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Preseason Power Rankings No. 7: New England Patriots

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It was just another quiet offseason for the big dogs of the AFC East.

Except for Wes Welker signing to play with Peyton Manning and the Broncos, of course. And Rob Gronkowski having surgery a couple of times qualifies as a notable development. Signing Tim Tebow might not turn out to be much more than an entertaining distraction, but entertaining distractions are far better than the one Aaron Hernandez has provided.

Okay, so it was anything but quiet in New England. How much will all the noise wind up mattering, though? The Patriots have seen players come and go for all sorts of reasons since the start of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era and they’ve kept on ticking.

This might be a bigger challenge than some of those other years, but betting against them still doesn’t feel like a good idea.

Strengths.

Whatever their group of wide receivers and tight ends wind up looking like, the Patriots still have Tom Brady at quarterback and that should go a long way toward ensuring they remain a potent passing offense. He’ll need to find a new security blanket with Welker gone and they’ll lose a lot of dynamism with Hernandez in prison, but Brady’s career record provides plenty of confidence that he’ll make it happen.

The offensive line will help Brady deal with the change in circumstance. Nate Solder has established himself as a strong pass protector at left tackle, Sebastian Vollmer is one of the league’s best right tackles and Logan Mankins remains a rock at left guard. Center Ryan Wendell should improve in his second year as a starter and this group should keep Brady from tasting the turf too often.

Stevan Ridley ran for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, giving the Patriots one of the most productive seasons by a back in the Brady era. He’s joined in the backfield by Shane Vereen, whose versatility will likely be part of the plan to shore up the passing game in the face of the thin receiving corps.

Vince Wilfork remains one of the most effective defensive tackles in the NFL, the starting linebackers are strong in all phases of the game and Devin McCourty took to safety like a duck to water. That foundation would be enhanced if defensive end Chandler Jones can remain healthy and rush the passer the way he did before an ankle injury slowed him down in the second half last year.

Weaknesses.

For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, the Patriots are putting a lot on the shoulders of rookie receivers and guys coming back from injuries. Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce may be the next generation of Patriot pass catchers, but rookies take time to acclimate themselves to the game. Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman have played all 16 games in a season once between them and tight end Jake Ballard hasn’t played in more than a year because of a serious knee injury.

Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard’s arrest on suspicion of DUI is problematic for the Patriots because it raises the possibility that he’ll be suspended at some point this season. If so, the Pats will have to rely more heavily on the likes of Kyle Arrington and Ras-I Dowling to shut down opposing receivers and that’s not something they’ve proven capable of doing in the past.

A healthy Jones and Rob Ninkovich can be a productive pass rushing duo, but it wouldn’t hurt to find a couple of other guys to get after the quarterback.

The Patriots are a bit thin on the defensive line after cutting loose Kyle Love and Brandon Dreaderick and they aren’t much deeper at linebacker behind the impressive starting trio. In past years, the Patriots have struggled to replace players lost to injury and they are vulnerable in both those spots heading into this year.

Changes.

The Welker/Amendola swap grabbed the most headlines, but it was one of several moves at receiver for New England. Brandon Lloyd is also gone and Michael Jenkins joins the two rookies, which at least gives the team options as they try to put together a winning receiving corps. Expect to see more churning at this spot as the Patriots have already cut Donald Jones after signing him to a three-year deal early in the offseason.

Running back Danny Woodhead signed with the Chargers as a free agent and the Patriots traded track star Jeff Demps to Tampa for LeGarrette Blount. It’s unclear how much time he’ll see, but he definitely gives them the chance to go with a different look than Ridley and Vereen provide. The Patriots also added Leon Washington, although he’ll likely be put to more use as a returner than out of the backfield.

Two veterans who arrived at free agency are ticketed for big roles on defense. Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and safety Adrian Wilson could both be upgrades over what came before, although neither one figures to be an every-down player at this stage of their career.

The question above about the depth of the defensive line will be answered more positively if CFL refugee Armond Armstead and second-round pick Jamie Collins can win jobs in the rotation. Collins may also play linebacker as the team moves from look to look.

