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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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No decision on Marshawn Lynch fine until after Super Bowl

Marshawn Lynch AP

Among the questions that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell fielded at his press conference Friday was one on the possibility that Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch will face a fine from the league as a result of his appearances in front of the media this week.

Lynch has stuck to his routine of answering every question from reporters the same way with Tuesday’s “I’m just here so I don’t get fined” gaining the most attention this week. He’s also worn a hat promoting his own Beast Mode line of clothing, which Adam Schefter of ESPN reported could draw a fine because it isn’t licensed by the NFL.

Goodell said Friday that any decisions about fines will be announced after the Super Bowl and offered no comment about his thoughts on potential penalties.

“It’s part of your job,” Goodell said of speaking to the media. “There are things in your job that you might not necessarily want to do. I think Marshawn understands the importance of the Super Bowl and the importance of his appearance in the Super Bowl.”

Goodell also responded to Lynch’s teammate Richard Sherman’s suggestion that Goodell be forced to meet with the media every week by saying that he’s available to the media almost every day.

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Shad Khan “very optimistic” about Justin Blackmon returning in 2015

Justin Blackmon, Chris Harris AP

It’s been a long time since wide receiver Justin Blackmon has played a game for the Jaguars, but owner Shad Khan thinks that will change in 2015.

During an interview with the Florida Times-Union, Khan was asked whether he would welcome Blackmon back to the team. Khan said that he would and that he feels good about the wideout’s chances of playing for the team next season.

“Absolutely. As a matter of fact, I’m very optimistic. I think he’s paid his dues. I think he’s got his life together. I think he can be a role model for people who have gone through hard times. We’re waiting for him,” Khan said.

Blackmon is free to apply to the league for reinstatement from his substance-abuse suspension. He’s spent time in a treatment program since being suspended and recently pleaded no contest to marijuana possession charges related to an arrest last July. Once Blackmon applies, the league has 60 days to make a decision.

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Deflategate and franchise relocation dominate Goodell press conference

goodell AP

If you had told NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a few months ago that when he gave his Annual “State of the League” press conference before the Super Bowl he wouldn’t have been peppered with questions about Ray Rice and domestic violence, he surely would have been shocked — and surely would have breathed a sigh of relief.

But at Goodell’s press conference today, domestic violence was not the primary focus — or even a focus of the questions at all, as questions regarding Deflategate and franchise relocation dominated the discussion.

We’ll have plenty to say here at PFT about Goodell’s answers to various questions, but right now let’s take a look at the questions themselves. Here are the 26 questions Goodell took, grouped into their topics:

Deflategate

Bob Kravitz, WTHR in Indianapolis: Robert Kraft said you owe his team an apology if nothing comes of Deflategate. What are your thoughts?

Howard Eskin, Fox 29 TV: Will you hold Bill Belichick to the same standards in Deflategate as you held Sean Payton to in Bountygate? And why aren’t you available to the media every week, as Richard Sherman suggested?

Mike Reiss, ESPN: Has the NFL ever tested the air pressure of footballs in the middle of a game, and how important is that as a frame of reference in this investigation?

Heather Yako, NBC News 11 in Arizona: Why was Arizona chosen to host the Super Bowl and has Deflategate detracted from the game?

Bart Hubbuch, New York Post: Richard Sherman suggested that you may show favoritism to some owners, including Robert Kraft. How do you react to that?

Jason Cole, Bleacher Report: How is throwing a deflated ball drastically different from throwing a spitball in baseball?

Mark Maske, Washington Post: Will the standards you laid out after Spygate for teams complying with rules continue to apply in Deflategate?

Franchise relocation and ownership issues

Jim Thomas, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: What is the league’s level of commitment to keeping a team in St. Louis and have the Rams’ owners followed the league’s relocation guidelines?

Sam Farmer, Los Angeles Times: 2015 marks the 20th year without a franchise in the nation’s largest market. Rams owner Stan Kroenke has the resources to move a team to Los Angeles. What criteria will the league use to determine whether a team moves to Los Angeles and what if an owner goes rogue and moves without the NFL’s blessing?

Amber Dixon, NBC Las Vegas: Las Vegas has long expressed interest in having a pro sports team. Could Las Vegas sustain a professional team?

Vic Carucci, Buffalo News: In light of the new ownership in Buffalo, what’s your perspective on the need for a new stadium?

