Key areas for Patriots vs. Panthers

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
7:30
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the New England Patriots host the Carolina Panthers in preseason action Friday night, here are some key areas for the team based on what has unfolded in the first two games:

Conditioning and possibly playing into third quarter. The overall conditioning of the team has been a high priority for head coach Bill Belichick in training camp, with an eye toward what figures to be a sweltering Sept. 7 season opener in Miami (1 p.m. ET kickoff). Quarterback Tom Brady said Belichick has told the players to expect a heavy workload, which could mean playing into the third quarter, which is often the case in the third preseason game. It's all tied to conditioning.

Good test for run defense. One of the themes of the week has been how facing an athletic quarterback such as Cam Newton, and a downhill power running team, presents a nice contrast to the spread-it-out Philadelphia Eagles offense from last week. So it's more good work for the starting front seven in the 3-4 alignment, which was solid against the run last week against LeSean McCoy & Co. Our eyes will be on linebacker Jerod Mayo and if he plays for the first time this preseason.

Following up with Stevan Ridley. The four-year veteran played 16 snaps last Friday as the Patriots focused heavily on the run game. Ridley's final snap was ruled a fumble, which was a close play but nonetheless brought a hot-button topic -- Ridley's ball security -- back to the forefront. In a game in which the starters are expected to play extensively, how Ridley responds bears monitoring.

Competitions on interior of O-line. Center and right guard are the spots to continue to monitor, with Dan Connolly (center) and Josh Kline (right guard) looking like the front-runners at this point. But incumbent center Ryan Wendell is still in the mix, and the coaching staff has also taken a long look at first-year blocker Jordan Devey, who has played every snap this preseason. Four-year veteran Marcus Cannon is also a possibility at right guard, although our feeling is that he looks more comfortable at tackle.

Malcolm Butler and sustaining his play. The undrafted free-agent cornerback from West Alabama has been one of the surprise stories of training camp, as he's not only practiced well, but has shown up in games with ball disruption and strong coverage. Can he sustain it?

TE Williams & DL Forston released

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
4:59
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Five-year veteran tight end D.J. Williams and second-year defensive lineman Marcus Forston have been released by the New England Patriots, the team announced.

Neither were part of the latest ESPN.com Patriots roster projection, as Williams has been sidelined with a lower right leg injury since getting rolled up on Aug. 5 in a joint practice with Washington. The 6-foot-2, 245 pound Williams wasn't expected to play in either of the Patriots' remaining two preseason games because of the injury, so there is always the possibility he could return when fully healthy.

Williams' departure highlights the Patriots' continuing tight end shuffle, as the team has made nine different transactions at the position since Aug. 10. Rob Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui, Steve Maneri and undrafted free agent Justin Jones now comprise the team's tight end depth chart, with fullback James Develin also factoring into the mix at times.

Forston, who has spent most of the past two years on the team's practice squad, might have become expendable after the Patriots acquired Jerel Worthy (Packers) and Ben Bass (Cowboys) in trades that bolstered depth up front.

Patriots showing up on special teams

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
4:00
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the often-overlooked places to look when it comes to a player's value to a team is in the kicking game.

With this in mind, here are the New England Patriots players who showed up on more than two top units (kickoff return, kickoff coverage, punt return, punt coverage) in last Friday's preseason game against the Eagles:

Four units
Three units

There are a few reasons why those players might be showing up on so many special-teams units.

First, they might be viewed as core players who figure prominently into the kicking game, and thus are either locks (e.g. Slater) to make the team or near-locks (e.g. Bolden, White, Ebner).

Second, they might be getting extended action because of injuries to others as 19 Patriots players didn't suit up last Friday, including safeties Kanorris Davis and Tavon Wilson, whose primary value comes on special teams.

Finally, it might be a case where the coaching staff wants to get an extended look at some players who might be closer to the bubble (such as Bequette and Fleming).

The biggest takeway from here is how Bolden, the third-year running back from Ole Miss, gives the Patriots plenty of "bonus plays" on coverage units. After what looked like a slow start to training camp for him that included a missed week of practice when the team was in Washington, his roster spot looks fairly secure.

An all-white preseason for Patriots

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
2:00
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the questions that came up on Twitter after the New England Patriots' preseason game against the Eagles last Friday was why the team wore its white road jerseys at home.

No official reason was given, but those decisions must be made by the home team well in advance of the game so it can be communicated to the opposition for planning purposes. Along those lines, the Patriots will once again be in white Friday night against the visiting Panthers.
 
