NFL Nation: Stephen Neal

Patriots draftee Cannon coping with cancer

May, 9, 2011
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If not for the controversial Ryan Mallett selection, Marcus Cannon would have been the most fascinating New England Patriots draft choice.

Cannon, a Texas Christian tackle, was diagnosed with cancer last month. He began chemotherapy treatments for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma on April 28, the day the draft began.

Boston Globe reporter Shalise Manza Young went to Fort Worth to speak with Cannon and those who know him about how he has dealt with the shocking development.

"I was trying to be strong and then I just started crying while I was talking to my dad," Cannon told Manza Young. "My mom said, 'You need to start praying,' and then my dad told me to start praying. And that's one thing that I really didn't hear out of him growing up, was talking about God. He told me to start praying, and that got me to start praying."

Almost certainly because of his diagnosis, Cannon slid to the fifth round, where the Patriots grabbed him with the 138th overall choice.

Scouts Inc. graded him out as a second-round pick and remarked about his versatility to play either guard or tackle.

Cannon joins a New England offensive line that has question marks. Right guard Stephen Neal retired. All-Pro left guard Logan Mankins is unhappy. Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Light is a free agent. The Patriots also drafted Colorado tackle Nate Solder in the first round.

"I'm doing exactly what I want to do," Cannon said. "I know where I was supposed to go in the draft, and for me to look back on that is dwelling on the past. And what's in the past is already gone; it's only the future. I'm keeping my eyes forward.

"You know, this happened for a reason. We'll see in the days to come why it happened, and then we'll look back and say 'Good thing I didn't care about when I went,' but I'm not going to look back."

Patriots stick at 17, add Solder to O-line

April, 28, 2011
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In a mild upset, the New England Patriots didn't trade the 17th draft pick. Then they used it to draft 6-foot-8 Colorado tackle Nate Solder.

Solder
Solder
Why the Patriots took him: The Patriots seem to have strength at tackle. Young right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was voted second-team All-Pro, and veteran left tackle Matt Light went to the Pro Bowl last season as an alternate. But Light is a free agent and will turn 33 in a few weeks. O-line stability is important to keeping Tom Brady on the field, and the Patriots grabbed the second tackle off the board.

How it affects the roster: Patriots right guard Stephen Neal retired, and All-Pro left guard Logan Mankins is unhappy. If Light does come back, a shuffle might be in order. But Patriots fans should feel comfortable knowing O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia will get it all sorted out.

Scouts Inc. says: Exceptional combination of size and natural athleticism. Long arms. Tough to get around him in pass protection when he gets proper depth. Great feet for size. Does a nice job of locking on with long arms and flashes ability to control rushers once in position. However, he does not have a powerful punch and he lacks upper body strength (only 21 reps on bench press confirms what we see on tape).

Draft Watch: AFC East

March, 10, 2011
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: biggest team needs.

Buffalo Bills

Where would you like to start?

Offense? How about left tackle, right tackle, tight end and -- if there's a great one still on the draft board -- quarterback?

Defense? How about the line, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, cornerback and safety?

Special teams? OK, the Bills are fine there.

But kicker, punter and running back are about the only positions the Bills can draft third overall and not help themselves.

The most pressing needs, however, are tackle and outside linebacker. The Bills haven't drafted an offensive tackle earlier than the fifth round since taking Mike Williams in the first round in 2002, and their line play shows that. They have tried to coach up late draft picks (Demetrius Bell, Ed Wang) and rummaged through free agency (Cornell Green, Mansfield Wrotto, Jonathan Scott, Jamon Meredith) rather than acquire that prized blindside protector.

The Bills were so desperate at outside linebacker they plucked the injury-ravaged Shawne Merriman off waivers last year and then, even though he got hurt again minutes into his first workout, gave him a contract extension.

They can't bank on Merriman to anchor their pass rush. Yet even if he can contribute, they'll need more help. The Bills recorded 27 sacks last year. Only three teams had fewer.

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins probably will need a running back. They could stand to upgrade at quarterback if they can.

But they definitely need interior offensive linemen.

They recently re-signed left guard Richie Incognito to an extension, but they still have problems at center and right guard. Although they have two solid book-end tackles in Pro perennial Bowl left tackle Jake Long and veteran Vernon Carey, they've been a mess in between for the past three years.

The Dolphins need to upgrade their power running game. Despite having a capable and healthy backfield tandem in Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams last season, the Dolphins ranked 21st in rushing yards, 29th in yards per carry and 29th in rushing touchdowns.

A stud running back certainly can help, and the Dolphins might have little choice but to take one with their 15th selection. Brown's and Williams' contracts are up. That's why so many draft analysts project the Dolphins will take Alabama running back Mark Ingram and then address the O-line later.

New England Patriots

Funny how things work for the Patriots when it comes to draft picks. The reigning AFC East champs might have the fewest needs but have the most draft picks at their disposal.

The Patriots went 14-2 last season and own two draft choices in each of the first three rounds. So the Patriots have the flexibility to go any number of directions.

The most obvious need is outside linebacker. The Patriots' entire outside linebacking corps mustered 13.5 sacks last year. Dolphins outside linebacker Cameron Wake generated 14 sacks all by himself.

Offensive line is another concern because there are so many question marks. Right guard Stephen Neal retired. Left guard Logan Mankins is upset. Left tackle Matt Light isn't signed. Nick Kaczur is coming off serious back surgery. The timing is right to bring in some fresh O-line blood.

The Patriots had one of the NFL's most entertaining backfields last year, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushing for over 1,000 yards and Danny Woodhead making the Jets look foolish for cutting him. But each running back has his limitations, and the Patriots could be on the lookout for an all-purpose back adept at catching a pass and converting a third-and-short.

