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Behind enemy lines: Kevin Kolb takes a step back in Bills QB competition

Posted by Erik Frenz July 31, 2013 08:10 AM

With both the Bills and Jets playing host to quarterback battles with potential quarterbacks of the future against veterans fighting to prove they still have something left to give, there is no shortage of updates to be had with the Patriots' division rivals.

The Dolphins may finally have stability at the game's most important position, but there are still significant questions around the team -- specifically at running back and on the offensive line.

Let's take a look at the rest of the AFC East in our recurring post, going behind enemy lines.

New York Jets

There's been a lot of focus on the cornerback position for the Jets, with first-round pick Dee Milliner having just signed with the team. The Jets are also dealing with a lot of turnover at safety, as well, with both starters LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell on their way out.

Dawan Landry, LaRon's brother, will be manning one starting spot, but the other spot remains a battle, and it looks like Antonio Allen is winning. The second-year safety played just 72 snaps in the 2012 season, and contributed primarily on special teams, but he could resume his role as a hybrid safety-linebacker in the "money" defensive back spot.

Rookie quarterback Geno Smith earned some praise from wide receiver Braylon Edwards earlier in training camp, but the players defending his passes have also had nice things to say.

"I’m surprised by how well he is picking up the offense," Cromartie said, "and how coming from a shotgun formation offense to him being under center, able to get out from under the center, doing the things that he does, it shows that he’s a different kid."

The Jets can only hope Geno wins the starting job with a strong performance in training camp; it would signal the dawn of a new era for the team after two tumultuous years with Mark Sanchez.

Miami Dolphins

Depending on your perspective, either the defensive line is doing well or the offensive line is underperforming. We touched on the Dolphins' questions at guard in Monday's post, but it appears there may also be problems at left tackle.

jonathan martin at both spots.pngArmando Salguero of The Miami Herald recently said that Jonathan Martin has been beaten a lot recently by linebacker Olivier Vernon. It's not surprising, considering Martin was less effective in pass protection on the left side than he was on the right side.

It is, however, a concern for the Dolphins pass attack for the same reasons as mentioned yesterday: quarterback Ryan Tannehill would probably love to have as much time in the pocket as possible. He's been effective under pressure, but it's much easier for any quarterback to throw with a clean pocket in front of him.

Why is this seemingly innocuous bit of play-by-play so important?

Because strip-sacks, specifically, have been a major point of emphasis for the Dolphins defense this year. The Dolphins In fact, defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle talked about them earlier in the day leading up to Monday night's practice.

"We’ve talked about sacks, sack fumbles, we got a lot of sacks, but we didn’t get a lot of sack fumbles," Coyle said. "We like to believe there were opportunities at times last year to get a fumble as well as a sack, so we’ve showed them players throughout the league who have done that consistently and it’s an awareness factor."

Granted, it's one play in one practice, but the fact that the teaching methods (which include reviewing the Patriots, Bears and Bengals' defenses, three of the top 10 teams in forced fumbles in 2012) are working.

Buffalo Bills

kevin kolb.pngVeteran quarterback Kevin Kolb can ill afford any missteps in his battle for the starting job with rookie quarterback EJ Manuel, the team's first-round draft choice. That's especially true, considering the effusive praise being heaped on Manuel by head coach Doug Marrone.

"From my standpoint," Marrone said in May, "EJ Manuel has done better (as a rookie) than any of the other organizations I've been a part of."

Although the Bills' official website said the team is "in no rush" to start Manuel, they may feel inclined to do so if Kolb continues to play so poorly.

It wouldn't exactly be a shock, given how bad Kolb has played in his previous stops. Sure, he's been under fire behind two porous offensive lines in Philadelphia and Arizona, but he's given no reason to think that's the extent of his problems.

The Bills have been searching for a receiver to complement Stevie Johnson for a few years, and may have finally found one with Robert Woods.

The former USC standout made a reputation for himself as a versatile receiver, with the size to win one-on-one matchups on the outside, and the quickness and smart route-running to get open in the slot and over the middle. He turned those skills into 2,141 receiving yards and 26 touchdowns over the past two seasons.

The concern with Woods is an ankle injury that he suffered in 2012. The ankle was already operated on, and it sounds like it hasn't slowed him down in practice. If Woods is healthy, with him and Johnson catching passes, the Bills could have a more dynamic duo of wide receivers than they've fielded in recent years.

Daily training camp overreaction: Dropped passes don't leave with Wes Welker

Posted by Erik Frenz July 30, 2013 06:05 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It's hard to remember Wes Welker's 672 regular season receptions for the Patriots without also remembering his two costly postseason drops.

Welker may have left the fold, but dropped passes are here to stay.

As mentioned in today's stock report, quarterback Tom Brady was on fire Tuesday afternoon. In 11-on-11 work, he went seven-for-11 with a sack and two touchdowns. Ryan Mallett went one-for-four in 11-on-11 work.

What those stat line doesn't tell you is that three of Brady's four incompletions were actually dropped passes: tight end Zach Sudfeld, running back LeGarrette Blount and wide receiver Danny Amendola were among the offenders. One of Mallett's three incompletions was dropped by wide receiver Josh Boyce.

Four of those seven incomplete passes should have been caught. Tim Tebow's lone incompletion on his lone attempt of the drills was fired well out of the reach of his intended receiver.

Amendola has been regarded by colleague Ben Volin as the "one bright spot" among the Patriots receivers. Rookie Aaron Dobson may also fit in that description, although he did struggle in the first padded practice and was absent from the practice field on Tuesday.

Matthew Slater and Kamar Aiken both dropped easy passes in one-on-one drills. Kenbrell Thompkins dropped two passes on Monday night, and ran a sloppy route that resulted in one of Tom Brady's throws being intercepted by Aqib Talib.

So, if you watched training camp over the past two days, you might come away with the question of whether the Patriots receivers will catch the ball this season.

Of course, we overreact in this space because it's fun, but the fact remains: the Patriots receivers are leaving opportunities out on the field. That's okay in training camp, while the team is still knocking off the rust, but missed opportunities in the regular season and playoffs (hello, Welker) could be the difference between winning and losing games.

Training camp stock report: Zach Sudfeld continues to emerge with Rob Gronkowski absent

Posted by Erik Frenz July 30, 2013 05:38 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tuesday marked the Patriots' fifth practice session of training camp, with the team dressed in full pads for the third consecutive day. The team has Wednesday off before returning to practice on Thursday at 2:20.

Many players are carrying positive momentum into the break, and others could use the day off as a "reset" button.

Stock up:

Chandler Jones: Went 3-0 against left tackle Nate Solder in one-on-one pass-rush drills, and crashed the pocket early in the 11-on-11 session with the first-team. His ankle seems to no longer be an issue.

Zach Sudfeld: Had a drop of a Tom Brady pass in the first 11-on-11 session, but made the play of the day on a diving one-handed reception of a Tom Brady pass in the back of the end zone, with safety Adrian Wilson in tight coverage.

Tom Brady: Struggled on Monday night, but rebounded with a sharp performance. He went seven-for-11 with two touchdowns in 11-on-11 work, and was sacked once, but three of his four incompletions were drops by Sudfeld, running back LeGarrette Blount and wide receiver Danny Amendola.

Stock down:

Jake Bequette: After spending his rookie season essentially as a red-shirt, the 2012 third-round pick has seen most of his action with the second and third team. With defensive ends Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Justin Francis and Jermaine Cunningham all getting reps ahead of Bequette, it could be a long climb up.

Stephon Morris: Cornerback was beat twice in one-on-one coverage drills, allowing receptions to Josh Boyce and Lavelle Hawkins. Morris came up limping after giving up the catch to Hawkins, and was on the sideline for the remainder of practice.

Brandon Bolden: The second-year back has missed two consecutive practices for undisclosed reasons, and LeGarrette Blount has received Bolden's reps in his stead. In a battle with four other talented backs, Bolden can ill afford further absences.

Daily training camp overreaction: Patriots defense to log 50 sacks in 2013

Posted by Erik Frenz July 29, 2013 10:20 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — If today's practice was any indication, the Patriots front seven will be an improved unit in 2013.

