New England Patriots: Joe Vellano

Checking the locks: Patriots' DTs

July, 7, 2014
As part of this slow time on the NFL calendar, when we'll be taking a break to recharge for the 2014 season, we introduce the pre-produced "checking the locks" series in which we analyze the players on the Patriots' roster who are "locks" to stick. Today, it's defensive tackles.

Sure-fire locks: Vince Wilfork, Dominique Easley, Chris Jones

Near locks: Tommy Kelly, Sealver Siliga

Trying to get in the door: Joe Vellano, Armond Armstead, Marcus Forston, Seali'i Epenesa, L.T. Tuipulotu

ANALYSIS: Much like the Patriots' running backs who could be viewed through two different lenses (bigger early down backs and smaller "passing" backs), the Patriots have a similar setup at defensive tackle with some bigger-bodied run-stuffers who aren't known as much for penetrating gaps (Wilfork, Siliga) and some smaller penetrators more likely to win with quickness than pure power (Easley, Jones). One area to monitor is the health of some key players as Wilfork (ruptured Achilles), Easley (torn ACL), Kelly (torn ACL) and Armstead (missed 2013 with an infection) are all coming off serious injuries. Another factor to consider is that in some sub packages, the Patriots reduce end Chandler Jones to more of a defensive tackle role. Still, the Patriots felt they could have absorbed one more "lock" in pursuing veteran Kevin Williams before Williams signed with Seattle, which is a sign that Bill Belichick might still be concerned with the depth at this spot.

Some context regarding Kevin Williams, DTs

June, 18, 2014
Veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams told NFL Nation Vikings reporter Ben Goessling that he took a little less money to sign with the Seattle Seahawks than the New England Patriots. With the specifics of Williams' contract now known, there is some added context on how far the Patriots were willing to extend financially.

Via colleague Field Yates, Williams' deal breaks down this way:

Term/total value: One year, $2.1 million
Signing bonus: $250,000
Base salary: $1.5 million ($250,000 guaranteed)
Incentives: Up to $350,000 in per-game roster bonuses

With Williams electing to sign in Seattle, here is a snapshot look at the Patriots' defensive tackle depth chart, with a quick-hit thought on each player:

Vince Wilfork (6-2, 325): Captain and 11-year veteran is making progress in his return from a ruptured Achilles last September. Looks to be moving well.

Tommy Kelly (6-6, 310): Another 11-year veteran, he took another step in his return from a torn ACL by participating in 11-on-11 drills Tuesday.

Dominique Easley (6-2, 288): First-round draft choice is coming off two torn ACLs over the past 22 months, suffered in college, and has yet to take the field this spring.

Chris Jones (6-1, 309) Second-year player was claimed on waivers last year and led all Patriots defensive tackles in snaps played in 2013. Best when penetrating.

Sealver Siliga (6-2, 325): After a slow start to his career, the run-stuffer looks like he has built some momentum as a developmental prospect behind Wilfork.

Armond Armstead (6-5, 305): The former Southern Cal and Canadian Football League standout has been sidelined for most of spring camps after missing all of last season with an infection.

Joe Vellano (6-2, 300): Hard-working second-year player from Maryland is a lunch pail type of guy who plays with top effort.

Marcus Forston (6-3, 305): Second-year player has spent multiple seasons on the practice squad and has filled in when injuries hit.

L.T. Tuipulotu (6-1, 305): Undrafted free agent from Utah is on the developmental track.

Seali'i Epenesa (6-1, 310): Undrafted free agent from UCLA was signed on Tuesday.

Patriots positional review: DT

January, 31, 2014
Continuing our positional review/offseason preview, here’s a look at the New England Patriots defensive tackles, ordered in percentage of defensive snaps played.

