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Preseason Power Rankings No. 4: New England Patriots

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The Patriots were back in the AFC Championship Game last year, but their bid for another Super Bowl title were dashed by the Broncos.

Making it there was a credit to coach Bill Belichick’s adaptability as he had to fill holes created by injuries while finding a way to keep the offense moving in spite of an underwhelming season by Tom Brady’s wide receivers. That stopped against Denver, but the Patriots made it clear they have designs on staying on top in the AFC East.

They signed cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in hopes of stopping the revolving door at that position, with the Revis acquisition and a growing group of talent in the front seven leading to thoughts of the best Patriots defense in several years.

There were no such additions to the offense, but the hope is that the return to health of tight end Rob Gronkowski serves the same purpose.

Strengths.

When Gronkowski was healthy last season, the Patriots had one of the most potent offenses in the league. When he was out, they weren’t close to the same level as a team and Brady wasn’t as effective as a quarterback. Whether Gronk can stay healthy for an entire year is a matter of some debate, but his impact on the team is certain.

The Patriots had a pretty good defense last season without Revis. Adding one of the best cornerbacks in the game as he looks to restore some luster after a forgettable year in Tampa has the potential to move the defense from pretty good to great in a shift that the Pats would love to see.

Revis won’t be doing it alone, though. Linebacker Jerod Mayo was lost after the sixth week of the season because of a torn pectoral muscle and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork’s torn Achilles made him a bystander as well. Getting both back to go with Jamie Collins, Donta’ Hightower, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich would make for one of the best front sevens in the conference.

The permanent move to safety was a good one for Devin McCourty, who turned in an excellent year in 2013. With better cornerback play expected, McCourty could be deployed in a more aggressive manner this time around.

Weaknesses.

Julian Edelman caught a lot of passes, but the rest of the wide receivers left something to be desired last season. The Patriots need Danny Amendola to remain on the field and they’d like to see the potential of Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins or Josh Boyce translated into actual production. Without those developments, the Patriots will be relying heavily on Gronkowski remaining healthy once again this year.

Brady was sacked 40 times last year, the second-most of his career, and that number will need to come down this season. Center and right guard are the spots most in need of improvement as Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly were weak links last year.

LeGarrette Blount wasn’t re-signed as a free agent, leaving the Patriots without their battering ram in the backfield from last year. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are on hand, so there’s no reason to panic although the team’s versatility took a little bit of a hit with Blount’s departure.

If everyone is healthy, the defensive line should be pretty good. Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Will Smith and first-round pick Dominique Easley are all returning from serious injuries, though, and the depth isn’t strong enough to keep pressure on opposing quarterbacks if they aren’t in the game.

Changes.

We’ll get to the changes that have been made in a second, right after we discuss the changes that the Patriots hope will take place. After losing Gronkowski, Mayo, Wilfork, Kelly and Sebastian Vollmer to season-ending injuries last year, the Patriots will be hoping that simply being healthier will allow them to push their way back to the top of the conference.

The Pats added three offensive linemen in the draft — center Bryan Stork, tackle Cameron Fleming and guard Jon Halapio — to restock with some young depth up front.

Browner will serve a suspension to start the year, so it will be some time before he and Revis can be deployed as a tandem. Logan Ryan, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard will be on hand to fill in and then fill out the sub packages.

Brandon LaFell was signed as a free agent after playing out his contract with the Panthers. There’s probably more upside with the younger receivers, but the Pats will take any help they can get at the position after last season.

Camp Battles.

Steve Gregory is gone, leaving an opening at safety next to McCourty. Patrick Chung is back after a spell with the Eagles and he’ll join Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, Kanorris Davis and rookie Jemea Thomas at the position. Harmon looks like the first choice heading into camp.

The Patriots drafted running back James White in the fourth round and he’ll likely vie with Brandon Bolden for backfield snaps left up for graps after Blount’s departure. Given the fluid nature of running back situations, he could wind up with even more than that if things break right.

New England selected quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round, setting up a competition with Ryan Mallett for backup duties and the role as unofficial heir to Brady.

Prospects.

The Patriots have advanced at least as far as the conference title game in each of the last three seasons. When you survey the AFC at this point, another trip to that round feels like the expectation once again in New England.

