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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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Browns say Johnny Manizel will work with first team soon

Johnny Manziel AP

Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel said Thursday that he’s a better player in games than he is in practice because of an increased freedom to improvise, something that won’t help him all that much if he can’t get on the field.

It sounds like Manziel will have a chance to grab that playing time soon. Head coach Mike Pettine and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan both said, via Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal, that they plan to give Manziel reps with the first team soon. They also said that it would be wrong to read too much into Brian Hoyer getting the first shot with the first team, because, per Pettine, Manziel is further along mentally than the team thought he’d be and because neither quarterback has done anything to speed up the decision-making process..

“I don’t think one is ahead of the other,” Shanahan said. “I hope one will make the decision easy on us.”

If Manziel doesn’t do that, Shanahan said that he’ll have a package of plays ready for the rookie quarterback to run in the opening week of the season in the event the team decides to use both quarterbacks in that week’s game plan. The chances of that happening will be higher if Manziel performs well once his chance with the starters does come.

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NFLPA monitoring evidence of collusion in light of cap increases

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In recent years, the salary cap hasn’t been going up by much.  Which means spending hasn’t been going up much.  With the cap going up, spending should go up, too.  And the NFLPA is making sure that other forces, such as collusion, won’t be holding spending down.

Per a league source, the union conducted an informal conference call with a group of agents on Thursday to explore the question of whether any agents believe collusion is occurring.  During the call, no agent came forward with any specific proof or allegation about collusive behavior in the marketplace.  And for good reason; this year saw a record number of free-agent signings and total spending.

Still, with the cap going up $10 million per team this year and expected to continue to spike annually, the NFLPA will continue to monitor the situation, with specific attention being paid to veteran players who are cut with the excuse that the team needs salary-cap space.

Some have suspected collusion regarding the absence of long-term extensions for 2011 first-round picks.  With cornerback Patrick Peterson receiving a five-year extension from the Cardinals and tackle Tyron Smith getting an eight-year extension from the Cowboys, the hope is that other teams will reward 2011 first-round picks who were underpaid by a system that guards against busts.

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Seahawks place Anthony McCoy on I.R., sign WR Ronald Johnson

San Francisco 49ers Training Camp Getty Images

Anthony McCoy will miss yet another season because of an Achilles injury.

According to PFT’s Curtis Crabtree, the Seahawks have announced they have placed McCoy on injured reserve and signed wide receiver Ronald Johnson to fill the roster spot.

Johnson, like McCoy, played for now-Seahawks coach Pete Carroll at USC. Johnson has had stints with San Francisco (2011) and Philadelphia (2012-2013). Johnson missed the 2012 season with a broken and discloated left ankle. He was waived by the Eagles in April 2013.

Johnson was a sixth-round pick of the 49ers in 2011. He turns 26 on Sunday.

The Seahawks have just four tight ends on their roster: Zach Miller, Luke Willson, RaShaun Allen and Cooper Heifet.

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Eric Berry forced from Chiefs practice with ankle injury

Eric Berry AP

Injuries are starting to mount in the Chiefs secondary.

Three defensive backs are dealing with injuries at the moment, including safety Eric Berry. Berry had to leave Thursday morning’s practice after suffering an injury to his lower right leg during the session and was eventually carted back for further evaluation. A full diagnosis hasn’t been revealed, but coach Andy Reid said that it appears Berry has avoided a catastrophic injury.

“Berry had a sore ankle. It’s not an Achilles tear or any of that, but they’re evaluating him. They’re just seeing what it is,” Reid said, via Herbie Teope of the Associated Press.

Berry was joined on the sideline by cornerback Marcus Cooper, who left practice with a hamstring injury that Reid called “slight.” Cooper was replaced on the first team by Sean Smith, reversing a switch that took place earlier in camp.

Reid also revealed that safety Sanders Commings is having surgery on his ankle after being injured earlier in the week. The second-year player only played a few snaps during his rookie season because of a broken collarbone and he may be hard-pressed to win playing time this year as a result of this injury.

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Blake Bortles impressing coaches with his progress

Jaguars Football AP

Unlike other first-round quarterbacks, Blake Bortles has been able to navigate through his rookie training camp without much notice.

But his Jaguars coaches have noticed his work, and say he’s progressing well toward the stated goal of being ready to play at some point after this year’s opener.

“I think that one of the things you always worry about is how does a guy handle something that he’s never done before,” offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said, via Michael DiRocco of ESPN.com. “He’s had OTAs and minicamp and then now he’s got four weeks to figure out what is he going to do. I thought he really prepared so he came back ahead of where I thought he was going to be.”

Bortles has a comfort zone, in that the Jaguars built their plan around Chad Henne starting this year, so as not to rush the No. 3 overall pick in before he was ready, or the parts were around him to succeed.

But Fisch said Bortles has impressed with how he has developed within the offense, and the fact he’s able to grow comfortably might allow him to grow faster.