Chris Jones
Age: 23
2013 status: Started 11 of 13 games played after being claimed on waivers during Week 2 of the regular season. Played the second most snaps among rookie defensive tackles in the NFL with 786.
2013 highlights: There are two lenses to examine Jones through. One the one hand, he gave the Patriots much more than anyone could’ve reasonably expected, including 54 tackles and six sacks. Conversely, there were times when Jones was overwhelmed as an anchor. Nonetheless, he’s a piece of the puzzle going forward, as he’ll continue to learn from Vince Wilfork and grow within the Patriots’ system. He deserves credit for hanging tough given the unlikely circumstances surrounding his rookie season.
Current contract runs through: 2016 season

Joe Vellano
Age: 25
2013 status: Played in every game, starting eight in total. Played just fewer than 58 percent of the regular season defensive snaps.
2013 highlights: An undrafted rookie who worked his way on to the roster, Vellano, like Jones, exceeded expectations. He had flashes of both pass-rush and run-stuffing ability, but his modest size also left him susceptible to being run at by the offense. A player that is better suited as a reserve than a starter, but offers developmental depth going forward.
Current contract runs through: 2015 season

Tommy Kelly
Age: 33
2013 status: Started five of five games played, registering 2.5 sacks and playing 221 defensive snaps.
2013 highlights: Became an immediate starter alongside Wilfork after signing as a free agent last offseason. Provided size, girth and discipline along the defensive line to bolster both the run defense and interior pass rush. A reported ACL tear shelved Kelly for the final 11 games of the season, though he should be healthy by the time training camp rolls around, if not sooner. He was a big loss.
Current contract runs through: 2014 season

Sealver Siliga
Age: 23
2013 status: A late-season riser who ended up playing in the final five regular-season games, starting four. Also started each of the two playoff games.
2013 highlights: Siliga played the fewest snaps among the Patriots’ unheralded young defensive tackles, but by the end of the season he appeared to offer the most long-term value. He plays with a stout base and good leverage along the line of scrimmage, not getting his shoulders turned and not giving ground. Should benefit from learning behind Wilfork for a full offseason.
Current contract runs through: 2014 season

Vince Wilfork
Age: 32
2013 status: Started all four games that he played before going down with a torn Achilles’ tendon.
2013 highlights: Wilfork’s production according to the box score wasn’t anything to write home about, but the consistent message to convey with his play is that it transcends statistics. He’s a force at taking on double teams and clearing space for his linebackers. The injury ended his season and contributed to a run defense that struggled throughout the season. Has a big salary for the 2014 season, and the team could view him as an extension candidate.
Current contract runs through: 2014 season

Isaac Sopoaga
Age: 32
2013 status: Acquired via trade from Philadelphia, played in six regular-season games, starting two. Became an inactive player down the stretch.
2013 highlights: Desperate for bodies in the middle of their defense, the Patriots added Sopoaga via a trade. The maneuver didn’t cost them much (essentially about 25 draft spots), but Sopoaga had a limited on-field impact. With a big contract for the next two seasons, he seems like a likely cap casualty.
Current contract runs through: 2015 season

Others on the roster: Marcus Forston, Armond Armstead, Cory Grissom

POSITIONAL NEED: During an interview this past season, Bill Belichick referenced the team’s “top three” defensive tackles being on injured reserve. The first two -- Wilfork and Kelly -- were obvious, but the third was Armstead, a former Canadian Football League standout who had surgery on an infection just before training camp. If all three return next season -- each is coming off of a serious injury -- the Patriots will have very good depth and talent at the position. Wilfork and Kelly are both in their 30’s and entering the final year of their contracts, so this could still be an area where the Patriots look to add a young body. But while some might perceive this to be the first area of need for the team entering 2014, getting healthy would go a long way towards resolving the woes of the run defense from last season.

Pats improve in Kiper regrade

January, 23, 2014
One of our first instincts following the NFL draft is to assess how teams fared in the process.

Following last year's draft, ESPN NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. graded the Patriots' class as a C+, noting at the time: "I don't see a starter out of this draft in the short-term, but they added players with some really good traits. It's just a matter of development now."

With a full season of tape study under his belt, Kiper has re-graded each team's draft class, and the Patriots' mark improved to a B.

"Is there a star in this draft, or even a Pro Bowl-caliber player? Maybe not," Kiper writes. "But that doesn't mean the Patriots didn't do an incredible job of plugging gaps with rookies they drafted and those they picked up as undrafted free agents to keep the ship afloat as long as they did."

"Bill Belichick deserves a lot of credit for utilizing these guys to the best of their ability, but there isn't anyone who wows you in this class," Kiper also writes. "Still, the grade definitely jumps."

