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Preseason Power Rankings No. 7: New England Patriots

Divisional Playoffs - Houston Texans v New England Patriots Getty Images

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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Report: Johnathan Joseph has two cracked ribs, bruised lung

DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 24:  Cornerback Johnathan Joseph #24 of the Houston Texans and other players enter the stadium for the game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on October 24, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Texans’ loss to the Packers last Sunday swung on a fourth quarter touchdown catch by Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who was wide open in the end zone after cornerback Charles James slipped while trying to cover him.

James was in the game because starter Johnathan Joseph had to leave with an injury. Coach Bill O’Brien said on Monday that Joseph was doing OK, but a report on Tuesday was less positive about his condition.

John McClain of the Houston Chronicle reports that an MRI showed Joseph suffered two cracked ribs and a bruised lung against Green Bay.  There’s no word on Joseph’s timetable for a return to action, but it would seem that there’s a good chance he’ll miss at least this week.

That would leave the Texans down a corner for their game in Indianapolis against the Colts, which would be a bad thing given what’s at stake in the AFC South and how much Houston relies on their defense to be a driving factor on a weekly basis.

James was waived on Monday, so he won’t be an option to replace Joseph in the event he doesn’t play. Kareem Jackson, A.J. Bouye, Robert Nelson and Al-Hajj Shabazz, who was claimed on waivers to take James’ spot, are the other corners on the roster right now.

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Bucs promote Josh Huff from practice squad

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 11: Wide receiver Josh Huff #13 runs for a touchdown after making a catch against the New Orleans Saints in the second quarter during a game at Lincoln Financial Field on October 11, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images) Getty Images

The Buccaneers gave Josh Huff a second chance, and it didn’t take them long to give him a chance to realize it.

The Bucs promoted the former Eagles wide receiver from the practice squad to fill the spot created by veteran wideout Cecil Shorts on injured reserve. Shorts blew out his knee in last week’s win over the Chargers.

They signed him after the Eagles released him following a DUI arrest which included possession of a gun and marijuana. But they were careful to draw a line between Huff and other guys they cut for similar offenses, saying the cases of Huff and Austin Seferian-Jenkins were not the same.

A former third-round pick of the Eagles (during the Chip Kelly era), he didn’t get much of a chance for redemption there after making some unwise comments about the prevalence of gun ownership in NFL locker rooms.

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Jaguars waive Arthur Brown

NEW ORLEANS, LA - AUGUST 28:   Arthur Brown #59 of the Baltimore Ravens walks off the field after playing the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on August 28, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Jaguars have decided to part ways with linebacker Arthur Brown.

The team announced Tuesday that they have waived Brown, who joined the team as a waiver claim in September. Linebacker Sean Porter has been promoted from the practice squad to take his place.

Brown was a second-round pick by the Ravens in 2013 and played in 34 games for Baltimore without making an appearance in the starting lineup. He played in all 12 games for Jacksonville this season, but saw only six snaps on defense while playing a considerably larger role on special teams.

Porter was a fourth-round pick by the Bengals in 2013 and spent his rookie year on injured reserve before playing in one game for Cincinnati in 2014. He was waived in 2015 and landed on the Jaguars’ practice squad.

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D’Qwell Jackson suspended four games for violating PED policy

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02:  Blake Bortles of Jacksonville runs at D'Qwell Jackson of Indianapolis during the NFL International Series match between Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium on October 2, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images) Getty Images

The NFL announced Tuesday that Colts inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson has been suspended for four games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy.

Jackson, 33, leads the Colts in tackles. He’s in his third year with the team after spending his first eight NFL seasons with the Browns.

Jackson previously has never missed a start with the Colts.

The four-game suspension means Jackson is done for the regular season and can return to the team should the Colts qualify for the playoffs. At 6-6, the Colts are in a three-way tie atop the AFC South the with the Texans and Titans.

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What’s next for C.J. Spiller?

SEATTLE, WA - OCTOBER 16:  Running back C.J. Spiller #28 of the Seattle Seahawks warms up before facing the Atlanta Falcons at CenturyLink Field on October 16, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images) Getty Images

Running back C.J. Spiller, after he was cut by the Saints in September, could have collected the balance of his $1.7 million guaranteed salary and not played. To his credit, he has tried to continue his career — essentially for free.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked.

Signed and cut by the Seahawks before being signed and cut by the Jets, Spiller will now pass through waivers. If he clears waivers, what next?

He could wait and see what happens, if/when a contending team loses a running back during or just before the playoffs. Or he could take whatever he can find now, and hope for the best.

The smart move once again would be to wait for a chance to play in the postseason, when plenty of other teams are done for the year and trying to figure out their plans for 2017. If he plays and plays well, he could get a chance to earn a significant role with a new team in 2017.

Spiller hasn’t previously been willing to wait, however. He pounced on an opportunity with Seattle, and then again on his limited chance with the Jets.

