Patriots 2015 Draft Preview (Bare Bones Edition)

Note: With Bruce down and out with the flu, as well as buried under 6 feet of snow, Chris Warner is stepping in today.

By Chris Warner

This week, I’ve resolved to start restricting my views of Super Bowl highlights, though I reserve the right to occasionally blurt out, “Intercepted!” in my best Al Michaels voice.

After watching (and re-watching) New England’s final defensive play, the involvement of certain players sticks out to me.

Cornerback Malcolm Butler picks off the pass, jumps forward, and falls to the ground. Cornerback Brandon Browner, whose aggressive jam of Jermaine Kearse freed up Butler, raises his hand in the air and sprints toward the Patriots’ bench. Dont’a Hightower, who tackled Lynch the play before, rushes to Butler as defensive lineman Sealver Siliga envelops the cornerback in a protective, appreciative bear hug.

As we approach the 2015 draft, remember that each of these players came to New England in a different way. Butler answered the call as an undrafted rookie. Browner arrived as a free agent in March. Hightower came to Foxboro after getting selected in the first round of 2012. Siliga was signed to New England’s practice squad after getting released by Seattle in 2013.

So, as much emphasis as we place on the draft every year, we need to remember that teams get built in myriad ways.

For now, though, a look at this year’s picks. (Plenty of solid sources online, with NEPatriotsDraft.com as one of our current go-to’s):

Round One (32nd overall)

Round Two (64)

Round Three (96)

Round Three (Projected compensatory pick)

Round Four (from Tampa Bay via Logan Mankins trade)

Round Four (128)

Round Six (From Tampa Bay w/ Jonathan Casillas trade)

Round Seven (From Tennessee, w/ Akeem Ayers trade)

Round Seven (From Houston via Ryan Mallett trade)

That makes nine picks, which seems like an awful lot of rookies to add to a championship roster. For now, though, we’ll take a round-by-round look at the types of players the Patriots need and players they’ve selected for that position in previous drafts.

Round One: Lineman (Either Side Of The Line)

With depth issues nibbling at their heels (and knees, and ankles) on the offensive line this year, the Pats will want to add some talent on the interior OL. Securing depth on the DL should help, too.

Past First-Round Picks: Richard Seymour, 2001; Ty Warren, 2003; Vince Wilfork, 2004; Logan Mankins, 2005; Nate Solder, 2011; Chandler Jones, 2012; Dominique Easley, 2014.

Easley has battled injuries, but the Pats’ overall record with first-round linemen shows that they’ll get a contributor at least or a potential starter here.

Round Two: Backup Quarterback (Ha! Just kidding.)

Round Two: Lineman (The Other Side Of The Line)

If they get offense in the first, they get defense in the second, and vice-versa.

Past Second-Round Picks: Adrian Klemm, 2000; Matt Light, 2001; Marquise Hill, 2004; Ron Brace, Sebastian Vollmer, 2009; Jermaine Cunningham, 2010.

Remember that Vollmer pick? I recall having seen his name in some draft magazine ranked as a late-rounder/undrafted free agent who might be worth a look. New England tends to take chances here, and doing so on a lineman seems worth it.

Round Three: Pass Rusher

Yes, it was part of the game plan, and – save for The Juggle Catch and Some Guy Named Chris Matthews – the plan worked, but rushing four defenders made it seem as though Russell Wilson had enough time in the pocket to scan the field, make a chicken salad sandwich, eat it, and complete a pass.

As for the current roster, Rob Ninkovich celebrated his 31st birthday on Super Bowl Sunday (and what a way to celebrate). Chandler Jones wore down a bit and could use a young, dynamic bookend.

Past Third-Round Picks: Shawn Crable, 2008; Jake Bequette, 2012.

Not a perfect record here, but 2015 promises a great deal of rookie depth at this position, making it the right spot to find a solid pick.

Round Three: Defensive Back

Every team would have a drop off after Darrelle Revis, but Logan Ryan and, at times, Kyle Arrington helped raise the region’s consumption of booze and/or Lipitor on opponents’ long passes. Malcolm Butler paid off, big time, and the team should be able to find more talent on Day Two.

Past Third-Round Picks: Brock Williams, 2001; Guss Scott, 2004; Ellis Hobbs, 2005; Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon, 2013.

Ryan showed up in spurts this season, while Harmon got the interception that sealed the divisional win vs. Baltimore. He has shown solid range and awareness.

Round Four: Linebacker

As athletic as Jamie Collins is, watching Marshawn Lynch haul in the same wheel route pass that helped doom Green Bay was a difficult way to go into the two-minute warning. New England could look for another speedy, quick linebacker here.

Past Fourth-Round Picks: None.

If Jerod Mayo comes back, and if Casillas continues to contribute on defense, the Pats might look at other positions; however, this seems like a sweet spot to seek out linebacker help.

Round Four: Offensive Lineman

So many injuries at this position. Soo many.

Past Fourth-Round Picks: Greg Robinson-Randall, 2000; Kenyatta Jones, 2001; Rich Ohrnberger, 2009; Bryan Stork, Cameron Fleming, 2014.

New England’s riding a bit of a hot streak with last year’s selections. Stork starting at center settled down the offense and Fleming filling in as an extra lineman haunted the Colts rushing defense. The club will look to repeat this type of feat on Day Two.

Round Six: Special Teamer

In recent years, the Patriots have picked players in this area of the draft specifically as special teamers. In 2014, New England’s special teams made a serious impact (just ask the Jets’ field goal unit).

Past Sixth-Round Picks: Jake Ingram, 2009; Nate Ebner, 2012.