In one-on-one pass-rush drills, the defense went 13-3-2 in the first session and 12-6-0 in the second session.

Every defensive linemen that participated, won at least one of their matchups.

There's some pressure on defensive end Chandler Jones to build off his rookie season, which started strong but slowed down after he suffered an ankle injury. He's looked strong in camp thus far, and went 1-1-0 in his two battles, both with left tackle Nate Solder.

Defensive end Rob Ninkovich dominated all comers with a 3-0-0 performance, including one very impressive defeat of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, where Ninkovich showed a rare quick twitch to get in the backfield before Vollmer even knew what was coming.

Even defensive tackle Joe Vellano, who suffered a crushing 0-4-0 day on Sunday, went 4-0-0 on Monday night, and logged a victory over center Ryan Wendell, who has dominated those drills to this point.

The only "down" player on the defensive line in those drills was Jermaine Cunningham, who went 2-2-0 and had another play which would have resulted in offsides. Cunningham took a lap for his infraction.

The defensive line's performance carried over to 11-on-11 drills, as well, with linebackers Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower combining for pressure on the same play in what would have been a crunching for Tim Tebow, were it not for that red jersey.

With more continuity than in year's past, there's perhaps more focus on the defense to make progress from 2012 to 2013. The Patriots return nine of their 11 primary defensive starters from last season -- the only exceptions being safety Patrick Chung and defensive tackle Kyle Love. Tommy Kelly appears to be settling in nicely to Love's starting spot next to Vince Wilfork, and logged victories in his only two pass-rush attempts on Sunday night.

The Patriots pass rush has been lacking for years, with the defense logging 36 sacks in 2010 (15th), 40 sacks in 2011 (14th) and 37 sacks in 2012 (17th). Anything in the low- to mid-40's for a sack total would be a solid improvement for the defense.

Training camp stock report: Dan Connolly falling behind in right guard battle

Posted by Erik Frenz July 29, 2013 09:57 PM

FOXBOROUG, Mass. — The Patriots held practice on Monday night under the lights inside Gillette Stadium, in front of season ticket holders and Foxborough, Ma. residents. The practice was the team's second in a row in full pads.

With four practices in the books, let's take a look at which players are trending up and which players could use a good practice or two to get back on the right track.

Stock up

Jamie Collins: Continues his strong performances moving all around the defense, bowling through tackle Will Svitek's block in run drills. He has primarily dropped into coverage but has also been spotted rushing the passer, usually performing either role from the strong side of the formation. He's picking up the defense quickly, and it's caught the attention of his coaching staff.

"It’s definitely difficult in this program because we do so much," linebacker coach Pepper Johnson said on Monday. "But, like I said, it probably would be a lot harder for a lot of other guys, but for Jamie I don’t think it’s as hard. I’m not saying it’s not difficult for him. But it’s not as hard because he comes in with a good football frame of mind. It’s not just the terminology like with a lot of veterans. There are some techniques and stuff that we use that he never did before, never heard of. But his enjoyment for the game, his heart for the game, his passion for the game really helps."

Running back Shane Vereen shook Collins from his shoes in an open-field tackling drill, but apart from that, it was a solid day for Collins, as has been the case throughout training camp.

Marcus Cannon: Listed Cannon in Sunday's stock report, but his strong showing continued on Monday night. He was consistently sealing off the defensive tackle in both pass protection and in the running game, and went 1-1-0 in the one-on-one pass-rush drills.

Michael Buchanan: Logged one pressure and one non-contact sack of Ryan Mallett in 11-on-11 drills. Also batted a pass at the line of scrimmage.

Stock down

Dan Connolly: Last year's starting right guard has been moved out of his spot with the first-team offensive line in favor of Marcus Cannon. He was not spotted in team drills on the first two days of practice, and didn't even take a single rep in one-on-one drills on Monday night. His cap hit of over $3.3 million in 2013 is fairly steep, and it doesn't get any better in 2014, with a cap number of over $4 million. He had surgery on his shoulder in February, but it was anticipated he'd be ready for the start of training camp. Cannon is playing well, so at this point, any time Connolly misses isn't good.

Kenbrell Thompkins: Had a strong start to camp, but dropped two passes in Monday's practice, muffed a punt in special teams drills, and ran a sloppy route that resulted in an interception of a Tom Brady pass by Aqib Talib in 11-on-11 drills.

The quarterbacks: In tonight's 11-on-11 drills, Tom Brady went 3-for-9 with an interception, Ryan Mallett went 1-for-7 with an interception and Tim Tebow went 0-for-1. There were a few drops in there, including the two by Thompkins and one by Aaron Dobson, but overall, the quarterbacks struggled on Monday night.

Behind enemy lines: Biggest training camp stories from the rest of the AFC East

Posted by Erik Frenz July 29, 2013 08:35 AM

We've been keeping you up-to-date on the Patriots over their first three days of training camp, but what's going on with the rest of the AFC East?

The Miami Dolphins have been practicing for nearly a week now. The New York Jets opened their training camp last week, right around the time the Patriots opened camp, as well. The Buffalo Bills were one of the last teams to report to camp, and held their first practice on Sunday.

Let's take a quick trip around the rest of the division to catch up with the Patriots' rivals.

New York Jets

It looks like wide receiver Santonio Holmes is still feeling some of the lingering effects of his Lisfranc injury from 2012, and he's missed both practices to this point.

According to Holmes, he's not even sure he'll play a single game this year.

Head coach Rex Ryan was a bit more optimistic, and said, "I feel confident that he will be on the field. I don't know when that is, but I feel confident he'll be out there."

Nonetheless, it looks like Holmes' status for Week 1 is in question.

Braylon Edwards, the Jets receiver twice removed, returned after spending time with the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks. He was with the Seahawks through training camp in 2012, and saw Russell Wilson's ascent from the bottom of the depth chart to the starting job. According to Edwards, it's not the physical aspects where they are similar as much as the mental ones.

"Russell was a maniac when it came to studying film, breaking down film and asking questions," Edwards said, according to ESPN. "Russell was a beast at that. That's what I see potentially in Geno, how he comes in the huddle, how he asks questions in meetings. He's right there with Mark."

By Edwards' own admission, Geno Smith didn't have the best practice. Scanning reports, it seems as though the speed of the NFL game is too fast for Smith right now. That's to be expected, and can be improved upon. Once things start slowing down for him mentally, his physical talent will carry him the rest of the way.

Geno Smith's speed was one of the points on his scouting report that had analysts raving about his physical attributes leading up to the draft. It looks like the Jets will have no qualm about seeing what Smith can do with his feet.

He's more deadly with his arm than his legs, but his effective running makes it a threat that the defense must account for on every play. Incorporating the read option would make life much easier for a quarterback like Geno, who has played almost exclusively out of the shotgun, and it would also add a whole new dynamic to the offense.

Mark Sanchez certainly is capable of running with the football, having tallied at least 100 rushing yards and three touchdowns in each of his first three years in the league, including six rushing touchdowns in 2011, which tied for the team lead. He didn't do as well on the ground last year, with just 28 rushing yards on 22 attempts.

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins' offensive line is one of the big question marks headed into the 2013 season, and a changing of the guards indicates more question marks are on the way.

John Jerry, last year's starting right guard, injured his knee in the third week of July and should be back in two to four weeks according to The Miami Herald, but there will still be doubt remaining when he returns.

According to stats website Pro Football Focus, Tannehill averaged 2.74 seconds in the pocket (either to throw, be sacked, or scramble beyond the line of scrimmage). That time ranked 18th in the NFL out of 38 quarterbacks. He was pressured on 30.7 percent of his drop-backs, which ranked 17th out of 38 QBs.

That's not bad, but it doesn't put the Dolphins among the top pass-blocking offensive lines in the NFL.

They may have unloaded a BRINKS truck or two to address their need for pass-catchers, but it won't mean a thing if the offensive line can't buy time for quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Speaking of Tannehill, his chemistry with new receiver Mike Wallace is coming along.