Kevin Acee, San Diego Union-Tribune: Can you speak to the fans in San Diego about whether they need a new stadium and has Dean Spanos done enough to demonstrate that he’s tried to work things out locally?

Jeff Duncan, New Orleans Times-Picayune: A lawsuit has been filed in New Orleans questioning Saints owner Tom Benson’s ability to run the team. In your opinion, is Benson mentally and physically capable of running the team?

International expansion

John Sutcliffe, ESPN: It’s been since 2005 since the league has had a regular-season game in Mexico City and the fans don’t understand why. Can you explain why?

Neil Reynolds, Sky Sports: Why have earlier kickoff times been used for London games?

Ian Walker, London Evening Standard: What more does London need to do to grow the game and have a franchise there?

Goodell’s job performance

Barry Wilner, Associated Press: What do you plan to do, specifically, to restore face in the league and in the quote-unquote, Shield?

Darren McKee KKFN, Denver: A lot of people who had a job like yours would probably resign. Can you imagine any circumstances that would lead you to resign?

Rachel Nichols, CNN: A lot of issues have had a conflict of interest. When you hire an outside investigator like Ted Wells, you’re still paying him and Robert Kraft is still paying you. What steps can you take to mitigate some of those conflict of interest issues?

Ron Mott, NBC News: How would you describe your relationship with the players and how will you improve that relationship going forward?

Ken Belson, New York Times: Do you believe you deserve a pay cut for your performance?

Dan Kaplan, Sports Business Journal: Do you think you’ll reach your goal of growing to the point where the NFL will have $25 billion in revenue?

NFL’s youth football and Play 60 initiatives

Jason Winik, Dallas Sports Source: What can you do to get more participation in youth football?

Bobby Sena, NFL Play 60 Super Kid: “Play 60 is an important part of my life, but how do you play 60? I told you it was a tough question.”

Ticket prices

Dave Briggs, CNBC: The average ticket is more than $10,000. Is that a concern that the league has looked into?

Media

Mike Garafolo, FOX Sports 1: Marshawn Lynch’s cooperation or lack thereof with the media has become a big story. What’s your take on how he handled the media this week and will he be fined?

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Demaryius Thomas: Some Broncos looked past Colts

SiriusXM At Super Bowl XLIX Radio Row Getty Images

On Friday’s PFT Live, Denver wide receiver Demaryius Thomas was asked what went wrong for the Broncos, who crashed and burned as big favorites in the divisional round to Indianapolis in January.

While Thomas pointed to injuries as one of the reasons for the club’s exit, he also indicated that the 2014 Broncos were lacking in other areas, too.

“I feel like some guys, you know, didn’t have the fight or whatever it was,” Thomas said Friday. “It was totally a different team than last year.

“I think we had more talent this year, but it was a little more fight in that team last year, I think.”

In a follow-up question, PFT’s Mike Florio asked: “How did it go wrong this year, then, from the fight standpoint?”

And here, Thomas indicated that Denver might have taken its off the ball against Indianapolis.

“I think one thing was, I feel like guys kind of looked over the Colts,” Thomas said. “You had guys always talking the night before the game, you had, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go to New England and play New England.’ And I think that was one of the big things.”

The Broncos fell 43-21 at New England in November, and they likely would have been underdogs in a rematch. But we’ll never know whether these Broncos could have turned the tables with a Super Bowl berth on the line.

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Roger Goodell says Tom Benson is in “complete control”

Tom Benson AP

Saints owner Tom Benson’s daughter and grandchildren claim that he’s not fit to retain control of his team.

But NFL commissioner Roger Goodell disagrees.

Goodell said he felt Benson was “in complete control” of the Saints, and perfectly confident in his ability to handle his business.

He said he spoke with Benson recently, describing him as “energetic” and engaged about league issues.

It was an expected vote of confidence for Benson, who wants to transfer control of the Saints and Pelicans to his wife Gayle.

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Jared Allen: Bears hired a “win-now” coaching staff

Dallas Cowboys v Chicago Bears AP

When defensive end Jared Allen was looking for a team last offseason, he said he was looking for a team that could at least contend for a spot in the playoffs.

Allen signed with the Bears, who fell well short of that goal during a 5-11 season that cost head coach Marc Trestman and most of his coaching staff their jobs. Allen was a guest with Mike Florio on PFT Live Friday and said he thought what Trestman and the other coaches were selling “didn’t come across.” He’s yet to meet with new coach John Fox or defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, but Allen said he thinks it’s a group that can send a message that will get across.