Ingram couldn’t stick around as a long snapper, but it shows the seriousness with which Belichick takes the position. The team could consider another receiver/returner type like Matthew Slater (a Round Five selection). Or they could wait until Round Seven…

Round Seven: Wide Receiver

Remember back in October when Tom Brady lacked weapons? Four touchdown passes to four different receivers? Sure. I guess we’ll take it.

Past Seventh-Round Picks: David Givens, 2002; Julian Edelman, 2009, Jeremy Ebert, 2012, Jeremy Gallon, 2014.

Not too shabby, considering the contributions of Givens and Edelman to New England’s Super Bowl runs. While the Pats look set at the position, it seems like a good idea to bring in competition for younger receivers like Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce. The latter’s greatest contribution to New England’s cause may have been catching a slant pass in front of Malcolm Butler during practice.

Round Seven: Running Back

Pats look loaded here. It remains to be seen if they hang on to Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. They’ll have trouble trying to duplicate the latter.

Past Seventh-Round Picks: Patrick Pass, 2000; Antwoine Womack, 2002.

Pass, much like Brandon Bolden now, played a little bit of everything during his time in Foxboro, from special teamer to pass-catcher to blocking fullback for Corey Dillon (no mean feat at 215 pounds). If New England can find a versatile back here – say, a Bolden with better receiving ability – they should jump on him.

Any thoughts on what position the Pats should look to draft where, let us know below.

You can follow Chris Warner on Twitter at @cwarn89 

Why Sport Journalism Is Ailing (And How I Helped Make It Sick)

By Chris Warner

Before I prattle on about sports writing, please go online and buy Touching All The Bases, a collection of columns by the late, great Ray Fitzgerald. It’s four bucks. Go now.

Did you go? Good. Now, a few thoughts while my DVR plays back the last minute of the Super Bowl, again …

Sports are about the possible. Coaches, teammates, mentors, and (we hope) our own brains tell us, You can do this. You can make this happen. Rudy can get the sack. Team USA can beat the Soviet Union. New England can score 14 in the fourth quarter against the league’s best defense, then stop Seattle on the one-yard line.

You. Can. Do. This.

On the other hand, sports discussion is about the impossible: What if the 2007 Patriots played the 2003 Patriots? Could the winner of that game beat 2014’s team? Could Jimmy Foxx hit Pedro? What about Satchel Paige? Could a young Satchel Paige, drunk, shut down the 1975 Red Sox? 

What if the 2006 Patriots had paid Deion Branch?

See? Every single one: impossible to answer. When you have that kind of conflict: a medium of the possible described in terms of unattainable scenarios, you’re bound to get conflict. And conflict, as we know, sells.

(Speaking of conflict – and impossible to answer – what do you think the national reaction would have been if the Patriots had lost on a heartbreaking play and started a brawl in the final 20 seconds? Maybe some negativity there, one would think.)

But let’s back up a bit. Here are the main sticking points with journalism today, and my various levels of participation in them:

Be First

Back in November of 2009, I reported that NFL free agent quarterback Jeff Garcia was flying to Boston.  At the time, New England had only one backup QB on the roster (Brian Hoyer), and it made sense that they would try out a veteran.

Here’s the story behind that piece: A college friend of mine took a business flight to Boston and ended up next to Garcia. As I wrote in the story, Garcia said he was visiting friends. When my “source” (funny to call him that) asked Garcia if those friends were in Foxboro, he said “Yeah.” He didn’t elaborate, but the connection seemed obvious.

Within hours of posting that piece, two separate sources said the Patriots had not tried out – nor were they trying out – Garcia. The story got shot down before getting a chance to get any traction.

I still wonder what the heck happened. I could not have had a more believable source: I trust this friend with my life. Garcia implied he was headed to Foxboro. Was he messing with my buddy? Did the Pats get a whiff of the story that evening and put the kibosh on the tryout?

Maybe I should have waited, but then what? The Pats bring in Garcia for a tryout, and the next day I write something like, “I totally knew it!” Should I have written a coy piece instead, something about New England bringing in a veteran player for a look-see – details to come? I don’t know. I’d still like to find out what went on there.

Now, think about the consequences of posting greater gossip fodder. Commenting on a potential tryout pales in comparison to bringing up locker-room grumbling, or impending firings, or a league-wide investigation into whether or not rudimentary physics of air pressure apply to footballs.

That’s the trick of the Internet. Someone tells you something. You know you’re among the first to have the information. Do you wait for a second source, or do you go with it and, if you’re wrong, work out the details later? I hate to say it, but I understand the tendency for the latter. After all, if you’re info’s incorrect, you can move on to the next thing. A story can stop; the business of sports never does.

Besides, we all know we can’t believe everything we read on the Internet. Sometimes we who write count on that, because submitting stories online can resemble trying to paint a landscape on a Shrinky Dink: The final product often lacks the initial necessary detail.

Speaking of which…

Don’t Believe Everything You Read On The Internet. Unless You Want To

On the premiere of “The Colbert Report” several years ago, Stephen Colbert introduced us to the word “truthiness,” which he defined as “truth that comes from the gut, not books.” Since then, Mirriam-Webster has come to define truthiness (yup, it’s in the dictionary now) as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”

Did Bill Belichick order the deflation of footballs? Of course he did. Or, wait: no, he didn’t.

The correct answer? Even if we throw common sense aside, even if we want to believe the story, it seems highly implausible. Early reports on the topic used the terms “deflate” and/or “under-inflated,” both pointing to human activity and not weather effects on pressure. Also, 11 of 12 footballs were allegedly “as much as” two pounds under pressure. That term obfuscated specific numbers and downplayed a huge variance. Coffee can cost “as much as” 10 bucks in some fancy restaurants, but no one’s shelling out big clams for a medium hazelnut at DD.

