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Preseason Power Rankings No. 4: New England Patriots

Julian Edelman, Ryan Allen, Danny Aiken AP

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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Raiders waive Kenbrell Thompkins

Kenbrell Thompkins, Tyrann Mathieu AP

Two years ago, receiver Kenbrell Thompkins became a pleasant surprise from the Patriots, catching 32 passes for 466 yards in 12 games as an undrafted rookie.

Last year, the Patriots decided to move on from Thompkins after only two appearances. He landed with the Raiders, and he finished the year with 12 appearances and six starts.

This year, there will be no starts with the Raiders; per a league source, Thompkins has been waived.

He’ll now be available on waivers to any interested team. If he clears waivers, he’ll become a free agent.

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Raiders cut Trent Richardson

Trent Richardson AP

One of the biggest draft busts in recent memory may have reached the end of the line.

Trent Richardson, the running back selected third overall in the 2012 draft, has been released by the Raiders, according to ESPN.

Richardson had a disappointing rookie season with the Browns after going third overall, and was then traded to the Colts for a first-round pick. A complete disaster in Indianapolis, Richardson was cut this offseason. The Raiders picked him up, but he did not impress in the preseason.

Realistically, it’s hard to see any other team giving Richardson a chance after he was such a dismal failure in all three of his stops. At age 25, this once-promising running back has probably played his last snap in the NFL.

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If Cousins can’t cut his interceptions, Gruden can’t stick with him

Jacksonville Jaguars v Washington Redskins Getty Images

Washington coach Jay Gruden insists that Kirk Cousins is his quarterback for the 2015 season. Don’t be surprised if Gruden changes his mind.

Gruden has already changed his mind before: He changed his mind about Robert Griffin III when he proclaimed Cousins the starter today, and Gruden changed his mind about Cousins last year when he benched Cousins for Colt McCoy. So we know Gruden isn’t a man to stick to his guns at the quarterback position.

And we also know that Cousins is a quarterback who gives his coaches ample reason to bench him. In his three-year NFL career, Cousins has thrown 19 interceptions out of 407 passes. That’s a terrible rate of 4.7 percent of all of his passes being intercepted — nearly double the league-wide rate of 2.5 percent of passes being intercepted. According to ESPN, Cousins is the only quarterback in the NFL to average more than one turnover for every 30 snaps over the last two years.

For all the criticism Griffin receives, he doesn’t throw interceptions anywhere near as often as Cousins. Griffin has thrown interceptions on just 2.2 percent of his passes in his NFL career, meaning Cousins gets picked off more than twice as often as Griffin.

That’s an area where Cousins simply has to improve. If not, Gruden is going to change his mind again.

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Josh Boyce among Patriots’ cuts

Josh Boyce AP

When the Patriots selected TCU wide receiver Josh Boyce in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft, they thought he had the potential to be a big-play player both on their offense and on special teams. It hasn’t worked out that way.

The Patriots announced today that Boyce has been released after two years with the team.

As a rookie the Patriots gave Boyce plenty of opportunities, but he ended the season with just nine catches for 121 yards, plus nine kickoff returns for 214 yards. In 2014 Boyce was largely phased out, playing only in the meaningless Week 17 game and never touching the ball.

Also cut by the Patriots today were receiver Jonathan Krause, tight end Jimmay Mundine, defensive lineman Joe Vellano and linebacker Dekoda Watson.

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Where will RGIII be in three years?

Detroit Lions v Washington Redskins Getty Images

Three years ago, Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III was preparing to take the league by storm. A lot has happened since then.

Three years from now, where will Griffin be?

That’s the subject of the poll question for Monday’s Pro Football Talk on NBCSN. Answer below, then tune in at 6:00 p.m. ET for the show.

During the show, Rodney Harrison, Paul Burmeister, and yours truly will talk about the Griffin situation, along with plenty of other stuff. Enough stuff to fill up an entire half hour.

See you then. Which is a subtle way of persuading you to watch, by presuming that you will.

It probably would have been more effective if I’d simply stopped at, “See you then.”

So, see you then.

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Julius Thomas seeking second opinion, may miss four weeks

Julius Thomas AP

Julius Thomas’s tenure in Jacksonville is not off to a great start.

Thomas, the tight end who landed with the Jaguars in a big free-agent signing, has missed the last two preseason games with a hand injury. And now he may miss another month.

Jaguars General Manager David Caldwell said today that Thomas is getting a second opinion and may need surgery on his hand. If Thomas does need surgery, the recovery time would be four weeks. Which means Thomas could miss the first few games of the regular season.

A few games is not a big deal in the grand scheme of the five-year, $46 million contract Thomas signed with the Jaguars. But this is not the way the Jaguars were hoping Thomas would begin his tenure when he signed that deal.

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Rex announces Tyrod Taylor after “change of heart” on secrecy

Rex Ryan AP

Bills coach Rex Ryan has said for weeks that he would not announce the winner of his team’s quarterback competition. And then today he made the announcement.