He also notes that the Patriots had the second most snaps played by a rookie class in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Info, while the team used 13 rookies in total.

Each of the seven drafted players made the active roster for the Patriots, with Logan Ryan, Aaron Dobson, Jamie Collins and Duron Harmon as the primary contributors.

Defensive tackle Chris Jones, a sixth-round pick of the Texans, and undrafted defensive tackle Joe Vellano also played extensively.

To see Kiper's full take on the draft re-grades (Insider content), click HERE.

Picked-up pieces from 1st-quarter review

November, 25, 2013
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Picked-up pieces from the first quarter of the New England Patriots' 34-31 overtime win over the Denver Broncos:

1. Some of the Patriots’ struggles defending the run were evident from the first play -- a 12-yard Knowshon Moreno run up the middle. Rookie defensive tackle Joe Vellano was double teamed by right tackle Orlando Franklin and right guard Louis Vasquez, while fellow rookie Chris Jones was handled by center Manny Ramirez, with a little help from left guard Zane Beadles. It didn’t help that linebacker Dont'a Hightower didn’t seem to fill his gap decisively. The Broncos won these battles consistently. Vellano and Jones play with great effort and are giving the Patriots everything they have. They were just outplayed at times, which created big running lanes for Moreno.

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesPatriots head coach Bill Belichick says there are different types of fumbles, citing some are just football plays that happen and others are a result of poor technique or skills.
2. Strong work by top Patriots draft pick Jamie Collins, who opened the game with three tackles on the game’s first five plays. Collins was part of one version of the 4-2-5 nickel, playing 22 snaps replacing Brandon Spikes at linebacker in some sub situations. In a spread passing game, it seemed the coaching staff liked Collins’ athleticism in the matchup. “I thought he was active,” Bill Belichick said of Collins. “He was in on a number of plays. It looked like the last third-down play, he was in on breaking up passes, jamming receivers, had a couple big tackles for us there.”

3. One of the topics that has come up in weekly mailbags and chats is if left guard Logan Mankins might be slipping. The Patriots’ first running play (Stevan Ridley for 7 yards) is a good example of why the answer is no. While Mankins leads the Patriots with seven penalties and has had some protection breakdowns, he still showcases the athleticism to pull, combined with impressive power that was evidenced as he drove linebacker Danny Trevathan on to his back.

4. Bill Belichick talked about the difference between fumbles that are good football plays and those that could be avoided with better discipline. We'd put Ridley's in the latter category. As he attempts to spin, he is upright and opens himself up while exposing the football to contact. Some credit obviously goes to Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard for creating the fumble, and it appeared right guard Dan Connolly might have been late coming off his initial block in a failed attempt to deter Woodyard, but with better fundamentals Ridley should be able to hold on to that ball.

5. On LeGarrette Blount's fumble, we'd put it closer to the "football plays" category as Blount seemed initially dazed by safety Duke Ihenacho’s helmet making contact with his helmet (not a penalty because he isn't a defenseless player). Blount was also attempting to protect the ball as Ihenacho arrived, which from our view, showed more awareness than Ridley's miscue.

6. Explosive rush by Broncos defensive end Von Miller to get around left tackle Nate Solder to the outside to create the Tom Brady strip sack with 9:30 remaining in the first quarter. Miller does that to a lot of left tackles. We'd imagine offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia would also point to Solder’s technique breakdown on the play, as the third-year pro didn’t get his hands on Miller early enough in the rush, which allowed Miller to dictate as Solder found himself in a compromising position.

7. Right defensive end Chandler Jones, who now has 10.5 sacks, was one of the Patriots' top defenders. He continues to evolve, mostly playing forward but also showing athleticism to drop into coverage at times. He plays out of both a 3- and 2-point stance and his sack on second-and-goal was a big play that ultimately contributed to a red-zone hold. We don’t want to undersell the strong 1-on-1 rush against left tackle Chris Clark, but there was also an important coverage element to the play as Kyle Arrington played outside leverage and took away Wes Welker, who appeared to be Peyton Manning's first read as the middle receiver in a three-wide alignment to the left. Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard also had solid man coverage on that side. Specific to Arrington, his work in the slot against Welker warrants mention as similar to Mankins, he’s been subject to criticism in some mailbags and chats this year. The feeling here is that Arrington is a solid slot corner. When asked to do more, that's when some struggles arise.