That’s where the web becomes a light-speed version of telephone. Writers go with the “Be First” rule but can’t confirm; they send out teasers (tweets, posts, etc.) on upcoming reports in order to maintain their position at the “front” of the story while allowing time to suss it out. People believe what they want to believe. “As much as two pounds” becomes “two pounds each.” Our own Bruce Allen called out one tweeting nitwit who confused pounds per square inch (psi) with pounds (lbs). This Bumbling Bernoulli questioned the believability of Tom Brady being unable to tell if a football weighed two pounds under regulation, as if the air inside a ball actually had that much gravitational pull.

A well-put, insulting-yet-pointed piece on medium.com called “Deflategate And The Softness Of The American Mind” focuses on how the story got out of hand partly due to our ignorance regarding the science of air pressure. Worth a read. Combine a dearth of knowledge with a specific bias, and you get a rumor-based scandal. Easy.

The Patriots cheated? Pats fans (and science) say no; many others say yes. That has become an aspect of sports, or, better said, it has become the sports aspect. Most items of interest possess a sports aspect. Whether a defendant on trial should be found guilty or not, whether a singer in a contest should win or not: those are the conflicts. Those get attention.

As readers, we need to look for question marks, literally. If I’d posted “Garcia To New England?” then I would have gotten more hits. Seems like more people would’ve believed it more quickly. But as a journalist, why am I asking that question? Shouldn’t I confirm it and take the role as one telling you?

Last week I posted a piece on Bill Belichick, and I called him a cheater. Though I did so with a sense of admiration and even loyalty, I didn’t word it right, and my voice just melted in with the cacophony of those calling him out. I apologize for that. I have always admired Coach Belichick’s attention to detail, and much to my regret, I put football air pressure into the same category as scouting, personnel, and planning.

I believed initial reports. I believed what I wrote when I wrote it without waiting for more information. Bad call. But, these days, believing is not all that important.

You Don’t Have To Believe It To Write It

I have a hard time admitting this, but here goes: I used to write for Bleacher Report. This was before that site found its current format, when they’re going for legitimacy with experienced writers. This was when hits meant everything.

So here’s my most-read article. Ready?

Christ, this is embarrassing.

NFL Predictions 2011: Why the New England Patriots Won’t Make The Playoffs. 

Hoo, boy. In my defense, my first two reasons are Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth, but after that it devolves into the hit-seeking missal it really is. Not sure if it still works the same, but BR made it easy for writers to set up slideshows. First, think up your headline (e.g., “Is Tom Brady Unhappy In New England?”). Next, pick out photos from their extensive library. Last, write a few sentences for each caption.

From the aforementioned article:

Sure, Haynesworth has shown flashes of greatness, but only flashes. The big man might do some good things, but if he fails to bring any consistency, the Patriots defense will fail to live up to expectations.

Ugh. Again, I apologize.

Now, compare that “effort” with one of my most difficult pieces, “NFL Draft Predictions 2011: One Prospect Each Team Should Target on Day 3.” For this, I had to come up with a potential late-round draft pick for all 32 teams. There I sat on Day Two, clacking away on the computer as the ESPN draft ticker rushed along the bottom of the TV, hoping my candidates wouldn’t get picked by some other team that night. It felt like trying to build a card table on a Lazy Susan: if one fell, many others would follow. The fun I’d had leisurely picking out photos for the previous slideshow had devolved into scrambling to find any likeness of the candidates that could accompany two or three relevant factoids.

And after all that effort? Fewer than half as many readers as the “Pats Won’t Make The Playoffs” bumblefart. Plus, the draft piece got zero comments, as opposed to 73 for the negative take.

So, if you had a choice between toiling away with fact-based, well-thought-out pieces or doubling your audience with a quick, irreverent, possibly offensive sportstake, what would you do?

You might appeal to a broader audience.

People Aren’t Dumb; They Just Don’t Pay Attention 

Let’s look at this game review I wrote after the Pats beat the Raiders back in 2008. Due to injuries, Bill Belichick had coaxed Junior Seau and Rosevelt Colvin out of retirement, prompting this comment from me:

This is hard to say, but someone must: the Patriots as currently constructed would have a hard time beating Boston University’s football team, much less a bunch of professionals. (For those of you who don’t know much about B. U. football, here’s some history. You see my point.)

The joke here is that Boston University had cancelled their football program over 10 years before. Get it? Hilarious. In any case, here are a couple of reader comments:

“…it is extreme hyperbole that has no bearing on reality.”

“It’s a lot more than Boston U could manage, (were) they to play in the NFL.”

Now, most of the readers got the gist of what I was saying, but it’s difficult to discount the two comments above. I use hyperbole to make a point; it’s just some ha-ha-jokey-fun to elucidate their lack of depth on defense. But the joke gets lost, people take offense, and you end up admitting (for lack of a better word) that, yeah, the Patriots could definitely beat a non-existent college football team.

People don’t pay attention, and they believe what they want to believe, evidence be damned. It’s a pick-and-choose Internet. Ignore that piece from the “established” media. I read the real story elsewhere!

Think of that mindset as the so-called news broke about flat footballs. Think of the leaps in the minds of millions of fans who dislike the Patriots.

Think of the temptation for reporters to get in on that action. That, as much as anything, is hurting journalism.

