NFL Nation: Devin McCourty

Now that we have definitive financial details on contracts signed by receivers Julian Edelman (4 years) and Brandon LaFell (3 years); cornerbacks Darrelle Revis (2 years) and Brandon Browner (3 years); and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (2 years), there is a better feel for where things stand with the New England Patriots' salary cap.

Salary-cap space is often fluid, so we'll focus on the general range of $4-7 million in space for the Patriots at this time.

That's not a lot of breathing room on the $133 million cap, especially when it comes to factoring in space needed to sign draft picks. Also, only the top 51 contracts are accounted for when factoring salary-cap space at this time on the NFL calendar.

As is often stated, a team can quickly alter its salary-cap picture with a few transactions. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for example, created about $16 million in space when they released Revis last week.

With this in mind, here are a few areas where the Patriots might seek cap relief:

Wilfork
Vince Wilfork -- The defensive captain has an $11.6 million salary-cap charge. The Patriots would gain about $7.6 million in space if Wilfork is not on the roster, but that would also create a rather large void at the heart of the defense. The team would seemingly like to have the best of both worlds -- Wilfork on the roster, but at a reduced cap charge.

Dan Connolly -- The starting right guard is scheduled to earn a base salary of $3 million in 2014, and will count $4 million on the cap. If he isn't on the roster, the team would pick up about $2.6 million in space, but it would also create an opening on the line to fill. Similar to Wilfork, the Patriots would seemingly like to have the best of borh worlds -- Connolly on the roster, but at a reduced cap charge.

Adrian Wilson -- The veteran safety who spent last season on injured reserve has a $1.8 million cap charge. He looked to be in jeopardy of not making the roster out of training camp last year, which would seem to put his spot on the team in 2014 in jeopardy. The Patriots would pick up just shy of $1 million in space if he's not on the roster.

McCourty
Devin McCourty -- A foundation player who figures to be approached about a contract extension at some point, he counts $5.1 million against the salary cap in 2014, which is the final year of his initial rookie contract. A big-money extension could create space in the $2-3 million range depending on the way it's structured.

Stephen Gostkowski -- The reliable kicker has a $3.8 million cap charge in the final year of his contract. Similar to McCourty, he's a candidate for an extension that could create some breathing room on the cap.

Logan Mankins -- The perennial Pro Bowl guard is scheduled to earn $6.2 million in base salary this season. The Patriots could turn that into a signing bonus and protate it over the remaining three years of the deal, which would lower the 2014 cap charge but increase the cap charge in 2015 and 2016 to potentially set up a similar situation to what the Patriots have now with Wilfork.

QUICK-HIT THOUGHTS: In putting this list together, a hat tip is warranted for Miguel Benzan of PatsFans.com, who does meticulous work on the cap. Some of his latest work on the Patriots' cap situation can be read here, and he keeps an updated snapshot of the team's salary-cap status that is often a nice guide. If there is one thought to sum it all up, it's that a big-money signing or acquisition (e.g. Jared Allen/DeSean Jackson) seems highly unlikely at this point. At some point down the line, the Patriots could get some relief from Aaron Hernandez's $7.5 million cap charge, but there is nothing imminent on that front as we understand it. That figures to be a longer process.

Devin McCourty: Pats' D on the cusp

February, 25, 2014
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BOSTON -- When New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty was asked for his Super Bowl prediction in the days leading up to the game, he went with the Seattle Seahawks. He talked about how defense wins championships, and since he's a defender himself, that was the easy selection.

McCourty
With that, McCourty showed the ability to make the decisive pick on and off the field (he has 15 career interceptions).

After watching how decisively the Seahawks clamped down on the Denver Broncos, McCourty was asked Tuesday during an appearance at Boston Children's Hospital if he envisions the Patriots elevating to a similar defensive level.

"I think we can," said McCourty, a team captain who enters his fifth NFL season. "Those guys had a great game plan and they went out there and executed it on the biggest stage of the year. That's what it really comes down to in games like that."

McCourty relayed his viewpoint that the Patriots' defense did "great things" in 2013, while noting future success comes down to consistency. Asked what gives him the confidence that the Patriots' defense could consistently impact a game like the Seahawks did in the Super Bowl, McCourty pointed to his teammates.

"Just last year, we went through a lot defensively and as a team, and to see guys continue to work hard and try to get better and go out there to win as many games as we did -- to fall a little short, but it gives you the confidence going forward we know we have the right guys to build something," he said.

Two key players in that building process are McCourty himself and free-agent cornerback Aqib Talib.

McCourty naturally voiced his support for Talib, saying he hopes he returns in 2014 and beyond. Then there's McCourty's own contract status, as he enters the final year of the rookie deal he signed in 2010 and is scheduled to earn a base salary of $3.92 million.

McCourty is a strong candidate for a contract extension at some point.

"I don't even think about it," he said. "I go out, play football, and I truly believe the rest will take care of itself ... There's nothing else I can control. I like to not drive myself crazy and by doing that, it's focusing on what you can control."

McCourty spent part of the morning at Boston Children's Hospital serving pancakes from International House of Pancakes after meeting with doctors about sickle cell disease, as part of his "Tackle Sickle Cell" campaign.

As for the pancakes, McCourty joked about his flavor of choice, "I'm more just buttermilk. Just give me some hot syrup and I'm ready to go."
PHILADELPHIA -- The good news for Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly is he doesn’t have to spend the next couple months traveling to high school kids’ homes and recruiting them.

The bad news?