New York Jets

The Jets are in a weird spot. They finished the season as a team with talent at virtually every position.

But they have a crowded group of free agents and couldn't bring themselves to sign any (aside from giving inside linebacker David Harris the franchise tag) until a new collective bargaining agreement was in place. The Jets want to know what the new salary cap is before moving forward.

That leaves a lot of loose ends for the Jets heading into the draft. Will they need a receiver to replace Santonio Holmes or Braylon Edwards? A cornerback to replace Antonio Cromartie?

The needs we can bank on are outside linebacker and safety.

The Jets must generate a better pass rush and still need to recover from the Vernon Gholston pick that set them back. Outside linebacker Bryan Thomas is competent, but no star. He led the Jets with just six sacks. Calvin Pace had 5.5 sacks. The recently released Jason Taylor added five.

Safety is an area of emphasis because they could have stood to upgrade even before Brodney Pool, Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo became free agents. Jim Leonhard is a Rex Ryan favorite but recovering from a broken shin.

Patriots wise to franchise Logan Mankins

February, 11, 2011
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Logan Mankins previously warned the New England Patriots he would be upset if they placed the franchise tag on him.

Boston Herald beat writer Ian R. Rapoport reports the Patriots "definitely" will use the franchise tag on their All-Pro left guard.

Despite objections from the NFL Players Association, the NFL has allowed teams to apply franchise tags for two weeks, starting Friday.

[+] EnlargeLogan Mankins
Tom Croke/Icon SMILogan Mankins earned All-Pro honors despite playing in just nine games this season.
The team's decision to franchise Mankins could cause angst among Patriot Nation. Fans don't want their stars to be unhappy or at odds with the organization. The franchise tag would prolong a messy rift between Mankins and the front office that has lasted many months and involved owner Robert Kraft reportedly demanding a public apology.

But the Patriots are making the absolutely proper move here.

If Mankins is unsatisfied, so what? He was disgruntled last season and played so dominantly he was voted first-team All-Pro and selected as a Pro Bowl starter by the fans, coaches and players -- even though he played only nine games.

Mankins is a proud competitor who will block just as hellaciously regardless of his situation. He's not wired to go half-speed or pull back just because he's displeased with his deal. A guy like Mankins doesn't pout when the ball is snapped.

Mankins' situation was worth our empathy heading into the 2010 season. He was supposed to be an unrestricted free agent, but rules governing the uncapped year altered the criteria. The new rules rendered him a restricted free agent. That allowed the Patriots to make a $3.26 million qualifying offer to retain his services, although market value pegged his value at more than twice that.

For example, New Orleans Saints guard Jahri Evans signed a seven-year, $56.7 million contract in May.

A month later, Mankins demanded a trade and vowed never to sign the qualifying offer. When a deadline passed without Mankins' signature, the Patriots were allowed to slash the offer to $1.54 million.

But he couldn't forfeit a season of NFL experience and risk being a restricted free agent again this year. So he finally relented and reported to the team on Nov. 3

Mankins deserved better treatment then, but the franchise tag will mean he receives a projected $10.5 million salary next season.

Franchise tags pay the average of the top five players at a given position, and the league doesn't differentiate between spots along the offensive line. That means highly paid left tackles factor into Mankins' franchise figure.

A franchise tag for Mankins would be bad news for Miami Dolphins fans, who were hopeful they could get a shot at him to solidify their interior offensive line. Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland reportedly spoke to the Patriots about a Mankins trade before the star guard finally went back to work in November.

Unlike past years, however, the franchise tag is not a guaranteed process. The NFL Players Association disputes the legality of the tags this year because the collective bargaining agreement is about to expire and there are no guidelines for a free-agency period.

Teams would be wise to use the tag while they can and then let the courts sort out the rest. The New York Jets expect to use their franchise tag on inside linebacker David Harris.

AFC East draft season: Who needs what?

February, 9, 2011
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Gabbert, Ingram & Ayers US PresswireBlaine Gabbert (Bills), Mark Ingram (Miami), and Akeem Ayers (Patriots) could all fit in the AFC East.
Nobody can say for sure when the 2011 NFL season will begin or what the free-agency period will resemble.

But we do know there will be a draft in April.

Rather than depress everybody with labor musings, let's focus on the only player personnel activities we can count on.

To set the stage for draft season and the NFL scouting combine in two weeks, I canvassed four evaluators I respect to compile a list of positional needs for the AFC East.

I asked National Football Post scouting guru Wes Bunting, Scouts Inc. draft analyst Steve Muench, Pro Football Weekly senior editor Nolan Nawrocki, and CBSSports.com senior analyst Rob Rang to share their rundown of shortcomings for each club.

I merged their insights to come up with a consensus. From there, I targeted some candidates who fit the profile of need combined with draft position.

The new collective bargaining agreement can impact these projections significantly. If a CBA can be hammered out before the draft, then perhaps teams will be able to address some needs via free agency. Otherwise, front offices will have more roster uncertainties than usual when they're on the clock in Radio City Music Hall.

Buffalo Bills

Pick: Third.

Consensus needs: Offensive line, quarterback, defensive tackle, outside linebacker.

Analysis: An asterisk should be affixed to any Bills forecast. Few experts would have rated running back as a target area last year, but they selected C.J. Spiller ninth overall out of Clemson. So who knows what they're thinking?

All four analysts rated offensive line either first or second among the Bills' most needful areas. Nawrocki and Muench were specific about tackles -- a position the Bills haven't drafted earlier than the fifth round since 2002. Nawrocki called tackle the No. 1 priority.