"A speed receiver is going to have to take a few reps to get 100 percent comfortable putting the ball in the right spot down the field," Tannehill said. "We are getting better every day. I’m getting more and more comfortable with him every day, not only on the deep ball but all of his routes coming across (the field), outbreakers, anything. I think that we are getting more and more in tune with each other every day.”

The overall chemistry is important, but the deep element especially so. The Miami Dolphins were one of the league's worst at creating big plays through the air in 2012, ranking 24th in the league with just 42 pass plays of 20 yards or more.

At times, it looked like the Dolphins were playing red zone offense all the way up the field, and defenses did not have to account for the threat of the deep ball. Adding Wallace is supposed to help that.

Buffalo Bills

With the Bills opening camp on Sunday, there was still no shortage of updates around their first practice.

After tearing his ACL near the end of the 2012 season, it looked like tight end Scott Chandler could miss significant time.

He tore his ACL in a Week 16 loss to the Miami Dolphins, which put his status for the 2013 season in jeopardy.

His return to action hasn't been covered with the voracity of Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III or Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis, but his recovery has been just as remarkable.

scott chandler.jpgChandler has not produced to the level of, say, Rob Gronkowski in his NFL career, but he's been an important part of the Bills offense, specifically in creating first downs and touchdowns, where he ranked near the top of the league in 2012.

He's in a contract year, so his continued production will be important to his future with the team.

In his rookie year, cornerback Stephon Gilmore saw some ups-and-downs. That's to be expected. It's also expected that a rookie will learn from the mistakes of the previous year and grow into a more consistent player in his second year.

It's only one practice, and it's only one-on-one drills, but it looks like Gilmore's man coverage is as sticky as it was last year.

The real problem for the Bills at cornerback, though, is their lack of depth at the position. Behind Gilmore, the Bills have a lot of question marks with a total of nine cornerbacks on the roster.

And, from the looks of it, the rest of the group has not looked as sharp.

There's still a long way to go before the Bills have to find their answers, but those answers have to find their way onto the field before the Bills season begins, or it could be a long one for their defense.

Daily training camp overreaction: Kamar Aiken ready to dominate all comers

Posted by Erik Frenz July 28, 2013 02:21 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — If you only watched the first three days of training camp, you might think wide receiver Kamar Aiken is primed to become the next big thing.

Among a group of fresh faces and unknown commodities, Aiken has stood out. That might because he's one of the less fresh faces of the group, having joined the practice squad in December 2012 and being activated for the team's Week 15 game against the Jaguars.

"I got a little head start from last year, so it kind of carried over," Aiken said. "I'm good when it comes to picking up on stuff like that, so I don't have no problem when it comes to that."

Aiken is in exclusive company with wide receivers Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater as the only three of the 12 receivers on this year's roster that were also on the roster last season.

Although his experience is not much more than that of the other receivers, it's enough to get the attention of the coaching staff.

"He has some experience last year from the practice squad at the end of the season," head coach Bill Belichick said on Sunday. "But this is his first training camp with the team, and we’ll see how it all goes. He’s got a little bit of an edge experience-wise, but I don’t think that’s overly significant."

The battle for roster spots at receiver is thick, though, and any advantage is one worth taking.

That being said, Aiken thinks his strengths in this competition go beyond just his knowledge of the playbook and a few extra months of experience with the system and the team.

"Just my size and physical-ness and speed," Aiken said of his other advantages. "Just different, I'm a different caliber receiver just for my size and everything, and being able to do different things."

At 6'2" and 215 pounds, Aiken has the kind of size that's been missing from the Patriots depth chart at receiver for the past few years as the team has struggled to find players to win matchups on the outside.

Over the first few days of camp, we've seen him line up both outside and in the slot. He has shown an impressive ability to get off jams and to make catches in traffic. His drops have been few and far between.

That's about as positive a review as a receiver can get at this point.

He knows he still has work to do, though, and right now, he's just trying to make the most of his opportunities -- and it helps that those opportunities are of greater volume with so much turnover at the position, and with a couple of receivers (Julian Edelman and Mark Harrison) on the mend from injuries.

"Yeah, I have an opportunity, I think," Aiken said. "I'm just going to make the best of it -- all the opportunities they do give me and the plays and reps I do get -- just make the best of them and go from there."

Training camp stock report: Stevan Ridley's fumbles in focus

Posted by Erik Frenz July 28, 2013 01:43 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Patriots put on the pads for the first time in training camp on Sunday. With three practices in the books and the team's first padded practice, let's take a look at which players are trending up and which players are struggling.

Stock up:

Kamar Aiken: It's been a strong few days of practice for Aiken. He made a couple of impressive catches in the first two practices, including a leaping catch over cornerback Logan Ryan on the sideline. His impressive performance continued, and he showed an impressive release off the line of scrimmage in press coverage drills. Read more about Aiken's impressive start to camp.

Marcus Cannon: Took a majority of his reps with the first-team offensive line at right guard. On a few occasions, Cannon pancaked his assignment, and went 1-1-1 in one-on-one pass-rush drills, going against mostly the first-string defenders.

Chandler Jones: Forced a fumble of Stevan Ridley, with a little help from Vince Wilfork. Jones continues to move around the defense as they run multiple looks out of three- and four-man lines. His added strength from the offseason is noticeable.

"As you study more, learn more, different techniques, train, you’re able to utilize your strengths more effectively in time than you were before you did all that," Bill Belichick said, in response to the progress Jones has made from his first to his second year. "I think he’s in that process."

Stock down:

Stevan Ridley: Two fumbles for the lead back in the stable, including one on the goal line toward the end of practice. Ball security has been an issue for Ridley in the past, and today's practice was not a step in the right direction.

Joe Vellano: Registered a record of 0-4-0 in one-on-one blocker vs. rusher drills. Outside of the usual suspects (Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Rob Ninkovich etc.), no one on the defensive line has truly distinguished themselves as a front-runner for a job.

Aaron Dobson: After a strong showing in the first two days of camp, Dobson came back down to Earth a bit today. He showed the ability to get off jams at the the line of scrimmage in some drills, but he dropped a couple of catchable balls. Hiccups like today are expected for a rookie.

Alfonzo Dennard makes an impact on second day (training camp notes)

Posted by Erik Frenz July 27, 2013 03:35 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Like every defensive back over the first two practices of camp, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard has allowed a few passes to be completed into his coverage.

On Saturday, he rediscovered his knack for making plays on the ball. In addition to a couple other pass break-ups, he had a leaping interception off quarterback Ryan Mallett on a deep pass intended for wide receiver Josh Boyce, and a noteworthy pass break-up off quarterback Tom Brady on a sideline throw for wide receiver Aaron Dobson.

"I just worked on the little things," Dennard said, when asked what he did with his offseason from a training standpoint. "[I] worked with the other guys to get my technique down, and just tried to stay focused on this year."

His work on technique has shown. Over the past two days, we've seen Dennard move around a bit in the secondary, lining up on the outside and on the inside. He has played well at both spots.

The Patriots could use versatility like that, especially with concerns over whether cornerback Aqib Talib can participate in all 16 games in a season, a feat which he has yet to accomplish in his five-year career.

But of course, we can't talk about Dennard without mentioning his arrest on suspicion of DUI in Lincoln, Nebraska, the same town where he had previously been charged with assaulting a police officer. The Patriots are prepared for the possibility that he could be suspended, but no one knows when or how long.

That would be enough to distract almost anyone.

"I stay focused just being around the guys," he said. "They bring a lot of focus into my heart."

