NFL Nation: Michael Jenkins

ESPN’s Ashley Fox thinks the Kansas City Chiefs have the right mix to go from worst to first in the AFC West.

My thoughts: Well, I just got back from visiting their camp and I do think the Chiefs have a nice thing going. But going from 2-14 to beating out a serious contender like Denver may be tough duty. Still, I think the Chiefs will make some noise this season.

In other AFC West notes:
  • Add another veteran receiver available to the Chargers. New England cut veteran Michael Jenkins on Thursday, and while he is not a top player, he could add depth for a team that needs it.
  • San Diego receiver Malcom Floyd’s second opinion has come back with positive results, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Floyd suffered a knee strain on Monday. Initially, the team thought Floyd could have suffered a torn ACL. He will likely be ready to play in Week 1 or Week 2.
  • Here is an ESPN fantasy look at whether Chargers running back Ryan Mathews is actually being undervalued. While he is injury prone, he has had success when healthy.
  • In an Insider piece, the Football Outsiders look at where Insider the Raiders will fit in for the race for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

Patriots release WR Michael Jenkins

August, 15, 2013

The Patriots thinned their wide receiver depth by one on Thursday morning, cutting ties with Michael Jenkins, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

The move doesn't come as a major surprise for a couple of reasons, leading with the fact the Patriots’ young trio of rookie receivers has assimilated quickly into the offense. Draft picks Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce have flashed during camp, and undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins has been perhaps the most impressive of the bunch, displaying precise route-running and an understanding of the offensive concepts in New England.

Additionally, Jenkins has been slowed by an injury of late, one that was suffered prior to the first preseason game. Jenkins appeared to suffer a left thigh or hamstring injury during a practice, and has been limited since that time. That's opened the door for rookies to earn more reps, which they've made the most of.

Jenkins was a low-risk signing this offseason, as the Patriots gave him a one-year deal with a non-guaranteed base salary (he had an offseason bonus of $15,000, which, even if he did earn, is a small price to pay for his veteran presence this offseason). He was never viewed as a difference-maker for this offense, but he would have been a steady veteran playing on the perimeter if the rookies didn't come along as fast as the Patriots hoped.

A final factor to consider is that Bill Belichick might have wanted to release Jenkins sooner rather than later as a sign of respect to the veteran and to allow him to try and sign elsewhere. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan mentioned that he did so to Devery Henderson, another veteran receiver who was released Wednesday. Rather than waiting until the end of training camp, the Patriots may have released Jenkins now with the understanding that he wasn't going to make the roster.

The biggest takeaway from this all remains that the Patriots appear confident in their young receiving corps, one of the biggest questions leading into training camp.

Practice report: Day 3 in Philly

August, 8, 2013
PHILADELPHIA -- The Patriots and Eagles wrapped up their week of joint practices on Thursday, conducting a light workout in helmets and shells with a focus on special teams and situational work.

It was the third joint practice of the week, an experience that both teams seemed to view as productive.

From an attendance standpoint, second-year cornerback Alfonzo Dennard left the field early with strength and conditioning coach Harold Nash. He eventually returned alongside Nash, though he did not participate in drills from that point on. It is unclear the nature of the issue he is dealing with.

The following players were not spotted during the workout: receivers Michael Jenkins and Mark Harrison, cornerback Ras-I Dowling, safety Nate Ebner, tight ends Brandon Ford and Rob Gronkowski, offensive linemen Marcus Cannon, Markus Zusevics, Tyronne Green and Kevin Haslam, and defensive linemen Jermaine Cunningham and Armond Armstead.

Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. EST on Friday, the first exhibition game for both teams.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each AFC East team as training camps get underway.

