NFL Nation: Dont'a Hightower

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.

Sharing Patriots halftime thoughts

December, 22, 2013
12/22/13
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BALTIMORE -- Sharing some halftime thoughts of the New England Patriots' game against the Ravens (New England leads 17-0):

One of Patriots' best halves of the season: This has been, across the board, some of the best football the Patriots have played this season. All three phases are getting it done. On offense, a commitment to the ground game has stood out. On defense, the turnovers are back. And the special teams coverage has been outstanding, sparked by captain Matthew Slater. For the Ravens, quarterback Joe Flacco doesn't look completely comfortable.

Replay review critical for Patriots: Danny Amendola's late second-quarter fumble was overturned on replay, which was crucial for the Patriots because it could have been a momentum-swinging turn of events -- the Ravens getting the ball on a short field and then at the start of the third quarter. Turnovers are such a big part of the action, as we saw in the first quarter for the Patriots (Logan Ryan interception sets up the second touchdown).

Red-zone struggles corrected: One of the big storylines entering the game was the Patriots' red-zone performance (1 of 4 vs. Miami). They are 2 of 2 today, with a power running game (LeGarrette Blount) and then a well-designed pass play (Shane Vereen) the successful formula.

A lot of penalties: Ron Winter's crew has been busy tonight. It's always difficult to tell while watching live if all the calls are warranted, but our general preference are games with fewer flags. It seemed like a long half because of it, with little flow. This reminds us of the 2009 Patriots-Ravens regular-season game, in Foxborough, in which Winter was also the referee.

Injuries to monitor: Vereen left in the second quarter with a groin injury and has not returned. Brandon Bolden has assumed his role as the top "passing back." ... Safety Steve Gregory left in the second quarter with what looked like a right knee/leg injury. It looked signficant, and rookie Duron Harmon took his place. ... Linebacker Dont'a Hightower left the game briefly in the second quarter, but returned.

Ravens get the ball: The Patriots had called heads at the opening toss and it came up tails, with the Ravens deferring the choice to the second half. So the Ravens get the ball to open the second half.

Dobson (foot) out; five Pats limited

November, 27, 2013
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New England Patriots rookie receiver Aaron Dobson, who played just two snaps in the second half of Sunday’s win over Denver, has a foot injury, according to the team’s injury report. Dobson didn’t practice Wednesday.

Elsewhere, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga weren’t listed on the injury report despite not playing in the second half Sunday. So their absence seemed to be less health-related and more a result of performance.

As the report shows, the Patriots are banged up in the secondary, with five players limited in practice.


Quick-hit thoughts after first quarter

October, 27, 2013
10/27/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- After 15 minutes of play, the New England Patriots trail the Miami Dolphins, 7-0. Passing along quick-hit notes and observations from the first quarter.

1. Brady picked on first throw. On his first throw of the afternoon, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was intercepted by Dolphins cornerback Dimitri Patterson. It wasn't the start Brady was looking for, as it gave the Dolphins the ball at the Patriots' 40-yard line. The turnover was particularly costly, as it led to a Miami touchdown just minutes later.

2. Blount the lead back early. Despite scores in each of the past two games, Stevan Ridley was not the starter in the Patriots' backfield, as LeGarrette Blount earned the start. Ridley didn't play a single snap in the first quarter.

3. Offensive struggles persist. Two-plus drives, and just about nothing for the Patriots' offense. The offense looked out of sync early, and although he didn't have many opportunities, it's possible that Brady is working through discomfort on his right hand. Though it was not listed on the injury report, Brady did have two fingers taped together during a photo on Saturday.

4. Gregory wearing green dot. Safety Steve Gregory is wearing the green dot on the back of his helmet, a sign that he is the on-field point of communication for the coaches. He's responsible for making the defensive calls in the huddle, a previous duty for Jerod Mayo. Last week, Dont'a Hightower wore the green dot.

5. Penalty box. No Patriots were flagged for penalties during the first quarter.
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.

Training camp preview: Patriots

July, 25, 2013
7/25/13
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After a rough offseason, the New England Patriots will begin their 2013 season Friday with the start of training camp.

New England remains the preseason favorite to win the AFC East. But this team is weaker than previous years due to several offseason circumstances.

Here are three things to watch in Patriots camp:

1. Can New England block out distractions?

Analysis: Patriots head coach Bill Belichick did a smart thing Wednesday. He faced the Aaron Hernandez situation head-on before training camp, because questions were coming either way. Belichick relieved some of the media pressure surrounding Hernandez's arrest on murder and other charges and the team's subsequent release of the star tight end. But this story will follow the Patriots to some degree all summer and beyond. The players must prove they can overcome the loss on the field as well as answer Hernandez questions off it. New England is a team which despises distractions, but this will be a challenge.

2. Will wide receivers step up?

Analysis: It’s been a question all offseason. Now, it’s time for some answers. Which receivers will step up in New England’s offense? Danny Amendola, if he stays healthy, is a proven commodity. But the rest of the Patriots’ receivers have plenty of question marks. New England lost a ton of production by not bringing back 2012 starters Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. This year’s group includes veterans Michael Jenkins, Lavelle Hawkins, Kamar Aiken, Kenbrell Thompkins and rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady is good at raising the level of his supporting cast -- but it is asking a lot of Brady to try to lead this group to another Super Bowl title.