So by the time the preseason is over, the Patriots will have worn their white road jerseys for both away games (Washington, New York Giants) and both home games (Philadelphia, Carolina), and will don their home blue jerseys for the first time in the regular-season opener in Miami.

Why blue in Miami?

As the Dolphins have done in recent years, they like to put opponents in dark colors early in the season as part of what could be a heat-related advantage.

Weekly Patriots chat recap

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
12:30
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Every Thursday on ESPNBoston.com, there is a New England Patriots chat. The chat kicked off at 11 a.m. ET, can be recapped here, and included some of the following topics:

1. Comparing how the Patriots brought Jamie Collins along in 2013 and what we might see from Dominique Easley in 2014.

2. Has the production and performance matched the hype with rookie RB James White?

3. Dreaming about Tony Gonzalez in a Patriots uniform.

4. Debating the pick of QB Jimmy Garoppolo compared to a position player like TE C.J. Fiedorowicz.

5. Running back Stevan Ridley and ball security.

6. What happens when a player's cell phone goes off in a team meeting?

7. Reason for concern, or optimism, along the offensive line?

8. Safety Nate Ebner and if he might emerge as more of a contributor on defense.
video

Inside The Huddle looks into the impact of the new extra-point experiment.

Picked-up Patriots pieces around Web

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
10:00
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Some picked-up pieces with a Patriots twist from around the Web:

Weekly chat scheduled for 11 a.m. ET. Our weekly ESPNBoston.com Patriots chat kicks off at 11.

Expect Panthers starters for 30 to 35 plays. David Newton, who covers the Panthers for ESPN.com's NFL Nation, reports that Carolina plans to play its top players for about 30 to 35 snaps against the Patriots on Friday night. Good experience for the Patriots against an athletic, mobile quarterback in Cam Newton.

Underwood on the bubble in Carolina. Former Patriots receiver Tiquan Underwood, whose high-top fade haircut made him a hard-to-miss-presence in New England, is on the bubble with the Panthers. Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer writes on Underwood looking for a big night against his former team to secure a roster spot.

Collins among breakthrough candidates. ESPN.com NFL Insider Mike Sando lists his top 50 breakout candidates and Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins lands high on the list.

700 rushing yards for White? Pete Prisco, NFL columnist for CBSSports.com, makes his over/under statistical projections and likes rookie James White to hit the 700-yard mark. "He should take away carries from Stevan Ridley," Prisco writes. "He can also be effective in the passing game."

One vote for Brady at QB. Pat Kirwan, NFL Insider for CBSSports.com, picks his preseason All-Pro team and goes with Tom Brady at quarterback. "No one does more with less," Kirwan writes. "Last year he lost his top five receivers and still won the division. This year he should be even better as the young receivers come back with experience." Brady and kicker Stephen Gostkowski are the lone Patriots on the club.

Ryan catches the eye. Gil Brandt of NFL.com picks 11 training camp risers, and Patriots defensive back Logan Ryan draws a mention. "He has very good ball skills, will tackle in run support and understands the game," Brandt writes, noting that Ryan is a top candidate to fill the void at right cornerback when Brandon Browner is serving a suspension.

Level-headed Malcolm Butler thriving

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Undrafted rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler's performance is one of the biggest surprises of New England Patriots training camp. Butler attributes his success to being a level-headed player who is always prepared for anything.

“It’s all about being consistent. You can’t think like have done too much, you got to keep going and make a play every day,” Butler said Wednesday. “You can’t take off Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. You got to do it Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Just doing it repeatedly and show that you are working and can be trusted.”

Butler is off to a strong start in that area. Throughout training camp, he showed that he reacts the same way whether a receiver beats him or he makes a big play.

Butler came into camp as an under-the-radar player who is quickly working his way into the mix for a roster spot, especially considering teammate Brandon Browner is suspended for the first four games. With veteran defensive backs such as Browner and Darrelle Revis and safety Devin McCourty around, Butler is absorbing as much as he can.

“Take every tip. I listen to them when they are correcting," he said. “I listen to the coach when he corrects them. You never can know, never can learn too much. So I take everything in.”

Coming out of Division II West Alabama, Butler had to make a huge adjustment to the NFL.