Buffalo Bills: Buffalo is one of two AFC East teams with a high-profile quarterback battle. Veteran Kevin Kolb will attempt to beat out rookie first-round pick EJ Manuel in training camp. Kolb is the early favorite because of experience. He signed a two-year contract with the Bills after stops with the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles. Manuel was the only quarterback drafted in the first round this year and is an intriguing prospect. He has good size, mobility and a solid arm. However, Manuel never put it all together at Florida State. The Bills and new head coach Doug Marrone believe they can coach up Manuel and make him a complete quarterback. But it will take time.

Miami Dolphins: An interesting and unexpected position battle has developed at defensive end between first-round pick Dion Jordan and 2012 third-round pick Olivier Vernon. Jordan is Miami’s No. 3 overall pick who is expected to make an immediate impact. However, major shoulder surgery in February caused him to miss practice time up until Wednesday, the third day of training camp. In the meantime, Vernon took advantage of the opportunity to play with the starting defense in the spring and summer and has been a force. He looks much improved from his rookie year and has been disruptive in the first week of camp. Jordan eventually is expected to be a cornerstone of Miami's defense. But Vernon is making a strong case to start in Week 1 after holding the position all during organized team activities, minicamp and the first week of training camp.

New England Patriots: The Patriots are searching for a starting receiver. Free-agent pickup Danny Amendola will replace former starter Wes Welker. However, the spot Brandon Lloyd left behind is wide open. Will it be a veteran like Michael Jenkins or Lavelle Hawkins? What about a rookie like Aaron Dobson or an unknown like Kamar Aiken? Your guess is as good as anyone’s at this stage. The Patriots have a lot of questions about their passing game. Pretty much the only sign of stability right now is future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady, who has a tall task of keeping the offense at the top of NFL with limited weapons.

New York Jets: New York is the second division team with a significant quarterback competition. Veteran Mark Sanchez, the starter since 2009, will attempt to hold off rookie second-round pick Geno Smith. It’s been a lukewarm competition in organized team activities and minicamp, but both players are very confident that they will win the job in training camp. Sanchez has led the NFL in turnovers the past two seasons and is down to his last shot to prove he’s a franchise quarterback. Smith has some good physical ability but didn’t play in a pro-style offense at West Virginia. He needs time to adjust to the pro game, and that could factor into a close race.

Training camp preview: Patriots

July, 25, 2013
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? AFC East blogger James Walker and’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.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The major question facing each team in the AFC East as summer break looms.

Buffalo Bills: By all accounts, the Bills had a productive minicamp. But a huge question remains about the future of Buffalo Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd. He was a no-show this week in a clear show of displeasure over receiving the franchise tag. Byrd also skipped all organized team activities and has yet to sign the tag. However, because of his refusal to sign, the Bills could not fine him for skipping mandatory minicamp. The Bills have plenty of cap room, and Byrd is one of their core players entering his prime, so it makes sense for both sides to reach an agreement. However, time is running out -- training camp is coming up at the end of July.

Miami Dolphins: I’ve spent a lot of time at Miami’s practice facility for the past month during minicamp and OTAs. The Dolphins met my expectations in improving their passing game and defensive playmaking, but here is a question I didn’t get answered: Is the running game better in 2013? Miami lost tailback Reggie Bush in free agency, and I thought I would see more big plays from running backs Lamar Miller, Daniel Thomas and rookie Mike Gillislee. However, they were rather pedestrian this week. That being said, Miami’s run defense is very stout, and players aren’t practicing in pads, so it’s hard to gauge fully the progress of the running game until there’s live hitting in training camp.

New England Patriots: The wide receiver position is still a work in progress. Outside of free-agent pickup Danny Amendola, New England still hasn’t figured out its No. 2 and No. 3 receivers. These are important positions for the Patriots, who led the NFL in total offense in 2012 but lost Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker and veteran Brandon Lloyd, leaving huge voids that need to be filled. Unproven veterans, such as receivers Donald Jones, Michael Jenkins and Lavelle Hawkins, are competing with rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce. It will take a full training to pick the best two or three options from this group. Also, the Patriots need Amendola to play all 16 games this season, which is a risky proposition. I fully expect New England’s passing game to take a step backward in 2013. The receivers aren’t as talented, and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez also have injury concerns.