3. How much better is the defense?

Analysis: One of the bright spots for the Patriots this offseason has been the additions on defense. New England spent resources in free agency and the draft to improve this side of the football. The Patriots signed veteran free-agent safety Adrian Wilson and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly to toughen up the defense. They also drafted three defenders in the first three rounds to infuse some youth and energy. If other young defenders such as Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower take their games to another level, the Patriots defense could make good strides in 2013.

The New England Patriots have been the dominant force in the AFC East for the past dozen years. Since head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady formed their power pairing in 2001, the Patriots have won 10 division titles, made five Super Bowl appearances and won three championships.

No AFC East team has come close to matching New England’s consistency over that span. But there appears to be a young, up-and-coming group on the horizon in the Miami Dolphins, who were very aggressive this offseason. Miami spent more than $200 million in free-agent contracts, including $117 million in guaranteed money, and traded up to get No. 3 overall draft pick Dion Jordan to boost its pass rush. The Dolphins made all of their offseason moves with the goal of closing the gap with New England.

Can Miami provide a legitimate threat to the Patriots in 2013? ESPN.com AFC East blogger James Walker and ESPNBoston.com’s Mike Reiss debate.

James Walker: Mike, I think we both called this back in December when the Patriots pulled out a tough 23-16 win against the Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. We saw something that Sunday that showed Miami could be a problem for New England in future seasons. The effort was there, but Miami just didn’t have the horses to beat the Patriots, and that’s a big reason the Dolphins used so many resources in the draft and free agency to boost their roster. The Dolphins got much better in the passing game by adding tight end Dustin Keller and receivers Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson. They are younger and more athletic at linebacker with Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, and cornerback Brent Grimes could be a stud in the secondary this season if he stays healthy. The Jordan pick was also made to improve Miami’s pass rush and to pressure Brady twice a season. Miami made a lot of smart moves this offseason. But, Mike, should the consistently dominant Patriots be concerned about the Dolphins?

Mike Reiss: James, for 2013, the Dolphins clearly look like the AFC East opponent closest to the Patriots. One contrast that stands out to me is the moves both teams made on offense this offseason -- the Dolphins decisively added more weapons, while the Patriots currently have an abundance of questions in the passing game. So looking at this from a Dolphins perspective, I think that’s something to feel good about right now. Of course, it all comes back to the development of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill. If he doesn’t take the next step, and the Dolphins struggle to protect him, it won’t matter much. The other part that I think looks good for Miami is when the games against the Patriots will be played -- Oct. 27 in New England and Dec. 15 in South Florida. That’s probably how you want it set up, avoiding the cold-weather game in the Northeast late in the season.

Walker: That’s a very good point, Mike. Miami played in Foxborough in the final game of the 2012 regular season and was pounded 28-0. I don’t see the Dolphins winning at Gillette Stadium this season, but their chances do increase in October. However, that December meeting at Sun Life Stadium could be very important, with both teams possibly fighting for playoff positioning and the division title. I agree that the most important player for Miami this season is Tannehill. The biggest advantage the Patriots have had for a long time in the AFC East is at quarterback. Brady, in my mind, is one of the top five all-time quarterbacks. The Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets do not have anyone close to matching Brady over the past dozen seasons. But Miami might have something in Tannehill. The game didn’t look too big for him last season. Tannehill has a good poise about him, and physically he’s a good athlete who can make all the throws. With vastly improved weapons, I expect Tannehill to make a nice jump this season. As he improves, so will the Dolphins. But we can’t have a “Double Coverage” involving the Patriots without discussing Brady, who will be 36 in August. I’ve said several times in the AFC East blog that New England’s passing attack will take a step back this season. The Patriots lost too much production at receiver and have various issues involving star tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Mike, how do you view Brady and New England’s passing attack in 2013?

[+] EnlargeTom Brady and Ryan Tannehill
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsAre Ryan Tannehill, left, and Miami ready to be the top division rival for Tom Brady's Patriots?
Reiss: Based on what we saw in June’s minicamps, the Patriots’ passing attack wasn’t up to the standard we’ve seen in recent seasons. In the three-receiver set, the top players Brady was throwing to were 10-year veteran Michael Jenkins, free-agent signee Danny Amendola and either third-year man Kamar Aiken or rookie free agent Kenbrell Thompkins. The Patriots also didn’t have top tight ends Gronkowski (back/forearm) and Hernandez (recovering from shoulder surgery) on the field. If that’s the way it unfolds when the games start to count, I think it’s fair to expect a step back. But, as we’ve seen in the past, things can change from June to September, and I’d expect that to be the case for the Patriots. I still think they’ll be tough to defend. Amendola looks terrific at this point. Hernandez, assuming some of these recent legal issues don’t keep him off the field, makes a big difference. I think Julian Edelman can help them if healthy. There’s always the possibility of an acquisition, similar to the early-season signing of Jabar Gaffney in 2006 that paid solid dividends for them. No doubt, there are a lot of questions right now, and I think the concern some have in New England about the passing attack is fair. But as you’ve pointed out, they still have Brady throwing the football, and that’s one guy I wouldn’t bet against. He’s done more with less in the past (e.g., 2006). It’s interesting to me that we’ve reached this point without touching on the defense; in the end, you wonder if that will ultimately be the key for both of these teams.