“What the organization’s done is they’ve really put together a coaching staff that’s a win-now type of staff. I think with the talent we have on our roster this can be a staff that can maximize everything that we do,” Allen said.

For the rest of what Allen had to say about quarterback Jay Cutler, his work to provide homes for wounded veterans and more, check out the video below.

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Roger Goodell: Rules more important than competitive advantage

Super Bowl Football AP

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said early in his press conference that the investigation into the #DeflateGate is continuing, but was careful to not draw comparisons to previous investigations.

Asked specifically about his “ignorance is no defense” ruling on Sean Payton during the Saints bounty scandal, Goddell said it was not fair to compare the two.

“We don’t know enough in this case to know who is responsible, or if there was an infraction,” he said.

While it would be convenient to keep them separate, the issues about the league’s handling of these cases continues to come under question.

He also called the NFL “a game of rules” when asked about the potential of punishment for balls being

“Whether a competitive advantage is gained or not is secondary in my mind to whether a rule is violated,” he said.

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Bret Bielema says talks to coach Dolphins in 2012 broke down over Russell Wilson

Penn State v Wisconsin Getty Images

Every team in the NFL except the Saints and Raiders passed on Russell Wilson at least once in the 2012 NFL Draft before the Seahawks selected him in the third round.

If Bret Bielema had been able to convince the Dolphins that Wilson was worth taking earlier on, Sunday’s Super Bowl might be very different. Bielema is now the coach of Arkansas, but he was the coach of Wisconsin during Wilson’s final collegiate season and was interviewing with the Dolphins about their head coaching job in early 2012 when Wilson’s name came up.

Bielema said he told General Manager Jeff Ireland and others that he thought the Dolphins should draft Wilson in the second round, but the team disagreed with his take.

“They all looked at me like, ‘You can’t say that,'” Bielema said, via ESPN.com. “That’s the difference between college and pro. He’s undersized. He can’t throw.’ I was like, ‘OK, all right,’ and I honestly, that day, kind of pulled myself out of it.”

The Dolphins wound up drafting Ryan Tannehill with the eighth overall pick after hiring Joe Philbin to be their head coach and Tannehill’s college coach Mike Sherman as their offensive coordinator, setting up a pretty sizable “What if?” to consider about the trajectory of Miami and Seattle over the last three years.

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Goodell: League is committed to keeping teams in markets

St. Louis Rams v Oakland Raiders AP

Even though Rams owner Stan Kroenke has been doing more than just making eyes at Los Angeles, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reiterated a degree of support for St. Louis.

“We want all of our franchises to stay in their current market,” Goodell said, when asked about the league’s stance on the stability of the Rams.

That was followed by the annual question about the league’s interest in the L.A. market, and Goodell largely sidestepped the issue of Kroenke’s plans to build a stadium there.

“There have been no determinations of us going to Los Angeles,” he said, saying that covered any particular team or stadium.

It doesn’t seem like Kroenke got that memo, as he’s made plans that seem to be well-received by the league.

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Bears sign LB DeDe Lattimore to two-year extension

Chicago Bears Rookie Minicamp Getty Images

The Bears have signed one of their defensive reserves and special teams contributors to a new deal.

Chicago has extended linebacker DeDe Lattimore’s contract through 2016, the team said Friday.

Lattimore appeared in 10 games for Chicago in 2014, notching five special teams tackles, per club statistics. A South Florida product, Lattimore signed with the Bears as an undrafted free agent last May. Lattimore turned 24 on Friday.

The Bears also made a coaching staff move Friday, retaining wide receivers coach Mike Groh, the team said. He has served as Chicago’s receivers coach the last two  years. He previously was an assistant at the University of Alabama.

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Roger Goodell says NFL will hire a chief medical officer

Roger Goodell AP

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has plenty to talk about today, but he opened his annual state of the league press conference with talk about player safety.

He said the league was about to hire a chief medical officer to oversee medial policies, with an announcement expected soon.

He cited stats from yesterday’s report that concussions were down 25 percent from the previous year, but said there was more to be done.

He added that hits to defenseless players were down 68 percent this season.

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Hernandez jurors can watch Super Bowl

Aaron Hernandez AP

The presiding judge in the Aaron Hernandez murder trial will allow jurors to watch the Super Bowl.

According to ESPN’s Michelle Steele, Bristol (Mass.) County Superior Court Judge Susan Garsh said jurors can watch Sunday’s game between the Patriots and Seahawks, but she asked them to step out of the room if Hernandez — the former New England tight end — is mentioned during the telecast of the contest.

