Monthly Archives: July 2017

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It’s hard to throw any shade at the members of the Patriots Nation who wish their beloved New England Patriots could somehow just skip the 2017 regular season and go straight to the playoffs, if not the Super Bowl.

The general consensus is that the Patriots have only gotten better since they won Super Bowl LI, so some actually see it as a forgone conclusion that they’ll represent the AFC in Super Bowl LII.

The truth of the matter, though, is that as good as they appear to be on paper, a lot of things still have to go just right for the Patriots to go back to the Super Bowl.

For starters, they have to stay healthy, and not just at quarterback, where it’s a stretch to think the offense will continue to hum along if Tom Brady isn’t at the wheel.

In particular, the situation at tight end is a little more tenuous than it was a year ago, now that Dwayne Allen has replaced Martellus Bennett as the top alternative to the oft-injured Rob Gronkowski.

Sure, the Patriots proved a year ago they can win it all without Gronkowski — something that was heretofore thought virtually impossible – but Allen has never had a season like the one Bennett had a year ago.

Now that he’s the leader of the defense, the Patriots probably can’t afford to lose linebacker Dont’a Hightower.

The loss of any starter in the secondary could also prove quite troublesome. The Patriots were among the best in the league at preventing big plays a year ago. If Malcolm Butler, Patrick Chung or especially Devin McCourty go down, they could suddenly become quite vulnerable to game-altering plays.

One place where the Patriots probably can afford to lose a body is at running back. The Patriots look a lot deeper there after changing out LeGarrette Blount for Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee, but the change has to work.

Blount had a career year in 2016, running for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns, and the Patriots benefited greatly from that, ranking third in the league in rushing attempts and seventh in the league in rushing yards.

As their ranking in attempts suggests, Blount gave the Patriots’ attack more balance. A look back at not only the Patriots’ history but Super Bowl history suggests that balance is an integral part of any champion’s success.

For example, without Blount to anchor the run game at the end of the 2015 season, the Patriots gained just 308 yards on 106 rushing attempts (2.9 per carry) over their last five games, including the playoffs, and went just 2-3 in those games.

New England Patriots running back Mike Gillislee takes a break during an NFL football organized team activities practice Thursday, May 25, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes)
(AP Photo/Bill Sikes)

What the Patriots need is for Burkhead and Gillislee to provide that same balance, because no team has ever won a Super Bowl throwing the ball more than 600 times in a season, which is what the Patriots tried but failed to do when they threw the ball 629 times in 2015.

Of course, in order for the run game to be strong again, the offensive line will have to be strong again. That unit can’t regress the way it did in the playoffs last year, when some flaws in pass protection were exposed.

The Patriots allowed only 24 sacks during the regular season last year, but the Texans (two), Steelers (two) and Falcons (five) figured out where the weaknesses were and exploited them for nine sacks in the playoffs.

As far as sacks go, if the Patriots hope to repeat as AFC and Super Bowl champions, it would help if they racked up a few more sacks themselves. They had only 34 last year, 16th in the league.

They got by with that, of course, and they may have to again, because the Patriots still don’t have a true edge rusher. The closest thing they have to one is probably incoming end Kony Ealy, but Ealy never had more than five sacks in a season with the Panthers, so it’s hard to expect him to fill the void.

That means the Patriots will probably have to cobble together a pass rush once again, and they could, but they’ll probably need Trey Flowers (9.5 sacks through the playoffs last year) to continue to progress to do it.

It’s likely that the defense will need big years out of both Hightower and Flowers, and now that Jamie Collins is gone, they’ll probably need to get more out of linebacker Kyle Van Noy as well, because it doesn’t look like Rob Ninkovich has much left.

That will likely force Shea McClellin and 2016 sixth-round draft pick Elandon Roberts to play more. While both seem quite capable of getting the job done as run stoppers, they’ll have to take a step forward in pass coverage.

Finally, the Patriots would be well-served if they could get a better year out of kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who has been rock solid through most of the 11 years he’s been in the league but slipped a bit a year ago.

Gostkowski missed five field goal tries as well as five extra points last year, including one in the AFC title game and one in the Super Bowl. While the Patriots managed to overcome those misses, they may not be as fortunate this time around.

The Patriots were indeed fortunate to win the Super Bowl last year. A lot of things went just right for them, both in the regular season and the playoffs and especially in the Super Bowl.

As good as they are, in order to get back there, they’ll probably need a least some of that same good fortune this year.

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots will hold their first public training camp practice on July 27. As part of the lead-up to camp, I’ll spotlight one position each weekday to highlight the team’s personnel and some of the storylines of note.

We’ve covered wide receivers, offensive linemen and running backs this week, so let’s move on to tight ends:
The Patriots will look to tight end Dwayne Allen to help spread the field and also help in the running game. Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire
Personnel: Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, Matt Lengel, James O’Shaughnessy, Jacob Hollister, Sam Cotton

Roster locks: Gronkowski

Health report: Gronkowski, who was limited to eight games last season because of a back injury, was 100 percent in spring practices and a full participant. Can it stay that way once the pads come on? Gronkowski’s career has had notable ebbs and flows when it comes to his availability as he played every game his first two seasons (2010-2011), missed considerable time the next two years (2012-2013), then played in every game but two over the next two seasons (2014-2015), before last year’s dip. … Allen battled a nagging ankle injury at times last season, while Lengel was brought along slowly this spring after surgery on a re-fractured finger.

