (four catches in 1st half) also played a lot. Some valuable tape for them to study.

Quick hits: It was a meaningful night for Ballard, who missed all of 2012 after undergoing serious knee surgery, as he played 12 of the first 16 snaps before his night was over. He might be the team's best blocking tight end outside of Rob Gronkowski. … On defense, top draft pick Jamie Collins didn't play with the first unit. He was a weakside linebacker on the second-unit. … The Patriots had 16 players who didn't suit up. … Defensive end Marcus Benard was used as the first defensive end in sub packages, often rushing from an interior position. He's an under-the-radar player to watch in the weeks to come.

W2W4: Five things we'll be focused on

August, 8, 2013
8/08/13
7:21
PM ET
PHILADELPHIA -- The New England Patriots open the preseason against the Philadelphia Eagles on Friday night at Lincoln Financial Field (7:30 p.m. ET). Here are some of the main areas of interest:

1. Dobson and young receivers. Through the early stretch of training camp, the play of rookie receivers Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted free agent) has made onlookers take note. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Dobson in particular offers something the Patriots haven’t had for a few years: size and the athletic ability to go up and get the ball.

“It’s like going up for rebounds and you can control your body,” Dobson said Thursday after practice. “I guess it’s a good skill set for a receiver.”

PatriotsEaglesWhile Dobson brings that size and athleticism on the outside, Boyce (5-foot-11, 205 pounds) can flat out fly. He brings a speed element not seen around these parts in recent seasons.

Thompkins (6-foot-1, 195 pounds) strikes us as more of a tactician. He’s shown ability to win at the start of his route with sharp footwork that sets up defensive backs and also some speed to threaten the deep parts of the field.

For the first time in Bill Belichick’s coaching tenure, it looks like the Patriots will open the season with three rookie wide receivers.

2. Top draft pick Collins and the defense. When the Patriots first take the field on defense, it’s possible that top draft pick Jamie Collins (jersey No. 91) will still be on the sideline. He’s been the first linebacker to come on when there is a substitution, and the Patriots are still exploring ways in which his speed and athleticism can best help them.

Watching Collins (6-foot-3, 250 pounds) on the practice field, a few things stand out: He runs well and has shown a knack for ball disruption by forcing fumbles.

One of the trouble areas for the Patriots last season was matching up against athletic tight ends, and that’s a position that has traditionally been a big part of Chip Kelly-coached offenses; Kelly announced Thursday that quarterback Michael Vick will start this game.

There figure to be times when Collins is matched up against tight ends, and perhaps he shows signs that he can help the Patriots in an area in which they mostly struggled in 2012.

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3. Mallett, Tebow and backup quarterbacks. No. 2 quarterback Ryan Mallett has totaled 130 pass attempts over the past two preseasons, which is a team high. Now in his third NFL season, the question remains: Is he a potential No. 1 quarterback for another team who could provide value to the Patriots in a trade?

The preseason opener, when Tom Brady usually doesn’t play past the first quarter, is the best chance for the Patriots to find out.

If things go according to plan, Mallett won’t be called upon during the regular season unless the game is well in hand and the Patriots take Brady off the field to protect him from injury.

“I get a lot of action right now, and it’s just going to help me in the long run, so I’m excited to get out there with my teammates and go compete,” Mallett said Thursday.

At 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, he looks the part and has a cannon for an arm. Now is his time to show he can put it all together.

As for Tim Tebow, he said Thursday that he hadn’t been informed of how much, if at all, he will play. But he is encouraged by his progress to this point.

“I feel like I’m getting better every single day,” he said. “I’m more comfortable with the offense, better timing with everybody around me, better understanding of what the coaches want me to do, with the offense, with the reads, with the timing. Every day, I’m trying to get a little bit better, and it sounds cliché, but it’s true. That’s really what I’m focused on, and I know that’s something hopefully I’ve been able to accomplish.”

4. Do Jones and the pass-rushers show signs of life? One of the keys for the Patriots defense is the development of 2012 first-round draft choices Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower. Jones in particular has the tools to develop into a disruptive game-changing pass-rusher.

After a solid six-sack rookie season, he’s built more upper-body strength and will be matched up against second-string left tackle Allen Barbre, who is expected to fill in for starter Jason Peters.

In one-on-one drills against Patriots left tackles, Jones has shown signs of explosiveness, but in the one drill we watched Tuesday, Jones was kept at bay by Barbre.