Ryan confirmed today that Tyrod Taylor will start Week One against the Colts. Previously, Ryan said he wouldn’t announce the Bills’ Week One starter because he didn’t want to give the Colts any edge. But today Ryan said he had a “change of heart” about that and thought it made more sense to proclaim publicly that the franchise is behind Taylor as its quarterback.

The decision to start Taylor suggests that the Bills think the way they can win this year is by playing good defense and keeping the ball on the ground on offense. Taylor is unproven as a passer, but he may be the fastest quarterback in the NFL, and his running threat will make the Bills — who are already deep at running back — one of the NFL’s best running teams.

In fact, the Bills may even play offense a bit like Ryan’s Jets did in last year’s Monday night game against the Dolphins. On that night, the Jets ran the ball 49 times and threw the ball only 13 times, and they almost pulled off an upset of Miami. Ryan’s Bills may very well lead the league in rushing attempts.

But there will be times when the Bills need a quarterback who can throw the ball. And if Taylor can’t deliver, it won’t be a surprise if Ryan has another “change of heart” and switches to Matt Cassel.

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NFL changes auction procedures after AFC title game mishap

images Getty Images

The AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and Colts remains best known for #DeflateGate, which has prompted the NFL to change the way it handles footballs. A lesser-known glitch from that same game also has prompted the league to make a change.

In a memo sent last week to all teams, the NFL informed all teams that it has changed the way it harvests game-used footballs for auction. Basically, the league office no longer will be doing the harvesting.

“NFL Auction employees will no longer carry jerseys and other game-used items with them from games,” the memo from Jeff Pash, Troy Vincent, and Anna Isaacson to all teams said in a memo that PFT has obtained. “Instead, when Auction employees are onsite, they will coordinate prior to the game with the club’s equipment manager and meet them postgame to photograph items to be provided for sale on NFL Auction. This will enable the items to be posted quickly on the Auction website to capitalize on timing and interest. In all cases, however, shipping will go directly from the club to The Hibbert Group.”

In January, former NFL employee Scott Miller removed a kicking ball from play in the first half of the AFC title game, sparking a chain of events that resulted in an erroneous ESPN report that the Patriots had tried to introduce an unapproved kicking ball into the game. Miller later was fired, as PFT reported in February.

The specific events, as chronicled in the Ted Wells report, remain unclear, but the Patriots were exonerated of any wrongdoing as to that specific portion of the investigation. Moving forward, there will be no room for confusion in matters of this nature, since NFL employees will not remove footballs or other game-used items from the game site, either during or after the contests. Instead, the teams will be sending the materials directly to the auction house that sells the items.

NFL employees will be responsible for taking photographs of items to be auctioned after the game, and then to compare the photos from the game site to photos taken by the auction house to ensure authenticity.

It still seems that the best way to ensure authenticity is to have an NFL employee physically remove the item and deliver it to the auction house. Apparently, however, there was a flaw in that process sufficiently fatal to prompt the NFL to completely abandon it.

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Seahawks make their moves, including cutting projected center

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

In addition to pawning off unwanted wide receiver Kevin Norwood to the Panthers in a pre-deadline trade, the Seahawks have announced the rest of the moves they’ll need to get to the 75-man roster limit.

The team announced 14 other moves, as they did the work they need to do a day ahead of time.

The biggest name among those cut was Lemuel Jeanpierre. While perhaps not a household name, he did head into camp as their projected starting center, after dealing Max Unger to the Saints in the Jimmy Graham trade.

The Seahawks line is in a reasonable degree of flux anyway, and this cut leaves the job to Drew Nowak for the moment.

They also released defensive tackle D’Anthony Smith, and waived tackle Jesse Davis, cornerback George Farmer, wide receivers Deshon Foxx and Deontay Greenberry, cornerback Keelan Johnson, linebacker Quayshawn Nealy, defensive end Greg Scruggs and safety Ty Zimmerman.

They also waived/injured fullback Brandon Cottom and cornerback Triston Wade, and placed cornerback Jeremy Lane and wide receiver Paul Richardson on reserve/PUP, meaning Lane and Richardson will miss at least the first six weeks of the season.

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Report: Seahawks trading Norwood to Panthers

Kevin Norwood AP

The Seahawks will trade wide receiver Kevin Norwood to the Panthers, according to a report from Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle.

A fourth-round pick in 2014, Norwood caught nine passes in games as a rookie. Earlier Monday, Wilson reported that the Seahawks were going to waive Norwood.

The Panthers didn’t have a stellar receiving corps even before the loss of Kelvin Benjamin for the season to a torn ACL, so this move makes sense. Per Mike Garafolo of FOX Sports, the compensation is an undisclosed draft pick. This is the the kind of trade that happens often at this stage of the preseason and often involves a conditional draft pick — and generally a seventh-rounder — based on how much Norwood eventually contributes to the Panthers.