And then there’s Tebow, whose role remains undefined at this point but who will presumably be doing something in New England if he makes the team as opposed to just watching as he did with the Jets.

Camp Battles.

While the team doesn’t appear to have any plans to move on from Dennard, the possibility of a suspension should lead to increased competition for the job opposite Aqib Talib. Rookie Logan Ryan could find his way into the mix with a strong camp.

Dan Connolly should get a push from Marcus Cannon at right guard, although the Patriots might prefer to have Cannon as their top reserve option at both guard and tackle.

Ballard, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanwanui will battle for tight end snaps left open by Hernandez and possibly those belonging to Gronkowski as well if he isn’t ready to return from surgeries on his back and forearm. On the other side of the ball, Adrian Wilson, Tavon Wilson and Steve Gregory will all be looking to grab the spot next to McCourty at safety.

Prospects.

There’s been a lot of talk about the potential for a drop off in New England this season, much of it focused on the uncertainty at receiver and tight end. The concerns about those spots are legitimate, but even with those questions it is difficult to mark them as anything but the AFC East favorite heading into the season.

How much more they can be than that will be a more significant question as the season unfolds. Baltimore and Denver both look very strong on paper heading into the season and the Patriots play their typically tough slate outside of the division. Trips to Atlanta, Houston and Baltimore will likely loom large for the Patriots as they fight for playoff position and all three of those games will test them on both sides of the ball.

If they survive those tests and get Gronkowski back at full strength sooner rather than later, the Patriots will be in the mix for the AFC title come playoff time. Which would make this season look a lot like most of the others in the last decade, even if the offseason was more chaotic than anyone in the organization might have liked.

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Devonta Freeman sees himself as “the man” in Atlanta

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Last season, veteran Steven Jackson was the Falcons’ primary ball carrier, while rookie Devonta Freeman was the No. 2. This season, Freeman thinks the starting job is his.

Freeman told ESPN that he expects to be the Falcons’ starting running back this year now that Jackson has been jettisoned.

“Personally, I want to be the man. I want to be the guy,” Freeman said. “I want to make my own name with the Atlanta Falcons. I want to go really, really far. I want to set the bar high. I just want to win a Super Bowl and maybe be the MVP one day. You just never know. I feel like I’m hungrier right now. I don’t know what’s gotten into me this offseason. I just feel like a whole new monster. And I ain’t just talking.”

Freeman may be getting a little ahead of himself when he talks about being an MVP. Last year he showed some promise, but he had just 65 carries for 248 yards and one touchdown. He has a long way to go before he’s a star.

But he probably will be the man who gets the bulk of the carries in Atlanta this season. If Freeman takes a big step forward in his second season, that will go a long way toward helping the Falcons turn things around.

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Hartline heads to Houston for a visit

Hartline Getty Images

Twenty-four hours ago, free-agent receiver Brian Hartline hoped to be 24 hours away from picking a new team, with a visit to the Browns followed by a visit to the Bears.  Apparently, neither team has made Hartline an offer he couldn’t refuse.

So Hartline is heading to Houston for a visit, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.  A deal with the Texans is a possibility.

Cut last week by the Dolphins, Hartline was due to make $5.9 million in 2015.  The Texans will likely soon by cutting receiver Andre Johnson, who has asked to be released in the wake of being informed he’ll have a reduced role.  Johnson is on the books for $11.5 million in compensation this year.

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A year after Dansby, Dockett chases the money, too

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Last year, when Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby opted to sign a richer deal in Cleveland, Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett lamented the fact that Danbsy opted for cash over a championship.

Now, Dockett may be looking for dollars over diamonds, too.

He chased the money,” Dockett said of Dansby last April.  “I’ve got a lot of respect for our guy that left, I love him like a brother.  But we were one or two pieces away from really making a lot of noise. . . .

“I personally feel like he chased the money versus chasing a ring.  No knock towards Cleveland — I don’t want people to try to think I’m saying Cleveland doesn’t have a chance; everybody has a chance — but I just felt like it was made for him to be here.”

Of course, Dockett may feel like the 49ers have a better chance than the Cardinals to chase a ring.  But last year’s performance coupled with a Trading Places-style experiment in constructing a coaching staff tends to cut against the notion that the 49ers are closer to getting to the Super Bowl than the Cardinals.