In addition to Jones and fellow starter Rob Ninkovich, there is a developing competition behind them, with second-year man Justin Francis and five-year veteran Marcus Benard the current top candidates. Others include 2012 third-round pick Jake Bequette and 2013 seventh-rounder Michael Buchanan.

5. Sudfeld and the tight-end competition. While the biggest question at tight end is whether Rob Gronkowski will open the season on the physically unable to perform list, there is also a good competition unfolding with the remaining players on the depth chart.

Undrafted rookie Zach Sudfeld (jersey No. 44) has opened some eyes. He’s 6-foot-7 and listed at 260 pounds, although he’s probably a bit lighter than that. He runs well and has caught most everything thrown in his direction, with Eagles linebacker Casey Matthews calling him more of a receiver than a pure tight end.

Then there are veterans Jake Ballard (6-foot-6, 260 pounds), Daniel Fells (6-foot-4, 260 pounds) and Michael Hoomanawanui (6-foot-4, 260 pounds).

Not everyone can stick, and with Ballard on the books for $630,000 and Fells ($1.25 million) and Hoomanawanui ($1.3 million) in the higher tax bracket, the latter two probably have to prove they are a cut above to land on the roster.

TE Ballard removed from PUP list

July, 23, 2013
7/23/13
5:23
PM ET
Tight end Jake Ballard and defensive back Kanorris Davis both passed physicals on Tuesday and were removed from the active/physically unable to perform list and non-football injury list, respectively, according to a league source.

The move means that each is eligible to practice when training camp opens. Ballard is coming off of a major knee injury back in February 2012, while it is unclear why Davis was originally placed on the non-football injury list.

Ballard is a candidate to earn playing time as the Patriots await the return of Rob Gronkowski, who was placed on the PUP list on Monday.

TE glance after Hernandez's release

June, 27, 2013
6/27/13
10:30
AM ET
The Patriots officially parted ways with tight end Aaron Hernandez on Wednesday, just hours before it was announced he would be charged with murder (plus five gun-related charges) in relation to the homicide of 27-year-old Odin Lloyd.

With Hernandez no longer in the mix, the Patriots are without a player who has been a virtual starter since he was drafted in 2010 and an integral offensive piece during his three seasons.

As it relates to the tight end position specifically, the Patriots still have six players on their active roster.

Below is a snapshot depth chart of the leftover players at the position, with some relevant information on each player.

* Rob Gronkowski: Gronkowski is on the mend following both back and forearm surgeries this offseason, with an expected recovery time of 12 weeks following his back procedure earlier this month. While it is unlikely that he'll be available to start training camp, his status for the regular-season opener is unknown. When healthy, Gronkowski has been the best tight end in the NFL, but a string of surgeries on his forearm and the back procedure have slowed him this offseason. The Patriots are hopeful he can return to his full form.

* Michael Hoomanawanui: Hoomanawanui is similar to Hernandez in that he can be used in the "F" or move tight end position. He was often aligned out of the backfield last season, and he could be in line for a bigger role in Hernandez's absence. He was acquired at the start of last season and filled in sufficiently in spot duty.

* Jake Ballard: An intriguing player, Ballard started Super Bowl XLVI for the Giants, but a knee injury has kept him off the field since that time. At 6-foot-6 and 275 pounds, he's built like Gronkowski, though he's not the same athlete. He appears to be close to his old self after extensive rehab, and if Gronkowski is not ready at the start of the season, Ballard is a candidate to step up.

* Daniel Fells: Signed to a three-year contract last offseason, Fells had a quiet year in 2012. Nonetheless, he has good knowledge of the system, can play both tight end spots (Y and F) and has a soft pair of hands.

* Zach Sudfeld: Sudfeld was solid in offseason workouts, showing off impressive pass-catching skills and dependable hands. The 24-year-old was undrafted out of Nevada, and while it's too soon to make a hard-line statement on his outlook, he appears to be ready to compete for a spot on the roster.

* Brandon Ford: Another undrafted free agent this April, Ford was limited in offseason work due to an undisclosed injury. We'll learn much more about him in training camp.

It always remains possible that the Patriots could explore the free-agent market for tight ends (or also pursue a trade), but for now, the team has options on the roster if it decides to stand pat. Hernandez's skills are undeniable, making replacing him a challenge.

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