Some more notes from Saturday's session:

  • Unlike Friday, it was a beautiful day at Patriots training camp on Saturday, with an average temperature of 83 degrees and clear skies. Attendance was much higher than the 6,390 that showed up on Friday. Will relay an exact number when I have it.
  • Wide receiver Danny Amendola continued his run as Brady's favorite target, and his quickness and burst off the line of scrimmage stood out as he was shaking defenders and getting open immediately off the snap. He had what has to be considered the lowlight of camp (aside from every time Tim Tebow drops back) when he fumbled, untouched, on a punt return, after failing to get his footing when he fielded the punt.
  • The running backs all looked good catching passes out of the backfield. We expect that from Shane Vereen, who is well-versed in that role and showed great quickness every time he touched the ball, but both Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden showed soft hands and solid lateral movement in space to run patterns in the flat and make the catch.
  • The defense showed both 3-4 and 4-3 looks, with several players lining up at different spots in those groups. Scheme versatility figures to be in the cards for the Patriots defense once again in 2013.
  • Quarterback Tim Tebow struggled on Friday, and those struggles continued on Saturday for much of the same reasons: holding onto the ball too long and bouncing passes off the ground in front of receivers. On one play, Tebow held onto the ball for around 10 seconds before scrambling to his left, only to throw incomplete on a checkdown to his running back. Tebow was spotted in some running back drills: one with defenders trying to knock the ball out as he ran from one sideline to another, and another drill where the staff hit the runners with dummies as they ran over pylons with the ball in their hands. Despite his struggles, Tebowmania is being felt in full effect. The reaction to his completion to an equipment manager was kind of ridiculous. Was that sarcastic or legit? Please enlighten me.
  • With tight end Rob Gronkowski still on the PUP list as he recovers from back surgery, tight ends Jake Ballard and Zach Sudfeld have emerged as two of the top targets at the position in practice. Both have caught nearly everything headed their way, and Sudfeld specifically has shown the ability to find soft spots in coverage and settle in while his quarterback looks for open targets.
  • Two other highlights of the day: Wide receiver Aaron Dobson got off a jam from cornerback Aqib Talib, ran toward the sideline, and made a leaping catch off a pass from Brady with Talib draped on him.
  • Mallett threw a pass for wide receiver Josh Boyce, which bounced into Boyce's hands after being deflected by the reaching hand of safety Tavon Wilson. Boyce caught the pass in stride.
  • Receivers that dropped passes today: Boyce (2), Michael Jenkins, Kamar Aiken, Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola, Quentin Sims, Kenbrell Thompkins.
  • 11-on-11 stats: Brady went 9-of-17 (two drops), Mallett went 11-of-12 with an interception, Tebow went 3-of-6 and scrambled at least a couple of times.

Daily training camp overreaction: Aaron Dobson for rookie of the year!

Posted by Erik Frenz July 27, 2013 01:09 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — With tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman still out of the picture, three wide receivers have stood out in camp: Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola, and Kamar Aiken. Based on two practices, Dobson and Amendola have to be considered the front-runners to start if based on nothing but performance.

Dobson's been making the most of his opportunities catching passes from quarterback Tom Brady, and trying his hardest to build trust with the future Hall of Fame quarterback.

"You've just got to do the right thing," Dobson said. "You've got to stay in the playbook, make sure, in practice, when you get the reps, you've got to make sure you're doing the right thing."

Dobson's athleticism jumped out at viewers time and time again. He consistently showed the quickness and soft hands that made him a second-round draft choice, and the Patriots' second pick in the draft.

He's not known for his burner speed, but he showed the ability to get deep against the defense on more than a couple of catches. That deep element has been missing from the Patriots offense for years, and Dobson could provide it.

Concentration was another part of Dobson's game that was on display, as the rookie made several difficult catches in traffic, including the highlight of the day: Dobson got off the jam of cornerback Aqib Talib, sprinted toward the sideline, and made the leaping catch off quarterback Tom Brady's throw, with Talib draped all over him.

Even Dobson noticed the impressive throw.

"Oh yeah, definitely. He's going to put the ball there, I've just got to make the catch," Dobson said. "That's the same page that we've got to be on as a quarterback and a receiver."

As of Saturday, Dobson was catching everything that was thrown his way. He dropped just one pass all day on Saturday.

The combination of size, soft hands, efficient route-running and pure athleticism were all on display on Saturday. If Dobson continues to build off his strong start to camp, he'll be well on his way to making a big impact as a rookie.

Tim Tebow's performance highlights uncertain future with Patriots (training camp notes)

Posted by Erik Frenz July 26, 2013 03:08 PM

Tebow Pass (AP).jpg

AP Photo

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The de facto catch phrase for Patriots quarterback Tim Tebow: "All he does is win games."

Well, there were no games to win on the practice field at Gillette Stadium on Friday as the Patriots opened training camp.

So, what did Tebow do instead?

For starters, he was clearly the third quarterback on the depth chart behind Ryan Mallett.

Tebow's footwork was sloppy. He threw passes into coverage, he had passes batted at the line of scrimmage, and he held onto the ball too long and scrambled at least twice in drills, being forced to scramble.

He was even victimized on one of the two highlights of the day, when defensive end Chandler Jones, who had dropped into coverage on the play, intercepted a pass from Tebow intended for running back George Winn.

On the day, Tebow went 6-of-10 in 11-on-11 drills and had two passes intercepted, the second of those being delivered right into the bread basket of safety Nate Ebner.

As a passer, Tebow has a long way to go, but that was far from the biggest Tebow storyline of the day.

Tebow caught passes in drills. It was a non-contact drill, and Tebow didn't actually line up at receiver in the drill — only standing next to the receivers as they ran patterns, and running a couple of patterns of his own.

"I'm just doing what I'm asked," Tebow said. "But so far I've been strictly in the QB room."

In time, Tebow could find himself sitting in other rooms if his performances at quarterback continue to look like it did today.

Some other noteworthy observations on the day:

  • Wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins, Mark Harrison and Julian Edelman, center Nick McDonald, defensive linemen Cory Grissom, tight end Rob Gronkowski and defensive linemen Armond Armstead were non-participants in practice. Safety Kanorris Davis left partway through practice and headed for the indoor bubble.
  • Running back Leon Washington showed off his abilities as a kickoff returner, running hard through special teams drills. His burst and downhill style of running were both evident every time he touched the ball. The Patriots have ranked in the bottom half of the league in average kickoff return yards in each of the past three years, and could use a boost in that area.
  • Wide receiver Danny Amendola made the highlight catch of 11-on-11 drills on a diving reception over cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. Chemistry between Amendola and quarterback Tom Brady appeared to be coming along, although there was one notable missed connection between them where Brady expected Amendola to run a route that would be a bit deeper than the one he ran.
  • Wide receiver Kamar Aiken made his presence felt in practice, running with the first- and second-team offenses. He made a diving catch down the sideline on a well-thrown pass from Brady, drawing a big reaction from the crowd as he slid out-of-bounds.
  • The starting secondary remained almost entirely in tact from last season: Aqib Talib was the primary No. 1 cornerback, and Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington shared time lined up outside and in the slot. Devin McCourty remained the team's free safety, but Adrian Wilson ran with the first-team defense at strong safety. Tavon Wilson, who started several games at safety last year and manned the "money" defensive back spot, got a few reps with the ones, but spent most of his time with the second-team defense.
  • Ras-I Dowling rarely found himself on the wrong end of a reception (just two into his coverage), but overall, he looked good in sticking to his man in coverage.

Jake Ballard could benefit from lost 2012 season in Patriots tight end battle

Posted by Erik Frenz July 26, 2013 01:47 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass — It wouldn't be an NFL offseason if every team didn't go through some changes, but the Patriots are in a particularly tight spot at tight end, with Aaron Hernandez in jail and Rob Gronkowski on the mend from back surgery.

The question marks go beyond the two big names.

Jake Ballard, acquired from the Giants off waivers last offseason, spent the entire 2012 season on injured reserve recovering from an ACL injury he suffered in Super Bowl XLVI.

Now, he's trying to make a comeback to the field, amid a sea of young faces.

It wasn't a completely lost season for Ballard, who took advantage of being with the team during walkthroughs and team meetings, and watching the games.

"It definitely helped," Ballard said. "Any time you can just do classroom work, not even take the field — I was out here for all the walkthroughs during the week and all the game planning — you kind of get a mindset of what the coaches are thinking, what everybody else is thinking, and then just little tips or hints on each route or each run play. It definitely helped out a great deal."

His knowledge of the offense, in that sense, is a step ahead of the rest.

It will help in what will be a deep battle for roster spots.

"We've got a lot of capable tight ends right now," Ballard said, "and we're going to do whatever they ask us to do. It's not like the tight ends a disappearing position.

"I'm not worried about the other guys as much as what I can do to improve."