Muench and Bunting rated quarterback as the most important position.

The good news for the Bills is that they likely will be able to take the first quarterback or tackle off the board if they choose.

But none of the analysts projected the Bills to take an offensive lineman third overall. The best prospects simply aren't considered worth that high of a slot.

"Ryan Fitzpatrick is an excellent backup and stopgap, but he's an adequate at best starter," Muench said. "If the Bills can get Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert at No. 3, then I think they pull the trigger."

Rang labeled defensive line Buffalo's biggest concern, noting opponents averaged a gaudy 169.6 rushing yards last season, and this year's draft class is deep along the defensive front.

Who could be there: Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers are top candidates. Gabbert should be on the board when the Bills pick. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton almost certainly will be available. The two teams drafting ahead of the Bills, the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos, aren't expected to take a quarterback.

Miami Dolphins

Pick: 15th.

Consensus needs: Running back, interior offensive line, quarterback.

Analysis: Of the four AFC East teams, the Dolphins presented the most straightforward consensus among the panel. Three of four rated running back as the chief concern. Three of four listed guard second.

Two experts listed quarterback, with Bunting deeming it the greatest deficiency. Even so, Bunting added Alabama running back Mark Ingram is an attractive possibility in the first round.

Free agency mysteries could put the Dolphins in a backfield bind. Contracts for Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are about to expire.

"Running back is an obvious concern," Rang said. "Lex Hilliard could surprise if given a real opportunity, but many believe the Dolphins will be tempted by Ingram in the first round."

Muench found quarterback to be an interesting position for Miami in the draft.

"The argument could be made that quarterback is the Dolphins' top need," Muench said, "but not from a draft perspective. Miami won't find a better quarterback than Chad Henne at pick 15, and trading up will prove difficult.

"If the Dolphins have decided to move on from Henne, then signing a free agent or trading for a quarterback makes the most sense. Regardless, they should take a chance on a developmental prospect in the middle rounds."

Who could be there: The Bills' slot is the only one in the AFC East that comes with some clarity. The middle of the first round is dicey to predict. Will Ingram still be on the board? The Dolphins also could be tempted to grab Newton if he's still waiting by his phone or Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett, although multiple reports suggest Mallett's stock is plummeting. As for interior linemen, the 15th slot seems way too soon for anybody in this year's class. The top candidate is Florida guard Mike Pouncey, younger brother of Pittsburgh Steelers rookie Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey.

New England Patriots

Pick: 17th and 28th.

Consensus needs: Outside linebacker, offensive line, running back, defensive end.

Analysis: The Patriots have a pair of first-round choices to address their needs. They also have two picks each in the second and third rounds. With so much inventory to wheel and deal, it's hard to speculate what Bill Belichick will do or where he will end up picking within the first couple rounds.

None of the four analysts prioritized the same top position for New England, but all of them ranked outside linebacker among their top three needs.

Nawrocki was specific in stating the Patriots need a five-technique defensive end, although veteran Ty Warren is returning from a hip injury that sidelined him for 2010.

Bunting's emphasis was on a do-it-all running back. BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a nice campaign as the AFC East's lone 1,000-yard rusher, but he's not a threat in the passing game. Danny Woodhead is a top-notch complementary player, but he doesn't have the size to be a workhorse.

[+] EnlargeLogan Mankins
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaThe contract status of guard Logan Mankins could impact New England's draft needs this year.
Three of the four analysts viewed New England's offensive line as an issue dependent upon the ability to re-sign Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins and ambiguity over the futures of veteran left tackle Matt Light and right guard Stephen Neal.

"Light has been a solid bookend for the past 10 years, but he turns 33 this offseason, and explosive edge rushers gave him problems last year," Muench said. "It's also worth pointing out that New England wants its young tight ends making plays downfield and not helping in pass protection."

Who could be there: Pass-rushers always are a hot commodity, and this year is no different. Defensive ends and outside linebackers can be difficult to sort because teams will project them into different roles. UCLA outside linebacker Akeem Ayers and Missouri outside linebacker Aldon Smith are strong possibilities. It's foreseeable New England will be considering the fifth or sixth best defensive end on its board at No. 17 -- if you believe the Patriots will keep that pick, of course. Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan and Wisconsin's J.J. Watt project in that range. Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure is considered second in this year's class behind Ingram.

New York Jets

Pick: 30th.

Consensus needs: Outside linebacker, wide receiver, defensive line, safety.

Analysis: Analysts were fragmented on the Jets, and a major reason for that is their volume of free agents and the degree of difficulty general manager Mike Tannenbaum will have in re-signing the most important ones.

"Collectively, their roster is one of the strongest in the league, but they do have some questions to answer," Nawrocki said.

For instance, receiver either could be a huge offseason weakness or a major strength. Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith are free agents, but Tannenbaum stated he intends to re-sign them all. The likelihood of that happening is dubious, as illustrated by three of the four panelists rating wide receiver either second or third for the Jets.

Nawrocki and Rang each listed outside linebacker first.

"The Jets must account for the failure of Vernon Gholston, who likely will be released soon, and get younger at outside linebacker," Nawrocki said.

Gholston was the sixth overall selection in the 2008 draft and has failed to record an NFL sack. Jason Taylor had five sacks last season, but he'll turn 37 at the start of next season and might not be back.

"The Jets need a pass-rusher to take the next step," Rang said. "If there is a 3-4 outside linebacker prospect they like on the board at No. 30, he's the favorite."

Muench rated free safety as the Jets' biggest need. Not only could the Jets stand to upgrade that position, but also Brodney Pool and Eric Smith are free agents.