“Got more people here for practice than I had ever played in front of in my life. It’s a big difference -- on the good side though,” Butler said. “Good facility and I’m here were I wanted to be. I mean, I wanted to be at West Alabama too, but every player wants to be in the NFL. It’s a big change, but for the better.”

One of the biggest changes for Butler is matching up against top NFL talents such as teammate and tight end Rob Gronkowski. In Gronkowski’s first repetitions in 11-on-11 drills on Monday, Butler got the better of him with a forced fumble that fired up Butler and the defense.

“When I see a big guy, any great guy lining up on me or I line up on him, you are going to get the best out of me because you are hoping to get me, but I’ll hopefully get you," he said. "It’s all competitive things."

Leftovers from Patriots' locker room

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
7:00
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A few leftovers from the media-access period in the Patriots’ locker room:

Siliga and Jones make an appearance. Injured defensive linemen Sealver Siliga (left hand in a cast) and Chris Jones (left ankle) both walked through the room and shared pleasantries with reporters. Their presence is one of the bigger takeaways of the day, as it adds context to their injury situations; while both remain out of practice, they aren’t expected to be long-term situations. The Boston Herald specified that both players have sustained sprains, which was assumed with Jones, who was fortunate that his left leg lifted up when he was rolled up on by teammate Marcus Forston in the Aug. 7 preseason opener (if it didn't, his ACL might have been compromised). Meanwhile, the Boston Globe reported that offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who has missed the past three practices, has a foot injury that is not considered serious.

Browner on adjusting to New England. Interesting to hear cornerback Brandon Browner talk about life in New England, and how it differs from his home in the Los Angeles area. He said one difference has been seeing so many Dunkin’ Donuts as compared to Starbucks, and added, “It’s really different from the fast life in California. Quieter. You see little rabbits running around, wildlife and things like that. Turkeys running around the road; you don’t see those running around in L.A.”

Vereen and Co. looking toward regular season. With the Patriots’ third preseason game on Friday against Carolina, running back Shane Vereen admitted that this one has him a little more anxious because it is that much closer to the start of the season. We’re starting to hear more players, such as Vereen and quarterback Tom Brady, reference the opener in Miami. “I think people might just say it because the starters play more than they have played in the last two games, but at the same time you have to look at each opportunity as a chance to get better and prepare yourself for Sept. 7,” Vereen said.

Dobson on competitive group of wide receivers. Wide receiver Aaron Dobson reiterated that he has not fallen behind his teammates despite missing significant time this offseason recovering from March 10 surgery on his left foot. “Competition brings the best out of you,” Dobson said in response to watching teammates Kenbrell Thompkins and Brandon LaFell take increased repetitions. “You definitely don’t want it to be easy, anything handed to you. It’s fun out there and we are teammates just trying to push each other.” He also touched on the value of mental toughness when missing on-field work. “I feel like mentally I stayed in there. OTAs, all that training camp when I wasn’t practicing, just stayed in there mentally -- mental reps -- doing everything I can to stay ahead of them.”

Brandon Browner surprised by flags

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
4:05
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- "And now, we'll cut away from today's game so we can return to our regularly scheduled programming."

This is what New England Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner, whose physical style of play could be curbed with the league's point of emphasis on defensive holding and illegal contact, jokingly envisions happening if the NFL continues to throw penalty flags at the same rate as the preseason.

Browner
“I think it’s only a three-hour slot and window to play a football game, or else 'The Simpsons' are going to cut in, and the game might just cut off in the third quarter," Browner cracked Wednesday.

"The Simpsons," of course, was scheduled to air on Fox after most Seahawks games last year.

The high total of penalties continues to generate a buzz in NFL circles, as the rule targets players at Browner's position, and that's why the 30-year-old in his first Patriots season was drawing a large media crowd in the Patriots' locker room.

Browner admitted it's been an adjustment to see as many penalty flags in two preseason games. In 45 defensive snaps, he's picked up one of them, for illegal contact in the preseason opener at Washington.

"It was surprising how many flags they actually did throw," he said. "Some, I think, could be ticky-tack; there’s a lot of hand-fighting going on down the field with receivers and DBs all the time. They said they were going to do it and they did it. ... It’s just a part of the game. As a cornerback, it will have me more focused and in-tune with hand position and things like that, to tighten up my craft.”

Browner also doesn't buy that the point of emphasis is a response to the physical style of play from the Seahawks, his former team, whose secondary is referred to as the "Legion of Boom."

