Patriots

Pats have history of acquiring players they face in joint practices

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Pats have history of acquiring players they face in joint practices

Now is when things get interesting. 

On Wednesday, the Patriots finished up their joint practices with Houston. Last week, they wrapped up three days of work with Jacksonville before their preseason opener. They have a one-day walkthrough scheduled with the Lions next week, but for all intents and purposes their joint practices for 2017 are over.

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So why is now when things get interesting? Because now we can start taking stabs at which Jaguars and Texans will someday be Patriots.

If history is any indication, at some point Bill Belichick and his staff will be more than willing to work with players who participated in the joint sessions. Just have a look at Patriots joint-practice opponents year by year. Using the practices as a chance to do a little advanced scouting, they've plucked at least one player from every joint-practice opponent they've seen since 2010

Last year, the Patriots worked against the Saints and the Bears. No one remembers former Bears tight end Rob Housler's brief tenure with the Patriots after he signed a future deal with the club last winter. But how about Brandin Cooks? The Patriots got their second close look at Cooks in 2016 -- he was with the Saints during joint practices with the Patriots in 2015 -- and then traded a first-round pick to acquire him the following offseason.

Here's a full rundown of the Patriots joint-practice opponents who were eventually acquired by New England . . .

2016 vs. Saints: WR Brandin Cooks, acquired in a trade in 2016.

2016 vs. Bears: TE Rob Housler, signed to a future contract in 2016.

2015 vs. Saints: DL Akiem Hicks, acquired in a trade in 2015; LB Ramon Humber, signed as a free agent in 2016; Cooks.

2014 vs. Redskins: DL Frank Kearse, signed as a free agent in 2016; CB EJ Biggers, signed as a free agent in 2016.

2014 vs. Eagles: CB Bradley Fletcher, signed as a free agent in 2015.

2013 vs. Buccaneers: LB Jonathan Casillas, acquired in a trade in 2014; TE Tim Wright, acquired in a trade in 2014.

2013 vs. Eagles: S Patrick Chung, signed as a free agent in 2014; WR Damaris Johnson, claimed on waivers from Houston in 2015; CB Bradley Fletcher, signed as a free agent in 2015.

2012 vs. Saints: RB Travaris Cadet, signed as a free agent in 2015; Casillas; LB Ramon Humber, signed as a free agent in 2016;  DL Akiem Hicks, acquired in a trade in 2015.

2012 vs. Buccaneers: RB LeGarrette Blount, acquired in a trade in 2013; CB Aqib Talib, acquired in a trade in 2012; Biggers; LB Dekoda Watson, signed as a free agent in 2015.

2011: No joint sessions following NFL lockout.

2010 vs. Saints: Humber; DE Will Smith, signed as a free agent in 2014.

2010 vs. Falcons: WR Michael Jenkins, signed as a free agent in 2013.

Of course there's no guarantee the Patriots will ever snag any of the Jaguars or Texans they practiced with this summer. But here's a look at a handful of players Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio could be interested in trading for or signing down the line.

CJ Fiedorowicz, TE, Texans: The Patriots would probably have to pay up to land Houston's top tight end, but Fiedorowicz is in the final year of his rookie deal and Houston just re-upped with tight end Ryan Griffin on a three-year contract. Maybe the Texans would be OK with the future of their tight-end group without Fiedorowicz if they got something of value in return. The Patriots seem set at the position now with Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen and perhaps one of James O'Shaughnessy, Matt Lengel and Jacob Hollister to round things out. But as we saw last season, that depth can evaporate quickly should anything happen to No. 87. The Patriots hosted Fiedorowicz on a visit when he was coming out of the draft in 2014, and he played at Iowa under former Belichick colleague Kirk Ferentz.

Lerentee McCray, OLB, Jaguars: The 6-foot-3, 250-pounder is pretty far down the depth chart in Jacksonville behind Dante Fowler, Yannick Ngakoue, Calais Campbell and Mallciah Goodman. He's in his fifth year out of Florida and currently on a relatively inexpensive one-year deal that he signed this offseason. McCray seems like a low-risk option to give the Patriots some depth not only on the edge but also in the kicking game, where he has a wealth of experience going back to his days with the Bills, Broncos and in college. In last week's preseason game against the Patriots, he made a tackle on Jacksonville's kickoff team, stuffed DJ Foster for no gain, recovered a Foster fumble, and sacked Jacoby Brissett. 

Hunter Dimick, DE, Jaguars: Here's another option from Jacksonville if the Patriots want some depth up front -- which they could be seeking. Dimick went undrafted this spring out of Utah despite leading the nation in quarterback pressures with 83, according to Pro Football Focus. He doesn't offer much as an athlete, and he's essentially the closest thing in this year's draft class to the opposite of Derek Rivers in terms of flexibility. But maybe the Patriots saw something in the 6-foot-3, 265-pounder's game during practices that will allow his college production to transfer to the NFL. He had two hurries in last week's preseason game.