"As good as this defense is," Muench said, "imagine if Rex Ryan had a safety that can match up with receivers and play a center-field role like he had with Ed Reed in Baltimore."

Who could be there: Draft boards are highly unreliable by the end of the first round. Prospects you thought would go in the top 15 drop into the 20s. A player expected to be available early in the second round is long gone. Nawrocki's mock draft has Ayers slipping to the Jets. Bunting and Rang each have Baylor defensive tackle Phil Taylor slotted 30th.

John Madden names Patriots top O-line

February, 3, 2011
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The New England Patriots already had the NFL's best quarterback, best offensive player and best coach for 2010.

Now they have the best offensive line, too.

John Madden -- the actual guy, not the video game -- announced the Patriots won the 2010 Madden Most Valuable Protectors Award, an honor established last year to recognize the NFL's best offensive line.

The award is based on a combination of criteria including O-line stats (sacks allowed, rushing and passing yardage, time of possession, penalties, conversion percentages and red-zone efficiency), fan voting and Madden's evaluation.

"All season long, these guys proved they had the mental and physical toughness that enabled the Patriots offense to put up impressive numbers on the ground and in the air," Madden said.

Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia's boys beat out the other finalists: the Atlanta Falcons, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints and New York Giants.

Patriots left guard Logan Mankins was first-team All-Pro and started in the Pro Bowl despite a contract dispute that caused him to miss the first seven games of the season. Left tackle Matt Light was chosen for the Pro Bowl as an alternate. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was voted second-team All-Pro.

The Patriots also endured two significant O-line injuries. Last year's right tackle and projected left guard Nick Kaczur missed the entire season with a back injury. A bad shoulder placed right guard Stephen Neal on injured reserve after eight games. Dan Connolly was the super sub who filled in at left guard for Mankins and Kaczur and then at right guard for Neal.

The Patriots led the NFL in scoring. They ranked eighth in total offense, ninth in run offense, 11th in pass offense and fourth in sacks allowed.

New England surrendered 25 sacks. Ten of them came in a three-game stretch in October and nine more in a three-game stretch in December. That left 10 games in which New England gave up zero or one sacks.

No kidding: Tom Brady named top O player

February, 1, 2011
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A drumroll was unnecessary.

As expected Tuesday night, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was named The Associated Press 2010 Offensive Player of the Year.

Brady produced one of the greatest quarterbacking seasons of his generation.

Brady had a dominant campaign despite a transitory cast. The Patriots traded Randy Moss after two games. Wes Welker was coming back from reconstructive knee surgery. Brady's tight ends were rookies. The running backs were undrafted players who'd been waived in the past. All-Pro guard Logan Mankins missed the first seven games. Right guard Stephen Neal missed the last nine games. Last year's right tackle, Nick Kaczur, missed the entire season.

Oh, and Brady played the final two months with a broken foot.

Yet he completed 66 percent of his throws for 3,900 yards and a league-best 36 touchdowns. He had an NFL-low four interceptions and broke a 19-year-old record for consecutive attempts without an interception. Brady's 111.0 passer rating ranks fifth all-time.

Such a prolific season made Tuesday night's announcement a formality. Earlier in the day I tried to stimulate a little OPOY discussion by trying to determine who should be second.

Brady received 21 of the AP panel's 50 votes. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick was second with 11 votes followed by Houston Texans running back Arian Foster with seven, San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers with five and Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson two apiece.

The over on the national anthem is not the safest football bet you can make on Super Sunday. It's that Brady also will be named MVP. There was an interesting debate developing between Brady and Vick with a few weeks left in the season, but Vick sputtered in December while Brady finished the season with 14 wins.

Jets, Bills dodged 'starter games lost'

January, 20, 2011
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Back in my days covering the National Hockey League, "man games lost" were insightful stats we used frequently. The figures helped illustrate how injuries were impacting a team's season.

Man games lost aren't avidly tracked in the NFL. Rosters are more volatile than in the NHL, where fully guaranteed contracts generally cement a roster coming out of training camp.

NFL teams cut and sign players more frequently. Injured players can dress because there's one game a week, and they can be used situationally. In the NHL, you have to play offense and defense. There are no third-down specialists you can safely insert for a shift or two.

Football Outsiders managing editor Bill Barnwell has compiled a worthwhile chart for the NFL.

Better than man games lost, it's starter games lost.

The Indianapolis Colts led the NFL with 89. The Chicago Bears and Kansas City Chiefs were tied for fewest at 11.

In the AFC East, the Miami Dolphins had the most with 62, ranking seventh in the league. They were banged-up all along the offensive and defensive lines. Receiver Brian Hartline, cornerback Will Allen and rookie defensive end Jared Odrick went to injured reserve among a few others.

The New England Patriots were tied for 10th with 54 starter games lost. Tom Brady played through a foot fracture, but they most notably lost cornerback Leigh Bodden and offensive linemen Stephen Neal and Nick Kaczur.

The Buffalo Bills were tied for 21st with 42 starter games lost. That's a great development after what happened to them in 2009, when they finished with 21 players on injured reserve, including left tackle Demetrius Bell, right tackle Brad Butler, inside linebacker Kawika Mitchell, starting cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Terrence McGee and Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd.

The New York Jets lost starters 38 times, ranking 23rd in the league. Their biggest losses were nose tackle Kris Jenkins, safety Jim Leonhard and right tackle Damien Woody.

What do these numbers say, especially when four of the top five most injury-riddled teams (Colts, Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks, Philadelphia Eagles) made the playoffs?

It means that depth (or playing in the NFC West) is imperative to surviving.

Barnwell offered to break down the chart by upper-body and lower-body injuries, but I haven't gotten that file yet.