New York Jets: Can the Jets win this season with Mark Sanchez as the starter? It’s early, but it appears New York is heading in that direction. Sanchez relied on his experience to win the quarterback battle this week in minicamp over rookie second-round pick Geno Smith. Heading into training camp, Sanchez is now the favorite to win the starting job in Week 1. New York already is discussing whether to implement a read-option offense for Smith. That would get Smith involved in the game even if he’s not the starter. All in all, there are not a lot of reasons to be confident in New York’s offense this season. Sanchez is winning a lukewarm quarterback battle but must improve from the last two seasons.
The target percentages posted earlier are open to interpretation. Drop percentages are a little more straightforward.

Six current or former NFC West players ranked among the NFL's top 20 qualifying wide receivers and tight ends last season in lowest drop percentage, defined as drops divided by targets.

Percy Harvin and Mario Manningham went without a drop. Neither played a full season, but each had enough targets to qualify for inclusion in the chart below.

You might recall some of these players suffering more drops than we've listed in the chart. ESPN's standard for drops could be stricter than the ones our uncles apply when deciding which objects to throw at the television following frustrating plays. Our game charters count drops as "incomplete passes where the receiver SHOULD have caught the pass with ORDINARY effort" and only when the receiver is "100 percent at fault" for the incompletion.

The first chart shows where NFC West teams' wide receivers and tight ends ranked in the league in drop rate. The Seattle Seahawks ranked third. However, their running backs ranked only 29th in drop rate (9.3 percent), one spot ahead of running backs for the San Francisco 49ers (9.4 percent). The Arizona Cardinals' backs were fourth at 2.7 percent. The totals for running backs affected the overall team percentages, which we can check out separately another time.

I've singled out wide receivers and tight ends because we've been looking at players from those positions while discussing potential changes to the 49ers following Michael Crabtree's recent injury. Getting Manningham back to health could help the 49ers.

We have bad news to report for the rest of the AFC East division: New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is feeling really good about his arm and mechanics heading into the 2013 season.

The best player in the division and one of the top quarterbacks of all-time told Peter King of Sports Illustrated that he is more confident than ever about his play, which isn't what the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets want to hear. Brady is the one player who has kept New England on top of the AFC East for the past dozen years.

"Going into my 14th year, I have never had more confidence in how I am throwing the football," Brady said. "I've never felt better throwing the football."

Those are bold words for a 35-year-old quarterback. But Brady rarely is one to boast about his skills. So you have to take Brady at his word when he says something of this nature.

Fittingly, the Patriots certainly need Brady at the top of his game this year. New England lost a lot of production on offense by letting go of starting receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, who combined for an astounding 192 receptions, 2,265 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. The Patriots also have major injury concerns with tight ends Rob Gronkowski (arm, back) and Aaron Hernandez (shoulder), who both had major surgeries and will miss a majority of the offseason.

Brady will be working with an entirely new cast of wide receivers. Free-agent pickup Danny Amendola will be one starter, while veteran additions Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones and Lavelle Hawkins compete with rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce to fill other roles.

It will be vital for Brady to quickly develop chemistry with his new receivers in New England. And Brady feeling at the top of his game going into training camp this summer can only help matters.
BradyElsa/Getty ImagesThe path to a fourth title for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, left, will be considerably tougher in 2013.

The championship window for the New England Patriots will not be open forever. Quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick are entering the tail ends of their respective careers -- meaning that the time for this Hall of Fame pair to win a fourth championship together is now.

New England was one game away from reaching the Super Bowl last season, suffering an upset at Gillette Stadium at the hands of the eventual champion Baltimore Ravens.