8. On the second sack of Brady, the Broncos came with a six-man blitz and it looked like a case of the Broncos having the perfect call for the play. Connolly was pulling on the play as part of creating some play-action, but the issue was that defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson was too quick to shoot the gap vacated by Connolly before center Ryan Wendell could get over to him. Easy sack. NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth quickly pointed out that it was a similar protection that resulted in a sack in last Monday's game against the Panthers and wondered the Patriots might remove the protection from the playbook. That could be the case. At the same time, we wondered if it was just a result of the Broncos matching a perfect call against it.

Progress report: Rookies chip in

November, 7, 2013
The New England Patriots have received significant contributions from their rookie class this season. In Bill Belichick's 14 years as head coach, this season ranks near the top of the list, if not at the top, in this area.

Following up Field Yates' progress report on second-year players from this morning, here is a rookie breakdown (alphabetical order):

Punter Ryan Allen: The undrafted free agent ranks 10th in the NFL with a 46.4 average and 16th in net punting (39.9) as he's proven to be up to the task of replacing veteran Zoltan Mesko. He's also the holder on field goals, and Stephen Gostkowski is 22 of 23 this season. Allen's eight touchbacks are tied for the NFL high, which is an area for improvement.

Guard Chris Barker: Claimed on waivers from the Dolphins at the final roster cutdown, the undrafted free agent from Nevada dressed for the first three games of the season as veteran backup Will Svitek was working his way back from a knee injury, but hasn't played on offense. This looks like a red-shirt year for him as the Patriots have avoided the risk of another team claiming him on waivers (Dolphins?) should they try to move him to the practice squad.

Linebacker Steve Beauharnais: The seventh-round draft choice from Rutgers has dressed for three games, but hasn't played on defense. This appears to be more of a red-shirt year for him.

Receiver Josh Boyce: The fourth-round draft choice from Texas Christian played in the first five games (1 catch, 24 yards) but has been inactive for the past four as veteran Austin Collie was viewed as a more consistent option. Boyce is one of the fastest receivers on the team, but appears to need a little more time to put it all together.

Defensive end Michael Buchanan: The seventh-round pick from Illinois opened the season as the primary right defensive end in sub packages, but a few struggles with rush-lane integrity (Oct. 6 vs. Bengals and Oct. 20 vs. Jets) led to the signing of veteran Andre Carter, who has since taken over that role. Buchanan contributes on special teams and is now No. 4 on the overall defensive end depth chart, with obvious upside.

Linebacker Jamie Collins: The second-round pick from Southern Mississippi has been a core special teams player and was integrated a bit more defensively after linebacker Jerod Mayo was lost to a season-ending injury Oct. 13. But after flashing a bit Oct. 20 vs. the Jets, he was pushed around in the first half against the Dolphins on Oct. 27 and has played sparingly on defense since. He has all the tools, but appears to need a bit more time.

Receiver Aaron Dobson: The second-round pick from Marshall has come on strong in recent weeks, elevating to the top spot on the depth chart as the X outside target. He has 31 receptions for 454 yards with four touchdowns, and at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds gives the Patriots a combination of size and speed that they haven't had at the position since Randy Moss.

Safety Duron Harmon: Considered a reach as a third-round pick, the Rutgers product has been a top backup behind starters Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory, playing in some sub packages. He also filled in on special teams when core player Tavon Wilson was out with a hamstring injury. Teammates have talked about his smarts and his professional approach.

Defensive tackle Chris Jones: Claimed on waivers from the Buccaneers on Sept. 11, he earns our vote for Patriots "rookie of the first half" with five sacks in six games played. At 6-foot-1 and 309 pounds, his quickness has been an asset as an interior rusher, and he's been competitive from a strength/physical standpoint on run plays. Waived by the Texans, who drafted him in the sixth round, he briefly landed in Tampa before the Buccaneers let him go and the Patriots pounced. He has proven to be a steal.