Brady's passing guru hasn't seen him better

January, 12, 2011
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Tom Brady Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireQuarterback Tom Brady has thrown 36 touchdown passes and only four interceptions this season.
Tom Martinez might've known in the summer what kind of season Tom Brady was about to have.

Martinez is the man who taught Brady how to pass. They've been together for about half of Brady's life, since before his first junior varsity start.

As usual, they got together during the offseason in Southern California to hone Brady's mechanics. Martinez identified a few areas to tweak.

"By the end of it all, I'd never seen him better," Martinez said from his home in Menlo Park, Calif.

"It was hard to stand there and watch it. You've got to shake your head that you're really looking at what you think you are. He was so precise. You go, 'Holy mackerel. He's got to throw some balls away.' It was unbelievably impressive."

Even with that knowledge, Martinez was surprised to see Brady's remarkable season unfold the way it has. The numbers Brady has posted in his MVP-worthy season can't be chalked up merely to refined mechanics.

With a diminished supporting cast that features rookies, castoffs and injury replacements, Brady posted the fifth-highest passer rating in NFL history, led the league in touchdown passes, threw the fewest interceptions and broke records for turnover efficiency.

"To watch him play is like watching Pavarotti," Martinez said. "He's in total command."

The big man who coaches the New York Jets sounds like he's trying to disrupt Brady's virtuosity. Rex Ryan has been belting out news-conference arias in advance of Sunday's playoff game against the Patriots. Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie took a less subtle approach to insulting Brady.

Brady's response: "We're just going to do our talking on the field."

The Patriots have performed impeccably all season. This year's production is more remarkable than what they accomplished in 2007, when they set the NFL record with 589 points and went 18-0 before losing in the Super Bowl.

The Patriots scored 518 points this season, seventh most in league history.

But the season becomes more incredible when you consider New England traded receiver Randy Moss, didn't have Wes Welker at full speed, relied on rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, didn't have Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins for half the season, lost right guard Stephen Neal after eight games and lost right tackle Nick Kaczur in training camp.

"Those two running backs," Martinez said of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, "might not make some of the teams in the league."

And yet Brady made it all work, guiding the Patriots to 14 victories despite a transitional defense that used four rookies in the starting lineup some weeks.

Brady has worked with Martinez since he was 15 years old. Brady's father took him to see Martinez, then head coach at the College of San Mateo, for pointers. Brady became Martinez's star pupil.

Much like a highly sought session musician, Martinez has worked with players on an individual basis but never joined a team. His pre-draft tutelage famously helped JaMarcus Russell turn into the No. 1 overall draft pick. This year, he will work with Iowa's Ricky Stanzi and Mississippi's Jeremiah Masoli.

Most amazing about Brady's stat line are his four interceptions, the fewest from any quarterback with at least 300 attempts in NFL history. He hasn't thrown an interception since Week 6, a streak of 335 consecutive attempts.

Martinez chalks up that number to happenstance more than anything else. He claimed it's not necessarily indicative of Brady's excellence.

"That's like Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak," Martinez said. "He couldn't do that again if he lived to be 580 years old. There's a series of things that have to happen to keep that kind of a string going. When they all go together, you break the records.

"He could go back and play the season over again and throw 15 interceptions."

From Martinez's perspective, Brady's dominance can't be found in any box score.

"The key to me is that he's in total command both physically and mentally of what he's doing," Martinez said. "If you really study their offense, he's going to the open guy probably 85 percent of the time.

"If you go to the right guy, chances are you're not going to throw interceptions because that's the guy that's got single coverage, or that's the guy that gets open in the zone. He's not throwing into double coverage. He's not forcing balls. He knows who to go to, and he has the mechanics to make the throw."

Martinez also said Brady is thriving with the aggressive offense called by quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien. The Patriots are no longer running what Martinez calls "dead plays," conservative calls that do little more than burn time off the clock.

The Patriots have scored at least 31 points in eight straight games, tying the NFL record held by the 2007 Patriots and 2000 St. Louis Rams.

"What they're doing now is they're constantly attacking, and he's getting them into the correct play," Martinez said. "They don't run many dead plays where you ask: 'What are they running that for?' They're constantly attacking."

Deion Branch was a Patriots receiver from 2002 through 2005 and was traded back Oct. 12. Branch was asked Tuesday what has been the biggest difference he has noticed in Brady and specifically mentioned Brady's deep ball.

"Early in his career, that was a weakness," Martinez said. "But that was such a part of Randy's game that [Brady] had to step his part of it up because Randy was outrunning the throws. That was one of his goals. Because he didn't throw them that often, mechanically they weren't thrown well."

That's one way Moss made Brady a more complete quarterback. When the Patriots traded Moss three games into the season, Martinez figured they would suffer.

"When Randy was gone, I don't think anybody predicted this," Martinez said. "I thought that Randy stretched the defense, which allowed all the other guys to run underneath stuff. With Welker doubled and Moss gone, it was hard to see them throwing it all over the yard."

Any yet Brady has compiled his most extraordinary season.

He'll be the consensus MVP. He'll almost certainly be voted first-team All-Pro for only the second time of his career. His name dots the record books even more.

And none of that will count if Brady doesn't remain in command like he has up until now and win the Super Bowl.

"The funny thing is, no matter what has happened to this point, this is one and done," Martinez said. "Somebody blocks a punt or picks one off and runs it back and all of a sudden you lose and didn't have that good a year.

"You're walking a fine line between being awesome and not getting it done."