Walker: Absolutely, Mike. It usually comes down to defense late in the season, and that’s where New England fell short. The Patriots rely too much on their offense, and it cost them last season in the AFC Championship Game loss to the Baltimore Ravens and two seasons ago against the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. We were both at those games, and the problem was the same: pass defense. New England was 29th against the pass last season and 27th in yards allowed after the catch (YAC), according to ESPN Stats & Information. That means the Patriots’ defensive backs are not covering well or tackling well. The addition of safety Adrian Wilson should help from a tackling and physicality perspective, but I don’t think he’s much of an upgrade in coverage. Ironically, Miami has similar issues defending the pass. The Dolphins were ranked 27th in pass defense in 2012. Miami’s cornerbacks were too inconsistent, which is why the Dolphins signed Grimes in free agency and drafted cornerbacks -- Jamar Taylor and Will Davis -- in the second and third rounds. Grimes looks really good in offseason workouts coming off an Achilles injury. He must stay healthy for Miami’s secondary to have success. Veteran Richard Marshall is average, but he’s the other starting cornerback right now. The Dolphins hope one of their young draft picks can step up in sub packages or eventually into the starting lineup. It’s strange to think how similar these defenses are, Mike. Both the Patriots and Dolphins are solid against the run but need to improve their pass rush and pass coverage.

Reiss: For the Patriots, the hope is that continuity leads to success. They return their entire starting defense, with the one change coming at defensive tackle next to Vince Wilfork because the team decided to move on from co-starters Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick. So you have the same secondary together again, with a full season of No. 1 cornerback Aqib Talib, who was acquired midway through last season and changed the way they played defense in some respects. You’re also committing to Devin McCourty for a full season at safety, at which he showed promise in 2012. Add in the size and physicality of Wilson (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) in some form at safety, which was something they didn’t have last season, and it looks like a net gain for the Patriots. In theory, that should lead to better communication and better results. Then, of course, it comes back to the pass rush that has been a consistent topic around the team over the past five seasons or so. Does 2012 first-round draft choice Chandler Jones become the dominant pass-rusher the Patriots hope he can be? He was impressive in the first half of last season before an ankle injury slowed him down a bit. Does fellow 2012 first-rounder Dont'a Hightower become a true three-down linebacker? The defense looked much further ahead of the offense in spring workouts, which hasn’t been the case in recent seasons. There is some positive momentum for them, but can they sustain it when it counts?

Walker: Mike, in terms 2013 outlook, I think the AFC East has a chance to put two teams in the playoffs this season. I view the Patriots as a little worse than last season's team, and the Dolphins are improved. That alone should close the gap. But it was so wide to begin with that the Patriots are still preseason favorites in my book. However, the Dolphins are a young team on the rise with a lot of potential. A good season for Miami would be to grab a wild card in the AFC and split its two games with New England in the division. If that's the case, then we could see the start of a new and competitive rivalry in the AFC East for the next several seasons.

Reiss: It seems like every season has brought a new challenger to the Patriots, James, but none of the other three teams in the AFC East has been able to sustain. In fact, last year at this time, I think many of us were saying some of the same things about the Bills (after signing Mario Williams, among other moves) as we are about the Dolphins now. So I’m interested to see if the Dolphins can be that team to not just close the gap in 2013, but in future years as well. Maybe part of the reason I have doubts is that we’ve seen this script play out before and it hasn’t happened. The Patriots do have some big questions, and those can’t be overlooked, but I still think they win the division by at least two games.

Eight in the Box: Breakout player

April, 12, 2013
4/12/13
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» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Who is one potential breakout player for each AFC East team in 2013?

Buffalo Bills: Last year Buffalo running back C.J. Spiller was one of the breakout players in the entire NFL. This season, Buffalo's breakout star most likely will be on the other side of the football. Bills starting cornerback Stephon Gilmore showed a lot of tools in his rookie season when he recorded 61 tackles, forced three fumbles and nabbed an interception. The Bills had the NFL's 10th-ranked pass defense and Gilmore took on the challenge as a rookie to guard the opponent’s best receiver each week. He is a fearless player who is already solid in a lot of areas. But Gilmore needs to work on making more big plays for the Bills this season and beyond in order to take the next step.

Miami Dolphins: The tailback who led the Dolphins in yards per carry last season was not Reggie Bush. It was actually second-year running back Lamar Miller, who averaged 4.9 yards per carry in 2012. Miller shined in limited opportunities during his rookie season. He displayed good vision and explosiveness, and appears to be a natural fit for Miami's West Coast offense under head coach Joe Philbin. Miller is the reason Miami had no issues letting Bush walk in free agency. Bush signed with the Detroit Lions after getting little interest from the Dolphins. Miller will get a lot more carries this season and pair with backup Daniel Thomas in Miami's backfield. Miller's weakness is pass protection, but he looked great last year carrying the football.

New England Patriots: The Patriots didn't necessarily need to draft a linebacker last year, but Dont'a Hightower was too good to pass up at the end of the first round. Hightower was considered an NFL-ready prospect and made an immediate impact with the Patriots. He recorded 60 tackles and four sacks with New England. Another year of experience should make Hightower even better in Year 2. Health permitting, Hightower should be a physical force in New England for years to come.