Cornerback Logan Ryan: The third-round pick from Rutgers has made some big plays, such as an interception return for a touchdown against the Jets on Oct. 20, as he's been thrust into a top reserve role in recent weeks with Aqib Talib out. At 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, he has mostly been competitive in coverage and shown a willingness to play the run.

Receiver Kenbrell Thompkins: The undrafted free agent from Cincinnati has slid down the depth chart the past two weeks after serving mostly as the primary X option on the outside (23 catches, 334 yards, 4 TDs) through the first seven games. He made the big game-winning catch against the Saints on Oct. 13, but has since been passed on the depth chart by Dobson.

Defensive tackle Joe Vellano: The undrafted free agent from Maryland is one of the surprises of the season. After opening the season as the No. 3 option behind Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, he has been thrust into a starting role as both veterans have been lost to season-ending injuries. At 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds, he might be viewed as undersized by some, but he wins with technique and scrappiness.

Upon Further Review: Patriots Week 5

October, 7, 2013
CINCINNATI -- A review of four hot issues following the New England Patriots' 13-6 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals:

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanPatriots QB Tom Brady finished Sunday's Week 5 game in Cincinnati with 197 yards, no TDs and one interception.
Offensive struggles: In a script that has been flipped from recent years, it's the defense carrying the offense at this point. Quarterback Tom Brady was held to fewer than 200 yards passing for the second time this season, as the Bengals defense controlled the game at the line of scrimmage. "We scored six points; I don't even remember the last time we've done that," Brady said Monday morning on sports radio WEEI. The last time the Patriots scored fewer points was a 21-0 shutout loss at Miami on Dec. 10, 2006. Looking for a place to start when it comes to turning around the fortunes of the offense? Start up front with the offensive line, where all five starters return and a better performance than what was put forth Sunday in Cincinnati is expected.

Rob Gronkowski's potential return: The tight end has missed the first five games of the regular season, but he could return Sunday against the Saints. The Patriots couldn't convert in their one trip inside the red zone Sunday, and Brady threw incomplete to left tackle-turned-eligible tight end Nate Solder in the end zone. Gronkowski, who figures to be managed upon his return to the field, could at least help in the red zone.

Tommy Kelly and defensive tackle depth: The veteran defensive tackle left Sunday's game with a right knee injury in the fourth quarter and didn't return. Kelly said after the game that "everything was good" with the knee, and he wasn't walking with a limp or with the aid of crutches, although it's still a bit unclear what that means. The Patriots are thin at defensive tackle after losing Vince Wilfork to a season-ending Achilles injury, and if Kelly is sidelined for any period of time, it would further deplete the ranks. Rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones are the only other defensive tackles on the roster, while Marcus Forston and A.J. Francis are on the practice squad.

Banged-up running back group: With veteran Leon Washington leaving Sunday's game with an ankle injury and not returning, Shane Vereen on short-term injured reserve, and Stevan Ridley sidelined Sunday with a knee injury, the Patriots were down to just two running backs -- LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden. Both had miscues that hurt the team -- Blount a second-quarter fumble and Bolden two drops. As the passing game struggles to produce consistent results, it would help to be able to turn to the running game. But it's a depleted group and we'll be interested to see if Washington's injury leads the team to consider injured reserve as an option.

Football journey: Joe Vellano

October, 5, 2013
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – When defensive lineman Joe Vellano was going through the predraft process earlier this year, one NFL coach made a personal visit to see him at the University of Maryland.

It was Bill Belichick.

“That was a good opportunity, pretty neat,” Vellano recalled. “At that time, for me, he’s obviously a huge name. So it was exciting.”

About six months later, Vellano now projects as a central figure in Belichick’s defensive scheme. With perennial Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork lost for the season with an Achilles injury, Vellano is the projected starter in his place.

Few could have seen that coming just a few months ago, as the 6-foot-2, 300-pound Vellano was viewed by many a long shot to earn a spot on the New England Patriots' 53-man roster after going undrafted.

[+] EnlargeJoe Vellano
AP Photo/John BazemoreAfter the injury to Vince Wilfork, rookie Joe Vellano has vaulted into a key role on the defensive line.
This is his football journey:

When he first started playing football: “I was in the third grade. We always played in the backyard, and me and my brother wanted to play. He was in fifth grade. Then my dad took us to play.”