Patriots regular-season wrap-up

January, 5, 2011
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 1
Preseason Power Ranking: 10

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Luc Leclerc/US PresswireTom Brady leads the league with an 111.0 passer rating.
Biggest surprise: The idea of Tom Brady putting together yet another sterling campaign couldn't have been weird to any sane football fan before the season began. But how Brady went about it was amazing even by his standards. The Patriots' offense was prolific even though it went through a systemic transformation. No longer did the Patriots spread out their receivers and operate exclusively out of the shotgun. They preferred two-tight end sets and dumped their noted downfield threat, Randy Moss. Brady's supporting cast was comprised of undrafted running backs who'd been waived multiple times (BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead), two rookie tight ends (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez), a receiver recovering from reconstructive knee surgery (Wes Welker) and a receiver who couldn't make an impact for a losing team and was traded (Deion Branch).

Biggest disappointment: A loss to the New York Jets at the Meadowlands in Week 2 was forgivable. But getting destroyed by the Cleveland Browns 34-14? Totally unacceptable. The Browns, with two wins at the time, gained 404 total yards. The Patriots didn't hold a lead the entire game and left the North Coast humiliated. The Patriots weren't demoralized, though. The loss seemed to stoke their intensity. They haven't loss since, bouncing back the next week to dominate the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field and then defeat the Indianapolis Colts at home. The Patriots beat playoff-bound teams in five of their next seven games after losing in Cleveland.

Biggest need: The Patriots' offensive line had an impressive season. Even with star left guard Logan Mankins missing seven games with a contract dispute, right guard Stephen Neal on injured reserve with a shoulder injury, and right tackle Nick Kaczur out the entire season with back surgery, only three teams allowed fewer sacks. The Patriots also tied for 10th in average yards per carry. But the offensive line likely will need bolstering. It's getting older. Neal contemplated retirement last offseason. Mankins is thrilled to be winning now, but does he still harbor some of the bitterness that compelled him to make a public trade demand in June? He could be gone. Left tackle Matt Light also has an expiring contract.

Team MVP: Brady, quarterback. He led the NFL with a 111.0 passer rating, threw 36 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He broke a 19-year-old record for consecutive attempts without an interception, helping New England set the NFL record for fewest turnovers in a season.

A case for the defense: Brady was so remarkable that he made sure the Patriots kept winning despite their susceptible and inexperienced defense. Even in early December, they owned terrible defensive rankings despite standout contributions from nose tackle Vince Wilfork and inside linebacker Jerod Mayo. The Patriots were on pace to have one of the worst third-down defenses in NFL history. With rookie Devin McCourty and undrafted Kyle Arrington at cornerback, they gave up the most passing yards in the league. But the defense improved every week. While their overall rankings remained mired by earlier performances, Bill Belichick's defense surged toward the postseason, allowing seven or fewer points in four of their last five games and coming up with takeaways at critical times.

Overachievers prevailing in AFC East

December, 9, 2010
12/09/10
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Fred Jackson and Tom Brady and Davone BessGetty ImagesFred Jackson, Tom Brady and Davone Bess came into the league as unheralded long shots but have made the most of their chances.
It's no mystery why we love underdogs.

Respected football minds who get paid to assemble NFL teams dismissed them out of hand, scratched them from their draft lists, cut them in training camp.

Yet these players survive. They're too driven to give up. Not all of them become stars, but that's not necessary to become a precious asset on a team.

"As a coach, you love those stories," said former New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards. "They don't let you down."

Said Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey: "You have to have them. There's no way to play the game without them."

Overachievers have dominated the AFC East this year. Late-round draft picks, players who weren't drafted at all and castoffs from other teams have starred for every team, including the MVP favorite (Tom Brady), two leading rushers (BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Fred Jackson), three leading receivers (Wes Welker, Steve Johnson, Davone Bess) and three sack leaders (Cameron Wake, Mike Wright and Kyle Williams).

These thriving underdogs are a substantial reason why the AFC East has been so compelling this year.

"It's football," said Jim Jensen, the ultimate survivor with the Miami Dolphins. They drafted the Boston University quarterback in the 11th round in 1980, and he stuck around until 1992 as a receiver/wedge buster/long snapper/third-down fullback/holder/tell me where to go, Coach, and I'll hit them.

"I like to watch guys that are working hard and working for the team," Jensen said. "They're working for a goal. They're not selfish. Wes Welker is a great example. He just loves to win. He's unselfish. Davone Bess is another one who's an inspiration to watch."

There's a reason the conquering underdog is such a common theme in Hollywood.

"These guys have something to prove," said film producer Mark Ciardi. "There's enough of these stories where these guys just survive and climb over players teams have a lot of money invested in. It's just a different thing when you've got to prove people wrong. They know they've got to check way more boxes than other people to succeed."

Ciardi pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers despite being a 15th-round draft choice in 1983.

"I got no money to sign," Ciardi said. "I was the last guy on the pitching squad of 17 guys in rookie ball. I had no chance."

Four years later, Ciardi made it to the majors. He started three games and pitched another in relief. He defied the odds, which is why he finds stories about unlikely heroes so appealing.

Among his true-story films: "Invincible" (about Philadelphia Eagles walk-on Vince Papale), "Miracle" (about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team), "The Rookie" (about 35-year-old rookie pitcher Jim Morris) and "Secretariat."

All of those motion pictures portrayed an undeniable will to win, a theme that has carried Ciardi throughout his career. He sees it in such players as Brady and Patriots running back Danny Woodhead.

"What I realized was you've got to work extra hard," Ciardi said. "Nothing will be given to you, but you have an opportunity. The only way you're going to succeed is to snatch it and force them to keep you. If they don't have money invested in you, chances are you're not going to get the same kind of shot."

But having overachievers on the roster means more than a compelling storyline and increased jersey sales.