We can’t know which Patriots might be injured this season or which teams might come together to form a whole better than anyone is predicting in July, but, outside of Denver, there aren’t any teams in the conference that are safe bets to be better than the Patriots. And there certainly aren’t any in the AFC East, where the question again appears to be how many weeks it will take for the Pats to sew up the crown.

Getting beyond the conference title game and earning another Lombardi Trophy is a different matter, however. They’ll need better health than last season, development from a young receiver or two and no noticeable slippage from key veterans to add a fourth ring for the Belichick era.

There’s a lot that needs to break right, but the Patriots are in position to capitalize if things do go that way.

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Jaguars sign Tyler Patmon

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The Jaguars have been spending time with several free agents of late, but the one they signed one on Monday wasn’t in any reports of visitors to Jacksonville.

The team announced that they have signed cornerback Tyler Patmon to their 90-man roster.

Patmon didn’t see any action in the regular season last year and spent the season on the practice squads of the Chiefs and Panthers after being waived by the Titans at the end of the preseason. He entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Cowboys in 2014, played 22 games with them over his first two seasons and returned his only interception 58 yards for a touchdown against the Cardinals.

The Jaguars have O.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey at the top of the depth chart at corner with Aaron Colvin and seventh-rounder Jalen Myrick joining Patmon among those contending for other spots in the secondary.

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Saints bring back tackle Bryce Harris

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The Saints had three years to look at Bryce Harris, but apparently another few days convinced them.

According to Herbie Teope of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Saints are signing the veteran tackle, who recently attended their rookie minicamp on a tryout basis.

Harris spent his first three years with the Saints (2012-14), but was claimed off waivers by the Falcons in 2015.

He was among final cuts in Atlanta last year, and was out of football, but the Saints apparently saw enough to bring him back for another stint.

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Buccaneers sign O.J. Howard

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Another first-round pick has signed his first NFL contract.

Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard became the latest addition to the list on Monday. The team announced that Howard has signed his four-year deal, which, like all deals for first-round picks, grants them an option for a fifth season.

Howard caught 114 passes for 1,726 yards and performed well as a blocker in the running game for Alabama before showing off his speed at the Scouting Combine. That led some to project Howard as a top 10 pick, but he wound up going 19th overall to the Buccaneers.

That short drop likely came as a pleasant surprise to Jameis Winston, who will now have Howard at tight end to go with wide receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson in the passing game.

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Giovani Bernard to be limited in OTAs, six months after ACL tear

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Bengals running back Giovani Bernard has come along well enough after last season’s torn ACL that he can get at least some work in at organized team activities.

Bernard is expected to be a limited participant at OTAs, Katherine Terrell of ESPN reports.

In 10 games last season, Bernard had 91 carries for 337 yards and 39 catches for 336 yards. He suffered a torn ACL against the Bills on November 20.

The Bengals’ backfield has grown more crowded this offseason with the arrival of second-round draft pick Joe Mixon. Bernard may get fewer carries this year thanks to the presence of Mixon, although he’ll likely still be an important part of the passing game.

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Pardon My Take guys crash PFT Live set

Last Monday, Barstool Big Cat and PFT Commenter, hosts of the immensely popular Pardon My Take podcast, made a scheduled appearance on set with me at the temporary PFT Live studio in 30 Rock. This Monday, they made an unexpected visit to the set in my home studio.

They’d come to town as part of their second annual Grit Week tour, hanging out in the PFT barn and eating the PFT possum-flavored steak and swinging axes in the PFT woods. Before their chariot of choice, Vanny Woodhead, left for the next stop (Detroit), they walked onto the set.

It happened during the segment from Monday’s show that is attached to this post, which includes Big Cat giving back to me a Grit Week gift I’d previously given to him.

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Josh Dobbs signs with Steelers

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The Steelers took a quarterback in the draft for the first time since 2013 and they now have him under contract.

Fourth-round pick Josh Dobbs tweeted out a picture of his contract signing on Monday. He’s the sixth member of the team’s eight-player draft class to agree to a deal.

Dobbs started 35 games for the University of Tennessee and had a 53-29 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the course of his career in Knoxville. He also left school as their all-time leader in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns for a quarterback.

Landry Jones signed a two-year extension this offseason so Dobbs will likley be starting out his NFL career as the No. 3 quarterback in Pittsburgh. Both moves came after Ben Roethlisberger mused about retirement earlier this year and a strong showing for Dobbs in practices could have him set to move up a couple of rungs should Roethlisberger go through with it at some point in the near future.