New York Jets: The Jets made several low-cost signings this offseason due to a tight salary cap. However, the free-agent signing that stands out for the Jets is running back Mike Goodson. He spent his career backing up quality tailbacks such as DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Darren McFadden with the Carolina Panthers and Oakland Raiders, respectively. Goodson averages 4.5 yards per carry in his career and is a projected starter for the first time in New York. Goodson has the quickness to fit in well with the Jets' change to a West Coast offense under Marty Mornhinweg. He'll need to keep up the same production with the increased workload.

AFC East 2013 breakout players

March, 29, 2013
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Chandler Jones/Ryan Tannehill/Stephon GilmoreGetty ImagesChandler Jones, left, Ryan Tannehill and Stephon Gilmore head the next generation of AFC East stars.
The AFC East saw several breakout players make their marks last season. Buffalo Bills tailback C.J. Spiller, New England Patriots left tackle Nate Solder, and Miami Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline are among the players who had career years in 2012.

So who are this year's under-the-radar players who could have a big season in 2013? Here are seven breakout stars to keep an eye on the AFC East:

No. 7: DeMario Davis, LB, New York Jets

2012 stats: 35 tackles

Analysis: Jets head coach Rex Ryan put a lot of pressure on Davis before his rookie season. Ryan compared Davis, a third-round pick from Arkansas State, to a young Ray Lewis, which certainly raised some eyebrows. But by the end of the season, you could see some of the things Ryan bragged about. Davis was athletic, aggressive and finished with 35 tackles. The Jets believe Davis is ready to go into his second season as a full-time starter. New York released Bart Scott this offseason, and Davis is up next. Health permitting, Davis should be able to build off his rookie season.

No. 6: Stephon Gilmore, CB, Bills

2012 stats: 61 tackles, one INT

Analysis: Gilmore was viewed as one of the safer picks in last year's NFL draft. He was considered an NFL-ready cornerback who could start in Week 1, which is why Buffalo invested its first-round pick. Gilmore suffered through rookie mistakes like most young cornerbacks, but he did start all 16 games. Expect a lot more consistency from the 22-year-old, who is already Buffalo’s best cornerback. New Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has a reputation of making cornerbacks better. He worked well with former Jets cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie in New York. Pettine is excited with the opportunity to make Gilmore one of the better cornerbacks in the AFC East this year and beyond.

No. 5: Kyle Wilson, CB, Jets

2012 stats: 48 tackles, one INT

Analysis: Wilson, 25, is the oldest player in this bunch. The three-year veteran spent most of his career backing up Pro Bowl cornerbacks Cromartie and Revis. But Wilson finally got consistent playing time in the starting lineup in 2012 after the season-ending knee injury to Revis. Wilson held his own but didn’t make a lot of big plays. He had one interception and one forced fumble in 16 games. But the Jets believe Wilson is capable of taking over Revis’ spot full-time in the starting lineup. That is why New York has been in trade discussions about Revis, who will be a free agent in 2014. I expect a Revis trade to happen before the start of the season, which means Wilson must step up and be a better playmaker.

No. 4: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami Dolphins

2012 stats: 51 carries, 250 yards, one TD

Analysis: Most people who do not watch the Dolphins on a regular basis aren’t familiar with Miller. He never had more than 10 carries in a game. But those who closely follow the Dolphins know Miller was dangerous nearly every time he touched the football. He led the Dolphins with a yards-per-carry average of 4.9. Miller showed good vision and burst. The Dolphins also believe Miller is a better fit for their system than former tailback Reggie Bush. That is why Miami didn’t try to keep Bush from signing with the Detroit Lions in free agency. Miller should combine with Daniel Thomas to be a formidable, young backfield. Miller’s biggest weakness is pass protection against the blitz. But with all new weapons in Miami at receiver and tight end, Miller should have some open running lanes.

No. 3: Dont'a Hightower, LB, Patriots

2012 stats: 60 tackles, four sacks

Analysis: It’s surprising how Hightower’s rookie year went virtually unnoticed. He immediately added toughness, athleticism and playmaking ability to New England’s front seven. Hightower also got better as the year went on. He started 13 games for the Patriots and had seven games with at least five tackles. Hightower was unusually steady for a rookie linebacker. He didn’t make many mental errors, and also showed a knack for blitzing, as evidenced by his four sacks. Another year under Bill Belichick’s tutelage will only make Hightower a bigger force. Playing next to linebacker Jerod Mayo and behind defensive lineman Vince Wilfork will only make Hightower a better player in Year 2.

No. 2: Chandler Jones, DE, Patriots

2012 stats: 45 tackles, six sacks

Analysis: The Patriots haven’t had a consistently dominant pass-rusher since Mike Vrable. Jones has a good chance to end that search and become a consistent, double-digit sack player for New England. Jones started fast his rookie season and registered six sacks in his first eight games. But an ankle injury caused Jones to miss two games, and he didn’t have the same burst and production when he returned. Injuries have been an issue for Jones dating to college. But if he can stay healthy for 16 games, he could have a big 2013 season for the Patriots.