Reporting has been a business for a long time. Papers – the so-called established ones – used to get readers because they told the whole story, and quickly. Now, with speed-of-light exchanges of information, accuracy and clarity might not provide the catalysts for proper business models. Besides, it’s football: we’ve really only got so-called news once a week, summarized in one game story and a webpage of stats. With fans hungry for material, something has to get put out there.

I could write a column with the headline “The 2014 Patriots Are The Best Ever And Are Destined To Repeat,” or I could write “The 2014 Patriots: Overrated,” and have that lede read something like, “I don’t mean to deflate your mood right now.”

We all know which one would get more hits.

Chris Warner’s on Twitter: @cwarn89

With A Little Bit Of Luck (2015 Edition)

(Editor’s Note: In December of 2013, BSMW presented this column on the role of luck in the NFL, and how all championship teams need it at some point. We thought it timely enough to run it again, with some parenthetical updates in the intro and a nice little addendum at the end. By the way, was anyone else hoping for Bill Belichick to “squeeze” the football atop the Lombardi Trophy and say, “Yup. That feels about right.”? Would have been fun.) [Read more…]

College All-Stars From A Pats Perspective

We’ll have more on the media coverage of the Patriots a bit later, but for now, a quick detour onto some actual football talk.

By Chris Warner.

After checking out three college All-Star games over the past three weekends, we’re reviewing some players who may fit in at Foxboro. Because what else is there to write about this week?

Except basic physics, I mean. (Hat-tip to Matt Chatham – @chatham58 )

One reminder about our at-times-disheveled notes below: Kentucky pass-rusher Za’Darius Smith and Auburn tight end C. J. Uzomah both made the Senior Bowl, but they are written up below for their previous appearances.

[Read more…]

Understanding Belichick (Or Not, Really)

So, at what point did you start believing this deflated football controversy? Were you home from an early Monday morning walk, expecting an easy MLK Day full of NFL highlights and entertaining Internet memes featuring various Patriots beating dead horses in Colts uniforms? Did you see the telltale question mark on the sports ticker, something like, “Pats Under Investigation?” when you first felt the elation of their AFC conquest sag a bit?

Did you not want to believe it? Do you yet?

Coach Bill Belichick’s subsequent meeting with the press offered no reassurance. He bookended answers with “We’ll do whatever the league asks us to do,” giving two separate “The first I heard of it was this morning,” responses. Nary a straightforward denial among them.

He did it. Of course he did. Because Bill Belichick – like most NFL coaches, to an extreme – is different from you and me.

Some with only a cursory understanding of these topics would say that Belichick ignores the rules. On the contrary, he obsesses over them. Think about his most consistent teacher over the years, his father. The man played professional football in 1941. Can you imagine the stories he could tell? Can you imagine what was thought of as “legal” for the 1940s Detroit Lions? Back then, considering the lack of protection, “helmet-to-helmet” resembled a head butt. Water breaks were for the weak. Just a completely different mindset of what was considered fair.

The younger Belichick knows the rules so well that he ensured quarterback/living B.C. statue Doug Flutie’s final play was a history-making drop kick for an extra point back in January 2006. At the time, very few knew whether a drop kick was still legal. Hell, not a lot of people knew what a drop kick was. Flutie became the first player to score a point by that method since Scooter McLean kicked for the Bears’ championship win in – surprise – 1941. (A fact Belichick knew, by the way: just read his post-game interview here.)

Imagine an SAT-type test involving NFL rules. Some multiple choice, some true/false, a couple of essays (haven’t taken the SAT in about 30 years, so apologies if it’s completely different now). He’d come out doing pretty well, right? Now imagine Roger Goodell taking the same test. Unless there’s a section on what cocktails to serve while sitting at the club waiting for the staff to service an owner’s yacht, hard to say ol’ Rog nails it.

That’s Belichick. He knows more than you. He knows he knows more than you. It seems he wants people to just leave him alone and let him do what he has been groomed to do since he watched game film with his dad as boy: to try to understand and prepare that much better than his opponent. And, in a sense, the rules makers and enforcers have become his opponents, too.

I mean, press conferences must feel like agony for this guy. The same questions, over and over, to people who don’t understand or have failed to put in the work to understand the game on the same level. At times, especially with the out-of-town media who show up week-to-week, it’s got to seem like he’s trying to explain Memento to someone who started watching near the end. It’s why, when he gets a question with specific historical context, he puts on his metaphorical suspenders and lectures about the history of the great game of football. It’s why, except at outdoor practices, he rarely sees sunlight during the season.

He wouldn’t have it any other way. His work is his fun. He’s not like you and me.

Make no mistake; these don’t qualify as excuses, just potential reasons. Belichick cheated. He knew the proper inflation for footballs, and – after watching his team put the ball on the ground three times the week before – he decided to soften the spheroids to make them easier to hold during a driving rainstorm.

“But you don’t know that,” you are saying. “You weren’t there. Maybe he knew nothing about it.” Do you actually believe Bill Belichick knew nothing about 11 footballs inflated two pounds less than required? Come on. You have to give him more credit than that.

So now fans must either turn a blind eye or, as WEEI.com’s Jerry Thornton does well in this piece regarding Eli Manning’s ball ritual (yup, sticking with that phrase), start playing the “everyone does it” card. It’s a strong card to play here: more and more examples have arisen of doctoring footballs, including a jocular on-air exchange between announcers Phil Simms and Jim Nantz regarding Aaron Rodgers’ preference for overinflated footballs and a piece on Super Bowl winner Brad Johnson having footballs doctored before the big game vs. Oakland.

(On that last one: Raiders fans get all up in arms over the Tuck Rule – an actual, albeit silly, rule – but they don’t go totally bat-guano over this? Pick your battles, Oakland fans!)

