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Preseason Power Rankings No. 4: New England Patriots

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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Jay Gruden was disappointed by the firing of Scot McCloughan

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Washington head coach Jay Gruden was sorry to see G.M. Scot McCloughan go.

Gruden said at the league meeting that he was upset when he learned McCloughan had been fired.

“I was disappointed,” Gruden said, via Liz Clarke of the Washington Post. “I like Scot; I liked working with Scot. I think he’s a good person and a great talent evaluator. Anytime you lose someone, it’s disappointing. But at the end of the day, it’s professional football. Anyone who has been around it understands that change is going to happen.”

Gruden’s public comments stand in contrast with some of the anonymous sources out of Washington who bad-mouthed McCloughan out the door and suggested that he has a drinking problem that contributed to his firing. Gruden wouldn’t say directly when asked if the team needed to fire McCloughan.

“I’m not going to say it had to be made. It was made,” he said. “That’s all I can live with. When decisions are made of that magnitude, you reflect on the good things you learned from Scot and the good things he did for the team. And you move forward.”

Gruden sounds like he would have been perfectly happy to keep working with McCloughan. But the higher-ups in the organization, owner Dan Snyder and team president Bruce Allen, apparently thought otherwise.

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Jaguars bump offseason reporting date back after NFLPA challenge

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Doug Marrone is the newly appointed head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. New head coaches in the NFL are permitted to begin their offseason programs a week earlier than incumbent coaches in order to give new staffs a chance to get a head start.

However, Marrone had already been coaching in Jacksonville for the last two seasons as an assistant on Gus Bradley’s staff. And that distinction has led to a butting of heads between the Jaguars and the NFL Players’ Association.

The Jaguars had received approval from the NFL to begin their offseason program on April 10 along with the other teams with new head coaches. However, the NFLPA challenged the Jaguars’ status of having a new head coach since Marrone served as interim head coach to end last season.

“Our position is that Doug Marrone is a new head coach this season after serving as interim head coach for the last two games of the 2016 season,” Jaguars Executive Vice President of Football Operations Tom Coughlin said in a statement released by the team.

Following conversations with the league, the Jaguars have revised their offseason program to begin on April 17.

“We are glad to now know our reporting date, although we had planned to begin on April 10, and we had already invited our players to come in on that day,” Coughlin said.

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L.A. Chargers gift jersey to all season-ticket holders

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The Chargers are trying.

No one can accuse them of less.

They’ve run the Los Angeles Marathon as a relay team. They’ve eaten a team-themed chili dog at Pink’s Hot Dogs, a Hollywood staple. They’ve made a gaggle of L.A. radio and TV appearances, including “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” Tight end Jeff Cumberland, who missed all of 2016 to injury, wore his Chargers jersey during a Kingdom Day Parade appearance. He also attended a Clippers-Lakers game where we was jeered and the club’s logo was booed on the big screen.

And this is all since the Jan. 12 move.

On Tuesday, the franchise made the latest effort to endear itself to its new market, gifting all season-ticket holders a Philip Rivers powder-blue home jersey. The jerseys are available in both male and female classifications.

“Fight for L.A.” is the former San Diego franchise’s marketing slogan.

This is the newest round.

“To show our appreciation for you, we are offering exclusively to all 2017 Season Ticket Members a Philip Rivers powder blue Nike Game Jersey for each Season Ticket Member,” the official notice to customers reads, via Vincent Bonsignore of the L.A. Daily News. “Yes, a Nike Game Jersey for you to wear at all home games at StubHub Center!

“This is our way of saying thank you from your Los Angeles Chargers.”

During their final years in San Diego, the Chargers did make an effort to enhance the perks provided to season-ticket holders, be it through such events as exclusive practice access and conference calls with the general manager or head coach.

Even so, some in San Diego viewed the jersey as an upgrade.

Said one former customer on Twitter: “10 yrs as a season ticket holder the best we got was a shirt that said ‘We’re All In’ during a season they were planning their escape to L.A.”