Can the 2013 Patriots win it all? Here are five reasons why this season's Patriots are neither better than nor as dangerous as last season's:

Reason No. 1: Too many changes at receiver

Analysis: New England had the NFL's No. 1 offense and No. 4 passing game in 2012. If it's not broken, why did the Patriots make so many changes? New England opted to let go of starting receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, who combined for an astounding 192 receptions, 2,265 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Rest assured, the Patriots will not get that kind of production from their 2013 replacements. Danny Amendola will start in place of Welker. Amendola doesn’t have anywhere near the same production and durability as Welker -- he missed more games (20) the past two seasons with the St. Louis Rams than he played (12). The Patriots desperately need their new No. 1 receiver to play 16 games, which is a risky proposition. After Amendola, who will be New England's No. 2 and No. 3 receivers is unknown. There will be competition among Donald Jones, Michael Jenkins, Lavelle Hawkins and rookies Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson to fill those roles. New England's receivers won't strike fear into opposing defenses this year. Look for the Patriots' passing game to take a step back in 2013, particularly on the outside at wide receiver.

Reason No. 2: Too many injury concerns

Analysis: The Patriots are entering the 2013 season with major injury questions. With so many changes at wide receiver, they expect to lean heavily on their two tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. But should they? Gronkowski is headed for his fourth surgery on his previously broken right arm, and it’s questionable if he’s going to be ready for the start of the regular season. It's also uncertain if Gronkowski's arm will ever be the same and whether this will be a recurring issue. Hernandez also has been out after major shoulder surgery this offseason and aims to return for August training camp. Backup receiver Julian Edelman, meanwhile, just had another procedure on the same foot to which he suffered a season-ending injury in 2012. Edelman hasn’t been able to stay healthy throughout his career.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsTight end Rob Gronkowski might not be ready for the regular season -- and his durability is a major concern for New England whenever he returns.
Reason No. 3: Tom Brady is a year older

Analysis: Patriots fans have become spoiled by the consistent greatness of Brady. He is expected to put up Hall of Fame numbers every year for New England to be successful. But I’ve seen a major problem with New England for the past few seasons. The Patriots rely on Brady too much and too often, and eventually that will start catching up with the team. Brady, who will be 36 in August, is a year older with a year of more wear and tear. Can he match his 4,827 yards and 34 touchdowns of 2012? He’s playing with all new receivers and his two tight ends are recovering from injuries. If Brady cannot match his 2012 numbers, that will be another step back for New England. There is also already talk of Brady “seeing ghosts” in the pocket as he reaches the tail end of his career. The older he gets, the less Brady wants to get hit. Brady was sacked 59 times the past two seasons, which is the highest two-year total since 2002-03.

Reason No. 4: Tougher schedule

Analysis: For the past several years, New England has taken advantage of one of the easiest schedules in the NFL. It won't get that chance this season. The Patriots are going from the 32nd-ranked strength of schedule in 2012 to the 14th-ranked strength of schedule in 2013. The Denver Broncos, Ravens, Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers are on New England’s 2013 slate. It will be harder for the Patriots to surpass last year’s 12-4 record.

Reason No. 5: The AFC East is stronger

Analysis: New England hasn't had much in the way of solid competition in the AFC East lately. No division team beside the Patriots finished with a winning record in 2011 or 2012. That should change this season. Both the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills are improved and will push the Patriots harder than they have in the past. Miami, in particular, has made closing the gap with New England its primary offseason objective. The Dolphins added dynamic receiver Mike Wallace, receiving tight end Dustin Keller, former Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes and starting linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. Miami added plenty of talent in the draft, led by No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill also is expected to make the jump in his sophomore season to compete with Brady. The Bills could make waves, too, if they get solid quarterback play from Kevin Kolb or rookie EJ Manuel this year. Overall, the AFC East won’t be the same cupcake division for the Patriots it has been in recent seasons. The Patriots remain the favorites in the AFC East. But one or two additional division losses could make a difference for New England when it comes to trying to get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Final prediction: Health permitting, this year’s Patriots will still make the postseason. But they will not be a favorite to win a Super Bowl like last season. Denver, Houston, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers are stronger, while the Patriots have taken a step or two backward. New England’s defense is improved, but it’s still not good enough to dominate games alone. The Patriots’ success, as usual, will depend on the offense’s ability to match or surpass last year’s production, when New England led the NFL in total offense -- and that won’t happen in 2013. Last year’s Patriots missed a golden opportunity -- playing at home in the AFC title game -- to win another Super Bowl, and the 2013 season will end without New England taking home the Lombardi Trophy.
The NFL draft is finally here!