He leaves the Jets with three carries for nine yards. He had three carries for nine yards for the Seahawks.

Only four years ago, Spiller had more than 1,700 yards from scrimmage. So he can still play; for whatever reason, however, it simply hasn’t happened this year for him.

The best news that has happened to Spiller this year arguably comes from being cut by the Jets, a team that  definitely won’t be giving him a playoff platform. He should now wait for a situation that does — unless someone like the Browns or the 49ers claims him on waivers.

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Jets cut C.J. Spiller and Jeremy Ross

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 01: C.J. Spiller #28 of the New Orleans Saints is tackled by Kerry Wynn #72 of the New York Giants during their game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on November 1, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) Getty Images

It was a bit of a surprise in some quarters when the Saints cut C.J. Spiller before the start of the season.

Maybe it shouldn’t have been, because he hasn’t been able to hold down a job since.

The Jets are the latest to release the former No. 9 overall pick, announcing the move today.

Spiller signed with the Jets a month ago after a two-game stint with the Seahawks, and had four touches in four games in New York, along with five kickoff returns. Injuries kept him from realizing his potential (or his contract) with the Saints, but his inability to find a role is still a bit alarming.

The Jets also cut wide receiver Jeremy Ross, and swapped practice squad receivers, signing Darius Jennings and cutting Mario Alford.

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Former Bears running back Rashaan Salaam dead at 42

1 Sep 1997:  Rashaan Salaam #31 of the Green Bay Packers in action against the Brian Williams #51 of the Chicago Bears at the Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  The Packers defeated the Bears 38-24. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel  /Allsport Getty Images

Tuesday brings some sad news about former Heisman Trophy winner and Bears first-round pick Rashaan Salaam.

A spokesman for Salaam’s family has announced, via Adam Schefter of ESPN, that Salaam is dead at the age of 42. The University of Colorado, Salaam’s alma mater, released a statement saying his body was found in a Boulder, Colorado park on Monday night and that police do not suspect foul play. There is no further information about a cause of death.

Salaam won the Heisman Trophy in 1994 after running for 2,055 yards and 24 touchdowns for Colorado. He became the 21st pick of the 1995 NFL Draft and ran for 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns during his rookie season, but that would represent his best work on the professional level. He only played 17 more games in the NFL and said after his retirement that off-field partying contributed to his quick washout in the NFL.

We offer our condolences to Salaam’s loved ones on their loss.

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Lions bring back Joique Bell

DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 27: Joique Bell #35 of the Detroit Lions celebrates a second quarter touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers at Ford Field on December 27, 2015 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) Getty Images

The injury-plagued Lions are bringing back a familiar face.

Joique Bell, a running back who played for the Lions for the last five years, has re-signed with the team today.

Bell will provide some depth at running back after Dwayne Washington got hurt against the Saints on Sunday. Bell knows the Lions’ offense and had 311 rushing yards and 286 receiving yards for the Lions last season. Bell briefly played for the Bears this season but was released after having just three carries for six yards.

The Lions also placed defensive end Armonty Bryant on injured reserve with a knee injury.

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Will Smith murder trial begins

gettyimages-51559875 Getty Images

As authorities in Louisiana try to figure out what to do with the man who shot and killed former NFL player Joe McKnight, a jury in Louisiana will eventually decide what to do with the man who shot and killed former NFL player Will Smith.

Via the Associated Press, opening statements were delivered Tuesday at the trial arising from the April death of Smith, and they demonstrate the stark differences in perspectives that arise when a shooter has the “stand your ground” law available as a defense.

Prosecutors claim Cardell Hayes committed murder by shooting Smith once in the right side and seven times in the back. Defense lawyers claim Smith was shot after he reached to get his gun.

A 12-person jury will decide based on the evidence submitted during the trial whether Jones acted in self defense, or whether he committed murder. Hayes also is charged with attempted murder for shooting Smith’s wife, Raquel, during the same incident.

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Randy Gregory expected at Cowboys practice Wednesday

Randy Gregory AP

Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory is serving the second of the two suspensions the league enacted this year and may have a third coming his way after reportedly failing a drug test, but that hasn’t caused the team to wash their hands of him once and for all.

As a result, it appears that they’ll have him at Wednesday’s practice. Albert Breer of TheMMQB.com reported on Tuesday that Gregory is eligible to return to practice this week, which is two weeks ahead of when he’d be eligible to play at the end of his combined 14-game suspension, and the Cowboys have confirmed that they expect to have him at the team’s facility.

Gregory would be eligible to play in Week 16, although that date may shift if the aforementioned failed drug test results in a suspension that would keep Gregory off the field for at least another year. Breer reports that it’s under appeal, so, for now, Gregory is able to move forward with the team.

In ideal circumstances, Gregory would return to give the Cowboys another piece to use on defense. With so little about Gregory’s NFL career qualifying as ideal, it’s unlikely anyone is planning on that actually happening.