No. 1: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Dolphins

2012 stats: 3,294 yards, 12 TDs, 13 INTs

Analysis: It's too early to determine whether Tannehill is a franchise quarterback. But Miami’s front office thinks Tannehill has a great shot after a strong rookie year, so the Dolphins added as many weapons as possible around him in Year 2. Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland signed dynamic former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Mike Wallace, former St. Louis Rams receiver Brandon Gibson and former New York Jets tight end Dustin Keller. The Dolphins added pass-catchers that fit Tannehill and their offensive system. Tannehill (3,294) threw for more yards last season than fellow 2012 draft picks Robert Griffin III (3,200) and Russell Wilson (3,118). Tannehill could be poised for his first 4,000-yard season, and certainly more touchdowns, with a much stronger supporting cast.

Patriots' title window is still open

January, 23, 2013
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Tom Brady and Bill BelichickKirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsWith Tom Brady and Bill Belichick back for another season together in New England, the Patriots remain the strong favorite to win the AFC East.
The day after the New England Patriots' 28-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens felt like a funeral in the heart of Patriots country.

The employees at my Foxborough, Mass., hotel -- some who sported Patriots jerseys -- were sullen. The day seemed gloomy outside, and Logan International Airport didn't have the same buzz and energy it did when I arrived two days earlier.

This was expected to be the season the Patriots got over the hump and celebrated their first Super Bowl victory since the 2004 season. New England had the top-rated offense, an improved defense and a 35-year-old quarterback still playing at an MVP level. In addition, the Patriots caught breaks the past few weeks that gave the team home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

But the tough and talented Ravens had other plans.

New England's upset loss to Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game will sting Patriots fans for a while. But New Englanders shouldn't fret. The Patriots are primed and ready to make another title push in 2013.

Here are five reasons the Patriots' championship window remains open:

Reason No. 1: Tom Brady

Analysis: Yes, Brady will be 36 at the start of next season. But Brady has shown no signs of slowing down and should be an elite quarterback for at least the next two or three seasons. Brady threw for 4,827 yards, 34 touchdowns and just eight interceptions in 2012, receiving strong MVP consideration once again. But Brady's recent playoff struggles are well-documented. After a 10-0 start in the postseason, Brady is just 7-7 in his past 14 playoff starts. However, Brady has done enough to get the Patriots in position for another title. The Patriots have been within a drive of winning two Super Bowls and gone 2-2 in AFC Championship Games since 2005. As long as New England continues to knock on the championship door, the team has a chance to break through. With a healthy Brady in 2013, there’s no reason the Patriots shouldn't be one of the favorites again in the AFC.

Reason No. 2: Bill Belichick

Analysis: There are a lot of people who do not like Belichick's demeanor. He’s not the most likeable head coach in the NFL or the best sportsman, according to Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe. But Belichick is the league's best head coach. Three championships and five Super Bowl appearances highlight a résumé no other current coach can match. As long as Belichick is roaming the sidelines, the Patriots usually have the coaching advantage on game days. Belichick has delivered double-digit wins in New England every season since 2003. That is a mark of tremendous consistency. New England has the winningest coach and quarterback combination in NFL history with Belichick and Brady. No other club has this level of elite coaching and quarterbacking.

Reason No. 3: Weak AFC East

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Analysis: For the Patriots to fall from the top of the AFC East, another team has to rise up in the division. Based on the '12 season, there is still a significant gap between the Patriots and everyone else. The New York Jets are a mess that will take at least a year or two to clean up. The Buffalo Bills are starting over and rebuilding under a rookie head coach in Doug Marrone and probably a new quarterback. The Bills will have to suffer through a learning curve next season. The Miami Dolphins have the best chance to immediately challenge New England in 2013. Miami has a good, young quarterback in Ryan Tannehill and plenty of cap room and draft picks to build a strong roster. But the Dolphins have to make all the right moves in order to become an immediate contender. New England's gateway to success and the playoffs has been winning the AFC East. The Patriots will enter next season as the hands-down favorite once again to win the division.

Reason No. 4: Young talent

Analysis: The Patriots often get the reputation of a veteran team because of leaders like Brady on offense and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork on defense. However, New England won 13 games this season, including playoffs, with a host of young players. The Patriots had 16 players who were 26 or under starting full or part time. Starting running back Stevan Ridley and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are just 23 years old. Starting left tackle Nate Solder is 24. Rookies such as linebacker Dont'a Hightower, defensive end Chandler Jones and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard also round out a strong and productive rookie class. If most or all of these young players continue to improve and develop into their roles, New England will be even more dangerous next season.

Reason No. 5: Improving defense

Analysis: New England's defense made good strides in 2012, particularly in the second half of the season. The Patriots were 25th in total defense -- up six spots from a year ago -- and ninth in both scoring and run defense. New England learned in the AFC title game loss to the Ravens that it still needs significant improvement in the secondary. The cornerback position is very thin, and the team fell apart when Aqib Talib left the game with a thigh injury. Talib will be an unrestricted free agent, and that is an area New England must address in the offseason. New England's aforementioned draft that included Hightower, Jones and Dennard played a large part in the Patriots' defensive improvements.

The Patriots have done a masterful job the past dozen years of reloading and not rebuilding. Having an elite quarterback such as Brady in the fold certainly makes a huge difference.

But New England's window will not be open forever. The time is now for the Patriots to make another title run before Brady and Belichick call it quits. Once this power pair walks away from New England in a few years, the Patriots will have ups and downs like every other NFL franchise.
PatriotsUS Presswire/Getty ImagesThe Patriots defense -- led by Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Aqib Talib -- will try Sunday to shut down the potent Houston offense for the second time this season.
Everyone knows quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots' top-rated offense will be ready for the postseason. But what exactly do we make of New England’s inconsistent defense?