"It’s a different league," Kelly said. "This isn't recruiting where you can go out and offer and try to get them to come. There's a selection in the draft process and we're not going to pick until the 22nd [spot in the first round]. There's 21 other guys that we may covet, but we don't have an opportunity to get them."

If a team drafted 22d every year and did well, it could be awfully good. Based on the last 10 years, drafting only players taken between No. 22 and No. 32 (the end of the first round), a team could have Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, wide receivers Dez Bryant and Santonio Holmes, running backs Steven Jackson and Chris Johnson, linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, safety Brandon Meriweather and defensive linemen Cameron Jordan and Sharrif Floyd.

You could do worse. Plenty of teams did do worse. Cleveland took two quarterbacks, Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden, at No. 22.

Later we’ll look at some possible players the Eagles could consider at No. 22 in this year’s draft. For now, here’s a quick look at the 22nd pick in each of the past 10 NFL drafts, along with a few players that were on the board at the time (I didn’t go beyond the end of the first round out of fairness; just looking at first-round graded players):

2013: Cornerback Desmond Trufant from Washington, selected by Atlanta.

On the board: Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, WR/Returner Cordarrelle Patterson, defensive end Datone Jones.

2012: Quarterback Brandon Weeden from Oklahoma State, selected by Cleveland.

On the board: Linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Nick Perry, running back Doug Martin.

2011: Offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo from Boston College, selected by Indianapolis.

On the board: Offensive lineman Danny Watkins, defensive end Cameron Jordan, running back Mark Ingram.

2010: Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas from Georgia Tech, selected by Denver.

On the board: Wide receiver Dez Bryant, quarterback Tim Tebow, cornerback Devin McCourty.

2009: Wide receiver Percy Harvin from Florida, selected by Minnesota.

On the board: Offensive tackle Michael Oher, cornerback Vontae Davis, linebacker Clay Matthews.

2008: RB Felix Jones from Arkansas, selected by Dallas.

On the board: Running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Johnson, cornerback Mike Jenkins.

2007: Quarterback Brady Quinn from Notre Dame, selected by Cleveland.

On the board: Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, safety Brandon Meriweather, linebackers Jon Beason and Anthony Spencer, offensive tackle Joe Staley.

2006: Linebacker Manny Lawson from N.C. State, selected by San Francisco.

On the board: Offensive lineman Davin Joseph, wide receiver Santonio Holmes, running back DeAngelo Williams, defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka.

2005: Wide receiver Mark Clayton from Oklahoma, selected by Baltimore.

On the board: Cornerback Fabian Washington, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, wide receiver Roddy White.

2004: Quarterback J.P. Losman from Tulane, selected by Buffalo.

On the board: Defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs, running back Steven Jackson, defensive end Jason Babin.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With larger than normal media crowds on hand at Gillette Stadium this week in advance of the Patriots' first playoff game of the season, the team has had several players address the media from the podium that normally is used just for Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady's press conferences.

On Wednesday, safety Devin McCourty and left tackle Nate Solder were among the talkers, and below are some of the highlights:

McCourty taps into brother for knowledge: McCourty has an X-factor of sorts on his side this week, as his twin brother, Jason, a Titans cornerback, has faced the Colts twice a season since the start of his career. Devin said that he checks in with his brother when the Patriots face an opponent the Titans have seen.

McCourty
"Of course. He really just tells me the notes that they've got," he said. "I think it's big when you play someone twice a year, you understand more about them than I understand just from a personnel standpoint. He sends me everything he has and I texted him before and said, 'Whenever you've got time, send me over the Colts notes.' "

While the Patriots and Titans play different defensive schemes, Devin added that advanced knowledge of the Colts' tendencies can be beneficial.

"Tendencies, what they do as an offense," he said. "And then what we really talk about a lot is the players. How he felt a player was, what he felt he did well when he watched film."

Solder makes unique comparison: All eyes this weekend will be on Solder as he squares off against ferocious Colts defensive end Robert Mathis, who does his work from the right side of the Colts line.

Solder
Solder
Mathis led the NFL with 19.5 sacks this season, due in part to both his natural talents and his relentless pursuits, according to Solder.

"I think it's rare that you get a guy that has that much talent and then plays so hard every play and that's him," he said. "That's the challenge of him, I think."

Solder also passed along a unique player comparison for Mathis.

"Maybe [New Orleans Saints defensive end] Junior Galette, maybe but I would say he's kind of unique in the things that he can do, really unique, I'd say," he said.

Though they are similar in some ways, Solder didn't want to suggest they are carbon copies of each other.

"I wouldn't have gone too far with that," he said of the Mathis-Galette comparison. "But they have a real sharp quickness, they're quick off the ball, they have a nose for the ball, they play really hard. I think those are the things."

Solder did well to hold Galette without a sack back in a Week 5 meeting with New Orleans, something he hopes to replicate this Saturday against Mathis and the Colts.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Patriots safety Devin McCourty, who has missed practice each day this week after suffering a Week 16 concussion, is listed as doubtful to play against the Bills in the regular-season finale. McCourty was spotted in the locker room on Friday, though he politely declined an interview request.

Rookie wide receiver Josh Boyce will miss his second consecutive game due to an ankle injury suffered in Week 15, while 11 other players, including starting defensive end Rob Ninkovich (ankle) are questionable.

Should McCourty sit, the Patriots will turn to rookie Duron Harmon, a third-round choice out of Rutgers who previously filled in for safety Steve Gregory as he rehabbed from a broken thumb injury.

Starting left tackle Nate Solder, who sat out last week's game against Baltimore due to a concussion, is questionable after practicing on a limited basis each day this week.