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L.A. stadium should want to delay Super Bowl by a year

Immediately after word broke that the new L.A. stadium will have its opening delayed by a year, the leak/spin cycle began to sell the idea that the NFL could waive its rule requiring a stadium to be open for two years before hosting a Super Bowl. As the leak/spin cycle continues, an important point is being lost in the shuffle: The folks in L.A. should want to delay the stadium’s first Super Bowl by a year.

The reason for the rule (which the leak/spin cycle most recently described to Peter King of TheMMQB.com as an “unofficial policy,” which makes it even easier to disregard) is obvious. The NFL wants to be sure that all kinks have been worked out of a new stadium before it hosts the NFL’s premiere annual 100-million-plus-viewer event.

As King notes, the leak/spin cycle points to the fact that, with the Chargers and Rams sharing the venue, it will have hosted as many NFL games as the new stadiums in Minnesota and Atlanta will host before staging a Super Bowl. The counter to that, however, is that an already hectic and stressful year, with 20 preseason and regular season games in five months, should not be made even more hectic and stressful via the extra work and effort and time and money and everything else spent in order to host a Super Bowl.

Security concerns remain paramount at the Super Bowl. From design to construction to operation of the stadium, new challenges will emerge regarding the process of letting the right people in and keeping the wrong people out. Last year in Minnesota, at the end of the first year of the new stadium’s life cycle, mischief-makers were able to make mischief with equipment they never should have been able to sneak through the doors.

While similar issues problems have happened at older stadiums (like the one in Charlotte), deviating from a rule/unofficial policy/whatever invites a big, fat I-told-you-so if anything happens that shouldn’t during Super Bowl LV.

Then there’s the possibility of further construction delays. Already behind by a full year, what if more unanticipated delays emerge? It would make much more sense to push the Super Bowl back by a year now in order to avoid having to scramble at a time when it may be much harder to reserve thousands of hotel rooms and the various large halls and other spaces needed to pull off the full Super Bowl experience.

For those reasons, the folks building the L.A. stadium shouldn’t be trying to keep their current Super Bowl in place; they should be clamoring to get it delayed. As King notes, the new venue will host multiple Super Bowls. Whether the first one happens to cap the 2020 or 2021 season shouldn’t matter.

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Panthers reorganize scouting department

The Panthers have shuffled their personnel department a bit after the departure of assistant General Manager Brandon Beane for Buffalo, passing out some titles which should keep their scouting department largely intact.

The team hasn’t named a new assistant G.M., but pro scouting director Mark Koncz was named director of player personnel.

They also bumped veteran college scouting director Don Gregory to “senior executive scout,” putting him in an overseeing role for both pro and college scouting. They named longtime college scout Jeff Morrow their new director of college scouting.

“You are always looking to improve your scouting operation,” G.M Dave Gettleman said in a statement. “We made some moves after taking a look at everything. I feel really good about our personnel group, both pro and college. We feel this strengthens us even further.”

The Panthers also named Matt Allen the new director of pro personnel, Jonathan Fields a pro scouting assistant and Eli Montague an area scout.

Photo credit: Panthers.com

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Darrelle Revis won’t be punished by NFL after February incident

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Darrelle Revis doesn’t have a job at the moment.

But at least if he finds one, the former All-Pro cornerback won’t have to worry about any future punishment.

According to Rich Cimini of ESPN.com, the league has completed its review of the case surrounding assault charges (which were dismissed in March) and has decided to do nothing.

The 31-year-old Revis hasn’t found a taker since being released by the Jets, and frankly this decision shouldn’t have much bearing on his future employment.

The Jets still owe him $6 million, so it’s not like he’s out there hurting for cash. But his play last year was nothing to create a robust market for himself.

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Josh Doctson to work in full at OTAs

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Wide receiver Josh Doctson’s rookie season was almost a total washout as the first-round pick played in just two games while dealing with an Achilles injury that kept him out of most offseason and preseason work as well.

Doctson moved along slowly in the early parts of this offseason and Redskins coach Jay Gruden said in April that the team was planning to continue with a cautious approach through their organized team activities. Those get going this week and Doctson’s outlook has improved.