Will we see the aggressive Patriots defense that shut out the Miami Dolphins two weeks ago in the regular-season finale? Or will we see the Patriots defense that was ranked 25th throughout the season, including 29th against the pass?

We will find out if New England's much-maligned defense is playoff-ready when the Patriots (12-4) host the Houston Texans (13-4) Sunday at Gillette Stadium. New England has the worst defense statistically of the eight remaining teams in the NFL playoffs. In the AFC, the defenses of the Denver Broncos (No. 2), Houston Texans (No. 7) and Baltimore Ravens (No. 17) are all ranked significantly ahead of the Patriots.

The Patriots have made several strides defensively from a season ago. But if the old NFL cliché of "defense wins championships" still stands, this could be what derails New England's Super Bowl hopes.

"Obviously when you get a group of guys together for an extended period of time, you're going to get better," Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said of the defensive improvements. "But there are also things we had to improve at -- especially communication, getting on the same page and doing things like that."

Last season, New England's porous defense didn't cost the team until the final drive in the Super Bowl. When the Patriots needed a big stop in the fourth quarter against the New York Giants, they couldn't get it and lost the Super Bowl for the second time in four years.

This season, New England's defense is younger, faster and more dynamic. The Patriots were 31st in total defense in 2011 and improved six spots in 2012. But is that good enough?

The Patriots' biggest strength defensively is their physical front seven. New England is ninth against the run, allowing just 101.9 rushing yards per game. Baltimore tailback Ray Rice is the only player this season to rush for more than 100 yards against the Patriots. Two of New England's seven Pro Bowlers this season are on defense in Mayo and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who must lead the way in the playoffs.

"We have guys that have been here before and we have guys that haven’t been here before," said Wilfork, who won his only Super Bowl with the Patriots in his rookie season in 2004. "So our job is to make these guys understand what it takes to win, especially in a situation like this."

Stopping the run will be huge against Houston. Texans tailback Arian Foster is the foundation of Houston's offense. The Texans have the eighth-best rushing attack in the NFL, and that opens up Houston's dangerous play-action passes.

New England trounced Houston 42-14 in Week 14. The Patriots stuffed Foster in that meeting, holding the running back to just 46 yards on 15 carries. But Foster is coming to Gillette Stadium with momentum after a 140-yard performance in a wild-card win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

"I expect to see the best. Whatever they have, I expect to see it -- the kitchen sink if it’s called for," Wilfork said. "But last week you saw why [Foster] is one of the top offensive players in the game -- not just a back, but a top offensive player in the game."

New England did very well defensively in the last draft. That is one of the key reasons the Patriots are younger, physical and more athletic. Rookies Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Tavon Wilson and Alfonzo Dennard have all made an impact.

"Those guys really bring a lot of energy. Those guys are hungry," Mayo said. "Those guys have really kind of fit in very well. They came in trying to learn as much as they could. I always talk about when I came in as a rookie trying to be a sponge and learn as much as I could, and those guys have done the same."

This is also a big game for Patriots No. 1 corner Aqib Talib. New England acquired Talib in a midseason trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the move has paid immediate dividends.

Talib is easily New England's best cover corner and will see a lot of Houston Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson in this game.

"Talib's ability to match up on the opponent's best receiver is huge," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "They now play much more man coverage and blitz more, which helps an average pass rush. It gives Bill Belichick more options, which is exactly what he wants."

New England's defense still has a sour taste in its mouth from last year's postseason. The Patriots cruised in the divisional round against Denver, won a tight contest against Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game, then had a chance to beat the Giants in the Super Bowl. But Eli Manning's heroics against New England's defense killed the Patriots down the stretch. With 3:46 left in the game, New England allowed New York to drive 88 yards on nine plays for the game-winning touchdown.

If the Patriots aim to win a title this year, their defense must be ready to step up and make key stops throughout the playoffs.

"Everyone in the league is hungry for a Super Bowl," Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. "I want to get back there just like everybody else that’s in the playoffs. The No. 1 goal in your head coming into training camp is, 'Let's get to the Super Bowl.'

"This is what we play the game for."

Patriots are winning with youth

December, 14, 2012
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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.

The Patriots (1-2) are still elite

September, 28, 2012
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Tom BradyGreg M. Cooper/US PresswireQuarterback Tom Brady should soon have New England pointing in the right direction.
The New England Patriots have a losing record for the first time in nine years. Their head coach is in hot water with the NFL for grabbing an official, there are key injuries on offense and the Patriots have a tough road game Sunday against the Buffalo Bills (2-1).

Stick a fork in the Patriots. They're done, right?

Not so fast.

The Patriots are still elite. They just don't have the record to show for it after three games. But do not be fooled by the standings in September. New England (1-2) will be right where many expect by the end of the regular season: in contention for another Super Bowl.

The reigning AFC champs are off to a slow start. But there is no need for alarm in New England. Here are five reasons not to push the panic button:

No. 1: The AFC East is a weak division

This is another down year for the AFC East. All you need to know is that the New York Jets (2-1) are in first place with Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis out for the season. How long will that last?

The Patriots are just one game out of first place and will be back on top of the AFC East soon. New England has owned the division the last dozen years and remains the best team in the AFC East. Winning the division is the gateway to the playoffs and a home postseason game. The Patriots will have both in January.