I can’t argue against the accusations of rampant hypocrisy in the NFL. Linebacker Ray Lewis used a banned substance to help him recover from a triceps injury during Baltimore’s championship run. The Seahawks had several players suspended due to PED use leading up to last year’s Super Bowl season. Were they cheating? Sure seems like it. Do we care? Not much, apparently.

Why should we? Goodell didn’t seem to care about taping defensive signals until he heard numerous complaints. He didn’t seem to care about brain injuries until it became a money issue via lawsuit. He didn’t seem to care about domestic abuse until video of a violent assault made its way onto the Internet for all to see. He made up punishments as he went along. Now he’ll have to do the same.

I’ll skip the joke about inflating the balls of NFL owners and head straight for the obvious: this was not an issue Goodell expected to deal with this week. That’s part of what gets Belichick into trouble: his understanding of the rules and his efforts at circumventing them make Goodell and the league higher-ups look bad. After all, what is the punishment? There’s mention of a minimum $25,000 fine. Goodell will increase that, because he’ll want to send a message. But by how much, and why? More work for him. More to hammer out and nail down before the Super holiday.

In any case, it doesn’t seem like Belichick will get the message Goodell wants to send. The coach will go back to the rule book, studying, deconstructing, looking for language that could potentially give him an advantage. The coach does this as well as anyone else in the league. It’s a fan’s choice whether to embrace this line of thinking or not. We know he didn’t need to tinker with air pressure to beat the Colts. We know he preps his players for on-field situations with awesome meticulousness. We can’t ignore his greatness. We can’t ignore his faults, either.

We know this about Bill Belichick: he has cheated; he will probably figure out a way to cheat again.

And, Heaven help me, I’ll be rooting for him.

The Patriots AFCE-clinching *Yawn* Report

New England avenged their opening day loss in Miami, handing out a second-half helping of humility (via a 24-point third quarter) on their way to defeating the Dolphins 41-13 and clinching the division. As the 2-2 11-3 locals struggle to find their identity move on to New York, where a win against the Jets would get them one step closer to the top seed in the AFC, let’s spend a moment and reflect.

Here’s the moment: Twelve years of 10 wins or more. At times during the last couple of decades of the previous century, many New England followers just hoped for the Pats to get over .500. Some years, the playoffs seemed like too much to ask for. This new-millennium, winning-season streak might stand out as the most impressive aspect of the Bill Belichick era. Because, really, that’s all fans wanted: Just a glimpse at nine wins, a step toward respectability for this franchise.

Think about this: area middle-schoolers have never experienced a losing season. When I was in middle school, the Pats went  2-14 (1981). Vastly different gig.

Some things that have stuck out during this remarkable 10-1 streak…

If You’re Lost You Can Look And You Will Find Me, Tom After Tom: Well, it’s just a darn shame that Tom Brady’s on his way down.

Oh, wait: he has 32 touchdown passes against eight interceptions? For 3,847 yards? At a 64.4 percent completion rate? Yeesh. Way to cooperate with the narrative, Tommy. Way to stay the same ol’, same ol’ MVP-caliber QB.

While naysayers will point to his ill-advised interceptions against Indianapolis and San Diego that made him seem about as calm as a capuchin monkey with hot sauce on his nethers, we have to look at his overall body of work: Since falling to 2-2 at Kansas City, this team has gone 9-1, and the quarterback play has been a big part of it. Also a big part of it…

For Those About To Gronk, We Salute You: In this Patriots Daily piece from September of 2011, we proclaimed Rob Gronkowski the “best all-around tight end in Foxboro since Ben Coates.” We stand by that statement. (Just so we don’t get too big for our britches, you can also read our optimistic words about a certain other tight end from the 2010 draft who shall remain nameless.)

After 14 games, the big fella has 76 catches for 1,093 yards (14.4 avg) and 11 touchdowns. Gronk’s only the third TE in history with three seasons of 10 or more TDs. And he’s 25 years old.

Fiesta changes the offense. He seems to supplement the intensity of his teammates and change the mentality of the home crowd. Did you ever watch the kids’ show “ZOOM”? They made up a language called ubbi dubbi that I never quite got the hang of, which reminds me of Gronk. With him on the field, the Patriots offense speaks an entirely different dialect which other teams have a difficult time translating. Anyway, thanks, “ZOOM.”

Ohhh, Two O-o-o-one, Three Fo-o-o-our!

Revis Is Fundamental: No matter what happens against New York this week, New England (the team, the region, the clam chowder: everybody) needs to thank the Jets for letting Darrelle Revis go after the 2012 season. Look at his stats, and nothing really stands out: 43 tackles, one forced fumble, two interceptions.

The biggest surprise of that line for me is that he has so many tackles. Revis is like a veterinarian for geldings: when he’s working, he’s not going to see a lot of balls. (Top that metaphor, Jerry Thornton!)  He’s converse Gronk: where one attracts opponents’ attention, the other diverts it. The most important aspect of Revis’ presence gets summarized nicely by ESPNBoston.com’s Mike Reiss, who pointed out in his Quick-hit Thoughts column that the Patriots have been in sub (pass-defense) packages almost 74 percent of the time this year. Without Revis, I wonder if that happens, and if it does, how much less effectively this D would perform.

Gray Skies Are Gonna Clear Up: Ah, running back Jonas Gray. The graph of his season production would look like the scariest roller-coaster ever created, a veritable Kingda Ka on creatine. First, gimme six zeroes for the beginning of the season that he spent on the practice squad. Then plot out 12 yards (Jets), 86 (Bears), 33 (Broncos), 201 (Colts), zero (Lions), four (Packers), nine (Chargers), and 62 (Dolphins). The man is averaging 4.9 yards per carry and continues to provide insurance for the playoffs – and for 2015.