In any event, it’s a gesture.

The L.A. Chargers haven’t lacked for those.

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John Schneider on idea of trading Richard Sherman: “We listen to everything”

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Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman may find it hilarious there’s talk he could be traded. However, General Manager John Schneider didn’t exactly slam the door shut on the concept on Tuesday.

In meeting with Seattle reporters at the league meetings, Schneider said that they listen to every proposal that comes their way.

“We listen. We listen to everything you would think,” he said. “We’re in a lot of stuff. We try to pride ourselves on that. I think I’ve told you guys before we walk away from 98 percent of the deals that we’re involved with or talking about. But at least we know that we’ve knocked down their door, we’ve gone in there and checked it out. We’re not just going to assume. We always just have to constantly be thinking about the organization and how we’re going to move it forward.”

The idea of trading Sherman came about after former NFL executive Michael Lombardi said in a podcast that he’d heard Seattle would be open to trading the All-Pro cornerback.

“I truly believe, based on what I hear around the National Football League, that the Seahawks would in fact, for the right deal, trade Richard Sherman,” Lombardi said as part of a larger discussion surrounding the New Orleans Saints interest in New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler.

The practicality of a deal for Sherman this year doesn’t seem feasible. Sherman’s contract isn’t particularly advantageous for Seattle to try to move him. Additionally, they need him. With Deshawn Shead expected to be out well into the regular season following a torn ACL sustained in the playoffs, Seattle’s cornerback depth is currently lacking.

However, the fact Schneider didn’t go out of his way to shrug off the idea is notable. Sherman twice blew up at members of Seattle’s coaching staff on the sidelines during games. He publicly criticized offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell for calling a pass from the 1-yard line in a December game against the Los Angeles Rams, doubled down on the comments the following week, threatened to ruin the career of a media member and generally remained an issue for the remainder of the season.

The “right deal” probably doesn’t exist right now for Sherman. That doesn’t mean it won’t exist in the future. And Seattle might just be willing to pull the trigger when the time comes.

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Lions president asks favor of NFL schedule-makers

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The Lions lost their first five games in 2015 before winning seven of their final 11.

They started 1-3 in 2016 before winning eight of their next 12.

To say NFL schedule-makers were responsible for these slow starts would be a stretch. But in light of the arrangement of late, Lions President Rod Wood said Tuesday he’s kindly submitted a request to the powers that be before next month’s 2017 schedule release: Please, not again.

Wood told reporters he asked the NFL not to assign the Lions three road games in their first four weeks. Such has been the case the past two regular seasons.

Before that stretch, it hadn’t happened to Detroit since 2011.

The Lions went 10-6 that year, winning their first five games en route to the franchise’s first playoff berth since 1999. The results were less favorable when the schedule began the same in 2010; Detroit lost its first four games in a 6-10 year.

The Browns, Dolphins, Rams and Raiders are the only other clubs who began 2016 with three of four games on the road.

Only the Lions were doing so for a consecutive year.

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Goodell doesn’t think Colin Kaepernick is being blackballed

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NFL commissioner Roger Goodell seemed shocked by the simple suggestion that such a thing could be possible.

When asked directly at the end of the league’s owners meetings if he thought former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was being blackballed for last year’s political protests, Goodell said he saw no evidence of that.

“I haven’t heard that from our clubs in any way that that’s an issue,” Goodell said. “My experience in 35 years is that our clubs make independent evaluations of players. They work hard to try to improve their teams.

“But if they think a player can help improve their team, they’re going to do that.”

Of course, if there was an active collusion happening, it’s unlikely they’d have held a committee meeting on the topic and read the minutes to Goodell to make sure he was caught up.

But a guy that teams wanted to trade for a year ago (namely the Broncos) suddenly can’t find a home as a free agent. The reports that he’s asking for too much money and a starting job have been refuted, leaving many to wonder if there’s not a bigger issue — even if the commissioner sees no evidence of it.