First positions: “I played O-line and D-line, but I didn’t really get into the D-line until high school.”

Favorite teams growing up: “I really watched Maryland, more college. I wasn’t real big into the NFL. I liked the game more than a particular team.”

Top memories from attending high school at Christian Brothers Academy: “I got to play with my brother my sophomore year. He was a senior, and I thought that was always fun. Going to a smaller school, all my friends were on the team. It was me, my cousin and my brother, so all our friends were everybody’s friends. We had a big group. My senior year we won the section and made it to the state semi.”

Enrolling at the University of Maryland, where his father had been a first-team All-American: “I would have went there anyway, just following them growing up. I went to all the football camps down there. They offered me after my junior year and I committed the next day. They were the first ones to offer me.”

Favorite memories playing at Maryland as he followed in his father's footsteps as an All-American, the first father-son combo at the same school in ACC history: “I had a great time. The one game we beat Miami, on the Labor Day Monday, was an awesome game, the whole atmosphere. The year before that, we played Navy on Labor Day as well, in the Ravens’ stadium. Those were two big openers. Those were the biggest games I had a chance to play in during college.”

Benefiting from the approach of Maryland coaches: “I was kind of lucky having great coaches in my career who taught me a lot of technique and building awareness of football in general. At Maryland, under both coaching staffs I had [Ralph Friedgen and Randy Edsall], they really worked every day, all summer and everything, so I was used to working. Also, my two line coaches – Coach [Greg] Gattuso, who is there right now under Coach Edsall, and Coach [Dave] Sollazzo, who is the D-line coach at UMass now. I can’t say anything but the best about them. I liked it.”

Not being selected in April’s NFL draft: “You kind of hear stuff from people, but you never know how it’s going to go. I was hoping to be drafted, but I was prepared not to be. A lot of stuff goes into it, but I got a chance to come here and tried to make the best of it. I thought that was the biggest thing with Coach Belichick – just getting here, undrafted, you might feel like you’re just a camp body or something. But his biggest thing was, ‘I don’t care if you were undrafted, or you were drafted, or you went to a big school or small school, it’s all about what you can do now that you’re here.’ I tried to take to that. Obviously, he’s one of the best.”

Spending time with Belichick and Patriots coaches before the draft: “He was in the area, doing some workouts. Pat [Graham], our D-line coach, came down, too. There were four or five of us doing some agility [drills] and watching some film and going over some stuff for a couple others. When Coach Belichick was down our way, me and a couple guys did the same thing [with him]. It was a little different here or there, but just watching film and stuff.”

Influences growing up:“My dad [Paul] and my brother, really. My brother [also Paul] is older, so I was always trying to do what he was doing, following him. I was always playing with the older kids, trying to keep up with them. I had a lot of great high school coaches as well, and Pop Warner. I was surrounded by pretty good football people. I had a lot of support growing up. There were a lot of positive things around me, with coaches and family. They’d always come to a lot of games.”

When he thought the NFL might be realistic for him: “The biggest thing I looked at was guys I played at Maryland with, and I saw how they did it. Then they got a chance [in the NFL] as well, and you saw them playing well. A guy like Phil Costa, now with Dallas, he was one of the older guys and we always went against him. Or other guys you played against in the league. Not that you were comparing yourself, but it was more that it wasn’t that far away. Just building practice to practice, game to game, year to year, putting them together.”

What he likes about football: “You can get ahead if you know what’s going to happen to you, and if you know how they are going to attack you, you can be in the best position. Just trying to have good footwork, knowing what’s coming at you. It’s a lot of situations. It’s chess, it’s not checkers, I think that’s the biggest thing.”

Summing up his football journey: “It’s been a great ride. I’ve had a lot of fun. It’s a lot of work and it’s something you just have to be really consistent with. There is no substitute for hard work. You have to learn it. It’s tough. Every day you have to be good. It’s not just a one-day thing. One thing about football, you have to practice real well. You probably practice more in football than you do in any other sport, so practices carry over to games. If you’re bringing it every day in practice, it’s going to eventually show up in the games. That’s probably the biggest thing.”