The emergence of rookie Tyler Lockett and presence of young receivers Kevin Smith and Kasen Williams made Norwood expendable in Seattle.

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Martavis Bryant suspension becomes official

Martavis Bryant AP

We still don’t know whether the Patriots will have quarterback Tom Brady for the regular-season opener. But we now know that the Steelers won’t have two key offensive weapons due to suspension.

Running back Le’Veon Bell previously was suspended two games for violating the substance-abuse policy. Receiver Martavis Bryant has now been suspended four games for violating the substance-abuse policy.

“We are disappointed in Martavis’ actions that has led to his four-game suspension,” Steelers G.M. Kevin Colbert said in a team-issued release. “It is a disappointment to our entire organization as well as our fans, but we will continue to support Martavis during his suspension. It is very unfortunate his actions have put our team in this situation to begin the year, but we are confident he will learn from his mistake and return in excellent shape in Week Five.”

It was more than a mistake; it was a series of violations of the substance-abuse policy that culminated in the four-game suspension, with Bryant consistently choosing a banned substance over football. Now, he’ll have to unequivocally choose football, or he’ll eventually face a 10-game suspension and, in time, a full-year banishment.

The Steelers apparently have chosen to stick with Bryant. Five years ago, they abruptly dumped receiver Santonio Holmes onto the Jets after Holmes was suspended four games under the substance-abuse policy.

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49ers to put center Daniel Kilgore on reserve/PUP

Daniel Kilgore AP

The 49ers hope to get center Daniel Kilgore back on the field this season, but it won’t be for at least the first six weeks.

According to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, the 49ers informed Kilgore he’d be placed on the reserve/physically unable to perform list, which will be part of their roster moves to get to the 75-man limit by Tuesday’s deadline.

The move makes Kilgore ineligible for at least the first six weeks of the season. There’s then a five-week window for him to begin practicing, and from the day he starts, the team has three weeks to make a roster decision.

Kilgore suffered a broken leg last season, but needed follow-up surgery in June, and is still wearing a walking boot, so he doesn’t appear to be close to a return.

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Fred Jackson would have “done anything” to retire with Bills

Fred Jackson AP

We’ve heard from Bills G.M. Doug Whaley regarding the decision to part ways with running back Fred Jackson after 10 years with franchise. We’ve yet to hear from Jackson.

But here’s what PFT has heard, given that Whaley didn’t really say much regarding the decision to move on from Jackson.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, Jackson would have “done anything” to retire with the Bills. Jackson, however, wasn’t given that chance.

In meeting with the media, Whaley answered questions but said nothing, citing “competitive reasons” for not elaborating on the decision to move on from Jackson.

Whaley declined to say whether the Bills tried to trade Jackson, but he acknowledged that the salary cap was part of the decision. If so, the cap number could have been reduced. Again, Jackson wasn’t given that chance.

The question now becomes whether Jackson will get that chance elsewhere. The Browns make plenty of sense, given the fact that coach Mike Pettine spent time in Buffalo as defensive coordinator. Other teams with needs in the top two spots of the depth chart make sense, too.

Still, Jackson would have more options if the decision had come earlier. While Whaley tried to paint the timing of the decision as a favor to Jackson in his effort to find a new team, the real favor would have been to let Jackson go in March, so that he could land on a team has already made other plans based on the players who were available in March.

And April. And May. And June. And July. And August 1 through August 30.

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Dave Zastudil, Lorenzo Alexander part of early cuts in Arizona

Dave Zastudil AP

Punter Dave Zastudil missed 14 games last season after suffering a groin injury in September and it looks like the two games he did play with the Cardinals will be his last with the team.

The Cardinals announced that they have released Zastudil on Monday, leaving Drew Butler as the only punter on the roster heading into the 2015 season. Zastudil spent four years with the Cardinals and has also played for the Ravens and Browns during a 12-year NFL career.

Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander was also cut loose on Monday. Alexander spent the last two seasons in the desert and appeared in all 16 games for the team last year. He was listed as a second-teamer during the preseason, but his departure is a good reminder of how unofficial those charts are at this time of the year.

Linebacker Glenn Carson, guard Nate Isles, linebacker Edwin Jackson, linebacker Andrae Kirk, cornerback Shaq Richardson, tight end Gannon Sinclair, cornerback Darren Woodard, wide receiver Ryan Spadola and wide receiver Travis Harvey have also been dispatched, leaving the Cardinals with one move to make to get to 75 players.

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Cowboys waive five players

Divisional Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v Green Bay Packers Getty Images

None of the first five cuts the Cowboys made were especially notable or surprising.

Waived Monday were wide receiver Phil Bates, cornerback Robert Steeples, defensive tackle Carlif Taylor, punter Tom Hornsey and long snapper Casey Kreiter. The team still has to make more moves to meet Tuesday’s deadline for cutting the roster to 75.

All 32 teams close the preseason Thursday and must trim their rosters to the regular-season size of 53 by Saturday.

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