"I think every year they say that’s the emphasis. Last year, I know that’s what they told us going into the year," he said. "It will be interesting to see how lenient or how tough they’ll be on those calls once the regular season starts. ... Hopefully in the regular season they don't call as many, but if they do, we just have to take emphasis on getting our hands right and the placement. Try to reduce the penalties, because those things can cost you a big game somewhere along in the season."

Tom Brady eyes playing at least a half

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
3:05
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- If recent history is any indication, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and other top players will see extended action in Friday's preseason game against the visiting Carolina Panthers. That's Brady's expectation.

Brady
"Coach told us we're going to get a lot of work," Brady said Wednesday after practice. "What that means, I don't know. I don't think anyone ever knows with him. But we'll be prepared and ready to go for 60 minutes and hopefully it's a good 60 minutes. We've had a couple doozies in the third preseason game lately. It would be nice to have a good one."

Brady was referencing last season's 40-9 loss to the Lions in the third preseason game, as well as a 34-10 loss to Detroit in the third preseason game in 2011.

In the past, coach Bill Belichick has discussed the value in having top players remain in the third preseason game into the third quarter, so they can go through the experience of making halftime adjustments. Another benefit is conditioning-based.

"We've done a bunch of that," Brady said Wednesday. "This a good game to really gauge where you're at. ...You have to get out there and play and get your mind working, and get into the situations and concentrate for extended periods of time. Certainly we're going to be asked to do four quarters of that in three weeks [in the Sept. 7 opener at Miami].

"So hopefully we're in good enough condition to play a half, and hopefully we'll play a lot more than that."

A few other soundbites from Brady:

Develin draws praise. Asked about fullback James Develin, Brady lauded him as a selfless player and great teammate. "I don't think there's a better fullback in the league," he said. "He brings so much in terms of his toughness, his attitude; it's that one position on offense that can really bring a lot of toughness. You get it out of that fullback position. I can't say enough good things about him."

Cadence as a point of emphasis. After Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III was penalized twice for a false start on Monday night because of the combination of his hand movements and voice infliction, Brady was asked about a point of emphasis on the NFL rule about simulating a snap count. "I guess you can't … the shoulders, the head, and the hands [with] the voice, they talk about calling that quite a bit," Brady relayed. "Sometimes it's just a natural [thing]; you try to inflict your voice and the movement of everything gets you going. But we have to be cautious about it, because I was warned a bunch by [referee] John Parry, who was here last week about doing that. In practice, he said, 'Look, I'm OK with it, but there are other refs who probably won't be.' So I think you just have to make the changes. Whatever the rules are, we have to adjust to them."

Happy for Hoyer. Brady wasn't aware that his former backup, Brian Hoyer, had been named the Browns starter earlier on Wednesday. When told of the news, he smiled. "I love Brian. He's such a great guy, a person, a friend. We've always kept in touch. So I'm proud of him. He's fought through some tough circumstances over the years -- getting released here, going to Arizona, getting a little bit of an opportunity there -- and really has taken advantage of the opportunity in Cleveland. It's great for him. He's a great player. I'm very happy for him."

Sebastian Vollmer absent once again

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
1:20
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was not spotted at the start of the team’s practice Wednesday, as he missed his third practice in a row for an undisclosed reason.

Vollmer’s situation bears monitoring as he has not been seen on the practice field since playing 22 snaps in Friday’s preseason win against the Eagles. His injury history is well-documented, which includes a broken ankle that landed him on injured reserve in the eighth week of the 2013 season

In other injury news, defensive tackle Sealver Siliga has progressed to the point that he is doing rehabilitation work with other players coming back from injuries. He was wearing a black protective cast/brace on his left hand Wednesday as he passed by reporters en route to practice. Siliga's presence indicates that his injury, sustained Aug. 5 in a joint practice with Washington, is probably not of a season-ending nature.

The following injured players weren't spotted at practice Wednesday: tight end D.J. Williams (right lower leg, Aug. 5), defensive tackle Chris Jones (left ankle, Aug. 7) and offensive tackle Chris Martin (non-football injury list).

The Patriots were practicing in shells and shorts.

What we learned from Professor Belichick

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
11:45
AM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tuesday's news conference with Bill Belichick had a "Football 101" type of feel to it. Belichick was the professor at the front of the room, going in depth on special-teams contributions, kick-returning technique and what defines a good training camp.

These are the types of news conferences that Belichick seems to enjoy (or at least tolerate), as it went a bit overtime and threatened his on-time arrival for afternoon practice.