The trial is in its second day. Hernandez is accused in the June 2013 killing of Odin Lloyd in Massachusetts.

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Peyton Manning hasn’t made up his mind about next year

Colts Broncos Football AP

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning hasn’t made up his mind about his playing future, but said he thinks he’ll have a decision sooner rather than later.

Via Bob Glauber of Newsday, Manning said he’s still thinking about what he wants to do in 2015.

“I’m not interested in making this a lingering thing,” Manning said. “I’d like to make a decision soon.”

He said he didn’t think passing his annual physical in March would be a problem, at least as it pertains to his surgically repaired neck.

Of course, the leg injuries he was dealing with down the stretch were clearly an issue, and how they affected his play likely complicates his decision.

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LeGarrette Blount’s marijuana charges dropped

LeGarrette Blount AP

The Patriots gave LeGarrette Blount a clean slate, and now he has a clean record to go with it.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Blount completed his court-ordered 50 hours of community service in Boston, and the marijuana possession charges were dropped by local prosecutors.

Blount and then-Steelers teammate Le’Veon Bell were arrested on their way to the airport for a preseason game in August, and the DUI charges Bell had in addition to the possession could lead to a two-game suspension next year.

But after bailing out on the Steelers in midseason, Blount was released and quickly signed by the Patriots, who will be counting on him Sunday.

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PFT’s Super Bowl picks

Richard Sherman, Tom Brady AP

It’s finally here. And I still have no clear idea who will win. Even though a blowout could be brewing (especially if the Patriots can duplicate what the Packers did in the NFC title game before opting not to play to win but playing not to lose), I don’t have a really strong feeling.

But enough of that. This is the part where I write a few paragraphs to set up the picks.

And then I say the MDS and I were both accurate with our conference title picks, and that he’s 9-1 for the postseason, and I’m 7-3.

MDS’s take: Moving past #Deflategate and Marshawn Lynch sparring with reporters and all of the off-field issues of the last two weeks, I keep thinking it comes down to this: Seattle’s defense is just too good.

Last year the Seahawks’ defense made Peyton Manning look bad in the Super Bowl, and this year I think the Seahawks’ defense is going to make Tom Brady look bad in the Super Bowl. Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are about as good as it gets in the NFL, and I don’t think Brady is going to find many open receivers on Sunday. If there’s one weakness to Seattle’s defense it’s that a good tight end can beat them, and as a result I can see Rob Gronkowski having a big day. But even if Gronk gets 100 yards and a touchdown, that won’t be enough on a day when I don’t expect any of the Patriots’ wide receivers to play well.

The reason this game will be a lot closer than last year’s Super Bowl is that I don’t see Seattle putting a lot of points on the board. Bill Belichick will have a good game plan to neutralize Russell Wilson’s running, and the Patriots’ secondary should be able to shut down Seattle’s wide receivers. This looks like a fairly low-scoring game.

But in the end, it’s a game that sees Seattle coming out on top. The Seahawks will repeat.

MDS’s pick: Seahawks 21, Patriots 17.

Florio’s take: Back in September, I picked the Seahawks and Patriots to make it to the Super Bowl. And I picked the Seahawks to win. And I can’t in good conscience abandon that selection.

I could be wrong. Very wrong. The Patriots may finish the job the Packers started. The Patriots may give Russell Wilson the Tim Tebow treatment, blowing the Seahawks out in the first half so that there’s no chance for a rabbit-from-hat finish. Or maybe it will be a close, down-to-the-wire, three-point margin with Stephen Gotskowski playing the role of Adam Vinatieri.

Coach Bill Belichick has the uncanny ability to develop a game plan that is unique to each opponent, figuring out how to move the ball against any defense he faces — and how to take away what any offense does best. Throw in the #DeflateGate disrespect, and Belichick may be able to press enough buttons to overcome the Seahawks.

But it’s the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, not Cincinnati in Week Five. Sometimes, no amount of Xs and Os and “us against them” and “win one for the Gipper” matters. G.M. John Schneider has put together an excellent roster, and Pete Carroll has coached them up to the point where they believe they can beat anyone.

This year, they didn’t beat everyone, but all that matters on Sunday is whether the can score more points than the Patriots. I believed they could in September, so I’ve got no choice but to stick with that now.

Florio’s pick: Seahawks 27, Patriots 24.

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