Gruden said Monday, via multiple Washington beat reporters, that Doctson will be “full for everything” during OTAs.

That should be a plus for the offense as the departures of Pierre Garçon and DeSean Jackson has left space to fill alongside Jamison Crowder and Terrelle Pryor. Doctson went in the first round because the Redskins were convinced he could provide such help to the passing game and it looks like he’ll get a bigger chance to prove it this year.

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Mike Zimmer will miss some OTAs after eighth eye surgery

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Vikings coach Mike Zimmer disclosed over the weekend that he recently had an eighth surgical procedure on his right eye. On Monday, Zimmer has disclosed that the development will cause him to miss some of the team’s OTA sessions.

Zimmer told Paul Allen of KFAN that the fourth-year coach will miss an undetermined number of offseason practice sessions while he rests at home following the latest operation.

“As the Vikings begin OTA practices, Coach Zimmer will be taking time away from the team to dedicate to recovering from eye surgery and restoring his health,” the Vikings said in a statement. “We all agree Mike’s health is the priority and we believe rest and recovery are in his best interest for the long term. We anticipate Mike back on the field in a few weeks.”

The OTA process represents the culmination of the offseason program, during which much of the offense and defense for the coming season is installed. Apart from the impact of Zimmer’s absence on this preparations, the situation will serve for any of the players who were on the roster last year as a reminder of one of the most bizarre and disappointing seasons in team history.

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Bruce Allen believes July 15 will be “driving point” in Kirk Cousins contract talks

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When he was asked about his desire for a long-term contract recently, Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins said that he’s in a “good place” right now and noted that many players are on one-year contracts without anyone making a major fuss.

It was team president Bruce Allen’s turn to talk about Cousins’ contract status on Monday and cited Cousins’ comments when saying the team was comfortable going into the season with Cousins playing on the franchise tag. Allen also said that the team remains interested in extending Cousins’ deal because the quarterback has gotten “better and better” and that he’s “always an optimist” about things working out.

If a deal is going to be struck, it sounds like it might not come until we draw closer to the July 15 deadline for tagged players to sign multi-year deals.

“It’s ongoing,” Allen said, via Master Tesfatsion of the Washington Post. “There’s been constant dialogue, I don’t want to say it’s been every day. I really believe July 15, the league deadline, is really going to be the driving point to it. It’s ongoing.”

There hasn’t seemed to be much momentum toward a deal, but we’ve seen the deadline lead to action in other cases where an agreement seemed like a longshot. In a little less than two months, we’ll know which side of the fence the Cousins talk wind up.

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Giants bringing Devin Taylor in for a visit

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The Giants have written big checks lately for pass-rushing defensive ends, but they still need some depth.

A league source confirms to PFT the Giants are bringing former Lions defensive end Devin Taylor for a visit.

Taylor had 7.0 sacks as a reserve two years ago, but only 4.5 last year as a starter in Detroit.

After signing Olivier Vernon a year ago and extending Jason Pierre-Paul this offseason, the Giants are covered with starters but could use more depth.

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Gerald Hodges visiting Bills, Giants

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The Gerald Hodges job tour continues.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, the free-agent linebacker will visit the Bills today and the Giants on Tuesday.

Hodges recently met with the Jets. Before that, he visited with the Chiefs and Seahawks.

Hodges, No. 61 on the PFT Free Agent Hot 100 list, previously played for the 49ers. Because the window has closed on the compensatory draft-pick formula, any team that signs him won’t have that count against their net free agency gains/losses for the purposes of dishing out extra third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, and/or seventh-round picks.

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Orlando Franklin visiting Jags, Sam Barrington visited last week

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The Jaguars are slated to have wide receiver Victor Cruz in for a visit this week, but he’s not the only veteran free agent on their radar.

Adam Schefter of ESPN reports and PFT has confirmed that guard Orlando Franklin is visiting the team on Monday. Franklin was released by the Chargers last week.

Franklin started 26 games for the Chargers over the last two seasons and has been a regular in the starting lineup since joining the Broncos as a second-round pick in 2011. The Jaguars are in need of a left guard, although there’s been some speculation that the loser of the left tackle competition between Branden Albert and Cam Robinson could slide inside.

Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that the Jaguars also had linebacker Sam Barrington in for a workout last week. He split last season between the Chiefs and Saints and would be a depth pickup for Jacksonville.

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