Or maybe Dockett now simply understands the dilemma Dansby faced.  Too many factors go into winning the Super Bowl, with unexpected injuries (like those repeatedly suffered by the Cardinals last year) threatening to throw a season off track.  Chasing money is a simpler concept.

The Cardinals offered a base deal of $2.5 million for 2015.  The 49ers offered a base deal of $4 million.  Dockett wisely decided not to give up $1.5 million for the vague promise and inherently difficult challenge of emerging from 31 other franchises as the NFL champions.

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Rob Ford’s crack-smoking NFL tie brings $16,100 in auction

robford AP

When we mentioned former Toronto mayor Rob Ford was selling his crack-smoking NFL tie on eBay, the current bid was $81.

So obviously, we should get a cut of the deal.

According to Don Peat of the Toronto Sun, Ford’s tie was sold for $16,100 in the online auction.

The mid-1990s era NFL logo tie became famous when Ford wore it to the press conference in which he admitted smoking crack, which he said happened “probably in one of my drunken stupors.”

“I’m surprised someone would pay that much for a tie,” Ford said last week, before the auction ended.

Ford said he was donating 10 percent of the proceeds to the hospitals where he’s undergoing cancer treatments.

He also said he was going to be auctioning off more stuff, saying “we have some stuff coming down the pipe, pardon the pun.”

Maybe the next item will the chicken wing bones he was chowing down on at a Bills game.

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James Acho gets added to the NFLPA ballot

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Eventually, there may be enough candidates for NFLPA executive director to field their own football team.

Albert Breer of NFL Network reports that James Acho has received the three nominations needed to be added to the official ballot.  Acho becomes the sixth official challenger to DeMaurice Smith, bringing the size of the ballot to seven.

With Acho joining Sean Gilbert, Andrew Smith, John Stufflebeam, Arthur McAfee, and Robert Griffith, Sean Morey becomes the only declared candidate who has not yet had nominations submitted by three player representatives.

The window for submitting nominations closes at 11:59 p.m. ET on Thursday.  There’s no limit on the number of nominations a player representative can make; it’s possible that some of the reps have nominated multiple candidates.

As previously explained, all official candidates will make presentations at the NFLPA annual meeting.  The 32 player representatives will then vote.  If none of the candidates obtain 17 or more votes, the top two will meet in a runoff.

If the two top tie at 16, the 16 votes representing the most total dues-paying members will determine the outcome.

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Dockett chooses the 49ers

Dockett AP

As intrigue goes, the NFC West isn’t far behind the AFC East.

Veteran defensive tackle Darnell Dockett has signed a two-year deal with the 49ers, according to agent Drew Rosenhaus.

Dockett, who was drafted by the Cardinals in 2004 and spent 11 years there, was cut last week when the two sides couldn’t agree on the value of a veteran defensive lineman recovering from ACL repair.  The Cardinals, who reportedly offered a deal with a base value of $2.5 million and a maximum of $4 million, had hoped to be able to bring him back after he tested the market.

According to Rosenhaus, Dockett’s contract in San Francisco has a value of $7.5 million over two years.  He’s due to make $4 million in 2015, with half of that guaranteed.

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Titans taking a look at former Falcons wideout Harry Douglas

Harry Douglas AP

The Titans might need more personnel help than any team in the NFL, and they’re extremely active in the pre-free agency free agency period.

The latest visitor will be former Falcons wide receiver Harry Douglas, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN.

Douglas has a tie with Titans tight ends coach Mike Mularkey, from his days as the Falcons offensive coordinator.

The Titans have also kicked the tires on other wideouts who were cut recently, including Ted Ginn Jr. and Jacoby Jones, so they’re obviously in the market for some help there.

Douglas has been productive as a complementary receiver, but stood out on his own in 2013, with 85 catches for 1,067 yards when Julio Jones was hurt.

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Wilfork says Pats aren’t picking up his option

Wilfork Getty Images

With so much current focus on whether the Patriots will find a way to keep cornerback Darrelle Revis, they’ve decided not to keep defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.