He’s made a solid addition since the middle of the season. But he’s probably fourth on the list.

‘Tis The Season: As Christopher Price of WEEI.com has said on many occasions, the roster with which you enter the season is not the one you have for long. Looking at linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas, defensive lineman/forklift Alan Branch, and running back/mini-loader LaGarrette Blount, the middle of this season has been a boon for Bill Belichick and company. Considering also that pass-rusher Chandler Jones and run-stopper Sealver Siliga have also returned from injury, the Pats look like they’re in solid shape as the end of the regular season approaches.

Ghost Is The Machine, Or Every Little Thing He Does Is Magic: As much as it hurt to see kicker Adam Vinatieri go lo these eight years ago, we have to appreciate Stephen Gostkowski. He’s the clock on the kitchen wall that you look up at when you come home for Thanksgiving and *whoosh* you’re back in high school on the phone that has the 17-foot-long stretchy cord, listening to Thompson Twins on the radio, trying to get up the nerve to ask that person who sits in front of you in English class out for chicken fingers and/or zucchini sticks at the Atlantic Café.

What? Just me? Anyway, he’s stuck around, proving to be nothing but dependable. This year, he’s made 94 percent of his kicks (31 of 33), including a long of 53 yards, hitting 11 of 12 attempts over 40 yards. Against Miami, he surpassed Vinatieri as the leading scorer in Patriots history with 1,165 points. Tony Franklin, Scott Sisson, John Smith: I tell you, the state of this franchise now? It’s not even funny anymore. And it used to be hilarious with those guys, in a laugh-to-ease-the-pain kinda way.

I Want To Be A Part Of It: We don’t know what will happen down in New York. Coach (for now) Rex Ryan will do just about anything to beat New England in what will probably be his last game against them as the HC of the NYJ. They came within a blocked field goal of winning against the Pats earlier this year.

But there’s something about this Patriots team right now, the way they play, the way they complement (and compliment) each other, the way the new additions have meshed with the stalwarts. We haven’t even discussed Julian Edelman (92 rec for 972 yards), or Brandon LaFell (63 for 819). We’ve neglected to bring up cornerback/street fighter Brandon Browner (21 tackles, 15 penalties) or linebacker/decathlete Jamie Collins (100 tackles, three sacks, three forced fumbles, one interception, 41.2-inch vertical leap) And what about that offensive line and the emergence of rookie center Bryan Stork?

So many storylines. And not one of them involves going 9-7.

You can email Chris Warner at [email protected] or tweet him: @cwarn89

Patriots 2014 Five-Eighths Season Review

Wanted to wait until after the Colts game to file a report, and my, oh, my. This season has taken a pleasant little turn since the last time we talked, hasn’t it?

In our First Quarter Review, we showed concern (“panicked” might be a better description) after New England’s horrific outing at Kansas City. The best way to summarize that column is through the final line, where I wondered what ailed them: “But in Buffalo in two weeks – after a presumed loss to Cincinnati and a 2-3 record – they’d better figure it out.”

Yeah. Good call, me. After keelhauling the Bengals, 43-17, New England took care of the Bills (37-22), Jets (27-25), Bears (51-23), Broncos (43-21), and Colts (42-20).

That makes seven weeks, six games, and six wins later. The Pats and their fans are basking in the glow of the franchise’s latest dismantling of Indy that puts the Patriots at 8-2. During their run, the team has shown an affinity for adaptation normally reserved for generations of Galapagos finches. Oh, you like to stop the rush, Denver? Well, we’ll mix in the run for play-action, and pass for 332 yards. Ah, Indy, you want to hold down our air attack? We’ll just keep it on the ground to the tune of 244 yards.

Actually, the latter wasn’t much of a surprise, considering the Colts have a reputation for softness that makes me want to add them to my laundry’s rinse cycle. But the way New England did it – and the way they have done it these past several weeks – I didn’t see it coming.

So, my mea culpa tour, if you will…

Pride Goeth Before LaFell: Ah, yes. Brandon LaFell. You mean the guy discussed in our wide receivers review this past spring with less enthusiasm than Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins? Is this the same guy who a) converted a third down on a back-shoulder pass that looked more like a front-knee pass with a defender draped all over him? The guy who snatches footballs out of the air like a frog catching flies, to the point where we say about half the time, “Did he just catch that?”

Sure, I had doubts. Panthers fans lamented his lack of consistency snaring the ball. Some of us got a little wary of the Belichick Opponent Syndrome, where the coach obsesses over players who do well vs. New England (Wes Welker signing = good; Ochocinco = mal.) Through 10 games, LaFell has 39 reception for 536 yards (14.8 avg) and five touchdowns. And by the way, did you realize he caught 11 passes against Chicago for 124 yards? I didn’t.

Probably because, like opposing defenses, I was focused on –

I Wanna Gronk And Roll All Night (Y Fiesta Todos Los Dias): The next time I or anyone else complains about Bill Belichick’s second-round picks, just say the name Rob Gronkowski. Gronk – a risk at the time, considering he’d missed his final year at Arizona with neck issues – has helped shaped the offense into the amorphous monster it has become. You want a receiver? In 10 games, Gronk’s got 53 catches for 734 yards and nine TDs, a solid season for most tight ends. You want a blocker? Look what he did to Colts safety Sergio Brown on Jonas Gray’s fourth and final touchdown.