They often become team leaders and examples for other players to emulate. Underdogs help manage the salary cap because they're cheaper (at least in the beginning). They make draft mistakes much more bearable. They help a front office sell the team to future free agents.

"They're so coachable," former Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick said. "Once they get into it, they realize how tenuous it is to stay in the NFL. Nothing came easy for them. You love having guys like that on your team."

Inquiring about a coach's favorite player is like asking a parent to name his favorite child. But it's easy to guess what type they admire most: the relentless survivors.

"You know what they have done to get to where they are," Gailey said. "As a competitor, you appreciate that. Everybody doesn't end up with a bunch of God-given talent. Guys have to go fight for what they want in life. When those guys get it, it's very satisfying to see it for those guys to make it."

[+] EnlargeJim Leonhard
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesJim Leonhard went from the NFL scrapheap to being a vital player on defense and special teams for the Jets.
Two players New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan identified as critical to his establishing his defense last year were inside linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard. Neither was drafted. Leonhard had been waived by the Bills, re-signed and then cast adrift in free agency because the Bills viewed him as no more than roster filler. When Leonhard suffered a season-ending shin injury last week, Jets fans got nervous because he was integral to the secondary and special teams.

The NFL-leading New England Patriots are loaded with examples of perseverance. Brady has been such a superstar in the league for so long, it's sometimes strange to think of him as an underdog. But as the 199th pick in the 2000 draft, Brady might be the game's greatest overachiever.

Wake, the Miami Dolphins outside linebacker, leads the league with 12 sacks. He wasn't drafted and went five years between his last down at Penn State and his first in the NFL. Pro Bowl safety Yeremiah Bell was a sixth-round pick who got waived as a rookie and placed on the practice squad.

Buffalo's offense features late-round picks or undrafted players at the three marquee spots. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was a seventh-round draft choice and a career backup. Running back Fred Jackson didn't start a game for his high school team and came up through Division III and the arena leagues before emerging in NFL Europa. Top receiver Stevie Johnson was a seventh-round draft choice.

As inspirational as these players are, they also make slackers look that much worse. Those healthy first-, second- and third-round players who can't get on the field unfortunately aren't wired to battle that way.

"A lot of these guys think it's a right that they have to play," Gailey said. Overachievers "realize it's a privilege to play this game.

"When you got a guy who knows how to fight and understands the fight, understands competition, understands working through adversity and he becomes a good player on your team, then that helps set a tone."

Billick and Edwards emphasized the impact of undrafted players and late-round successes on a roster's overall well-being. Edwards, an undrafted player who started for the Philadelphia Eagles from the opening day of his rookie season, said unearthing overlooked gems are "like getting a free draft pick." Billick noted that they're instrumental to managing the salary cap.

"The residual effect is you don't have to spend those resources," Billick said, "whether they be draft choices or a procurement through free agency to go fill that spot.

"You pick Tom Brady up in the sixth round. Are you kidding me? What that does for your organization ... Even the difference between that and having to draft Matt Ryan third in the draft, the resources you have to spend is just a gift from above."

Heaven-sent is how Patriots fans must view a good chunk of their division-leading team. Dolfans can't be more thrilled with Wake or Bess. The Jets will depend on undrafted starters such as right guard Brandon Moore, defensive end Mike Devito and Scott down the home stretch while certainly missing Leonhard.

And about the only pleasure Bills fans have had this season is watching their unlikely stars because they're such gripping characters.

"An underlying factor to all these stories," Ciardi said, "is the will and the heart that makes them extraordinary on the field."

Colts at Patriots inactives

November, 21, 2010
11/21/10
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here are the scratches for Sunday's game between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium:

Indianapolis Colts

New England Patriots


Bruschi: Patriots have problems along lines

August, 18, 2010
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ESPN analyst and former New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi senses trouble with his old team.

In a video for ESPNBoston.com, Bruschi says the Patriots "are slowly losing their grip on their AFC East crown" because of injuries and the prolonged absence of unsigned Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins.

"Training camp started off on the wrong foot with the holdout of Logan Mankins," Bruschi says. "The Nick Kaczur at left guard experiment ended badly with a severely injured back. Now losing Ty Warren to a season-ending hip injury will have a ripple effect along that entire defense.

"The New York Jets and Miami Dolphins are among the most physical teams in the NFL. The Patriots' front-line depth is a huge question mark. They're down to their third-string left guard. Steve Neal is at right guard, and he has a history of injuries. Along the defensive line you now have Damione Lewis and Gerard Warren, who have very limited experience in this 3-4 defense.

"You want an answer to some of those questions? Pay Mankins."

To underscore Bruschi's take, ESPNBoston.com reporter Mike Reiss provided a look at the projected depth chart along both lines of scrimmage.

video

Mankins contract big issue for Patriots

May, 17, 2010
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The theme of the New England Patriots' offseason has been identifying their keepers and re-signing them. Vince Wilfork, Kevin Faulk, Stephen Neal, Leigh Bodden and Tully Banta-Cain have new contracts they're happy with.

[+] EnlargeLogan Mankins
Tom Croke/Icon SMIIf not for the uncapped season, two-time Pro Bowler Logan Mankins would have been an unrestricted free agent.
The same can't be said for another important player. Logan Mankins, a two-time Pro Bowl guard, remains unsigned and might be headed for a contentious summer.

Mankins is one of the couple hundred free agents affected by the uncapped year. He was supposed to be unrestricted, but the rules rendered him restricted and unable to control his own fate.

On Sunday, Patriots owner Robert Kraft said, "I really hope Logan will be with us for the long term. That is our objective."