TEs.pngBallard also has experience on his side, with the second-most career receptions of any tight end on the Patriots roster.

The first day of training camp was an improvement for Ballard, compared to his performance at OTAs, which looked "stiff" in the words of colleague Ben Volin.

While it is only the first practice of training camp, it's worth noting that Ballard's movement looked smooth when running routes, which is an impressive leap, especially considering today's practice was held outdoors in the rain.

Ballard's off to a good start, but with a tight competition brewing at his position, there's not a lot of room for slack.

"Right now, I'm just worried about tomorrow and being good to go tomorrow," Ballard said, "so we'll take that when it comes, but right now, I just need to get ready for practice tomorrow and get better."

The top training camp storyline for each AFC East team

Posted by Erik Frenz July 26, 2013 08:00 AM

tom brady bill belichick.jpg

Photo via Brian Snyder/Reuters

A quick rundown of the top training camp storylines for each AFC East team with the Dolphins having kicked things off on Sunday and the other three teams set to start practices in the coming days:

Who's catching Tom Brady's passes?

Perhaps the biggest question of training camp in the AFC East, and maybe even the NFL, is who will be catching the ball for the Patriots. Wide receivers accounted for 230 receptions last year for the Patriots, and only 21 of those receptions are returning.

It's a sea of new faces. Between free-agent Danny Amendola, rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, and undrafted free-agents Mark Harrison, Quentin Sims and Kenbrell Thompkins, the Patriots will have a drastically different depth chart from top to bottom.

There is a good deal of upside with this group; for years, the Patriots have been lacking size on the outside, and five of their 12 current receivers are 6'1" or taller: Dobson, Harrison, Sims, Michael Jenkins and Kamar Aiken all fit the bill.

There will be some pressure on Danny Amendola to fit right in and start catching passes from quarterback Tom Brady with ease as the veteran passer looks for his new favorite weapon at receiver.

How will Rex Ryan deploy his defensive front seven?

When the Jets took defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson with the 13th overall pick in the draft, they helped address their need for a pass-rusher. They just didn't do it at the position of greatest need. Their lack of an edge rusher at outside linebacker has been noteworthy for years, as both Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas got older while the Jets failed to provide any young depth behind them.

Now, the Jets have both Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson as capable 3- and 5-technique linemen. Quinton Coples played that role last year, but he's been moving around a bit this offseason, having lined up some at outside linebacker. That doesn't mean he won't be playing with his hand in the dirt, though, according to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News.

If four-man fronts are the future for the Jets defense, expect to see Coples at left end, Wilkerson and Richardson on the inside, and Antwan Barnes at right end. We could see continued use of the 3-4, though, which might feature Wilkerson and Richardson at the ends, Kenrick Ellis at nose tackle, and Coples and Barnes at outside linebacker.

Either way, Rex Ryan has built quite the versatile and athletic front seven in New York, which could help this defense generate more pass rush than years past.

How will the Bills defense line up?

All offseason, we've heard that defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will bring a new-look defense to the fold.

Well, how does that defense look? Is it a 3-4 base, a 4-3 base, or some combination of the two?

Pettine hinted that they will be in the nickel defense quite frequently in 2013, according to Jonah Javad of WGRZ.

But really, the nickel defense doesn't mean anything more than five defensive backs. There are still six defenders up front that Pettine will deploy in multiple ways. Three down linemen and three linebackers? Four linemen and two linebackers? Exotic fronts with two linemen and four linebackers? The possibilities are endless, and so are the blitz packages.

How's the chemistry between Ryan Tannehill and Mike Wallace?

The Dolphins gave wide receiver Mike Wallace a five-year, $60 million contract to give their offense the explosive dynamic it was missing so sorely in 2012.

Now, there is some pressure on quarterback Ryan Tannehill to make the most of his new weapon.

tannehill deep.pngHe's certainly ready, at least if he plays like he did last year.

Although he wasn't one of the most frequent deep passers in the NFL last year, he was one of the most accurate; on passes that traveled 20 yards or more through the air, 43.1 percent of Tannehill's attempts hit their target, being either caught or dropped.

wallace.pngAt that point, it's up to Wallace to make sure those passes are caught. His drop rate has improved since he came into the league, but the game's top receivers can't afford to have such a high percentage of passes bounce off their hands.

Tannehill will be asked to build off a solid 2012, and Wallace will be asked to provide the missing piece from last season. How these two perform, and perform together, will go a long way in determining the trajectory of the Dolphins offense.

Bonus: Patriots in a tight spot at tight end

With Aaron Hernandez already gone, and Rob Gronkowski potentially missing the first six games recovering from back surgery, the Patriots could be counting on their depth at what has become one of the most important positions in their offense of late.

It looks like veterans Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells could get the call until Gronkowski gets back. Ballard represents the mix of pass-catching and solid blocking that the Patriots could lack without Gronkowski, but he missed all of 2012 while recovering from ACL surgery, and colleague Ben Volin had an interesting tweet in that regard.

Fells and Hoomanawanui got the snaps last year, and could reprise those roles, but don't count out undrafted rookies Zach Sudfeld and Brandon Ford. Sudfeld looked good at OTAs, and if he continues to improve, reps with the first team could be in his future, especially if Gronkowski continues to miss time.

AFC East's top training camp position battles

Posted by Erik Frenz July 25, 2013 07:55 AM

In a photo gallery posted on Boston.com, we detail the top training camp battles in the AFC East.

We all know about the Patriots battle for spots at tight end, but two of the biggest position battles in the entire league, involving the first two quarterbacks taken off the board in April's draft, happen right in the Patriots backyard.

The Dolphins said goodbye to a few key free-agents this offseason, and position battles to replace running back Reggie Bush and cornerback Sean Smith are under the spotlight as a result.

Click here for the full gallery.

Patriots pre-training camp 53-man roster projection

Posted by Erik Frenz July 22, 2013 08:00 AM

The New England Patriots open training camp on July 25 with 90 players on the roster, and everything that happens from that point on will bring us closer and closer to the final 53-man roster.

A lot has changed since we last saw this team in action six months ago, leaving many open spots on the roster that may not otherwise be available. Thus, while practices will shape the roster, here's where things stand as we speak.

A huge hat tip goes to PatsFans.com for the always useful Pats Picker tool.

QB (2): Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett

If Tim Tebow is going to make the roster, it's going to have to be at quarterback. At present, the roster spot is simply too valuable to spend on a player who will likely never see the field. If Tebow shows a good deal of improvement as a quarterback, and gives any hint that he might one day develop into a legitimate passer, he could earn the spot, but it won't come easily.

RB (4): Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, Leon Washington

Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount are essentially competing for one spot here. Bolden's experience in the offense and solid performance in 2012 earns him the nod for now. Leon Washington adds a missing dynamic in the return game, averaging 29 yards per return (third-highest in the NFL).

WR (6): Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater, Josh Boyce, Michael Jenkins

One of the Patriots biggest questions headed into the 2013 season is the dramatic turnover of the wide receiver position. Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson are locks, and Matthew Slater is invaluable for his special teams work as a gunner. Julian Edelman has the most experience in the Patriots offense of any receiver on the roster. Michael Jenkins' veteran savvy fits the mold of Patriots receivers in the past, and his size (6'4" and 215 lbs.) presents a missing element at the position.

TE (4): Jake Ballard, Zach Sudfeld, Daniel Fells, Brandon Ford

Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that Rob Gronkowski will start training camp on the physically unable to perform list, which opens up a spot for another tight end. Jake Ballard looks like the de facto Gronkowski understudy, but Zach Sudfeld had an impressive offseason to this point, and has the right size for the part as well.

Brandon Ford could fill the Aaron Hernandez role as a versatile pass-catching tight end, and although his short-area quickness isn't as elite as Hernandez's, he could still find a role in the offense.

C (2): Ryan Wendell, Nick McDonald

As the starting center from last season, Ryan Wendell is a shoe-in for a roster spot this year. Both Wendell and Nick McDonald are regarded for their versatility between guard and center, which helps the Patriots greatly if they're ever in a pinch, but both have played center in the NFL and it will likely stay that way.