The Bills declared wide receiver Steve Johnson (non-injury related) out for Sunday's game, while quarterback EJ Manuel is doubtful, with Thad Lewis named the starter.



FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty (concussion) and wide receiver Josh Boyce (ankle) were the two players absent from Thursday's practice, while defensive end Rob Ninkovich was the only addition to the injury report, with an ankle issue that limited him on Thursday.

It is not known when the injury to Ninkovich occurred or how much it has limited him. He was seen in the locker room Thursday without any noticeable limp or hitch in his step.

If McCourty and Boyce are unable to practice on Friday, it would cast doubt on their availability for Sunday's regular-season finale against the Bills.

A total of 12 players were limited in practice Thursday, a list that included left tackle Nate Solder (concussion) and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (hip), both of whom missed the Week 16 game in Baltimore.


McCourty, Boyce absent from practice

December, 24, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Starting safety Devin McCourty and rookie wide receiver Josh Boyce (ankle) were the two New England Patriots not spotted at the team's walkthrough on Tuesday morning.

Joyce
Boyce
McCourty
McCourty left Sunday's game after tackling Ravens tight end Ed Dickson in the third quarter and did not return. The team officially announced it as a head injury, although it is unclear if McCourty suffered a concussion. Rookie safety Duron Harmon filled in for McCourty.

Boyce, meanwhile, suffered a Week 15 ankle injury against the Dolphins that kept him off the practice field all of last week and out of Sunday's game. The timetable for his return is unclear.

Running back Shane Vereen, who left Sunday's game with a groin injury, was on the field and taking part in team stretching. Safety Steve Gregory, who left the game Sunday with an undisclosed injury but did return, was present for the walkthrough but spent the media-access portion of it on the sidelines.

Left tackle Nate Solder (concussion) and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) were also present for the indoor walkthrough.

One additional note: Running back LeGarrette Blount was still wearing his AFC East Champions hat. He obviously likes the fit.

Patriots' top CB trio questionable

November, 22, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots' top three cornerbacks -- Aqib Talib (hip), Alfonzo Dennard (knee) and Kyle Arrington (groin) -- and safety Steve Gregory (thumb) are all listed as questionable to play Sunday night when the team hosts the Denver Broncos.

Talib, the team's top cornerback, left Monday night's game against Carolina after his hip tightened up, though he has practiced each day this week on a limited basis. Dennard, who sat out Monday night's game, and Arrington also practiced each day this week.

Gregory, the team's starter alongside Devin McCourty, sat out Monday's game after injuring his thumb in Week 9.

The status of these four will be an area to monitor as the Patriots face the Broncos' top-rated passing attack, which looks likely to have receiver Wes Welker on the field, as he is listed as probable to play after suffering a concussion last Sunday night.

The Patriots also listed running back Leon Washington, who has not played since suffering a Week 5 ankle injury, as questionable.

Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who left Monday's game with a knee injury that cost him each day of practice this week, will not play on Sunday.

Linebacker Brandon Spikes, who has been bothered by a knee injury since Monday night, is listed as probable despite practicing on a limited basis each day this week.

Quarterback Tom Brady (shoulder), tight end Rob Gronkowski (back, forearm, hamstring), wide receiver Danny Amendola (groin), and running back Shane Vereen (wrist) are also among those Patriots listed as probable for Sunday.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Facing arguably the greatest challenge of his 14-year NFL career, stripped of his go-to receiver Wes Welker and then some, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady arrived at training camp hoping to do more.

Never before has the team had such a youthful look at the position, where there have been more struggles than successes in drafting and developing talent. The Patriots opened training camp with 12 receivers on the roster, six of whom are rookies.

Three of those young pups -- second-round draft choice Aaron Dobson, fourth-rounder Josh Boyce and free-agent Kenbrell Thompkins -- have taken more repetitions with Brady through the first three days of training camp than most could have imagined. One reason the results have looked fairly sharp is the extra work that was put in thanks to Brady's early arrival (rookies reported the day before Brady).

It is almost as if Brady is more than just the team's quarterback now; he's part coach, too. Unlike his record-breaking 2007 season, when there was an immediate connection with veterans Randy Moss, Welker and Jabar Gaffney, there is a certain teacher-student dynamic in play now. Brady, a stickler for detail, can be tough to please.

"He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game, so he’s definitely demanding,” said the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Dobson, a smooth-strider from Marshall who the Patriots hope will fill the outside role that Chad Johnson (2011) and Brandon Lloyd (2012) filled the past two years. “[He’s] definitely tough to play for.”

Some used to say the same thing about Miami Dolphins great Dan Marino, and there is a connection in play between Marino and what Brady currently faces. Because Marino had played for so long in Miami (1983 to '99), the offense grew so much each season that it was difficult in Marino’s later years for any young or new receiver to handle. So when go-to receivers Mark Clayton and Mark Duper were no longer in the mix -- they had grown with Marino in the offense -- it was a challenge to find anyone capable of stepping in.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has acknowledged that’s a similar dynamic to what his team is currently navigating. This is Brady’s 14th year in the Patriots’ offense, which has evolved in many layers since his first year in 2000, and there is a lot there for any receiver to handle, let alone a rookie.

That is a big reason why the Patriots were drawn to Dobson and Boyce in the draft, and why Thompkins -- an older rookie at 25 who went undrafted after two years at Cincinnati -- has been an under-the-radar surprise to this point. All have a high football IQ. And so does free-agent signee Danny Amendola, who has developed a quick rapport with Brady that stands out.