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Report: Luke Kuechly to be evaluated Wednesday

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 17:  Luke Kuechly #59 of the Carolina Panthers returns a blocked field goal against the New Orleans Saints in the second quarter during the game at Bank of America Stadium on November 17, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) Getty Images

Anyone who watched last Sunday night’s game between the Panthers and Seahawks likely saw how animated Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly was on the sideline.

He was talking and gesturing to players, coaches and officials over the course of Carolina’s loss and it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to say that he would have done anything he could to put on a uniform right then and there. Until he’s cleared from the concussion protocol, however, that’s not an option.

David Newton of ESPN.com reports that Wednesday will bring the next evaluation for Kuechly, who has missed two games with the concussion he suffered against the Saints in Week 11 and could take part in some on-field work if he passes through the early stages of the protocol.

At 4-8, the Panthers don’t have realistic playoff hopes any longer and some teams might think twice about bringing a key player back from injury to play out the string. The Panthers haven’t shown any sign that they’ll go that way with Kuechly, however, so we’ll see if his status changes at all this week.

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Lions sign cornerback Asa Jackson off Ravens practice squad

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 13: Asa Jackson #27 of the Baltimore Ravens warms up before the start of the Ravens preseason game against the New Orleans Saints at M&T Bank Stadium on August 13, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Lions have found a somewhat experienced replacement for their secondary.

According to Mike Garafolo of the NFL Network, the Lions are signing cornerback Asa Jackson off the Ravens practice squad to fill the spot created when Quandre Diggs suffered a season-ending pectoral injury.

Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin coached Jackson with the Ravens, so there’s some familiarity there. It also establishes Jackson as one of the oldest practice squad players in the league, since Austin left Baltimore after the 2013 season.

Jackson just turned 27, and was a fifth-round pick of the Ravens in 2012. He’s served a pair of PED suspensions in his career, and has never played more than seven games in any of his five years in the league.

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Steelers should have their kicker back this week

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 20:  Chris Boswell #9 of the Pittsburgh Steelers kicks a 33 yard field goal during the second quarter against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 20, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Steelers may only need one kicker this week.

Coach Mike Tomlin told reporters Tuesday that injured Chris Boswell had a “legit chance” to play this week against the Bills, per Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Boswell didn’t play Sunday against the Giants with an abdominal injury, which forced them to sign Randy Bullock for the week.

Bullock was perfect on three field goals and his extra point attempt, but Tomlin made it clear that if Boswell was well enough to kick, that he was the choice.

Boswell has been kind of ordinary this year, hitting 12-of-16 field goals (but all his extra points), but the Steelers are apparently confident he’s their guy moving forward. Tomlin has shown such confidence in him before, saying he’d let him try his unorthodox rabona onside kick again even though the attempt at Baltimore failed miserably.

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Colin Kaepernick will start for 49ers in Week 14

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 04:  Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers runs for a first down against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on December 4, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the 49ers 26-6.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) Getty Images

There are plenty of games on the Week 14 schedule that will help decide who makes the playoffs and which teams will match up once the postseason gets underway.

There are also games that will matter only to those involved and the draft prospects who will be going at the top of the first round. The Jets-49ers clash in Santa Clara falls into that category and we now know that only one of those two teams will be changing their starting quarterback from Week 13.

49ers coach Chip Kelly wasn’t ready to name a starter after benching Colin Kaepernick in favor of Blaine Gabbert during last Sunday’s loss to the Bears, but offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins spilled the beans on Tuesday. Modkins met with the media in Kelly’s place as the head coach is away from the team following the death of his father and announced that Kaepernick will make another start.

Kaepernick completed 1-of-5 passes for four yards while being sacked five times against the Bears on a snowy day in Chicago. It will be Kaepernick’s eighth start and the four starts before the Bears debacle featured far better performances than he turned in during Week 13.

The Jets will be going with a new starter for the game. Bryce Petty, who relieved Ryan Fitzpatrick in Monday night’s blowout loss, has been installed as the starter for the rest of the season for the 3-9 Jets.

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Chiefs expect full practice for Jeremy Maclin Tuesday

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - OCTOBER 30: Jeremy Maclin #19 of the Kansas City Chiefs reaches for a pass  during the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on October 30, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Chiefs only have one full practice this week before they take on the Raiders in a home game on Thursday night and the word from Kansas City is that wide receiver Jeremy Maclin will be a full participant in it.

Coach Andy Reid broke the news when he met with the media on Tuesday and it represents a major step up for Maclin. The wideout has missed four straight games because of a groin injury and practiced on a limited basis last week before being ruled out for the team’s game against the Falcons.

The Chiefs were able to win three of the four games they’ve played without Maclin, but having him back in action would be a boost for their offense in a game that would give them a season sweep over Oakland with a win. It would also give them a tiebreaker advantage should the teams wind up with the same record at the end of the year.

Kansas City doesn’t have any other major injury concerns heading into the game as everyone on the 53-man roster is expected to practice on Tuesday.

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