The Patriots will beat the Bills (2-1) on Sunday to get back to .500. (Don't doubt my AFC East picks. I'm 9-1 this season.) The Bills' young secondary will be picked apart by Tom Brady and New England. Buffalo also lacks the offensive firepower to keep up with the Patriots, especially if dynamic tailback C.J. Spiller (shoulder) sits out and veteran running back Fred Jackson (knee) isn't 100 percent.

It could be a three-way tie for first place by Sunday night if the San Francisco 49ers take care of business against the Revis-less Jets. The Patriots have the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL, and they will begin to distance themselves from the AFC East pack in the second half of the season.

No. 2: The Patriots' losses are overrated

Yes, the Patriots are 1-2. But they are within a hair of 3-0. The Patriots' two losses have come on last-second kicks.

Against the Arizona Cardinals, New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski shanked a late field-goal attempt wide left. In the loss to Baltimore, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker narrowly made a 27-yard field goal to win it. Both games could have gone either way.

Without those two kicks, the Patriots would be undefeated entering Week 4 and viewed as the class of the NFL. But the ball didn't bounce New England's way two weeks in a row.

"It's not like we sit here and look in the locker room and say: Wow, we're terrible. We can't make any plays, we're not even in these games," Brady said this week. "We're right in them. We just have to do a better job in certain areas. If we do that, we will start winning close games."

No. 3: New England never panics

Remember last season?

The Patriots were 5-3 and lost two straight games, to the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers. Many on the outside wrote off the Patriots as has-beens. Instead, New England reeled off 10 straight victories, including playoffs, on its way to another Super Bowl appearance.

Every team has rough patches during the season. The Patriots' adversity came early this season. But the difference between New England and other teams is that the Patriots never panic. They don't have to -- they have the NFL's best coach (Bill Belichick) and an elite quarterback (Brady). That is their edge over most teams, especially within the division. As long as Brady is healthy this season, the Patriots will win the AFC East.

No. 4: Youngsters will improve

The Patriots are relying on an unusual amount of rookies and second-year players in key roles this season.

Rookies like defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower will only get better with experience. Both are showing flashes of playmaking ability. New England is also relying on second-year players like tailback Stevan Ridley and left tackle Nate Solder, who are full-time starters for the first time.

Jones, Hightower, Ridley and Solder will all improve and be more consistent as the season goes on. That will raise the level of the Patriots offensively and defensively. New England's defense, for example, has already improved from No. 31 to No. 14 this season. Much of that increase is due to the impact of Jones and Hightower.

No. 5: Aaron Hernandez will return

The Patriots struggled after second tight end Hernandez went down with an ankle injury. But Hernandez is making progress in his rehabilitation.

A source told me that Hernandez will be out until at least October. But I was also told Hernandez that is a fast healer. Hernandez has already been spotted in the locker room without crutches or a boot on his ankle. These are great signs that he is recovering well.

The Patriots will benefit immensely when Hernandez returns. He is New England's most versatile player on offense and the glue that makes the scheme work. Hernandez can play various positions. He can also stretch the field and take pressure off fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski and Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker. When Hernandez gets healthy, the Patriots' offense will be back at full strength -- and that is bad news for the rest of the league.

Add up these factors and it's clear New England remains an elite football team. Things do not look rosy after the first three games. But better days are ahead for the Patriots, and it all starts Sunday against the Bills.

New England, Baltimore (3-1) and the Houston Texans (3-0) remain the best teams in the AFC. Chances are one of those clubs will represent the conference in Super Bowl XLVII in February, and the Patriots still have as good a shot as any team.

On the idea Roos isn't what he's been

September, 12, 2012
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Is Titans left tackle Michael Roos maintaining his typical high level of play?

Rookie pass-rusher Chandler Jones had a big first game for the Patriots Sunday in New England’s 34-13 victory at LP Field. He was going against Roos, long-regarded as a top-tier left tackle who doesn’t get enough credit.

But during the preseason, I heard from Mike Tanier, now of Sports on Earth, that Roos might be starting to slip. And his effort Sunday, while just one game, suggested there could be something there.

We’ve typically put the Titans offensive-line problems on the interior, particularly center Eugene Amano and guard Leroy Harris. Tennessee looked at a bunch of free-agent centers but stood pat, and Amano was hurt early in camp, lost for the season and replaced by Fernando Velasco. Harris flipped from left guard to right guard to accommodate the arrival of free agent Steve Hutchinson.

[+] EnlargeMichael Roos
AP Photo/Paul AbellA less-than-perfect opener could be a sign that left tackle Michael Roos' skills are slipping.
Have Roos and right tackle David Stewart gotten a bit of a pass?

I’m not ready to say so yet, but the tackles were not discernibly better than the interior in a bad day on Sunday.

No matter how poorly Chris Johnson ran, the run blocking was not sufficient anywhere.

“As far as run blocking in general, we weren’t good enough, and that’s the whole group,” coach Mike Munchak said. “We weren’t consistently good enough. Anytime you run for 15 yards, you’re not going to say anyone is blocking well in the run game. When we ran well, we blocked well, and we’ve got to do better next week.”