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Roger Goodell says he will attend regular season opener in New England

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It has become customary in the NFL for the first game of the regular season to be hosted by the defending Super Bowl champion. It is also customary that Commissioner Roger Goodell personally attends the first game of the season.

It just so happens that game will be in New England this year, which is a place Goodell has seemingly avoided at all costs since Deflategate began during the 2014 postseason.

But just like Goodell was forced to present Patriots owner Robert Kraft with the Lombardi Trophy in February in Houston, Goodell said Tuesday at the league meetings in Phoenix that he will be attending the season opener.

“I plan to be at the kickoff game,” Goodell said.

Goodell has reportedly not attended a game in New England since the AFC Championship in 2014 that sparked the Deflategate controversy. Goodell’s postseason appearances last year came in Atlanta for their Divisional Round game against the Seahawks and NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers.

That New England drought is now set to end on Sept. 7 with the Patriots home opener.

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Roger Goodell: Discussion of celebration rules tabled

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The NFL cleaned up some rules changes already today, but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said he wanted to get more information before proceeding on modifications to the league’s celebration rules.

Goodell said he asked owners to table the proposal to loosen the league’s collective ties, saying he wanted to talk to more players before any changes are made.

A vote could still be taken at their May meeting, but Goodell said he needed time to gain “clarity” to the rule, and allow players “more ability to express themselves” while maintaining order and decorum.

While the simple act of letting players have a bit more freedom on the field is nice, reaching across the aisle and getting input from players on any topic is an important step. Along with this week’s ban on leaping over the line of scrimmage on kicks (which was suggested by the NFLPA), there’s at least some notion that the league is willing to work with labor. That’s not an insignificant thing.

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Jerry Jones: Tony Romo has options, we’ll know by training camp

AP

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones suggested today that it could be four months before Tony Romo’s future is clear.

Asked today at the league meeting when he’ll know Romo’s status for the 2017 season, Jones said a decision would be made by training camp.

The option that was once seen as most likely was the Cowboys releasing Romo and letting him decide for himself what to do next. But it now seems that the Cowboys want to hold onto him, potentially to find a trading partner.

Jones also said he and Romo have spoken recently, that they’re doing great, and that Romo has “a lot of options.” That would seem to suggest that one option Romo is considering is retiring and moving on to a television job. That might be the option Jones likes best: Jones has always loved Romo and would probably rather see him retire a Cowboy.

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NFL offering research to help find safer and position-specific helmets

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The NFL isn’t trying to get into the helmet business. But they are willing to share their concussion research with manufacturers in an effort to end up with better helmets.

NFL executive vice president of health and safety policy Jeff Miller brought Dr. Jeff Crandall, the chairman of the league’s head neck and spine engineering subcommittee to meet with reporters Tuesday at the owners meeting. And while Crandall said the science is still a few years away, the eventual benefit could be position-specific helmets in hopes of reducing the chances of concussions.

Crandall said that since different position groups already wear unique cleats or shoulder pads for the specific demands of the jobs, customizing helmets is a logical next step.

“We know that players in different positions receive different types of severity and frequency of impacts,” Crandall said. “So we think a position-specific helmet makes sense.”

For instance, linemen tend to receive lower severity hits to the head at a higher frequency than skill position players, the result of banging into each other on every snap as opposed to taking high-speed hits in the open field. So focusing the protection at the front of the helmet would be a more effective way to protect linemen.

Crandall, the director of the Center for Applied Biomechanics at the University of Virginia, said the first step is coming up with a reliable sensor to detect impacts, and the hope is that one can be found by 2018 or 2019. If that can be found, they’re willing to share the research with manufacturers, in hopes of such helmets being available by 2020.

Miller also reiterated that concussion rates were down 8.7 percent during the 2016 regular season, and down around 10 percent when you include the preseason. They also noted that there has been a 40 percent reduction in concussions suffered from helmet-to-helmet hits, which they see as evidence that rules changes are helping make the game safer. Of course, that means more concussions are coming from helmet-to-body contact, but the league hopes their research efforts can help lead to better equipment.