Ufomba Kamalu, DE, Texans: With the Patriots hurting on the edge, Kamalu isn't a perfect fit, but he may be worth a closer look. The 6-foot-5, 295-pounder has 35-inch arms that could make him an intriguing match, in a similar mold to 6-foot-4, 305-pounder Lawrence Guy. Kamalu seemed to showed up with effective reps in one-on-one work this week against the Patriots, and during an 11-on-11 period on Wednesday he broke through the Patriots line to sack Jimmy Garoppolo. In last week's preseason game against the Panthers, he recorded a quarterback hit, per Pro Football Focus.

Avery Williams, LB, Texans: Bill Belichick has long liked Texans linebacker Bernardrick McKinney's game, but don't expect the Texans to be willing to part ways with him any time soon. If the Patriots are looking for some depth at that spot and in the kicking game, Williams showed them some things during this week's joint practices. He dominated a punt-team drill where he put both Patriots Nate Ebner and LeShun Daniels on their backs after squaring them up one-on-one at the line. Williams wasn't an eye-popping athlete coming out of Temple this spring, but he was productive, earning second-team all-conference honors. Dylan Cole, an undrafted rookie linebacker out of Missouri State, is a better fit for the Patriots in terms of his athletic profile, but Cole seems to have impressed coaches at Texans training camp and may not be going anywhere for a while. 

Breno Giacomini, OT, Texans: On a one-year contract in Houston, the Patriots could be interested in the veteran tackle who hails from Malden, Mass. Belichick's club has been hurting at tackle lately with Nate Solder, Tony Garcia and LaAdrian Waddle all missing time injured. The Texans have an intriguing rookie, Julien Davenport, who is currently listed as the team's backup left tackle, and whenever Duane Brown returns from his holdout, Giacomini could be the team's fifth tackle on the depth chart. Giacomini started for the Jets in Week 12 against the Patriots last season, played every snap, and held his own. 

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Former Patriot Mike Vrabel named head coach of the Tennessee Titans

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Former Patriot Mike Vrabel named head coach of the Tennessee Titans

The Titans job was rumored to be the first pick of Josh McDaniels, but as details have come to light, that is not the case.

The Tennessee Titans have agreed to hire former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel as their Head Coach tonight.

The team publicly announced the hire tonight across all of their social media platforms.

Vrabel won the Super Bowl with the Patriots three times in the early years of the New England dynasty. 

Despite having limited experience as a coach, he has attracted much attention in this past offseason for openings across the NFL. He has just one season's experience as a coordinator. 

Vrabel steps in to fill the role of Mike Mularkey, who was fired just one night after many believed he was receiving an extension. Despite the rumor of the extension, Mularkey and the Titans agreed to part ways just one day later.

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Who will be Patriots unsung hero Sunday?

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Who will be Patriots unsung hero Sunday?

FOXBORO -- We've hit on Tom Brady's hand. Over and over. And over again. We've also dissected just how good this Jaguars defense really is, and how Rob Gronkowski might be able to exploit it

But what about the games within the game? What about the so-called bit players who could make a significant impact in the AFC Championship Game? 

It seems to happen every year in the biggest games. No one predicted James White would put together an MVP-level performance in Super Bowl LI. No one saw Malcolm Butler coming - least of all Russell Wilson - in Super Bowl XLIX. And who would have guessed that Marquis Flowers, Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise would've had key roles in helping the Patriots dominate the Divisional Round against the Titans?

Let's try to get out ahead of those storylines before the Jaguars and Patriots meet at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Here are five of our under-the-radar keys to the game: 

1) James Develin's incorporation into the game plan could seemingly pop up out of nowhere like a neck roll.
But if you've been following along this week, you know that it would be a good idea for the Patriots try to throw out of formations that employ their fullback. If Josh McDaniels figures out a way to keep Jacksonville's base defense on the field, that should give Brady all kinds of room to throw. That means getting Develin onto the field with Dion Lewis. It could also mean having Dwayne Allen (or Jacob Hollister) on the field with Rob Gronkowski. Two-back sets and two-tight end sets should have the same effect: The Jaguars will respond by leaving an extra linebacker and an extra defensive tackle on the field. (In all likelihood, run-stuffing linebacker Paul Posluszny would remain, as would defensive tackle Marcel Dareus. In sub situations, those players are more likely to come off, bringing nickel corner Aaron Colvin and pass-rusher Dante Fowler on.) That bigger stop-the-run grouping makes the Jaguars slower. When they're slower, they're less-equipped to defend the pass. Per Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis, the Jaguars allowed a quarterback rating of 99 and an average of 9.6 yards per attempt against offensive groupings with two backs, two tight ends, or both. Against three-receiver sets, they're much more effective, allowing a rating of 73 and an average-yards-per-attempt of just 4.9. One issue with Develin's usage could be - wait for it - Brady's hand. If it's clear Brady can't take snaps from under center, then the Patriots will either simply have to huddle up with Develin in the mix and align in some sort of spread look when they break, which they've done in the past. Or they could concede the threat of running behind Develin is non-existent if Brady can't get under center, and then you may simply see more two-tight end looks. Using tempo with this bigger personnel could also be wise. If the Patriots get defenders on the field they want to throw against, they could prevent the Jags from subbing by hurrying to the line of scrimmage. 

