Patriots

Patriots' Branch frustrated with lack of playing time

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Patriots' Branch frustrated with lack of playing time

FOXBORO -- If you're believer that the tape doesn't lie, then my goodness, Alan Branch is not half the player he used to be.

The anchor of the Patriots defense a year ago -- and maybe the last two, considering how well he peformed -- Branch has become a bit player for a defense that desperately needs the 6-foot-6, 350-pound freak of nature to get back to his old form. But since a rugged opener versus Kansas City, Branch has seen his snaps go from a season-high 42 to a mere 6 in New Orleans, up to 21 against the Texans and back down to a dozen in Sunday's loss to the Panthers.

"Everybody wants to play," Branch told me Tuesday. "It's upsetting. At the same time, it's not my pay grade to make those decisions."

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No, that decision is made by Bill Belichick and his defensive staff. In their defense, Branch hasn't made a compelling case to get more reps, making the decision to re-sign him at the age of 32 and give him a decent chunk of change -- $3 million in guarantees -- questionable. Yes, there is time to get right, but what we're seeing now hardly provides even a glimmer of hope that it's coming, though Branch, when asked, believes that player, the one we saw in previous season, is still there.

"I feel like it," he said. "But like I said, I can't do that on the sidelines."

Branch acknowledged that he's working on his craft, trying to prove it to those that matter he can still be counted on. 

"I just want to be able to go out there and make a difference in the game," he noted. "Anybody that plays the game wants to be in the game. I'm just trying to do my best trying to get better in each practice, get right in the weight room and everything."

If he does that, Branch believes the onus is off of him and onto the coaching staff.

"If I do that, then [playing time] is really . . . that's up to the coaches. I play when I'm called."

But maybe another offseason away from the facilities -- as has been his modus operandi since signing here -- is catching up to a player who has always been, shall we say, oversized. Combine his weight with a decade in the league and perhaps -- perhaps -- we've seen the best of Branch. Or maybe, at this juncture, he's still catching up with conditioning and adjusting to a new role.

Branch admitted to me that not playing as much has hindered his ability to find a rhythm. 

"It definitely is, but if that's my role, I gotta be able to get used to going in there, spelling guys, putting good plays out there to help the defense get the offense off the field," he's said. "It's definitely tough because you're not in the swing of things because you're not on the field all the time, but at the same time, if that's what your numbers called for, that's what you have to try to do."

Bottom line is the Patriots need more from Branch, who is unlike any player they have on the defensive line. If he can't get right, that's just another spot the Pats will have to coach around in an attempt to find the productive defense we all believed they would have when the season started, and not the one that's been gashed for over 1,800 yards and has given up 30 or more points in three of the first four games of this year.

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Would WWE outbid Patriots for Gronkowski?

Would WWE outbid Patriots for Gronkowski?

If Rob Gronkowski is serious about leaving football to become a wrestler, it probably won't be for the kind of money the Patriots are paying him, Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer tells WEEI.

“I think that is more of a Gronkowski is going to make the call himself and I don’t think it is WWE is trying to — they are not going to outbid him," Meltzer told WEEI "Dale and Holley with Keefe" show on Thursday. "They are not going to spend $10 million a year on him. But, if he’s done with football, are they interested in him? Yeah, it is pretty clear they are."

Meltzer reported last week that World Wrestling Entertainment was interested in signing Gronk to a "similar style" deal to that of Ronda Rousey, who left UFC to join WWE for a reported $5 million a year. Gronkowski is scheduled to make $8.6 million from the Patriots in 2018. 

Meltzer cited NFL-turned-wrestling examples of James Laurinaitis, Kevin Greene and Brock Lesnar as the footsteps Gronk could follow. 

"Now, can you do it on a Brock Lesnar schedule of 10 matches a year? Yeah, probably. Lesnar was a unique type of character. He made probably $5 million-plus a year in wrestling the last couple of years.

Gronkowski is also said to be contemplating a career as an action movie star. 

Here's more on Gronk from NBC Sports Boston Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran. 