G (3): Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, Marcus Cannon

As of right now, Marcus Cannon is listed as an offensive linemen on the Patriots' official website, but with the loss of Donald Thomas to free-agency, the Patriots could probably use more depth on the interior. Cannon has long been considered a candidate to move inside, and his versatility between tackle and guard makes him a perfect backup.

T (3): Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Will Svitek

Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are firmly entrenched as the starting duo at offensive tackle, and rightly so, as they anchored a line that allowed Brady to be pressured on 25 percent of his drop-backs, the second-lowest average in the league according to Pro Football Focus.

Will Svitek adds great insurance in the event of injury, as he can play both tackle spots and has stepped up following an injury to a starter in the past with the Falcons. He's not much of a finesse blocker, but that fits the mold for this group.

DE (6): Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham, Justin Francis, Jake Bequette, Michael Buchanan

Six defensive ends may seem like a lot, but it's only one more than they had at the start of the 2012 season.

Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are the only locks.

Jermaine Cunningham earned a lot of good will last year by playing an unfamiliar role as a sub-package defensive tackle, rushing the passer from the inside. He also filled in at defensive end when Jones was injured for a pair of games. All in all, though, he still has something to prove.

Justin Francis came on strong at the end of the year, and really made his impact felt in the final game of the season with three sacks of Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Word on the street is that Jake Bequette looked solid at OTAs, with Jones still recovering and not on the field. Bequette could find a role similar to Cunningham's, playing all over the line as a primary backup.

Michael Buchanan logged a gaudy 13.5 sacks in 2011, but his production nearly slipped to half that with just seven sacks in 2012. His 6'6", 255-pound frame is surely enticing at defensive end, with the quickness to get around blockers, but there's still a way to go before Buchanan proves himself worthy of the roster.

DT (4): Vince Wilfork, Armond Armstead, Tommy Kelly, Marcus Forston

With four defensive tackles, the Patriots still have plenty of options between 3-4 and 4-3 schemes — despite moving on from both Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick this offseason. Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly both have extensive NFL experience in both fronts, and are the locks at the spot.

Armond Armstead showed a ton of potential for the Grey Cup Champion Toronto Argonauts of the CFL, primarily as a 4-3 defensive tackle, but he has the skill set to play in a two-gap 3-4 as well.

Marcus Forston was added as an undrafted free-agent last year. Now that Love and Deaderick are out of the picture, the door has opened for significant snaps on the inside of the Patriots defensive line. For now, Forston gets the nod for his experience.

ILB (3): Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher, Niko Koutouvides

The Patriots have some long-term questions ahead at middle linebacker. Brandon Spikes is in a contract year, so they'll need to decide how they feel about him, both in terms of his dominance against the run and tendency to get beaten in pass coverage.

Dane Fletcher returns from ACL surgery as the backup on a one-year deal. One, both or neither could be gone next year.

Niko Koutouvides has been a core special teams player for years; it's always been his meal ticket, and that should continue in 2013.

OLB (3): Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo

No surprises here. The Patriots first pick of the 2013 draft joins two former first-round picks at outside linebacker, where the Patriots are probably hoping to get a bit better pass coverage at the position.

CB (5): Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan, Ras-I Dowling

Colleague Ben Volin reported that the Patriots will not cut Alfonzo Dennard, but they are ready for him to be suspended. If that's the case, they may be able to fit someone else onto the roster in the meantime, but this process could take awhile to play out, which would delay his suspension.

Ras-I Dowling is entering a make-or-break training camp. He'll not only have to stay healthy but also prove that he has improved since his rookie year, despite not playing very much due to injuries. Dowling always struck me as more of an outside corner, so he may compete with Dennard in that sense, but he could be competing with Logan Ryan for the final roster spot at cornerback. Here, I have both making the roster.

SS (2): Tavon Wilson, Adrian Wilson

Nate Ebner adds some value on special teams, but he played just 36 snaps on defense last year.

Tavon Wilson started five games in the middle of the season last year, after starters went down with injuries. This year, he will be in a tight race with Adrian Wilson for the starting role, and the two could be involved in a rotation with Wilson filling the role of a safety/linebacker "Money" defensive back.

FS (3): Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory, Duron Harmon

Devin McCourty finally gets to spend a full offseason at safety to hone his skills at the position. He's always been very good with his eyes on the quarterback, and he could grow into a great safety if this summer goes swimmingly for him.

Some folks are torn on Steve Gregory, but his versatility between the two safety spots is a huge plus for me, and he has played cornerback in his career as well (played in the slot in 2009 with the Chargers).

Duron Harmon fills the special teams safety role left vacant by Nate Ebner, and considering his billing as a third-round pic, it's hard not to consider him a lock for the roster.

ST (3) Stephen Gostkowski, Danny Aiken, Zoltan Mesko

Despite young additions at kicker and punter, the Patriots look ready to return the same trio that's been together for three years. Zoltan Mesko has improved every year in the league, and has been one of the league's deadliest and landing opponents inside the 20-yard line. Stephen Gostkowski will be looking to rebound after a tougher year than usual, in which he made 82.9 percent of his field goal tries (career average of 84.2)

Key Bills players entering contract years

Posted by Erik Frenz July 12, 2013 08:00 AM

The Buffalo Bills are entering a brand new regime, with a new quarterback, new head coach and new general manager.

As such, there could be a lot of turnover as they try to find the players to best fit the new direction of the team.

The Bills have $16 million in cap space to work with this season, so it wouldn't be a complete shock to see them get one or two deals done before or during the season. They could even roll over some of that money to the 2014 salary cap, where they have just $8.7 million in space, but they can't wait forever; there is a deadline looming for their most important pending free-agent, and 2013 franchise player Jairus Byrd.

While the Bills don't have too many free agents to address next offseason, they're all good players at key positions, so let's take a look at the most prominent ones on the list.

Jairus Byrd, safety

2013 cap hit: $6,916,000

This one could get ugly.

The Bills hit Byrd with the franchise tag, but he has yet to sign the tender, and it could get worse before it gets better. James Walker of ESPN's AFC East Blog reports that “all has been quiet on both sides” of the contract negotiation.

There's little doubt that Byrd is one of the best players at his position in the league, but this should not be rocket science anyway. Byrd is exactly the safety the Bills need to execute the defensive scheme of coordinator Mike Pettine. The Bills will run a lot of Cover 1 in the secondary, with Byrd's speed and ability to track the ball being of utmost importance.

Moreover, the Bills have the space to make it work right now. Here's how it works: add on an extra $2 million for this year, which makes Byrd's 2013 salary of $8.916 look awfully similar to Buccaneers safety Dashon Goldson's $9 million for this season. No harm, no foul.

Eric Wood, center

2013 cap hit: $3,348,750

Eric Wood could be an interesting negotiation. On one hand, he's developed into a solid player and a key component for the Bills offensive line. On the other hand, he's never played a full 16-game season.

The Bills have already endured one big loss on the inside of the offensive line, with left guard Andy Levitre bolting for the Tennessee Titans this offseason. They probably don't want to also lose their starting center.

This season will be a big measure for the offensive line as a whole, particularly Wood, as they will be responsible for keeping up in an up-tempo offense.

"We're gonna put the defense in some compromising situations with our tempo and the different schemes we have," Wood told The Buffalo News in May. "It'll be a little bit of an adjustment. The no-huddle brings a level of toughness for us. We have to be in better shape, we have to communicate quicker. It's going to create its problems for us, but that's why we're out here practicing."

How Wood translates into that offense, with his ability to keep up physically and mentally in calling protections, will be determining factors in whether he's kept.

This season may not be the be-all, end-all for Wood in a Bills uniform, though. Depending on how much cap space the Bills roll over, they might be able to put the franchise tag on him. It would be close to $5 million to do so, which is a steep price to pay, but if the Bills are less than confident in his ability to stay healthy, it could be a prove-it situation in that regard for Wood.

Alan Branch, defensive tackle

2013 cap hit: $1,500,000

The Bills signed the 28-year-old Branch to a one-year deal this offseason in an attempt to bolster their depth on the interior of the defensive line. Starting defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams are signed through the 2014 and 2016 seasons, respectively.