Wilfork has announced that the team told him Tuesday the his option for 2015 won’t be picked up.

I’m in a good place,” Wilfork said in a message posted on Twitter, one that he calls his “only” statement on the matter.  “I have a great relationship with the Patriots organization.”

Wilfork makes it clear that, after 11 NFL seasons, he won’t be retiring.

“Can I still play football?” Wilfork wrote.  “Hell yea!  Do I still love football?  Hell yea!”

He adds that New England will always be his home, noting that he won a Super Bowl ring as a rookie and in his last season with the franchise.

“One major injury lots of gas still left in the tank,” Wilfork said.  (What kind of gas is he talking about?)

“I will take my time think things through take into consideration many things by mainly my family and see where life goes from there,” Wilfork said.

Surely, a demand will exist for his services.  There aren’t enough competent defensive tackles to go around for 32 franchises.

Wilfork didn’t mention a possible return to the Patriots, but didn’t expressly rule it out.  If an aggressive market for his services doesn’t emerge, maybe the Pats will swoop back in and extend the relationship to a 12th year.

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Colts don’t plan to tender A.Q. Shipley as restricted free agent

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The Colts were in serious need of a center before the start of last season because of injuries to Khaled Holmes and Jonotthan Harrison, so they turned to A.Q. Shipley for help.

Shipley, who played for the Colts in 2012 before being traded to the Ravens, was claimed off waivers after his run in Baltimore came to an end. Shipley quickly got himself back up to speed on the Indy offense and started for the first four weeks of the regular season.

It looks like the Colts will need to be in similarly dire straits this year for Shipley to get into the lineup. Mike Wells of ESPN.com reports that the team won’t tender Shipley a contract as a restricted free agent, which means Shipley will be able to sign anywhere as an unrestricted free agent on March 10.

Shipley was benched in favor of Harrison after four games and only started again at guard in Week 1 when the Colts had nothing to play for with their playoff seed secured. Holmes eventually worked his way back into the starting lineup for the end of the regular season and playoffs, which may give him the leg up on the job for 2015.

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Reports: Cary Williams to visit Seahawks

Cary Williams AP

Two days after being released, ex-Eagles cornerback Cary Williams has a free agent visit already lined up.

Williams will meet with the Seahawks on Thursday, NFLDraftDiamonds.com reported. Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun also reported news of Williams’s visit.

At 6-foot-1, Williams has the length the Seahawks like in their cornerbacks. He ranks 81st among PFT’s top free agents in the Class of 2015.

The 30-year-old Williams started every game in the last two seasons for Philadelphia, defending 21 passes and notching five interceptions.

The Seahawks’ interest in Williams comes with cornerback Byron Maxwell set to test free agency next week. Maxwell is expected to have a strong market.

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Saints rework Jairus Byrd’s contract to create cap space

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Wednesday brought word that the Saints are releasing running back Pierre Thomas and shopping linebacker Curtis Lofton in a trade and their cap-related maneuvering will continue with a restructured deal for safety Jairus Byrd.

Field Yates of ESPN.com reports that the team will convert Byrd’s $6 million roster bonus into a signing bonus in order to drop his 2015 cap number from $10.3 million to $5.5 million. The money will be pushed into the remaining four years of the six-year, $54 million deal that the safety signed with the team last year.

Byrd’s first year with the Saints was a rough one as preseason back surgery and an in-season knee injury made for very little immediate return on the team’s investment. They’ll be looking for better results this time around since Byrd’s restructure will make cutting him in the near future will come with financial penalties on a cap that’s been doing annual gymnastics to get themselves in compliance with the salary cap.

Things are off to a decent start on that front as Byrd announced Wednesday that he’s been cleared for a full return to action. He should be on the field for offseason workouts as he and the team try for better defensive results.

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Former Eagle Trent Cole to visit Buccaneers first

Trent Cole AP

Eagles coach Chip Kelly alluded to the possibility of Trent Cole returning, but he’s not waiting around to hear back.

According to Adam Caplan of ESPN, Cole is taking his first free agent visit to Tampa Bay (and that implies more visits are possible).

The Buccaneers have cap room, and a glaring need for pass rush, so the fit is obvious.