Still, the Patriots might have to “trim the fat” in some areas of the playbook, according to Belichick. There will also be times when patience will be tested.

But watching Brady through the first three days of camp, part of it seems to have invigorated him. Those close to him say he is more committed than ever before; he turns 36 on Aug. 3, craves another Super Bowl championship, and knows that if all the receiver changes are going to produce the desired results -- especially with the rookies -- it is going to take extra work.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Distractions from tight end Aaron Hernandez.

In an unprecedented move, Belichick called a news conference two days before the team’s training camp practice to address Hernandez’s murder charge and its impact on the franchise. Then Brady spoke to reporters the following day. The goal was to balance the fine line between showing empathy and perspective to something bigger than football, but also position the club to move forward.

Because of that proactive approach, Hernandez wasn’t much of a topic of discussion from a media perspective by the second day of training camp. But will that change as new developments come to light in the case against Hernandez?

As one would expect, Belichick addressed players about the situation in a team meeting at the start of camp.

“He had comments, but that’s between him and the team. If he wants to share it, that’s fine,” said offensive lineman Logan Mankins, one of the team’s captains. (No surprise, but Belichick hasn’t been in the sharing mood.)

Mankins, the third-longest tenured player on the team (nine years) after Brady (14) and Wilfork (10), touched on how players are attempting to move on.

“At the time, you kind of reflect, but now it’s football season and everything goes in a drawer; no matter how you feel about it, it’s put away,” he said. “It’s football, it’s straightforward, and that’s all you can concentrate on or you’ll fall behind. Bill puts so much pressure on everyone and demands so much work and focus that if you’re not just focusing on football, then you’re in trouble.”

2. Void at top of tight end depth chart.

By the time the Patriots had blazed a trail through the NFL in 2011 with their innovative two-tight end offense, Rob Gronkowski had played almost 95 percent of the offensive snaps and Hernandez about 77 percent. The results were impressive, and others around the league considered plans to attempt to duplicate it.

That’s also when the Patriots extended the contracts of both players -- Gronkowski through 2019 and Hernandez 2018 -- with the idea of building their offense around them (over Welker).

The plans obviously haven’t worked out as desired, and if Gronkowski isn’t ready for the regular-season opener Sept. 8 at Buffalo after a surgery-filled offseason, it sparks the questions: Who fills the void, and how does it impact plans to play with multiple tight ends?

[+] EnlargeJake Ballard
AP Photo/Charles KrupaThe Patriots may lean heavily on former New York Giants TE Jake Ballard early in the season as Rob Gronkowski rehabs from injury.
Former New York Giant Jake Ballard (6-6, 260) and returning veterans Daniel Fells (6-4, 260) and Michael Hoomanawanui (6-4, 260) are the top candidates, while rookie free agent Zach Sudfeld (6-7, 260) is a potential sleeper.

“I don’t want to say this is Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig, but that’s the classic story … it’s there if they can do it,” Belichick said.

Still, it would be a surprise if the Patriots run as many multiple-tight end sets as they did in 2011. The numbers were down to about 50 percent last year when Gronkowski and Hernandez missed significant time with injuries.

3. Tim Tebow’s role.

On a scale of 1-10 in terms of importance to the team’s success, No. 3 quarterback Tim Tebow is closer to the “1” than the “10.” Yet there is intrigue.

Tebow hasn’t been consistent as a drop-back passer in practices and appears to be at his best on the move or as a runner. That explains why he has been the only quarterback in the drill in which ball carriers run with the football in a confined space after making a catch, and then the defenders execute proper tackling technique.

Do the Patriots see enough value in him, possibly as a scout-team quarterback, to reserve a coveted spot on the 53-man roster? That’s a hot-button topic that has generated passionate response from both circles.

“He’s a good guy first, a super-nice guy and a good guy to talk to,” Mankins said of Tebow. “He works his butt off, so we’ll see if he can find a role.”

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Since Brady is the quarterback, Belichick is the coach, and the team is playing in the AFC East, what’s not to like? And we’ve made it to this point with nary a mention of the team’s defense, which should be improved when factoring in that 10 of 11 starters return and the addition of a few complementary pieces, such as veteran safety Adrian Wilson, who brings size (6-3, 230) and an intimidating presence.

Last year, the Patriots traded up in the first round for defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and they could be difference-makers. Jones was hobbled by an ankle injury for most of the second half of last year and said one of his primary goals this offseason was to improve his upper-body strength. Hightower played 51 percent of the defensive snaps in 2012 but looks primed to possibly become more of a three-down option this year.

Furthermore, cornerback Aqib Talib had a significant impact -- both on the field and in the meeting room -- after he was acquired in November. Having him for a full year, in theory, should help the defense improve.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

There has been too much turbulence this offseason, including starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard’s arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence. Dennard is due in court in Lincoln, Neb., on Aug. 27 to determine if he violated his probation and could potentially face an NFL suspension.

Uncertainty with Dennard, the unknown in the passing game, Gronkowski’s health questions, and layers of the roster that appear thin on depth (interior DL) mean that the margin for error the Patriots traditionally have doesn’t seem as big as before.
Finally, the departed Welker was known for his consistency and durability. The Patriots are hoping Amendola can fill the void -- and the early returns are positive -- but there are questions about whether he can play a full 16-game season based on his injury history.

OBSERVATION DECK

• The Patriots’ coaching staff returns intact from 2012, marking only the second time in Belichick’s 14-year tenure that has happened. Former Chiefs offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who joined the Patriots in January, has the title of “offensive assistant.” At times in practice, he’s worked closely with Tebow.