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Donald Thomas placed on injured reserve

Indianapolis Colts v Jacksonville Jaguars Getty Images

The Colts have officially lost starting left guard Donald Thomas for the season.

The team placed the 28-year-old Thomas on injured reserve Thursday, the club said.

Thomas suffered a torn quadriceps on Wednesday. He sustained the same injury last September.

With Thomas out, second-round pick Jack Mewhort is among the options to fill in at left guard.

In a corresponding roster move Thursday, the Colts re-signed undrafted rookie offensive lineman Eric Pike, who had a short stint with the club in May. A Towson product, Pike (6-5, 298) was a left tackle on the college level.

The signing of Pike puts the Colts back at the 90-player limit.

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Johnny Manziel expects to be better in games than in practice

manziel AP

Johnny Manziel says Browns fans will see a difference between what he’s shown in training camp and what he’ll show when they start playing games.

Asked if he expects to perform better once the games start than he has so far in practice, Manziel said that’s always been his way.

“Always, for me, I’ve been better in a game situation than I feel I have in practice. But I have to come out here and get better with the reps that I’m getting. That’s the main thing, keep getting better, and then when it’s time to go out and play football, it’s time to play football,” Manziel said.

At Texas A&M, Manziel was often at his best improvising when plays broke down and using his feet to avoid the pass rush. But in practices, a quarterback doesn’t get that opportunity: Coaches want to see the play run in practice exactly the way it’s drawn up, and when the pass rush gets near the quarterback, the play is blown dead. Manziel thinks that makes him a better game-day player than practice player.

“There will be times in games, situations in games when things break down, and obviously it’s not practice, there are not coaches on the field, and it will be a little bit — it will be a lot different. But practice is what it is, and we have to get better,” Manziel said.

At the moment, Manziel is running the second-string offense, and Brian Hoyer is the starter. Manziel may have to play better in practice to show that he deserves to start when it’s game time.

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Ray Rice says his wife “can do no wrong” in first press conference

Ray Rice AP

Ravens running back Ray Rice walked to the podium Thursday, and came right out with  the kind of contrition he hadn’t previously shown.

Rice spoke to reporters for the first time since his no-questions-asked press conference during which his wife apologized for getting knocked out cold, and admitted what appears obvious.

“My actions that night were totally inexcusable,” he began. “That’s not me. That’s something I have to live with the rest of my life.”

Rice apologized to his wife, which he neglected to do during his press conference, and talked about how difficult it would be to explain to his young daughter.

He also said he and his wife wanted to talk about domestic violence “when the time is right.”

That’s apparently not until he continues his counseling, as he said he’s still in that process.

Rice didn’t want to re-live what he called “the incident,” but said he “owned it,” and it was the “biggest mistake of my life.”

“My wife can do no wrong,” he said, several times.

He also said he’s never been involved in any kind of domestic abuse situation, though he repeatedly declined to offer specifics on the night of “the incident.”

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Ravens fourth-round pick Brent Urban tears ACL

brenturban AP

Brent Urban’s rookie season is over before it started.

Urban, a defensive lineman chosen by the Ravens in the fourth round of the NFL draft, suffered a torn ACL in practice yesterday. Coach John Harbaugh confirmed the diagnosis today.

The Ravens hoped the 6-foot-7, 295-pound Urban would be able to join their defensive line rotation as a rookie, but now he’ll go on injured reserve.

Fellow rookie defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan, who went down on the same play as Urban, is dealing with back spasms and is not expected to miss much time.

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PFT Live from Saints camp: Sean Payton, Larry Holder

Sean Payton AP

PFT Live hits the road on Thursday with Mike Florio making the trip to the Greenbrier in West Virginia to visit the Saints as they visit his home state.

Saints coach Sean Payton will join Florio to talk about how the team’s first camp in the state has been going and what differences he’s found from working at the current site as opposed to past camps. They’ll also discuss the new faces around the Saints this year, including rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks, and his overall feelings about the team as they prepare for the regular season.

Larry Holder of the New Orleans Times-Picayune will also be on hand to share his own thoughts about how the Saints are coming together during camp. We’ll get his take on some players to watch in the coming season and areas of concern for New Orleans as well during his visit.

It all gets started at noon ET and you can watch it all live right here.

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Report: David Wilson “needs a miracle” to come back

David Wilson

David Wilson has been upbeat throughout his comeback from spinal fusion surgery, even after his “burner” earlier this week.

The Giants apparently do not share that optimism.

According to Jordan Raanan and Conor Orr of NJ.com, the Giants consider him a long shot to return to the field and one source familiar with his condition said he “needs a miracle” to come back.

Wilson tweeted Wednesday night that “everything was fine,” which may be true in the global, not football-centric case.

He’ll see a spinal specialist Monday, but the Giants seem to be bracing themselves for the possibility that Wilson might not return at all.