The 32-year-old Cole had 6.5 sacks in 15 games last year, but has 85.5 for his career, and has been a consistent producer, hitting at least 8.0 sacks in seven of his previous eight seasons.

His leadership is also something the Bucs could use, and might be willing to pay for before the full free agent market cranks up next week.

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Antrel Rolle says no talks with Giants yet

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On Wednesday, a report from Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News reported that talks between the Giants and impending free agent safety Antrell Rolle’s talks about a new contract haven’t been “very productive” because Rolle “may not be looking for much less than” the $7 million he made in each of the last two seasons.

Rolle took issue with that report on Twitter on Wednesday night. Rolle denied that talks with the Giants have gone badly because there haven’t been any talks at all.

“All of these allegations regarding my contract negotiations are entirely false. I haven’t had discussions with any teams including NYG,” Rolle wrote. “This is a business and I will approach it just as that. I plan to let everything run its course. So once again the allegations are false!!! No numbers have been discussed at all and neither have I put a price on myself. … Like I said no talks have happened with any team.”

There will be more to talk about once Rolle is able to get an idea of what kind of numbers other teams have in mind on Saturday when a three-day negotiating window opens before Tuesday’s start of free agency. Until then, the Giants are negotiating against themselves and that’s rarely a scenario that results in the best deal for a team.

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Report: Packers haven’t closed the door on A.J. Hawk return

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The Packers appeared set on moving on at inside linebacker, after cutting A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones.

Jones has found a new home in Philadelphia already, but Hawk may not go far.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Packers have “left the door open” for the  31-year-old Hawk to return after cutting him in February.

Of course, that could change depending on what they do in free agency and the draft, but the fact they’re at least considering it says something.

Hawk wants to play another year after having surgery this offseason for bone spurs in his ankle, and while he’s not the player he once was, he could still be a solid part for them, assuming he comes back closer to the minimum.

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Thursday morning one-liners

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With a new owner and a new attitude, it’s clear the Bills aren’t messing around.

Dolphins WR Mike Wallace thinks he’ll stay in Miami, or that’s what his dad says.

The Patriots might have to get creative to keep their secondary intact.

The free agent QB market isn’t nearly deep enough to give the Jets what they need.

New Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman doesn’t think he has a type.

The Bengals are working to keep some of their own free agents off the market.

Not everyone agrees that QB Johnny Manziel was fooling people with his Eddie Haskell act.

Steelers OT Mike Adams is suing the three men acquitted of attacking him last year.

When a player the level of Texans WR Andre Johnson is shown the door, even the mayor has to respond.

Colts QB Andrew Luck and coach Chuck Pagano are heading out on a USO tour.

The Jaguars need to find some chemistry on their offensive line.

The Titans have a few of their own free agents they need to try to keep.

The Broncos have in-house options if LG Orlando Franklin leaves.

The Chiefs have questions about how to fix the WR position.

The Raiders put out a list of their best free agent signings ever, but it included George Blanda and Jim Plunkett, which tells you what you need to know.

Chargers C Chris Watt is ready to be a building block.

As good as it is, the Cowboys still have some questions about their offensive line.

The Giants have some options if S Antrell Rolle leaves in free agency.

Their recent moves give the Eagles plenty of financial flexibility.

Washington re-signed S Duke Ihenacho.

The Bears need a major overhaul on special teams.

If DT Ndamukong Suh leaves, there’s more pressure on Lions DE Ziggy Ansah.

A long-time Green Bay bar closed last weekend, after the Packers bought the nearby parcel of land.

The Vikings aren’t expecting any compensatory picks.

The Falcons aren’t going to keep OL Gabe Carimi from testing the market.

The Panthers should benefit from a deep free agent WR class.

Former Saints RB Pierre Thomas was grateful and graceful on his way out the door.

The Buccaneers have some issues at LB that need to be addressed.

The Cardinals are still waiting to hear what DT Darnell Dockett decides.

The Rams are still short on talent at too many positions.

Some think the 49ers are trying to get rid of reminders of the Jim Harbaugh era.

The Seahawks are eyeing a pair of free agent CBs.

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