Devin McCourty, the 2010 first-round draft choice who made the Pro Bowl as a cornerback in his first season, appears to be settling into the safety position nicely. McCourty first moved to safety in the middle of last season, and his command of the defense, along with strong communication and sideline-to-sideline skills, make him a solid fit at the new position.

• Teammates call Wilson “The Incredible Hulk” because of his chiseled physique. Wilson and fellow veteran Steve Gregory are the top candidates vying for a starting role next to McCourty at safety.

[+] EnlargeTommy Kelly
Mike Reiss/ESPNDT Tommy Kelly should add some punch to the middle of the Patriots' defense, forming a strong 1-2 duo with Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork.
• Former Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Tommy Kelly (6-6, 310) projects as a starter next to Vince Wilfork; defensive end Rob Ninkovich called Kelly an under-the-radar player who is making a mark. Mankins said: “He’s been impressive so far, very athletic for his size. He’s quick for an inside guy. I like his work ethic. He’s been giving great effort, and if he gives us that kind of effort all season, I think he’ll have a good season.”

• Running back Stevan Ridley lost two fumbles in the team’s third practice, with Belichick sending him to run two punishment laps. Ridley led all Patriots running backs in playing 45 percent of the snaps last season, and the projection is that he should match that number this year. But if he struggles to hold on to the ball, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back LeGarrette Blount and second-year man Brandon Bolden are the top candidates to step in to that bigger back role. Blount was 2-for-2 in a goal-line running drill on Sunday. Shane Vereen looks primed to fill the void created by Danny Woodhead’s defection to the Chargers to serve as the team’s “passing back.” On Sunday, he was featured as a pass-catcher when the team worked on the screen game.

• The entire offensive line returns intact, although there could be a competition at right guard, where third-year player Marcus Cannon (6-5, 335) has been working with the top unit while incumbent Dan Connolly (shoulder) works his way back.

• Top draft choice Jamie Collins, the linebacker/defensive end from Southern Mississippi (52nd overall), has received his initial work at linebacker. He’s the first linebacker to rotate into 11-on-11 drills, often replacing middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, who has been more of a two-down player.

• Former Canadian Football League defensive lineman Armond Armstead opened training camp on the non-football illness list. Belichick said the illness is different from the heart condition that led him to leave Southern Cal in 2011 and land in the CFL, and there is no indication when/if Armstead might join the team at practice. In addition, receiver Julian Edelman and Gronkowski opened camp on the physically unable to perform list.

Leon Washington, who signed with the Patriots after three seasons with the Seahawks, has served as the primary kickoff returner, where the Patriots are banking on improved results after ranking 25th in the NFL last season (21.2-yard average).

• Ballard, who said he played at 278 pounds in New York, is down to 260. The hope is that it doesn’t affect him at the line of scrimmage as a blocker, but makes him faster and takes pressure off his knee.

• Incumbent punter Zoltan Mesko, who is entering the final year of his contract, is joined on the roster by rookie Ryan Allen, the two-time Ray Guy Award winner from Louisiana Tech. Both are lefty punters; Belichick has employed a left-footed punter in each of his 14 seasons as coach.
Rolando McClain's early retirement from the NFL comes three years after the Oakland Raiders made him the eighth overall choice in the 2010 draft.



While McClain is inviting derision, I wondered whether he was even the most disappointing choice from the first round of that 2010 class. He would fit right in with the 2009 group, for sure.

A quick check of games started by 2010 first-rounders showed four players with 48 starts in 48 possible regular-season games. Three of those four players were from the NFC West: Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis of the San Francisco 49ers, and Earl Thomas of the Seattle Seahawks.

Tyson Alualu, the player Jacksonville controversially selected 10th overall, rounds out the quartet.

St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford (42) and Seattle Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung (37) were relatively close behind. Dan Williams, chosen 26th overall by the Arizona Cardinals that year, ranked 26th on the list with 21 starts over the past three seasons.

All starts aren't quality starts, of course. McClain ranks relatively high on the list with 38 starts despite his bust status. Anyone familiar with the NFL would rather have Denver Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas (23 starts) than Alualu, who has struggled with knee trouble and generally been just OK.

First-round picks from 2010 have combined for 21 Pro Bowl honors.

Maurkice Pouncey leads the way with three. Thomas is one of five players with two. Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, Eric Berry and Jermaine Gresham are the others.

Iupati and Okung are part of an eight-man grouping with one Pro Bowl. Ryan Mathews, Thomas, Devin McCourty, Gerald McCoy, C.J. Spiller and Trent Williams are the others.

Iupati, Pouncey, Suh, Thomas and Pierre-Paul have been first-team Associated Press All-Pro once apiece.

Bradford was offensive rookie of the year. Suh won defensive rookie of the year.

 

The New England Patriots finally landed the playmaking safety they were looking for to help fix their 29th-ranked pass defense. The Patriots reached an agreement with five-time Pro Bowler Adrian Wilson, his agent confirmed on Twitter on Friday evening.

Wilson
Wilson brings a much-needed intimidating force to the back end of the Patriots' defense. He has 27 career interceptions. Wilson also is one of the top safeties at playing in the box, as evident by his 25.5 career sacks.

Age could be an issue for Wilson, who is 33 and entering his 13th season. However, Wilson has been durable, missing only two games the past five seasons. He will be a Week 1 starter for the Patriots’ secondary, which also has safeties Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson on the roster.

Wilson still has quality football left in him. He made four consecutive Pro Bowls from 2008 to 2011. New England hopes Wilson can quickly get back to his form of two years ago.