Just ridiculous. This year, with the benefit of solid health, he has returned as the player Patriots fans missed. And he has elevated Tom Brady’s play alongside his own.

The Price Was Wright: Yes, good, another miss by me. I was not a fan of the Logan Mankins/Tim Wright deal, just because the O-line seemed to be in a state of flux where Mankins could have helped maintain some stability. Was Dan Connolly going to stick around, or Ryan Wendell?

Yes, and yes. Along with rookie center Bryan Stork, the middle of the line has solidified, giving Brady a hell of a lot more time than he had early in the season. Wright, meanwhile, has 18 receptions and four touchdowns, adding another wrinkle for defensive coordinators to worry about.

Everything Turns Gray: I remember looking over potential late-round/undrafted rookies in 2012 and coming across Jonas Gray, a 5-10, 225-pound senior who’d missed his final season at Notre Dame due to a terrible knee injury. His only event at his pro day? The bench press: 31 reps of 225 pounds. Figured New England could take a flyer on him as a backup to Stevan Ridley.

Well, after stops in Miami and Baltimore, fans are glad that plan eventually came together. Sunday night, Gray broke out like a teenager on a chocolate binge, compiling 199 yards on 38 carries (5.2 avg) and four touchdowns at Indianapolis. He had shown signs of productivity vs. Chicago two weeks prior (17 for 86, 5.1 avg) and did enough against Denver (12 for 33, 2.8) to make play-action viable. Certainly can’t expect the same numbers when Detroit shows up, but important that the loss of Ridley for the season won’t become the giant setback some of us feared.

Holy crap: I haven’t even talked about the defense yet.

This Is My Brother Darrelle And My Other Brother Darrelle: What? Nope. Wait a minute…

The D-Backs Of Arizona: With Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Devin McCourty in New England’s defensive backfield, a surprisingly proficient effort from Patrick Chung and contributions from nickelback Kyle Arrington and undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler, this may prove to be the deepest, most talented backfield in Belichick’s tenure. Talk of a trip to Arizona for the Super Bowl surrounds the group. Why not? Browner can cover big receivers or tight ends. Arrington can take the slot consistently. Revis covers everyone so well, a camping gear company has started calling their one-man tents Revises (This is not true.)

It’s different. And exciting. Even when they give up yardage, they carry with them the expectation of stopping the opposition before the end zone. That’s refreshing.

Dont’a, Forget About Me: What did you think when Jerod Mayo went down? Tough, right? Difficult for the Patriots to recover/replace? So, kudos to Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins for stepping up and battening down the linebacker spots. Praise also to Belichick and Co. for going out and getting outside linebacker Akeem Ayers (two sacks, 10 tackles in three games for New England) and coverage linebacker/special teamer Jonathan Casillas (five tackles in two games for NE).

Collins’ athleticism was never in question – take a gander at his combine results if you feel like your chin needs to touch the floor (how’s a 41.5-inch vertical sound?). Now in his second year, Collins has gotten into a rhythm of how and when to react, and it’s a joy to watch. Especially alongside Hightower, whose heavier build and long-term savvy complements Collins so well.

Oh, man, I just remembered…

Behind Every Cloud There’s A Sealver Lineman: New England has two defensive linemen due to come back, run-stopper Sealver Siliga and pass-rusher Chandler Jones. As Siliga waited out his time on the injury/designated to return list, the Patriots brought in Alan Branch, a 325-pound veteran (Cards, Seahawks, Bills) who was cut by Buffalo this past August. Branch got three tackles at Indianapolis, helping shut down the Colts running game for a piddling 19 yards (four from the running backs).

Let’s reflect on that for a second. Trent Richardson, former first-round pick, carried the ball seven times for a total of zero yards. Did you watch the game on your couch? Did you move from your couch at any point during the game? If so, you gained more ground than Richardson.

Now, with the possibility of Siliga and Jones returning (4.5 sacks in the first seven games), this defense has the potential to improve. From a fan’s view, that’s amazing.

You know what else is amazing? The fact that we’ve barely mentioned Brady, or Julian Edelman, or Shane Vereen. We haven’t even discussed Rob Ninkovich (five sacks, one INT).

The Patriots are 8-2, atop the AFC. Sure, they might lose a game or two. Aaron Rodgers always plays tough in Green Bay. Hell, even the Jets could play rude hosts if Rex Ryan has his squad drinking the Nothing-To-Lose-Kool-Aid (Rex-Aid?). But, with reasonable health, we have a hard time thinking this team can’t go far in early 2015.

But don’t ask me. I have no idea what I’m talking about.

You can email your agreements with Chris Warner at [email protected] or tweet him pumpkin pie recipes at @cwarn89 

Patriots 2014 First-Quarter Review

This one’s difficult to write. I began it before halftime.

New England sits at 2-2, sandwiching two wins (at Minnesota and vs. Oakland) between a grim season-opener at Miami and a listless effort in Kansas City. (And after they got one-room-schoolhouse disciplined by the Chiefs, the term “listless effort” drips with kindness compared to most descriptions we could think of.)

Monday night’s palindromic 41-14 loss in KC will send this team in one of two directions: they’ll either figure it out, come together, and get their requisite double-digit wins, or they’ll continue on this path and fail to live up to expectations. After last night, fans find it difficult to consider anything other than the latter.

Some thoughts on the season so far:

RECEIVERS. Okay, what the hell? Last year  by Game Four, then-rookie Aaron Dobson had 11 receptions for 118 yards and a touchdown. This year he has one catch for 13 yards and a growing collection of healthy scratches. In 2013, then-rookie Kenbrell Thompkins had 15 catches for 257 yards and three TDs through four games. This year, six for 53, plus a couple of healthy scratches as well.