Here were a few notes:

Bonus plays with receivers on special-teams coverage units. When it comes to receivers playing on special-teams coverage units, which Brandon LaFell has done, Belichick called those "bonus plays" because it's more the exception than the rule with pass-catchers. Not including special-teams captain Matthew Slater, who technically is a receiver but plays sparingly at the position, LaFell is the only New England Patriots receiver who showed up on the top kickoff coverage unit in Friday's game against the Eagles. In practice, LaFell has also taken reps as a backup on the punt coverage unit, and his 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame is part of what makes him competitive in the coverage role. "Size and strength are big attributes that you have to have to block or take on blockers," Belichick said. "Those are things that kind of work in his favor and he did in Carolina. He’s tough and he’s competitive and he does a good job there. Just another way that he can contribute to the team."

Most important things for kickoff returners. When watching Patriots kickoff returners Friday night against Carolina, consider these remarks from Belichick on what makes an effective returner: "Vision is important. Speed is important because the faster you can get the ball from the goal line or wherever it comes down up into that 15-, 20-yard line area, then the more you can avoid [the unblocked coverage player]. So, speed and then either some combination of quickness and power to break tackles. Somehow or another returners to be good have to be able to make some yards on their own. They have to be able to avoid them or be strong to run through them, as well as have good vision and find the holes." Belichick then added this: "The three things that affect [kickoff returners] the most are the depth of the kick, the hang time of the kick and the posture that he’s in when he catches it." The Patriots have used rookie Roy Finch (3 returns, 25.0 avg.), Josh Boyce (1 return, 25 yards), Travis Hawkins (1 return, 20 yards) and James White (1 return, 19 yards) on kickoffs this preseason, with Boyce entering training camp as the favorite to seize the job.

What defines a good training camp. How does Belichick know a team has had a good training camp? He explained that part of it is seeing how the club responds to adversity. "It’s a challenge for the team -- not just the players but the entire organization -- to handle all the things you have to handle in training camp. You have to be able to show some mental toughness, some ability to block out distractions and focus on your job," he said. "If you can do those over a training camp period of, call it six weeks, then it’s probably a pretty good indication that you have a chance to do it during the year. If you don't, then it’s probably an indication that when the pressure really comes on during the season, which the pressure is going to mount for the team as the season goes, I’d say the likelihood of it all just magically coming together without a legitimate foundation, I haven’t had a lot of great experience with that."

Rookie Dominique Easley brings pressure

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
10:00
AM ET
video 
New England Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discusses first-round pick Dominique Easley and how he could have a huge impact in the team’s interior pass rush.

Jeremy Gallon takes ribbing in stride

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
5:00
AM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Wide receiver Jeremy Gallon finally had the chance to silence heckling from his teammates with his return to practice Monday for the first time at training camp.

“Hearing all the jokes they’ve been saying because you’ve been out for so long ... it was fun just getting back out there with your teammates,” Gallon said in the locker room before heading out to Tuesday’s practice.

For the seventh-round draft choice (244th overall) out of the University of Michigan, it’s all about getting back to football again after being sidelined with an undisclosed ailment. Gallon knows he faces an uphill climb.

“Just trying to learn as much as I can learn and make the team,” he said. “And to do everything I can do for my teammates.”

At 5-foot-8, Gallon's physical profile is closer to the likes of Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, two players he feels he can learn a lot from.

“They are one of the best in the game at doing what they do,” Gallon said. “Just learning what they know and feeding off of them. Getting everything I can get from them and applying that to myself. I think it could do great things for me just following great leaders like that. Who wouldn’t want to?”

While at the University of Michigan, Gallon set a school record for receiving yards during his senior season (1,373) and also set the Big Ten conference record for receiving yards in a single game (369). Gallon lit up defenses with sharp routes, speed over the top and impressive vertical jumps for a player of his stature.

He also heavily contributed to Michigan’s special teams as a punt and kick returner, especially early on in his collegiate career.

“I’m working for it,” Gallon said about being a contributor in the return game for the Patriots. “I have to come in and make the team first and show the coaches I can do it and have everybody put their trust in me.”

As for adjusting to the big scene of the NFL, Gallon is used to the large crowds that gathered on Saturday’s at Michigan Stadium, also known as “The Big House.”

“I mean, the crowd doesn’t matter to me," he said, laughing. "It’s all about the team.”

 

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