QBR ranks: Canton calls on this showing

December, 18, 2012
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Teams with the higher Total QBR scores posted a 16-0 record in Week 15.

That's not what made this week perfect for using the ESPN metric to more fully evaluate quarterback play in the NFC West, however. This was a perfect week because three quarterbacks from the division put up impressive-looking numbers in different ways.

Seattle's Russell Wilson scored three first-half rushing touchdowns during a 50-17 victory over Buffalo. San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick tossed four touchdown passes -- a first for a 49ers player since 2003 -- during a 41-34 victory at New England. St. Louis' Sam Bradford struggled while falling behind 30-7, only to pass for 229 yards and two touchdowns in the second half of a 36-22 defeat.

Total QBR measures the ways a quarterback contributes to winning. It discounts stats accumulated when a game has all but been decided. It rewards quarterbacks for rushing touchdowns, not just passing ones. While it penalizes quarterbacks for taking sacks and incurring penalties, it gives them credit to the degree a penalty for pass interference improves the chances for scoring.

So, what would it say about NFC West quarterbacks in Week 15?

The scores seem about right: 99.3 for Wilson, 87.1 for Kaepernick, 58.6 for Bradford and 21.5 for Arizona's Ryan Lindley. Note that the 100-point scale is more percentile-based than linear, meaning it's much tougher to jump from 97 to 99 than from, say, 49 to 51.

Wilson became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to finish a game with at least one touchdown pass, three rushing touchdowns and 90 yards rushing. The Pro Football Hall of Fame recognized the performance by acquiring Wilson's game uniform for display in Canton.

Wilson made most of those contributions in the first half, when they were most meaningful. The result was the highest qualifying single-game QBR score in the NFL this season.

Kaepernick posted a very solid 87.1 score for his efforts, which included the game-winning touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree. Recent opponents had limited Kaepernick to shorter passes, but the Patriots failed to do so. Kaepernick's passes traveled 12.3 yards past the line of scrimmage on average, the second-highest figure in the NFL for Week 15. Peyton Manning was at 13.9. The league average was 8.1.

Three of Kaepernick's touchdown passes traveled at least 24 yards past the line of scrimmage before reaching their targets. Receivers gained 2 yards after the catch on those throws. QBR values longer passes over shorter ones. Those touchdowns helped pump up Kaepernick's score more than if the receivers had gained a higher percentage of yards after the catch.

With that, let's take a player-by-player look at NFC West quarterbacks in relation to Total QBR for Week 15:
  • Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (99.2 QBR, 104.4 NFL rating). Wilson completed 14 of 23 passes (60.9 percent) for 205 yards with one touchdown, zero interceptions, two sacks and 10 passing first downs. He carried nine times for 92 yards and three touchdowns, with five first downs rushing. He had no fumbles. The Bills sacked Wilson on the first play of the game. They had a hard time getting a hand on him most of the day, however. The Bills did not touch Wilson on any of the quarterback's nine rushes. Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch continued to play off one another effectively on option runs.
  • Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers (87.1 QBR, 107.7 NFL rating). Kaepernick completed 14 of 25 passes (56 percent) for 216 yards with four touchdowns, one interception, one sack and 11 first downs passing. He rushed seven times for 28 yards and two first downs. Kaepernick fumbled four times, but the 49ers recovered every one. Bad weather and problems with Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork complicate efforts to make clean center-quarterback exchanges. Teammate Frank Gore picked up one of the loose balls and ran into the end zone for a touchdown. Kaepernick's downfield throwing more than offset the one interception he threw while apparently failing to see safety Devin McCourty.
  • Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams (58.6 QBR, 94.3 NFL rating). Bradford completed 35 of 55 passes for 377 yards with three touchdowns, one interception and four sacks. He ran twice for 9 yards and zero first downs. Bradford did not fumble. He has lost only one fumble all season after losing seven in 2011. After this game, Bradford said the Vikings surprised the Rams by unleashing frequent blitzes, counter to their tendencies. Minnesota had sent five or more pass-rushers only 19.2 percent of the time through Week 14, the fourth-lowest percentage in the NFL. The percentage was only 22.4 for this game, but the pressure Minnesota brought worked to great effect.As the chart from ESPN Stats & Information shows, Bradford completed only 4 of 12 passes for 58 yards with one interception when Minnesota brought more than the standard four pass-rushers. He completed 72.1 percent of his passes for 319 yards and three touchdowns the rest of the time.
  • Ryan Lindley, Arizona Cardinals (21.5 QBR, 45.0 NFL rating). Lindley completed 14 of 21 passes (66.7 percent) for 104 yards with zero touchdowns, one interception, one sack and four first downs passing. He carried twice for 8 yards and no first downs. Lindley has three games this season with a QBR score of 10 or lower. That is tied with Philip Rivers for second-most in the NFL behind Mark Sanchez, who has five. The Cardinals did not need much from Lindley in this game because their defense and special teams were dominating. They stuck with shorter passes and it paid off. Lindley did not win the game, but more importantly, he did not lose it, either.

The chart below shows QBR scores for quarterbacks relevant to NFC West games in Week 15. Rankings in the first column reflect all NFL games for the week.

Patriots are winning with youth

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
11:30
AM ET
Dont'a Hightower/Alfonzo Dennard/Chandler JonesGetty Images/AP PhotoDont'a Hightower, left, Alfonzo Dennard, center, and Chandler Jones are leading a youth movement.
The mob of media surrounded the usual veteran suspects in the locker room after the New England Patriots' 42-14 victory against the Houston Texans on Monday night.

First, Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker held court in front of the cameras and tape recorders. Then, the large group went over to Vince Wilfork's locker, as well as outside to the media room for quarterback Tom Brady's postgame news conference.

But I went a slightly different route after New England's biggest win of the season. I was particularly intrigued by the amount of young players making huge contributions for the Patriots.

I stopped by to chat with rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who was alone at his locker. The 22-year-old was a seventh-round draft pick who nearly became "Mr. Irrelevant" last April. Several months later, Dennard is a starting cornerback for a Super Bowl contender.

"I'm really blessed to be here," said a wide-eyed Dennard, who seemed a little surprised someone from the national media wanted to talk to him.

I also heard from third-year player Devin McCourty, 25, who selflessly changed from a Pro Bowl cornerback his rookie year to a starting safety for the betterment of the team. McCourty had an interception against Houston quarterback Matt Schaub in the end zone that set the tone for the eventual blowout.

"If we do what Coach [Bill] Belichick tells us during the week, we have a chance to play any team tough and to really take advantage of what he says," McCourty said.

Stories from young players like Dennard and McCourty are just two of many that have defined the 2012 Patriots. New England has long been known as a veteran team. But outside of stars like Brady, Welker and Wilfork, these are not your usual Patriots.

New England (10-3), contrary to popular belief, is winning mostly with youth this season.

The Patriots are getting better during the course of the season because their young players are rapidly improving. The Patriots have 16 starters or significant contributors who are 26 or younger. Fourteen of those players have four or fewer years of experience.

In fact, Brady and Wilfork are the only remaining players from New England's last Super Bowl-winning team in 2004. Wilfork was a rookie that season, and caught the end of New England's dynasty.

After losing in the Super Bowl last season, the Patriots had big decisions to make in the offseason. New England wisely let go of veterans such as running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and defensive ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson. Two starting offensive linemen -- left tackle Matt Light and Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters -- retired. The Patriots replaced veteran free agents with much younger players like tailback Stevan Ridley (23), left tackle Nate Solder (23) and first-round picks Chandler Jones (22) and Dont'a Hightower (22).

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Thanks to the infusion of young players, New England is playing faster and is more dynamic on both sides of the football. The Patriots lead the NFL in total offense and scoring. Rookies like Jones (six sacks), Hightower (43 tackles) and Dennard (three interceptions) helped the defense improved in several areas.

Will the Patriots' youth eventually catch up to them? So far it doesn't appear that way.

New England's young players are getting better with experience, and the Patriots still have the necessary veteran leadership from players like Brady, Wilfork, Welker and Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins. That combination led to a convincing win against Houston. The Patriots also have another tough test on Sunday night against the rugged San Francisco 49ers.

But anything can happen in a one-game scenario in January. You never quite know how young players will react in the playoffs on the NFL's biggest stage.

For example, Ridley had fumble issues late last season and in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Patriots didn't trust Ridley enough and benched him for the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl. That luxury no longer exists without Green-Ellis. The Patriots need Ridley to produce. Ridley, by the way, fumbled against Houston, but it was recovered by teammate Aaron Hernandez.

Rookies like Jones, Hightower and Dennard have never played this many games in one season. Including exhibitions, New England could play in 23 or 24 games if it makes a deep postseason run. The Patriots are counting on their rookie contributors to stay sharp.

Many of these young Patriots are learning on the job -- but it's been a job well done thus far.

Texans get a lesson in 'what it takes'

December, 11, 2012
12/11/12
2:28
AM ET
Matt SchaubAP Photo/Steven SenneGary Kubiak and Matt Schaub couldn't solve the New England defense while the game was close.


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Their critics punched holes in 11-1, citing a soft schedule, trouble against top quarterbacks and a quarterback of their own who still has not really been in high-stakes games.

The amplitude of all of that will skyrocket now, after the Houston Texas turned in an unqualified 42-14 dud at Gillette Stadium against the New England Patriots. It was so bad the Texans basically waved a white flag early in the fourth quarter, huddling on offense rather than hustling to maximize their time, and running the ball on four consecutive plays.

The Texans still have a one-game lead on the Patriots in the AFC standings, and bigger edges on the other division leaders, Denver and Baltimore, whom they’ve beaten.

This clunker hardly undoes a great season that has three games plus playoffs remaining. But it does tell us three things about the near future for the Texans:

  1. They don’t have sole control over the division anymore. Win next week and they own the AFC South. But the Colts can now say they control their own fate, too. If Indianapolis wins its final three, including two against the Texans, they’ll wrest the division crown away
  2. They Texans really need home-field advantage if they are going to get to the Super Bowl. Sure, anything can happen. But a return trip here would make for a very difficult path to New Orleans.
  3. The Texans’ two losses have come against Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. They gave up a lot to Peyton Manning in a victory, too. This team’s odds of beating two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in the playoffs, even if both games are at Reliant Stadium, are low. The Texans would benefit greatly from an upset dished out by someone else in the wild-card round or by New England and Denver playing each other in a divisional-round game.

A sober locker room was filled with guys who weren’t going to say their season has fallen apart.

But several veterans said this was akin to a school field trip.

“I think they showed us what it takes to be a champion,” inside linebacker Bradie James said.

Defensive lineman Antonio Smith agreed.

“I sensed it from the coin toss. It was business, straight up, to them,” he said.

“You can see just how serious they were. They’ve been here before. I’m a movie buff, you know. It reminded me of that movie ‘Troy’ when Achilles told Hector, ‘Now you know what you’re dealing with.’ That’s what it was like. No love. ‘We’re coming in here to show y’all who the big dogs are.’”