Belichick talks DL rookies Vellano, Jones

September, 30, 2013
With defensive tackle Vince Wilfork tearing his Achilles, it shines a brighter spotlight on the team's remaining personnel at the position.

Veteran Tommy Kelly was the starter alongside Wilfork, with rookies Joe Vellano, 24, and Chris Jones, 23, in the third and fourth spots on the depth chart.

Vellano (undrafted free agent) and Jones (waiver pickup Sept. 11 after being dropped by the Texans and then the Bucs) are lower-profile players and Bill Belichick was asked about them Monday:

• On Vellano: “Joe’s a hard-working kid. He was a productive player in college. He played a lot of spots at Maryland. He played end, he played tackle, he played some on the nose.

“He’s got good instincts, kind of has a nose for the ball, good feel for what’s going on. He’s really worked hard to first come in as an undrafted player and earn a spot on the roster. He had an opportunity to get some playing time as we went through the preseason and he took advantage of those opportunities. He made a few plays, had some production. That led to a little bit more opportunity.

“There’s a lot of things that’s he’s improved in in terms of technique and recognition and reaction. He’s making progress. He works hard every day. He’s the first one on and last one off the field or close to it, puts in a lot of extra time, tries to get better at the things he needs to work on and that’s helped him.”

• On Jones: “This was the first game he was active for us. He’s had a couple of weeks of practice, a lot of meetings with coach [Patrick] Graham, extra work on the field before and after practice, especially after practice, one on one and different group drills that we do. I think he’s getting a better familiarity with our system and our communication, the techniques that we play. He did some of those in Houston, where he played both nose and end in a 3-4 scheme. ...

"Overall he’s getting familiar with what we do. Our calls, his assignments, block reaction, all those kind of things have been better over the past couple of weeks and he was active for the game. He had an opportunity to play some last night. Hopefully he can build on that.”

Quick-hit thoughts after third quarter

September, 29, 2013
ATLANTA -- Entering the final quarter of play, the New England Patriots lead the Atlanta Falcons 13-10. Passing along quick-hit notes and observations from the third quarter:

1. Bolden returns. After leaving the game in the first half with a knee injury, running back Brandon Bolden returned to open the second half. Bolden was unable to play in each of the team's first two games due to a right knee issue. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork, meanwhile, was ruled out of the rest of the game due to a right ankle issue.

2. Edelman triggers incentive clause. In catching his third pass of the night, wide receiver Julian Edelman made himself a nice chunk of change, as he triggered an incentive clause in his contract that entitles him to $30,000 for 30 catches during the season. The next benchmark: 40 catches and an escalation of that bonus to $70,000.

3. Dobson banged up. At the conclusion of an extended drive that resulted in a chip shot field goal, Patriots receiver Aaron Dobson went down to the ground and clutched his right shoulder area after taking a crunching hit in the end zone. Dobson, who was the intended target of the throw on the play, was taken off the field with help from the medical staff. He later left the sideline and headed back to the locker room.

4. Vellano registers first sack. Getting extended playtime in Wilfork's absence, undrafted rookie Joe Vellano came through with his first career sack and the first sack for the Patriots defense on the evening. The sack pushed Atlanta into a 2nd-and-23 situation, putting the initial halt on what had been a productive drive.

5. Penalty box. The following Patriots were flagged for penalties during the third quarter: guard Logan Mankins (holding), team offense (illegal shift; declined) and quarterback Tom Brady (delay of game).

Guard Kline promoted; Francis waived

September, 7, 2013
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Rookie guard Josh Kline was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster, as projected earlier in the day, the Patriots announced on Saturday.

With Kline promoted to the 53-man roster, expect him to dress in Sunday's season-opener against the Buffalo Bills and serve in a backup role and potentially on the field-goal protection unit. That likely pushes rookie center/guard Chris Barker, who was claimed on waivers from the Miami Dolphins last Sunday, to the inactive list.

To make room for Kline, the Patriots waived defensive tackle A.J. Francis, who had been claimed on waivers from the Dolphins last Sunday. Francis is a candidate to return to the practice squad should he clear waivers and have a desire to remain in New England.

This leaves the Patriots with just a three-man rotation in terms of pure defensive tackles, with starters Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly along with undrafted free agent Joe Vellano.