They will run a more scheme-versatile defense in 2013 under Mike Pettine, though, and Branch's experience in both the 3-4 (with the Cardinals) and the 4-3 (with the Seahawks) will serve him well as a rotational player capable of lining up at multiple spots along the line.

Branch has played at least 500 snaps in each of the past three seasons, so it's most likely we'll see him in that role. From there, it's up to Branch to put his size and strength on display in creating a push up the middle and plugging gaps in the trenches.

Scott Chandler, tight end

2013 cap hit: $2,975,000

scott chandler.jpgNot including C.J. Spiller, few players were as important to the Bills offense as Scott Chandler in 2012. On the season, 37 of his 43 receptions (86 percent) went for either a first-down or a touchdown. His numbers in that regard put him among the best in the league.

Chandler is not considered a great blocker, but at 6'7 and 260 pounds, his size creates matchup problems, especially in the red zone. Despite that, Chandler was only targeted eight times inside the 20-yard line.

There's a bit of a myth around his production dropping off in the second half of seasons. In the first eight games of the past two seasons, Chandler has caught 40 passes for 442 yards (11.1 YPR) and 10 touchdowns without missing a single game. In the second half of the past two seasons, he's put up 41 catches for 518 yards but just two touchdowns while missing three games. Far fewer touchdowns, sure, but more receptions for more yards in fewer games does not indicate a dropoff to me.

That being said, Chandler missed the final game of the 2012 season because of a torn ACL. While current reports indicate his recovery is going just fine, he'll need to prove it on the field before he gets a big-time extension from the Bills brass.

Cap numbers via Spotrac.

Alfonzo Dennard squanders second opportunity, Patriots may pay the price

Posted by Erik Frenz July 11, 2013 06:15 PM

Risky business has come back to haunt the New England Patriots with the arrests of tight end Aaron Hernandez and, this morning, of cornerback Alfonzo Dennard on suspected driving-under-the-influence charges, as Lincoln police confirmed Thursday morning.

Hernandez is no longer with the team as he sits in jail, charged with first-degree murder and awaiting a trial. The future remains undetermined for Dennard, but NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is liable to hand him a suspension for his transgression under the league's omnipresent personal conduct policy.

It's a good thing no one got hurt, or else this situation could have been much worse for all parties involved.

Both Hernandez and Dennard are innocent until proven guilty, but at this point, it's safe to say both are guilty of squandering a second opportunity that no one else would give them.

It's not hard to understand why the Patriots took those chances. Both had boatloads of talent to go with their checkered past. In the Patriots never-ending quest for value in the draft, these are the players that are often available and present the best bang-for-the-buck.

There's nothing wrong with that strategy, but it comes with its risks, both from an on-field and off-field perspective.

Teams take such risks in the draft annually, be it on a player who's been injured in the past, or who has had a run-in or two with the law prior to his time in the NFL.

Browns defensive end Jabaal Sheard was arrested for assault in 2010 after throwing a man through a glass door. He was pepper sprayed by multiple officers, according to reports. The Browns drafted him in the second round of the 2011 draft, and he's stayed out of trouble since then, while logging 15.5 sacks over his first two years.

Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston tested positive for marijuana at the scouting combine, causing him to drop to the third round in 2011. He's logged 15.5 sacks for the Chiefs in two years, including 10 last year, and hasn't missed a game.

There's little doubt these gambles can pay off.

When they don't, though, it's not the fault of the organization, even though it is to their detriment.

Key Patriots players entering contract years

Posted by Erik Frenz July 11, 2013 08:00 AM

The New England Patriots had a lot of big-name free-agents this past offseason: cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington, wide receivers Wes Welker and Julian Edelman, tackle Sebastian Vollmer, and running back Danny Woodhead among the biggest name.

The team will have some big decisions on their hands in 2014, as well. In fact, two of last year's free agents were given one-year deals, and they'll have to be re-signed or allowed to walk following this season.

Aqib Talib, cornerback

2013 cap hit: $4,832,813

After a midseason trade of a fourth-round pick to the Buccaneers for Aqib Talib, the Patriots would have come under some scrutiny had they not been able to hang onto Talib for the 2013 season, but they made the right call in bringing him back and maintaining some stability in their secondary. They got some help from a dry market, though, and Talib came back to the Patriots on a one-year deal as the Patriots try to get a longer, closer look at concerns surrounding his health and his off-field behavior.

Hamstring and hip injuries have plagued him in the past, so it's no coincidence that the two injuries which nagged him in 2012 were to his hamstring and hip.

Talib's career got off to a rocky start when he had some brushes with the Buccaneers brass, and he served a four-game suspension after being charged with simple battery and resisting arrest. He also came to New England during the tail end of an eight-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances (Adderall was his drug of choice), and he also has legal troubles including felony charges for assault with a deadly weapon -- charges which were later dropped.

If he can stay healthy and out of trouble, the Patriots will have some continuity in the secondary. Indeed, the Patriots have reason to be concerned with a long-term commitment to Talib.

Rob Ninkovich, defensive end

2013 cap hit: $2,166,666

For four years, Rob Ninkovich has done whatever the Patriots have asked of him. He was little more than a special teams player in 2009, but stepped into a starting role at 3-4 outside linebacker in 2010. When the Patriots went to the 4-3 in 2011, he began playing outside linebacker in that front, and he most recently played the majority of his snaps at 4-3 defensive end.

He has been a favorite of the Patriots coaching staff for years, having earned 83.8 percent of the defensive snaps over the past two years according to stats website Pro Football Focus. His scheme versatility will add to his value to the Patriots, who often change up schemes during the course of a game.

The question then becomes how, and where, Ninkovich fits into the Patriots scheme, and whether a younger player might be asked to fill his role in the future.

Zoltan Mesko, punter

2013 cap hit: $1,369,812

In the famed words of Rich Eisen, punters are people, too.

Zoltan Mesko has been incredibly valuable to the Patriots since he arrived in 2010. The year prior, punter Chris Hanson landed 32.8 percent of his punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. That's not bad, but Mesko led the league in 2011 with 42.2 percent of his punts inside the opponent's 20. Last year, Mesko ranked third with 48.6 percent.

Considering his talent level, Mesko could be a consideration for next year's franchise tag. The number would be around $3 million, if we're looking at the average of the top five base salaries for punters in 2014.

Ryan Wendell, center

2013 cap hit: $1,015,000

The Patriots have dealt with some change on the offensive line over the years, and while they are carrying over the same starting unit from 2012 to 2013, they have to address their center situation next offseason.

Wendell was a backup interior linemen before last season, playing at both guard spots and at center in 2010 and 2011. The team showed a lot of confidence in naming him the starting center in 2012, and he played 99.6 percent of offensive snaps according to Pro Football Focus, missing just six snaps all season.

They've had some change at center over the years, with Dan Koppen going down to injury in Week 1 of the 2011 season before Dan Connolly took his place. Koppen returned for 2012 training camp, but was released and Wendell was named the starter.

"I think clearly the obvious is that he replaced a very, very good football player and a very popular football player," offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said of Wendell during the season. "That’s as tough a decision as we’ve ever had around here for those reasons. But we also knew that this is a young guy that has played very well when we’ve asked him to play. ...He’s a great kid. I’m glad we’ve got him."

Jermaine Cunningham, defensive end

2013 cap hit: $939,375

With a few players due for new contracts in the front seven, Jermaine Cunningham's situation bears watching.

He has played all over the defensive front seven for the Patriots, at outside linebacker in the 3-4 his rookie season, then as a 4-3 linebacker and defensive end in his second year, and followed that up in 2012 by playing a mix of 4-3 defensive end and lining up as an interior pass-rusher in sub-packages.

Cunningham missed four games in 2012 due to a violation of the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, but he had an important role as a situational pass-rusher. The Patriots have been searching for that kind of presence for years, and if Cunningham can build off a solid 2012 campaign, he could work his way into the Patriots future plans.

Brandon Spikes, linebacker

2013 cap hit: $870,000

As the middle linebacker, Spikes has rightly earned a lot of attention as one of the biggest-name free-agents on the Patriots docket this coming offseason.