Earlier in the week, the Texans got letterman jackets, and they wore them to town in a harmless show of unity. Early Tuesday morning, hometown reporters in the press box jokingly debated who could write that New England took the Texans to school. I’d imagine some of the Patriots were making the same crack in private. For those seeking fresher material there was this: The team’s equipment men struggled to get some stuff back to their truck because the cart they drove down a stadium tunnel had a flat tire.

The Texans pointed to early mistakes as a key to their downfall, though I’m not sure there was a formula for them to win against this team in this setting on this night.

They had the Patriots stopped on their first third down, and a needless defensive holding penalty against Brandon Harris on Wes Welker kept a drive alive.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Watt
AP Photo/Steven SenneJ.J. Watt wore a grim look during the third quarter, but said hopeful things about the Texans' prospects.
They had them stopped again on a third-and-10 early in the second quarter, and safety Danieal Manning was called for pass interference on Welker as he impeded his path, bumping him without looking back.

New England took advantage of both mistakes and moved right along to touchdowns.

After the first one, the Texans were in great position to respond. They moved 59 yards to the Patriots’ 21-yard line. But safety Devin McCourty broke beautifully on Matt Schaub’s second-down pass for Kevin Walter in the middle of the end zone and took it away.

Houston didn’t put points on the board until 6 minutes, 12 seconds remained in the third quarter, and the Patriots already had 28 and complete control.

Down four touchdowns at the start of the fourth quarter, coach Gary Kubiak surrendered. His offense didn’t hurry, huddling at its regular pace. Schaub handed the ball off to third-string running back Ben Tate until it was time to punt.

Players stopped short of calling it a white flag, but receiver Andre Johnson and left tackle Duane Brown didn’t love it. They shouldn’t have. It sends a team a bad message to give up at that point. At least go down slinging it.

“I have no control over that,” Johnson said.

“I just line up and do my job,” Brown said.

Schaub pointed to the short week ahead and a crucial game against Indianapolis as a reason for letting up.

Brady, like Rodgers in a win and Manning in a loss before him, was the third MVP quarterback to shred the Texans this season. He hit 21 of 35 passes for 296 yards, four touchdowns and a 125.4 passer rating before stepping aside for Ryan Mallett.

“Obviously I didn’t do enough game-plan-wise against the guy,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “… It doesn’t feel like you have more wins than New England right now.”

The Patriots did well to keep the best players wearing the visitors’ uniforms in check. Johnson caught eight passes, but only for 11.9 yards a clip. Arian Foster managed only 85 total yards. J.J. Watt had four tackles and three quarterback hits but no sacks and no passes batted down.

His biggest play didn’t even benefit his team. Early in the fourth quarter, he tracked down Danny Woodhead and punched the ball loose after a 16-yard catch. But the ball shot forward into the end zone, where Brandon Lloyd corralled it for his second touchdown.

Watt looked furious as he made his way briskly to the bus, but he still managed to hit a hopeful chord.

“We still have everything we want in front of us,” he said.

Rapid Reaction: Patriots 42, Texans 14

December, 10, 2012
12/10/12
11:49
PM ET


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here are some thoughts on the New England Patriots' 42-14 blowout victory over the Houston Texans:

What it means: The Patriots (10-3) made a major statement by picking up their most impressive victory of the season on national television. The Texans (11-2) came in with the better record, but certainly weren't ready for the big stage on "Monday Night Football." New England ransacked Houston, jumping out to a 28-0 lead early in the second half. New England is improved to 23-1 at home in December since 2001. The Patriots hold the No. 2 seed in the AFC and now own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Houston, which remains one game ahead with three weeks remaining.

Brady dominates again: The big question coming into the game was whether Houston quarterback Matt Schaub could match Patriots' future Hall of Famer Tom Brady. The answer was no. Brady was his usual self in an important game. He started on fire, completing 11 of his first 13 passes for 154 yards and three touchdowns as the Patriots took a 21-0 lead. Brady finished with 296 yards and four touchdowns. Meanwhile Schaub, who has never won a playoff game, looked flustered. He started slowly and finished with 232 yards and an interception. Brady added another strong stamp on his case for this year's NFL MVP award.

Defense shows up: New England's defense has been inconsistent, but it appears the unit is turning the corner. It played one of its best games of the season, completely shutting out the Texans for nearly three quarters. Patriots defensive lineman and leader Vince Wilfork set the tone and finished with four tackles and a sack. New England controlled the line of scrimmage and shut down Houston's zone running scheme. The secondary also made plays, including an interception in the end zone by Patriots safety Devin McCourty.

Welker shy of 100: Patriots Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker had a busy game. He replaced the injured Julian Edelman on punt returns and also caught three passes for 52 yards. Welker is five receptions shy of his fifth 100-catch season.

Lloyd and Stallworth sightings: New England starting receiver and free-agent signing Brandon Lloyd hasn't had the huge impact many expected. But Lloyd picked a good time to have a coming-out party. Lloyd caught a team-high seven passes for 89 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Lloyd easily ran past Texans No. 1 corner Johnathan Joseph for the score. The Patriots could use more plays like that from Lloyd down the stretch. Recent free-agent pickup Donte' Stallworth also caught a 63-yard touchdown pass from Brady in the third quarter.

What's next: The schedule does not let up for the Patriots. They will host the rugged and talented San Francisco 49ers (9-3-1) Sunday in another prime-time game. San Francisco is 3-0 against the AFC East and will look to complete the season sweep versus the Patriots.

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