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Not many needs for young interior offensive line of Patriots

Not many needs for young interior offensive line of Patriots

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent to that area, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today we're looking at a spot where the Patriots are completely set . . . we think: interior offensive line. 

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HOW THEY PERFORMED: It wasn't always pretty, particularly at the outset of the season when Tom Brady was being hit at a rate that rivaled years when he was most battered. And the way the season ended for this group -- with Shaq Mason allowing a sack to Philly's Brandon Graham that helped end the Super Bowl -- was obviously less than ideal. But that shouldn't overshadow how this group performed, particularly in the second half. Mason was a borderline Pro Bowl talent (Pro Football Focus' fourth-best grade at right tackle for 2017), pairing his devastating run-blocking with a vastly-improved ability to protect. David Andrews continued to play solidly and effectively make calls from his place as the line's pivot, getting through the season as PFF's No. 4-graded center. And while Joe Thuney had occasional issues with power rushers, he graded out as PFF's seventh-best left guard. Three top-10 players at their respective spots? And a reliable all-around backup in Ted Karras (three total pressures and one bad snap in two starts at center)? Plenty of teams around the league would love to be as solid up front. 

 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018: Thuney, Mason, Andrews, Karras, James Ferentz, Jason King

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED: Not dire. At all, really. It's a 1 out of 10. They have three young, relatively healthy, improving players who will come back in 2018 and should slot in as immediate starters. The No. 1 backup at all three interior spots, Karras, is back as well. Ferentz is veteran depth piece who spent last season on the team's practice squad and was given a future contract by the team soon after the Super Bowl. Jason King (and Cole Croston who can play both guard and tackle) will also be back with the team when offseason training begins. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY: The best guard on the market was one of the best guards in the league in 2017: Carolina's Andrew Norwell. Other veterans who will garner interest on the market? Colts 2014 second-round pick Jack Mewhort and former Patriots starter Josh Kline. Jonathan Cooper, briefly a Patriot, will also be back on the market this offseason. Will the Patriots be interested in any of them? My guess is no, unless the team is put in an impossible situation at left tackle and they want to try Thuney on the outside, freeing up their left guard spot . . . but that's a pretty far-fetched scenario at this point. Even though Thuney played tackle in college, the Patriots drafted him to play on the inside. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT: Notre Dame's Quenton Nelson will be fascinating to track on draft day. The 330-pound guard is considered by some to be one of the two or three best football players in the draft. He's touted by experts as a surefire longtime starter with All-Pro potential. But he's a guard. Are teams going to be willing to spend a top-10 or top-15 pick on a position that is ably filled by late-round picks and undrafted players all over the league? Nelson's an interesting case study in that regard. It's a pretty strong draft class at the top, it seems. Georgia's Isaiah Wynn and Texas-El Paso's Will Hernandez have received first-round buzz, as have a few centers: Iowa's James Daniels, Arkansas' Frank Ragnow and Ohio State's Billy Price. Then there are the tackles-who-may-be-guards-at-the-next-level. Texas' Connor Williams, who we mentioned in our tackle assessment, is the biggest name who could end up getting kicked inside. 

HOW THE PATRIOTS CAN ADDRESS IT: There really isn't much to address, in my opinion. However, there's a little wrinkle here that's worth keeping in mind. The Patriots were reportedly interested in drafting Indiana's center/guard prospect Dan Feeney in the third round last year. They had the 72nd pick. He ended up going to the Chargers at No. 71. The Patriots traded down for a pair of picks when Feeney was gone. One was used to get defensive end Derek Rivers. The other helped them snag tackle Tony Garcia. Why the interest in Feeney? His size (6-foot-4, 305 pounds) and athletic profile (7.52-second three-cone, 101-inch broad jump) actually compared somewhat favorably to those of Logan Mankins (6-4, 307, 7.52-second three-cone, 95-inch broad jump). The idea of having him at center, between Thuney and Mason, could've been enticing. So will the Patriots jump at the chance to add a similarly-gifted player to play in the middle if the opportunity presents itself? Never say never, but I don't think so. Andrews received an extension after the draft, keeping him in New England through 2020, and he was named a captain before the 2017 season.

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