After months of projections and speculation, the NFL will take center stage in just a few hours for the first-round of the 2013 draft. The AFC East will be busy with five picks on Thursday night.

With that in mind, here is a final reminder of draft needs in the division:

Buffalo Bills, No. 8

Needs: QB, G, WR, CB

Analysis: The Bills can go in a lot of different directions at No. 8. Many feel the Bills will take former Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib in the first round, but I think it’s risky to take any quarterback this year in the top 10. Nassib has strong ties to Buffalo because he played under Bills rookie head coach Doug Marrone in college. Buffalo also could fill a hole at guard left by Andy Levitre, who signed with the Tennessee Titans in free agency. Receiver and cornerback are two additional needs.

New York Jets, No. 9 and No. 13

Needs: OLB, WR, G, TE, QB

Analysis: New York has one of the thinnest rosters in the NFL after free agency. This is a team in store for a major rebuild under first-year general manager John Idzik, and the Jets can take a major step Thursday by nailing their two first-round picks. New York has so many needs that it can afford to take the best available player. I took LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo and West Virginia receiver Tavon Austin in this week’s blogger mock draft. This pairing or something similar would be great for the Jets. New York won’t become a playoff team after this draft, but filling two needs in the first round would be a good start.

Miami Dolphins, No. 12

Needs: LT, CB, DE

Analysis: The Dolphins filled a lot of needs in free agency. That affords Miami the opportunity to zero in on a few spots in the draft. The Dolphins have five picks in the first three rounds, which provides a lot of flexibility to move up if needed. Miami desperately needs a left tackle. The top three left tackles at the position are all expected to be gone by No. 12, so the Dolphins most likely would have to move up to get a top left tackle. Miami’s pass defense also was shaky last season. There is speculation that former Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner could fall down the draft board because of injury concerns. Milliner, if healthy, would fill a big need at cornerback.

New England Patriots, No. 29

Needs: WR, CB, DE

Analysis: New England is coming off another appearance in the AFC title game. The Patriots had some turnover in free agency. However, this is still a good team. New England must address its need at receiver. The passing game is too important for the Patriots to have a questionable group of receivers, which includes Danny Amendola, Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones and Julian Edelman. New England needs another playmaker on the outside, especially with injury concerns with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. New England also could use another cover cornerback, and someone to get to the quarterback. Both would improve the Patriots’ 29th-ranked pass defense.

The AFC East blog will be live at Dolphins headquarters for the first round on Thursday night. Be sure to check back for all the latest draft news and analysis for the Dolphins, Bills, Patriots and Jets.

Eight in the Box: Under the radar

April, 5, 2013
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at the top under-the-radar move made by each AFC East team thus far this offseason:

Buffalo Bills: The Bills have been quiet in free agency, especially compared to last year. But the signing of defensive tackle Alan Branch should pay off. Branch, who started for the Seattle Seahawks the past two seasons, is a massive run-stopper added to Buffalo’s defensive line rotation, which already includes tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. Branch is versatile enough to play the nose and defensive tackle in Mike Pettine’s defense, which will have 3-4 and 4-3 looks. The Bills were 31st against the run last season but are now a lot tougher up the middle after signing Branch. He’s also durable, missing just one game the past four seasons.