Mankins' agent, Frank Bauer, told the Boston Herald: "There has been discussions. We're pretty far apart. Let's leave it at that."

Mankins has missed the offseason conditioning program so far. Bauer declined to say whether Mankins would attend upcoming organized team activities or mandatory minicamp in June.

Mankins and Bauer certainly noticed when the New Orleans Saints signed guard Jahri Evans to a seven-year contract worth $56.7 million.

Evans was a 2006 fourth-round draft choice and is coming off his first Pro Bowl season. He also was first-team All-Pro. Mankins was New England's first-round pick in 2005. He has been to a pair of Pro Bowls, including last year.

In light of Evans' whopping contract, I recently discussed Mankins' situation with National Football Post president Andrew Brandt, a former Green Bay Packers vice president who handled contracts and the salary cap.

Mankins' situation was aggravating from the start because he was one of 212 "limbo free agents," as Brandt calls them. If not for the uncapped season, Mankins would be cashing in with the biggest contract of his career.

Instead, the Patriots were able to tender a one-year, $3.3 million offer. If Mankins refuses to sign it by June 15, then the Patriots can drop the offer to 110 percent of last year's salary, or about $1.5 million.

"It just creates this frustrating situation for a player with a tender," Brandt said, "where in any other year he'd be free to shop his services."

In a column for National Football Post, Brandt breaks down how guard salaries escalated to where they are today. The standard was around $7 million a season from 2006 through 2008, but then the New York Jets signed Alan Faneca to a deal that averaged $8 million annually.

Evans' contract surpassed Faneca's record-breaker in terms of average salary and is second in guaranteed money.

Mankins, however, can't force the Patriots to give him a similar deal.

"His only leverage is pointing to what other teams have done in terms of the Evans deal," Brandt said. "However, the team response -- and I've been there -- is, 'We don't do deals based on what other people do.'

"His leverage is that he's a good player they want to keep happy."

The Patriots have significant money already tied up in veteran players. They've already invested roughly $80 million this offseason and still have to keep Tom Brady happy. The face of the franchise is entering the final year of his contract.

"Obviously, the Brady situation and other free agents are going to impact Mankins," Brandt said. "Priorities are important. It's all about priorities and budgets. Like any other team, they have to find out where those two things lie.

"Without a salary cap, teams have taken to creating their own salary caps, which translate to the word 'budget.' The real reason we're not seeing big deals is the uncertain labor situation, which is in turn causing teams to budget their player costs [lower] than they would."

One possibility for Mankins could be a lucrative extension that doesn't begin until 2011. The Patriots would promise Mankins his money while delaying costs for another year.

"I think that's possible as long as there's some sort of sufficient guarantee where the amount fits in terms of the marketplace and the future years," Brandt said. "If budget's an issue, you try to defer the big costs until next year.

"With an extension that adds years to a contract, there has to be guaranteed security for the player. That's usually in signing bonus or other guaranteed money. The only way to do that is to provide a sufficient level of guaranteed money, according to the marketplace."

The marketplace changed significantly with the Evans contract, and it made satisfying Mankins that much more difficult to achieve.

Undrafted players crucial to rookie classes

April, 25, 2010
4/25/10
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The Miami Dolphins' top two receivers last year. The Buffalo Bills' best running back. The New England Patriots' leading receiver and right guard. The New York Jets' right guard, best inside linebacker and a safety.

None of them were drafted.

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMIWes Welker was one of seven Patriots to start at least four games last season who came into the league undrafted.
When Mr. Irrelevant was ceremoniously introduced Saturday in Radio City Music Hall and the 2010 NFL draft ended, draft rooms didn't go dark. That's when some of the best work takes place.

Scouts scan the long list of players who weren't among the 255 chosen ones and work the phones, trying to convince the best remaining prospects to sign as free agents.

Undrafted rookies are a critical element to building a team and should produce at least a couple of keepers every year.

"First, you improve your football team, but it's probably the most economical way to put players on your team," Buffalo Bills general manager Buddy Nix said. "There are a lot of good players out there.

"As all of us in here probably remember when there were 12 rounds and then there were 17 at one time. All of those players after seven rounds are still out there."

The AFC East is loaded with great examples.

Seven undrafted players started at least four games for division-champion New England last year: receiver Wes Welker, guards Stephen Neal and Dan Connolly, defensive lineman Mike Wright, inside linebacker Gary Guyton, outside linebacker Pierre Woods and safety Brandon McGowan.

The Dolphins relied on fullback Lousaka Polite, receivers Davone Bess and Greg Camarillo, tight end Joey Haynos and outside linebacker Cameron Wake, none of whom were drafted.

Bills running back Fred Jackson wasn't drafted, but he rushed for over 1,000 yards last year. Strong safety George Wilson evolved into a reliable starter.

The Jets fielded their share of draft-day oversights, including fullback Tony Richardson, right guard Brandon Moore, inside linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard.

That's a lot of quality players who weren't good enough to see their name crawl across the bottom of ESPN's draft telecast.

Still, they were found.

"These scouts bust their tails putting the board together on the back end of the draft board," Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said. "You have to trust what they see, and I am pretty involved in it as well because I have been there before and I want to know what we are signing for. It is a very important aspect of [the process]."

Imagine all those Jets scouting reports that would otherwise go to waste if not for undrafted free agents.

Perhaps no team has relied on them to fill out their 53-man roster, practice squad and training camp roster more than the Jets.

Two straight Aprils, they drafted the fewest prospects in the league -- three last year and four this time. They also drafted only four players in 2007.

"I'm banking on our scouting department that we're going to sign a couple players here in the next couple of hours that will have a good chance of making our team," Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum said Saturday night.

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