Allen over Bennett in focus. When the Patriots acquired veteran Martellus Bennett in the 2016 offseason, the sides had discussed a one-year extension that would have tied him to the team through the 2017 season. But an agreement couldn’t be struck, and then this offseason, the Patriots decisively traded for the 27-year-old Allen before Bennett, 30, had signed elsewhere in free agency. Bennett had 55 receptions last season and filled in capably for an injured Gronkowski. Whether Allen will be an upgrade bears watching.

Varied options at No. 3 spot: What stands out beyond Gronkowski and Allen is the distinct variation in skill set among players. Lengel, at 6-foot-7 and 266 pounds, is more of a traditional tight end who can function as an inline blocker and occasional pass-catcher. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound O’Shaughnessy, who runs well and is an effective special teams player, falls more into the category of “move” tight end. Hollister (6-4, 239) and Cotton (6-4, 250) are closer to O’Shaughnessy’s profile than Lengel’s.

Stat check: Gronkowski played in 84.2 percent of the offensive snaps in 2015, when he avoided injury. In 2014, he was at a 70.3 percent clip.

Rookies in focus: Hollister and Cotton were signed as undrafted free agents. Hollister, who played in college at Wyoming, received the second-highest total of guaranteed money among the Patriots’ undrafted signings ($90,000).

Quote of note: “Allen is really just a good tight end, a strong tight end in both the run and the pass game, another guy who has some vertical speed and can really push downfield; does a good job of blocking.” — Bill Belichick, in 2015, before facing Allen and the Colts.

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VOORHEES, N.J. — Logan Ryan made his first free-agent purchase worth it after hitting the jackpot in March. He didn’t splurge on cars, jewelry or a new house after signing a $30 million deal with the Tennessee Titans after four seasons — and two Super Bowls — with the New England Patriots.

Ryan wanted to use some of that new money for something special, like a gift for his older brother Jordan. But it wasn’t something superficial.

Several days after Jordan’s birthday, Ryan blindfolded him and presented him with an oversize check worth $82,000 to pay off his student loans. He posted a picture of the moment on social media.
“I had the idea for a little bit,” Ryan said during a Thursday Night Lights football camp he cohosted with New York Giants cornerback Eli Apple at their alma mater, Eastern Regional High School. “After I signed the deal with Tennessee, people kept asking me, ‘What are you going to buy with it? What are you going to buy with the new money?’

“I didn’t buy anything. I felt I was completely cool where I’m at. I’m taking care of my immediate family and living my life. I don’t want to change my lifestyle off a contract. So the one thing I knew I wanted to help was my brother. I just waited for the time when. No one told him. Very few people in my family knew. Figured his birthday was a great time to do it, and it worked out great.”

It was an emotional moment for the brothers. Tears were shed.

Ryan thought it was something his brother deserved after spending many years as the other brother in the background.

“He texts me before every game, after every game. He’s traveled, paid for traveling on his own. Engineer, went to Drexel. Extremely bright kid. Obviously had to take out student loans like many kids do for an expensive university. Did everything you want. Has a great paying job, had over $150K in debt. And I’ve seen that weigh on him a little bit and not live life the way he wants,” Ryan said. “That’s the system. That is life. I’m not making no excuses for anybody. But I got drafted to the NFL, won two Super Bowls, and I signed a multimillion-dollar contract, and that guy never asked me for a penny. And he traveled to all my games and supported me from day one.

“So it was my way as a little brother to say thank you.”

In order to make it happen, Ryan and his wife searched the internet for a place to find oversize checks that could be presented as a gift and made it all happen.
Ryan didn’t quite realize the attention the gesture would receive. He wrote a post Tuesday night on Facebook with the hashtags #Family and #FinallyFree that went viral, which he didn’t mind because it sparked quality conversations about student loans.

What followed has been an overload of calls and texts during what has been a busy — and successful — week.

Ryan was inducted into the South Jersey Football Hall of Fame on Wednesday, then returned to his alma mater Thursday to hold a football camp in his hometown for 350 kids.

“I’m showing them,” Ryan said. “I’m challenging them, ‘Why not you?’ Same town, same field I worked on. Me and Eli both worked with each other and pushed each other here. So we’re trying to keep that thing going.”

And maybe someday they can do for a sibling what Ryan was able to do earlier this week for his.

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Dont’a Hightower will be getting some serious facetime in primetime this NFL season.

The New England Patriots linebacker will be featured in the intro to Sunday Night Football on NBC which stars singer Carrie Underwood.

In a photo tweeted out by the official team account on Wednesday it shows Hightower rocking his Super Bowl LI ring during the shoot, so that too will be in the faces of America as they sit back to watch the last game on Sunday.

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NBC wrapped shooting their Sunday Night Football intro earlier this week and Underwood calls it their best one yet.

Last season, no Patriots player was a mainstay in the SNF open.