You could argue they did already, signing workhorse back Rashad Jennings this offseason.

But at this point, the concern should be with Wilson’s well-being, and any football considerations should come well after that.

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Cary Williams: “No question” I’m in same class as the best corners in the league

Cary Williams AP

It has been a good offseason for cornerbacks.

Darrelle Revis, Richard Sherman, Joe Haden and Patrick Peterson have all gotten lucrative new contracts since the 2013 season came to a close. That race to the bank has also ramped up discussion among some members of the group about which of them is the best cornerback in football. Eagles cornerback Cary Williams’s name has never come up in those discussions, but Williams isn’t sure why that’s the case.

Geoff Mosher of CSNPhilly.com reports that Williams said there’s “no question” that he belongs in a group of cornerbacks that he calls “equally as talented” as himself.

“I look at my career. I’ve played in playoff games,” Williams said. “Most of those guys haven’t played in playoff games. It is what it is. Hopefully those guys could make it to the playoffs. Hopefully those guys could continue the success that they’ve had in their careers. Much respect to those guys, because I don’t see a much of a difference in any of them.”

Williams is a capable NFL cornerback and, as he mentions, he’s played on some good teams in Baltimore and Philadelphia, but he’s not going to find many people buying into his argument that he’s played at the same level as those cornerbacks. Revis and Sherman have both had great success in the playoffs during their careers and Haden and Peterson’s play has been all the more impressive given how little help, relative to Williams’s teammates anyway, their teammates have given them. And all four have been much more impactful and consistent than Williams, should one need more than the playoff argument to chip away at the Eagles corner’s claim.

One thing is for certain after reading Williams’s take, though. Cornerbacks have officially replaced wide receivers as the most voluble (and occasionally delusional) group of players in the league.

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Brandon Marshall thinks Jay Cutler will win NFL MVP

Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall AP

Peyton Manning is the betting favorite to win the NFL Most Valuable Player award this season. But Brandon Marshall’s money is on Jay Cutler.

Actually, Marshall can’t put any money on it because that would violate NFL rules. But Marshall does believe that Cutler is going to show this year that he’s the best player in football.

“League MVP,” Marshall said of Cutler on NFL Network. “He’s the first one in the building, last one to leave, his leadership is through the roof. He’s correcting the coaches. I mean, this is his offense. This is his organization. He’s running it, and I love it.”

Cutler missed five games with injuries last year, but he played well when healthy, with a career-high 89.2 passer rating. But Cutler will probably both need to be healthy for all 16 games and have an even higher passer rating this year if anyone is going to consider him seriously for the MVP.

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Chris Johnson: I’m going to do great things this year

Chris Johnson AP

There haven’t been many situations in the last few years when the Jets offense was compared favorably to that of any other team, but running back Chris Johnson doesn’t seem that interested in the past.

That goes for his own results as well. Johnson’s production the last couple of seasons has raised a lot of questions about whether or not Johnson has passed the point where he can be a top-flight runner in the NFL. Johnson has been adamant that there’s plenty left in his tank and thinks “it’s not hard to be the top guy” in a league where most of the top backs are running for 1,100 or 1,200 yards. He also thinks that moving from the Titans’ offense to the Jets’ scheme represents a big step forward.

“I went through a lot of situations last year. You look at [LeSean] McCoy. He got put in a great situation: great offense and great schemes. So he’s doing what he’s supposed to do,” Johnson said, via the New York Daily News. “I went through three different offensive coordinators [with the Titans]. I feel like I now have a great offensive coordinator in Marty [Mornhinweg]. And I’m going to do great things this year.”

There have been plenty of players who have seen their play take a positive turn after a change of scenery and Johnson has run for at least 1,000 yards in each of his six NFL seasons, so it’s not like he fell completely off the radar after 2009. We’ve also seen plenty of players who are unable to recapture their old magic and the answer to which camp Johnson belongs in will go a long way toward determining both the Jets’ fortunes in 2014 and his own future in the NFL.

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Ray Rice will take questions from reporters for first time today

Ray Rice, Janay Rice AP

Ray Rice has stood in front of his bosses, judges and the commissioner.

But for the first time since video showed him dragging his unconscious wife out of an elevator, he’ll stand in front of reporters asking questions today.

The Ravens running back is scheduled to talk to reporters today about his two-game suspension, and the incident that led to it.

The organization has protected him carefully, from a press conference with no questions to passionate defenses on the team’s official website, but today he’ll be on his own.

You’ll see his heart, just like you saw it last time,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said, via Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun. “He’s not going to give you some polished press conference. That’s not Ray. Ray’s going to speak from the heart.”

Harbaugh said yesterday that he was proud of the way Rice has handled the situation (not the assault, the reaction to the assault), but Rice could make some headway this afternoon.

Of course, that would take acknowledging a mistake and doing something about it, rather than just referring to domestic violence as another one of the catch-all “distractions,” which plague NFL teams.

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