Miami Dolphins: It has been a whirlwind free agency period for Miami. General manager Jeff Ireland was busy spending the Dolphins’ immense cap room this offseason, adding big names such as receiver Mike Wallace, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, and tight end Dustin Keller. But the Dolphins' latest signing, cornerback Brent Grimes, is an under-the-radar move that could pay off huge. Grimes was a Pro Bowl cornerback two seasons ago. He suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in 2012 and signed a one-year contract with Miami this season. The Dolphins are banking on Grimes' returning to his pre-injury form. It’s a calculated risk. But if rehab goes well, Grimes easily will be Miami’s most talented cornerback.

New England Patriots: The Patriots made a few big-name moves this offseason, signing safety Adrian Wilson, receiver Danny Amendola and re-signing corner Aqib Talib and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. But the signing of wide receiver Michael Jenkins could also could pay dividends. Jenkins, 30, has been a consistent producer throughout his 10-year career. He’s averaged 45 receptions a year over the past six seasons. That number could increase playing with future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady. Jenkins will not have a major role in the offense considering New England has other players like Amendola and tight end Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. But Jenkins has a track record of producing when his number is called.

New York Jets: The Jets did a lot of bargain-basement shopping in free agency. They were hamstrung by the salary cap this year and were not going to be major players in free agency. However, the Jets did several smart signings. Perhaps their best value of the group was Mike Goodson, who is the favorite to be New York’s starting running back next season. Goodson signed a three-year, $6.9 million contract with the Jets. He finally gets a chance to start after backing up running backs like Darren McFadden in Oakland and Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams in Carolina. Goodson has averaged 4.5 yards per carry in his career and should get plenty of carries in New York for the first time.
The New England Patriots will have two new starting receivers in 2013. The defending AFC East champs let Wes Welker walk in free agency and cut veteran Brandon Lloyd. The pair combined for 192 receptions, 2,265 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.

New England will go with a receiver-by-committee setup next season to replace the lost production. So far, the team signed receivers Danny Amendola, Michael Jenkins and Donald Jones in free agency. But will the Patriots add another receiver in the NFL draft?

The Patriots' track record of drafting receivers have been awful in recent years. It's the one position head coach Bill Belichick, who calls the shots in New England, has not been able to figure out.

New England's selections at receiver reads like a laundry list of draft busts. Taylor Price, Brandon Tate, Chad Jackson and P.K. Sam are among the many flops the Patriots have selected since 2004. The most productive receiver in that span, seventh-rounder Julian Edelman, was a converted quarterback and has 69 career receptions. Others, like Matthew Slater and Tate, developed into primarily special-teamers.

For some reason, Belichick simply does not have a good eye for drafting wide receivers. Is this the year Belichick and the Patriots change that trend?

New England holds the No. 29 overall pick and could be targeting a receiver in the first two rounds. Keenan Allen of Cal, Robert Woods of USC and Terrance Williams of Baylor are all possibilities.

Whoever the Patriots choose, New England wants its next rookie receiver has a more productive career than his predecessors.

The New England Patriots added another wide receiver to the mix by signing 10-year veteran Michael Jenkins, reports. He is 6-foot-4, 214 pounds and provides a big target on the outside for New England quarterback Tom Brady.

Jenkins spent the past two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. He caught 40 passes for 449 yards and two touchdowns last season in eight starts. But perhaps the biggest question is what does this mean for former New England receiver Brandon Lloyd?

The Patriots wanted to keep Lloyd but recently cut him because they didn't want to pay his $3 million roster bonus. Some thought that Lloyd might return at a cheaper price, especially if other teams didn't show much interest.

But Thursday’s signing of Jenkins could be a sign that the Patriots are moving on from Lloyd -- at least for now. New England also signed former Buffalo Bills starting receiver Donald Jones and slot receiver Danny Amendola in free agency.