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Jason Garrett: Nothing has changed with Tony Romo

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The Cowboys are still holding onto Tony Romo, weeks after they were reportedly set to release him, and that doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon.

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said today that “nothing has really changed since the end of the season.”

Romo is keeping a low profile, but reports are starting to surface that he’s unhappy with the Cowboys, who have made Dak Prescott the starting quarterback. There have also been reports that Romo might quit playing entirely and take a television job.

With Romo’s $14 million salary this season, it seems unlikely the Cowboys would keep him around as Prescott’s backup. And Romo might just decide not to play at all if he’s not going to be a starter. But it could be months before we get any clarity about Romo’s situation. For now, Garrett says, the situation is the same as it was before: Romo is on the Cowboys, as Prescott’s backup.

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Cowboys extend all 3 coordinators’ contracts

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You get an extension.

You get an extension.

And you get an extension.

The Cowboys saw to it that all three coordinators’ contracts were extended before players convene in April for voluntary workouts. ESPN’s Todd Archer reported Tuesday that offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia signed off on their agreements.

Linehan and Marinelli were entering the final year of their respective deals, per Archer.

It is unclear by how many years each coach’s contract was extended.

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Eagles kick tires on CB Patrick Robinson

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Cornerback Patrick Robinson must prove he can stay healthy before seeing another large contract.

The Eagles are providing him that chance.

Robinson agreed to a one-year deal Tuesday, the team announced. He joins Philadelphia following an injury-marred year in Indianapolis, hence his contract being of the “prove it” variety worth the veteran minimum, a source confirmed to Pro Football Talk.

The Colts signed Robinson in 2016 to a three-year, $13.5 million contract following a 16-game campaign in San Diego.

But he played only seven games, suffering a concussion in the season opener and later a groin injury that landed him on injured reserve. He has been diagnosed with multiple concussions during the past two years.

Robinson, 29, arguably was the Chargers’ most valuable off-season acquisition in 2015. He similarly arrived there on a one-year deal and showcased the versatility to contribute outside and in the nickel. He finished with 59 tackles and an interception.

In 2010, the Saints drafted Robinson in the first round out of Florida State.

The NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport first reported the contract is worth $1 million. Jimmy Kempski of PhillyVoice first reported a deal was imminent.

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Vikings begin push to put Jim Marshall in Canton

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The Vikings hope that a player who once ran the wrong way with the football will end up running right into Canton.

Vikings owner/president Mark Wilf told PFT Live on Tuesday that the team has embarked on an effort to get defensive end Jim Marshall, a key member of the Purple People Eaters, into the Hall of Fame. Marshall would be eligible for consideration by the Senior Committee.

A fourth-round pick of the Browns in 1960, Marshall spent 1961 through 1979 with the Vikings, appearing in 282 straight games with 270 consecutive starts. He still holds the career record for the recovery of opponents’ fumbles with 29.

Marshall, 79, also appeared in four Super Bowls with the Vikings. Fellow Vikings defensive linemen Alan Page and Carl Eller previously made it to Canton.

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Giants coach on Adrian Peterson: “Never say never”

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The Giants were one of the first teams Adrian Peterson started flirting with, even before the Vikings let him go.

And it appears there’s at least some interest on their part.

Giants coach Ben McAdoo was asked specifically Tuesday whether they’d have interest in adding the 32-year-old running back, and he replied directly: “Never say never.”

He also said that despite his age and the fact he’s had one healthy season in the last three years, he thinks Peterson has the ability to help a team.

“He’s a guy who’s a very talented player, and he has a chip on his shoulder,” McAdoo said. “And if he can stay healthy he has a lot to offer.”

The Giants could clearly use someone who is an every-down back, as their depth chart consists mostly of complementary backs such as Shane Vereen and Shaun Draughn and 2016 fifth-rounder Paul Perkins.

Whether that guy is Peterson remains to be seen, but McAdoo’s response did nothing to stop the speculation linking them.

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