In addition, the Patriots announced the signing of center Braxston Cave to the practice squad. Cave had been claimed on waivers from the Browns last Sunday. After spending five days on the 53-man roster was waived by the Patriots on Thursday.

The team also confirmed the previously reported signing of running back Leon Washington, and reached an injury settlement with defensive ensd Jermaine Cunningham and Justin Francis (meaning they are now off the injured reserve list).

Sharing some midday cut-down thoughts

August, 31, 2013
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.

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.

Patriots eligible for practice squad

August, 31, 2013
Later today, the New England Patriots will finalize the first iteration of their 53-man roster. But the player puzzle doesn’t end there, as the team will begin constructing its practice squad, which can be up to eight players, on Sunday.

It would be no surprise for the Patriots to bring aboard players waived by other teams as members of their practice squad, but the unit will also likely include players waived by the team Saturday.

Below is a look at all current Patriots who still have practice-squad eligibility:

P Ryan Allen
DT Armond Armstead (on reserve/PUP)
LB Steve Beauharnais
DE Jake Bequette
WR Josh Boyce
DE Michael Buchanan
LB Jamie Collins
LB Ja'Gared Davis
S Kanorris Davis
WR Aaron Dobson
DT Marcus Forston
DB Justin Green
DT Cory Grissom (on injured reserve)
S Duron Harmon
WR Mark Harrison (on reserve/PUP)
G Josh Kline
C/G Chris McDonald
CB Logan Ryan
WR Quentin Sims
TE Zach Sudfeld
LB Jeff Tarpinian
WR Kenbrell Thompkins
DT Joe Vellano
RB George Winn
OL Markus Zusevics (on injured reserve)

Defensive starters for Patriots

August, 29, 2013
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Defensive starters for the New England Patriots tonight against the New York Giants:

DE -- Michael Buchanan
DT -- Marcus Forston
DT -- Joe Vellano
DE -- Jake Bequette
LB -- Dane Fletcher
LB -- Steve Beauharnais
LB -- Jamie Collins
CB -- Logan Ryan
CB -- Marquice Cole
S -- Adrian Wilson
S -- Duron Harmon

Wilson's presence among the second- and third-stringers is notable.

Sharing thoughts on roster moves

August, 26, 2013
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A few thoughts on today's roster moves by the Patriots:

1. The team now has 77 players on the roster. Two more moves must be made by Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET.

2. Tim Tebow survives ... for now. This is one of the notable storylines of the week, as it appears that Tebow is fighting for a job. Bill Belichick told 98.5 The Sports Hub before last Thursday's preseason game that he had about 80 percent of the 53-man roster set. Tebow, based on his performance in the preseason, would seemingly be part of the other 20 percent, which means Thursday night's preseason finale against the Giants could be big for him.

3. None of the moves are a surprise. A player like veteran linebacker Niko Koutouvides, whose primary contributions come as a core special teamer, could always return during the season if the need arises (similar to last year).

4. With defensive tackle Armond Armstead landing on the reserve/non-football illness list, he isn't eligible to start practicing until after the sixth week of the season. So this adds a little more context as to where things stand with his health after he had surgery for an infection at some point before training camp. He remains under contract to the Patriots but won't count against the roster by landing on the reserve/NFI list. The Patriots had been counting on Armstead to be a big part of their plans and depth remains thin behind starters Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly.

5. Rookie defensive tackle Cory Grissom (South Florida) was a strong practice squad candidate, but with him landing on injured reserve, it opens the door for another rookie tackle to stick on the practice squad (Joe Vellano, Anthony Rashad White the top candidates). It also led to the re-signing of defensive tackle Scott Vallone to the roster to address a depth shorage.

6. At receiver, third-year player Kamar Aiken was competitive early in camp but an injury derailed him. Also, rookies Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce seemed to generate more momentum and were a bit more consistent over the course of camp.

7. We didn't have offensive tackle/guard Markus Zusevics making the final roster, but others did, which reflected his standing as a bubble blocker around No. 8 on the depth chart. There seems to be a pretty big dropoff after the top 6 or 7 offensive linemen so this remains an area the Patriots figure to explore on the waiver wire and free agency.