It's not a particularly strong receiver group. But New England’s strength next year will be with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

Vikings surprise even themselves

December, 31, 2012
Adrian PetersonAP Photo/Jim MoneAdrian Peterson, who came within nine yards of the single-season rushing record Sunday, exemplifies the unexpected season the Vikings have had.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Antoine Winfield started down the road so many professional athletes take.

"I'm sure none of you guys thought we had a chance to do this," Winfield said to a group of reporters after the Vikings completed an improbable run to the 2012 playoffs. Their 37-34 victory over the Green Bay Packers was the Vikings' 10th win of the season, or about four more than any media prognosticator deemed possible when the season began.

What about you? I asked Winfield. Did you think this could be a playoff team?

Winfield smiled and held his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart.

"Small chance, really," he said. "This just shows you that you never know. You really never know. Coming from 3-13 last year, we really didn't make too many moves in the offseason and just brought in a bunch of young guys. You don't know what you're going to get there. You're playing in a tough division, and we knew we would have to capitalize on every opportunity we had. And guess what? We did. Who would have thought?"

Not me, not you and -- truth be told -- not even some of the smartest players in the Vikings' locker room. Winfield admitted he has "absolutely" never been more surprised about a season in his 14-year career. Defensive end Jared Allen, a nine-year veteran, echoed Winfield's sentiments.

"I really had no clue this was coming," Allen said. "But it was kind of cool at the same time. There were no expectations to live up to. Whatever we put on the field, that's what we were going to be. As we grew and the season went on, we kind of said, 'Hey, we've got something here.'"

Let us be clear: The Vikings earned this playoff bid without the slightest degree of doubt. They won their final four regular-season games, knowing that a loss in any of them would almost certainly scuttle their chances, and Sunday they took the best shot of an excellent Packers team that has lost only twice in 12 weeks and remains a strong Super Bowl contender.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers called the Vikings "a good team" and said there was "nothing to be ashamed of" in losing to them. The Packers tied the game twice on Sunday, once at 27 early in the fourth quarter and once at 34 with two minutes, 54 seconds remaining. On both occasions, the Vikings came back to regain the lead. They demonstrated the championship mettle against a team with similar aspirations.

"The truth is we've been playing one-game seasons for a month already," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "Basically we've been in a playoff mentality for a month."

At the same time, you won't find many people inside or outside the organization who envisioned the Vikings emerging as a late-season force.

Yes, it was healthy and honest to express surprise at where the Vikings found themselves Sunday. Did anyone besides Adrian Peterson think he would roar back from major knee surgery with a career year? Of course not. And as recently as a month ago, it was fair to suggest that quarterback Christian Ponder had flopped. On Sunday, Ponder threw his longest pass of the season -- a pretty 65-yarder to receiver Jarius Wright -- and tied a season-high by completing four (!!) passes that traveled at least 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. (Small moves, Ellie. Small moves.)

Afterwards, Ponder quoted Michael Jordan (!!!) to explain why he was calm during a game-winning drive that required a 25-yard pass to receiver Michael Jenkins on third down to extend.

"For me," Ponder said without a touch of irony, "one thing that has stuck in my mind throughout this whole season was something that Michael Jordan always said. When it came down to the last minutes of the game, when the pressure was on, someone asked him what he did differently. He said, 'I stay the same. It's everyone else that changed.'"

Raise your hand if you thought you thought you would hear Christian Ponder referencing Michael Jordan in Week 17 of the 2012 season.

Right. That's what I thought.

I don't mind admitting that I'm surprised to see the Vikings in the playoffs. What's interesting, however, is that they are right back where they started. Few outsiders expect the Vikings to go to Lambeau Field on Saturday and repeat Sunday's performance. But here's the difference: No one in the locker room would be surprised, not any longer.

"I'll tell you this," Greenway said, "We didn't get into the playoffs just to say we got to the playoffs. We want to go up there and fight and try to get into the next round."

The Vikings have been surprising us all season. Who is to doubt them now?


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