Quarterback Jake Locker was sacked twice and hit three times and I didn’t feel like he was under much steady pressure, though Jones was a handful. He beat Roos to strip Locker near the Titans goal line, and rookie linebacker Dont'a Hightower scooped it and scored from 6 yards out to put New England up 14-3.

“Jones is a good player, I think he’s going to be real good,” Roos said. “He’s tall, very athletic, able to use his size. There is a reason they drafted him in the first round.

“He’s a starting end in the NFL, so any guy is going to give you some trouble, There were some tougher blocks for me. The one he got my hands and got around me and stripped Jake. That was unfortunate, I thought I had him. It happened so quick. On my part, that’s just me not getting my head down in the play and trying to stay with it.”

Munchak said there is nothing to the idea that Roos’ game could be starting to tail off.

“Yeah, the thing is, we threw the ball (43) times,” Munchak said. “… I think he blocked well for most of the game. The life of an offensive lineman is you get beat one time, you had a bad day. He got beat once for a big play, which normally, he very rarely gets beat. So again, the kid made a nice play on him, a big play for them and it definitely factored in the game, especially at that point in the game, early in the game.”
Jake LockerAP Photo/Wade PayneJake Locker and the Titans made too many mistakes to keep up with the defending AFC champs.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- One of the things that made critics wary of the five-year, $35 million contract Michael Griffin signed in the offseason was the safety’s propensity for missed tackles.

We saw a picture perfect “Griff whiff” with 7:17 left on the clock in the second quarter at LP Field on Sunday, when New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley took a carry wide right. He ran through what seemed to be a meager effort from Griffin, who had arrived relatively quickly, and Ridley ripped off 15 yards.

It was symbolic of a defensive struggle Tennessee simply couldn’t afford in a first start for quarterback Jake Locker. As New England racked up 390 net yards and benefitted from big Locker gaffes, the Titans saw just how much distance lies between them and the defending AFC champs in a 34-13 loss.

“This was our first real, live test,” cornerback Alterraun Verner said. “And obviously we failed.”

One of the things that moved the Titans to sign Griffin, whom they had designated their franchise player, to the long-term deal was a transformation in his attitude. Rather than moping about being kept from free agency, he showed new resolve, dedication and accountability.

Although the Titans are doing him a disservice playing him close to the line of scrimmage as the strong safety instead of as a roaming free safety, a player deemed worthy of that kind of deal simply has to do more than wave at people or get run over. (He offered no comment when asked about being asked to play in the box.)

He spoke very softly after the game, but showed more accountability regarding his tackling troubles and performance than he has on poor Sundays in the past.

“Ain’t nobody got to tell me right now, I know I played a terrible game,” he said.

“I know I was missing tackles. I’m on myself right now about missing tackles and what not. That was one of the things that I preached and preached and preached going into the season. Got to get better, try to get bigger. I gained like five, six pounds to try to be stronger in the run game. I guess I just need to work on my tackling. My focus right now is just to try to get better at tackling.”

He’s clearly got the physical qualities needed to bring ball carriers down and he often shows the football sense to be in the right place.

So why the struggles?

“It’s trying to get there,” he said. “Coach tells me all the time, a lot of times I get there and I try to shoot my gun rather than trying to make a sure tackle. It’s just my nature. When you shoot your guns sometimes you’re going to miss tackles like that. In the NFL, we don’t tackle during the week. I’ll see if I can talk to the coaches about trying to work on, trying to make open-field tackles and things like that.”

He also looked to be responsible and at fault on a handful of big pass plays involving Brandon Lloyd and tight end Aaron Hernandez.

But Griffin was hardly the lone offender for the Titans when it came to a failure to make plays.

The pass rush got one big sack from Kamerion Wimbley, but otherwise hardly bothered Tom Brady as he completed 74 percent of his throws en route to a 117.1 passer rating.

And Ridley had a great day, seemingly surprising the Titans with the sort of decisive and determined running they don’t see from their own back, Chris Johnson, anymore. Ridley had 21 carries for 125 yards and scored a touchdown while Johnson had 11 carries for 4 yards.

“They ran the ball better than they should have been able to,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said.

Meanwhile, Locker made a couple of poor choices just the way you imagine he might against a Bill Belichick-coached defense.

From near midfield at the start of the second quarter, he threw a wobbly ball for Nate Washington with two defenders nearby. Corner Kyle Arrington tipped it and safety Tavon Wilson picked it off.

It stopped an offense that had moved the ball reasonably well to that point, but the mistake didn’t lead to any points for the Patriots.

The next one was a crusher.

Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones slapped the ball out of Locker’s hand near the Titans’ goal line, and rookie linebacker Dont’a Hightower scooped it up and took it 6 yards for a touchdown that put the Patriots up 14-3.

The Titans were never closer than 11 points again.

“The first one was a bad decision,” Locker said. “They were just in a soft coverage. I shouldn’t have thrown it. The fumble, I have to take better care of the ball in the pocket.”

Locker was knocked out of the game early in the fourth quarter as he tackled safety Patrick Chung and hurt his left, non-throwing shoulder.

He and his coach lamented missed opportunities.

“They didn’t make many mistakes,” Munchak said. “They didn’t turn the ball over, they didn’t do some of the things we did, have crucial penalties that hurt them like we did. That’s what the separation is. It's us consistently getting better and making plays and not helping the other team. And that’s kind of where the gap is right now.”

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