Last year by this time, then-rookie Josh Boyce had one catch for 24 yards, a virtual career compared to his zero for zero due to his current practice squad status. Danny Amendola in 2013? Ten catches, 104 yards, all from his very first game in a New England uniform. Amendola suffered a groin injury that made a bris seem preferable, forcing him off the field for the ensuing three games. This season he has three grabs for 16 yards (and as many last night as all of the above pass-catchers, i.e., zero).

So what the hell happened to the receivers? Why did what had the potential of a bust-out season become merely a bust? Some potential reasons below.

OFFENSIVE LINE. These guys have yielded to pressure like gullible teenagers. With rookies Bryan Stork and Cameron Fleming manning the center and guard spots, respectively, maybe they have the formation that will work out for the best (despite Fleming getting roundhoused like a palooka at one point).  The raw numbers from this year actually depict similar pressure on Brady as in the first few games of last year (as submitted by @PatriotsSB49 on Twitter), but – combined with some curious play-calling, the offense has seemed far more consistently feckless than they have in years.

PLAY CALLING: Hey, Josh McDaniels? Maybe run the ball. Maybe, when you travel to the loudest, or second-loudest, or however-loud-it’s-always-louder-than-Gillette-Stadium-gets stadium, maybe avoid passing on the first three downs, punting, then giving the Chiefs the ball for the rest of the quarter? Just an idea.

And, no go on those bubble screens any more? You know, the ones where Julian Edelman, your best receiver, gets the ball in space? No viability in putting Dobson out there for a pass longer than 15 yards? No sense in running your biggest back, Stevan Ridley, on third and two?

When the Patriots mix it up, they can use play-action, which seems about the only way the Patriots receivers can get open. How much yardage they gain on the ground doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they make the defense look for it. In Miami, New England passed 56 times and rushed only 20 (for 89 yards). At Minnesota, they had 37 rushes for 150 yards, actually averaging less than they did in Miami at just over four yards per carry, but with enough consistency to get the job done.

And why the hell isn’t Tim Wright getting more looks? Is he not a matchup problem for defenses? Can’t they just pull an Ochocinco and call a down-and-out for him twice a game? Seems like he should be contributing more at this point. I mean, not all new players can be Danny Woodhead and offer major contributions after one week in Foxboro, but a player who caught 54 passes for Tampa Bay last year should have more than four with his new team.

Christ, remember Danny Woodhead?

BRADY: Because of our first three topics, Brady hasn’t been himself (or, perish the thought, maybe this is what he has become START GAROPPOLO NOW Oh Heavens help us). He forces the ball to Rob Gronkowski despite Gronk getting double- and triple-teamed. He forces the ball to Edelman despite having enough field in front of him to run for a first down. His performance in KC (14 of 23, 159 yards, one TD, two INTs) shows the kind of pressure he was under.

Last year he seemed to trust Thompkins. He sure as hell trusted Amendola, at least for one game. Now, not so much.

PERSONNEL: Some iffy choices by the coaches (see receivers issues above). Plus, hard to imagine this defense performing worse with lineman Tommy Kelly aboard. Say what you want about Logan Mankins’ decline and his price tag, but he would have offered some stability to a crew that has seen more shuffling than your grandmother’s deck of cards on a rainy afternoon of Crazy Eights.

On defense (and I refuse to focus on defense, because seriously, I can’t), where are the playmakers? If Chandler Jones doesn’t sack somebody, does anything happen? Is Revis Island more like Revis Sandbar, showing up half the time and then disappearing? And can someone get Rob Ninkovich some new cleats?

HEART. Or, as we say around here, HAHT. Where is it? Why does it seem that, when they get behind, most Patriots players seem to look around, waiting, hoping someone else makes a play?

Think about it. Taking size out of the equation, if you found yourself in a vicious cockfight, which New England player would you want by your side?

I’d take Edelman. Matthew Slater. Rob Goddang Gronkowski, who – bless his soul – had the good taste and wherewithal to avoid a Gronk spike Monday night after his late TD.

Who else? Jones? I’d say so. But Vince Wilfork? Ninkovich? I have to think about them. I would not have to think about putting Mankins on this list.

Brady? In a fight? I don’t know. Maybe he’s gotten weary. Maybe too much has been put on him. The coaches can’t – or won’t – depend on the running game. The O-line can’t give him the consistent time and comfort he needs in the pocket. The defense can’t get him the ball back quickly, if Monday night’s fecal-sluice-bag of a game is any indication.

The 2013 Patriots made it all the way to the AFC Championship with an injury-depleted roster. With many of those injured players back playing, the 2014 Patriots suffered their worst loss since 2005 on their way to a .500 record through the season’s first quarter. I don’t know exactly what’s happening. Maybe they don’t, either. But in Buffalo in two weeks – after a presumed loss to Cincinnati and a 2-3 record – they’d better figure it out.

Chris Warner can be consoled at [email protected] and on Twitter at @cwarn89

Meet The New New England Patriots

As we head into the week after Labor Day and hunker down for fall and football, why not pick up some chat fodder to avoid awkward water-cooler moments by learning about some of the newest Patriots?

Also on tap – after dozens and dozens of requests (read: none whatsoever), the return of high school fun facts!

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Patriots Receivers Trying To Catch On In 2014

We figured you might need a handy guide to New England’s pass-catching corps during camp. Here, according to the crack team over at Patriots.com, is a list of receivers currently on the roster (with uniform numbers), along with our take on their chances of fitting it at Foxboro. Plus: Fun Facts!

VETERANS

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