Spikes' health could be a factor. He has yet to play a full 16-game season at any point in his three-year career, but 2012 saw his highest participation by far with 863 total snaps, compared to 542 in 2011 and 365 his rookie season.

He spent part of the offseason working out at Bommarito Performance Systems in Florida.

"I just felt like I was trying to put myself in the best position to compete for a spot on the team and also help this team win a championship," Spikes said. "You guys know me; I do things a little different from everybody else. I don’t think that’s bad or a shocker. Honestly, if everybody in this world was a conformist, it would be one boring place."

The Patriots defense might be a boring place without Spikes, who is often regarded as an energetic leader for the unit, especially with his bone-jarring hits.

Julian Edelman, wide receiver

2013 cap hit: $765,000

After a tumultuous offseason at receiver, Julian Edelman is the last remaining wide-out from last year's team besides Kamar Aiken (who took three snaps in 2012) and special teams ace Matt Slater.

As such, Edelman might have the best understanding of the offense of any receiver outside of Danny Amendola, who has experience with Josh McDaniels' system from their time together in St. Louis.

A lot has been made of running back Shane Vereen lining up at receiver, but Edelman has an opportunity to cave a niche for himself in the slot role with Aaron Hernandez out of the picture. He was used primarily on the outside, running just 44 of his 182 routes out of the slot in 2012, but his short-area quickness makes him a good fit for that role.

Dane Fletcher, linebacker

2013 cap hit: $620,000

Dane Fletcher was brought back on a one-year deal after missing all of 2012 with a torn ACL.

The Patriots sorely missed the depth at linebacker when it came to covering tight ends over the middle, where they ranked 29th in the league according to Football Outsiders. Fletcher has been valuable to the Patriots on third downs for his abilities in coverage, but also have value on special teams.

As a result of Spikes' absence from OTAs, Fletcher earned some valuable time with the first-team defense. In terms of practice reps, it will be interesting to see how, where, and how many Fletcher earns in training camp, but he's been a valuable player on their team in the past, and has good utility for the Patriots in 2013.

Cap numbers via Spotrac.

Key Jets players entering contract years

Posted by Erik Frenz July 8, 2013 08:00 AM

The New York Jets didn't have a lot of cap space to work with this offseason, and as such, didn't make a lot of moves.

The few moves they did make were mainly on one-year "prove-it" deals that allow players an opportunity to prove they can stay healthy, or stay out of trouble, or stay away from whatever else it could be that gives the team pause on giving the player a long-term deal.

There's more. While a few players are not exactly in contract years, they are due roster bonuses that could put their job in jeopardy come next offseason.

Thus, while the Jets have given themselves some answers for this season, they'll still have questions next offseason.

Mark Sanchez, quarterback

2013 cap hit: $12,853,125

The Jets could have cut Mark Sanchez this offseason, but they would have had to pay him an extra $4.3 million just to go away. Instead, the Jets will give him one more chance to prove he can be the starting quarterback. He'll have to do it in a new system and with former West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith breathing down his neck.

In order to remain in a Jets uniform, Sanchez will have to prove he's better than the Jets' second-round pick. Even then, it may be difficult to prove he's worth what he'll be owed next season: a $13.1 million cap hit, including a $2 million roster bonus due at the beginning of the league year.

If Sanchez is back with the Jets beyond 2013, it will likely be on a much different contract.

Santonio Holmes, wide receiver

2013 cap hit: $9,000,000

Holmes was one of many bad deals drawn up by general manager Mike Tannenbaum in his last gasps. His fully guaranteed $24 million included a $6.25 million signing bonus plus all $16.25 million of his base salary from 2011-13, thus making him uncuttable in the first three years of the deal. Like Mark Sanchez, Holmes is due a $1 million roster bonus next offseason which the Jets could elect not to pick up, freeing them from the rest of his contract.

Holmes could be a valuable component to the Jets offense, but coming off a Grade 4 (the worst severity) Lisfranc foot fracture, he's still not up to speed. He has targeted the first day of training camp as his return date, but according to ESPN New York, he's still not running and cutting as of June 16.

Unless he gets back to the form of his days with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he's not going to be brought back for a $10.75 million cap hit in 2014, which would make him the eighth-highest paid wide receiver that season.

Austin Howard, right tackle

2013 cap hit: $2.023 million

Things looked pretty bleak for the Jets at right tackle with Wayne Hunter manning the spot in 2011 (there are so many funny highlights of him, it would be tough to link to them all, but I'll try). It would have been hard to be much worse than Hunter was in 2011, but Austin Howard proved to actually be a viable starter at right tackle.

That being said, it was not all smooth sailing. According to STATS, Inc., Howard gave up 13.5 sacks and was called for three penalties (two false starts, one holding) on the 2012 season. Despite that, he showed some signs of growth last year, particularly in the running game. With another year of experience, he could earn the long-term stability both he and the Jets are looking for.

Jeff Cumberland, tight end

2013 cap hit: $1.323 million

Jeff Cumberland became a bigger part of the Jets game plan as the season wore on, with former Jets tight end Dustin Keller missing time with injury in 2012. Looking at the depth chart right now, it appears Cumberland could still be the starter at the position.

Clocked at 4.45 seconds in the 40-yard dash at 6'4" and 260 pounds, he has the size-speed combination that could, in theory, make him a matchup problem. His route-running could use some work, though, as he fails to properly adjust his routes and lacks explosion out of his breaks.

He is also not an ideal blocker for a full-time tight end, too often allowing defenders to slip off his blocks and make the tackle.

While Cumberland could still add some value in a part-time role, the Jets should be looking to upgrade here next offseason.

Willie Colon, guard

2013 cap hit: $1.2 million

After losing both starting guards Brandon Moore and Matt Slauson this offseason, the Jets needed to find some sort of answer on the inside of the offensive line.

Colon comes with injury concerns, having missed 35 games over the past three years after an Achilles injury and ACL tears in both of his knees. Before then, however, he started 48 consecutive games for the Steelers.

He was considered a rising star at tackle before his injuries, but was moved to guard in 2012.

If he can return to his early-career form, stay healthy and continue to grow in his new position, he could get his career back on track in a hurry.

Antonio Garay, nose tackle

2013 cap hit: $840,000

The Jets parted ways with starting nose tackle Sione Pouha, who had not missed a game prior to this season when he missed four with a lingering back injury. Releasing him opened up $3.8 million in cap space.

Antonio Garay may be asked to man the nose in the 3-4, and he has experience lining up at defensive tackle in a 4-3 if Rex Ryan opts to utilize a mix of fronts. That being said, he is more of a pass-rusher than a run-stuffer, and the Jets already have a bunch of those on the roster (Muhammad Wilkerson, Quinton Coples, Sheldon Richardson).

Although Garay is nice depth for those players, he shouldn't be more than a part-time player in the Jets defense.

Nick Folk, kicker

2013 cap hit: $715,000

Every year like clockwork, it seems we're back to talking about Nick Folk's job security as the Jets kicker. In 2011, Nick Novak was the one who was reportedly competing for the job. In 2012, it was Josh Brown.

Folk has managed to keep his job through all that, despite ranking 35th out of 41 kickers in accuracy percentage over the past two seasons. While Folk will always be serviceable for field goals of 39 yards or shorter (he's 24 of 28 from that range over the past two years), he's been erratic from long range.

If the Jets choose to bring back Folk, it will likely be at their price, and it likely will not be without competition.

Joe McKnight, running back

2013 cap hit: $630,000

McKnight is being asked about his job security after the Jets brought in both running backs Mike Goodson and running backs Chris Ivory in the backfield, but in McKnight's own words, "They're going to have to kill me to take my spot."

He came out of USC with praise for his versatility as a runner and receiver, but with a maximum of 43 carries in a season and just 17 career receptions, he has been used sparingly in those roles, to say the least.

He offers an explosive dynamic in the return game that the other backs don't bring to the table, and he earned All-Pro consideration in that area in 2011 (34 returns, 1,073 yards, touchdown) but unless he shows he can contribute out of the backfield, he could be considered a luxury at best and expendable at worst.

About the author

Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »


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