2) Joe Thuney's ability to handle power rushes on the interior could determine how smoothly the Patriots offense runs.
The Jaguars front is their biggest threat to Tom Brady. Jacksonville's coverage players are talented, but there should be windows to throw. If Brady doesn't have time to find the windows because of a dogged pass-rush, though, it won't matter. Thuney could be the key. Why? Calais Campbell, a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, has seen 58 percent of his pass-rushing snaps come from the defensive right, according to Pro Football Focus. If that continues, he'll see his fair share of Nate Solder and -- in sub situations when he kicks inside -- Thuney on the offensive left. Along with the vastly underrated Yannick Ngakoue (12 sacks and a league-high six forced fumbles, but he's not a Pro Bowler or All-Pro), who rushes off the defensive right 77.5 percent of the time, Campbell helps form as imposing a duo as Thuney and Solder have faced all season. Campbell is the real-life response to the blue beings in James Cameron's "Avatar." He's 6-foot-8, with 36-inch arms, and if he can extend on Thuney, that's a one-on-one matchup that doesn't favor the Patriots. Thuney, who carries around a green notebook full of secrets to help him on game days, has been solid of late. He hasn't allowed a sack or a quarterback hit in his last three games, but he'll have to put together one of his cleanest performances of the season to keep Brady upright Sunday.  

3) Johnson Bademosi will have big shoes to fill in the kicking game. 
When Jonathan Jones suffered a season-ending injury against the Titans, that should thrust Bademosi - who was a healthy scratch last week -- back into the mix as a kick-coverage player and reserve corner for the Patriots. The Jaguars have a talented return man in Jaydon Mickens, and as a gunner, it could be on Bademosi's shoulders to make sure that the Patriots don't allow Mickens to make a game-changing play. With the focus on Matthew Slater, that should leave Bademosi with some one-on-one matchups to win on the outside. Why, you ask, is this important? The Jaguars are not a threat to consistently string together scoring drives offensively, so -- aside from scoring defensively, which they've been known to do -- they may need to exploit a breakdown in the kicking game in order to have a shot. "Mickens," Bill Belichick told Patriots.com this week, "as a returner, very explosive player...He's very, very explosive in the open field...They're a very explosive special teams unit."

4) For the second consecutive week, Marquis Flowers could play an important role in the defensive game plan.
His two best games with the Patriots have come against mobile quarterbacks, and Blake Bortles -- though not as athletic as Tyrod Taylor or Marcus Mariota -- would qualify. The Jaguars quarterback has recorded 123 yards rushing on 15 carries (an average of 8.2 yards per run) in two playoff games this season, and against the Bills in the Wild-Card Round, he actually ran for more yards (88) than he picked up through the air (87). Flowers has shown a knack for being able to mirror passers as he spies them from the second level, and it would come as no surprise if he was asked to do so again this weekend. The Patriots are a man coverage team. If you've watched closely, you've noticed they've played less true Cover-2 this season than they have in some others, partly because their corners are better-suited for man-to-man assignments than covering zones. By deploying Flowers (or Kyle Van Noy or someone else) as a spy, that allows Patriots defensive backs to play man-to-man on the back end. Without a spy, that would typically require more true zone in the secondary so that defensive backs could have their eyes in the backfield and spot when a quarterback takes off. If Flowers is tapped to spy again this weekend, he allows his teammates in coverage to play their game: Lock-down man-to-man.

5) Let's stick with the Patriots linebackers for this final key.
Discipline at the second level will be of vital importance against the Jaguars. Matt Patricia's unit should have little trouble stopping the run. It's a numbers game in the box, and if the Patriots commit enough resources to stoning Leonard Fournette, they should have success. Especially with the way Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown, Ricky Jean Francois and Trey Flowers have been playing of late. But the Jaguars are adept at using an opponent's aggressiveness against them. Whichever Patriots are at the linebacker level -- whether it's Elandon Roberts, Van Noy or Patrick Chung -- will have to be sure they read their keys and remain patient. Leaving Bortles wide-open throwing lanes is one of the few ways the Jaguars will be able to create chunk plays on Sunday, and if the Patriots are too eager to step up and fill lanes against the run, they could open themselves up to be stunned by the 23rd-rated quarterback in the NFL this season. The Jaguars passed on three of their first four plays from scrimmage against the Steelers in the Divisional Round. They picked up 53 yards on those three throws due in large part to Bortles' use of play-action. 

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