Patriots

Patriots-Saints notes: Gronkowski OK after scary moment

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Patriots-Saints notes: Gronkowski OK after scary moment

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- The Patriots and the Saints competed in the first of two joint practices on Wednesday morning at the Greenbrier resort.

Here are a few notes from the fully-padded session, for which Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was present:

* Scary moment early in team drills. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was lined up outside the numbers and blocking a defensive back when running back Jonas Gray tumbled into the back of Gronk’s legs. The Patriots most dangerous offensive weapon popped up fairly quickly and ambled back to the huddle. After the session, he said it was no big deal and that there was no need for him to check inventory.

* Know what else was scary? The day Patriots corner Malcolm Butler had. Arguably the team's best player in camp to this point was scorched too many times to count, be it in one-on-one situations, seven-on-seven and 11-on-11. Saints receiver Josh Morgan got him for a pair of scores by my count, and there was one drive that saw Butler targeted repeatedly by quarterback Drew Brees, surrendering a catch to receiver Brandon Coleman. There was then a blatant jersey grab that led to a pass interference call, followed by two more catches, a bomb to receiver Joseph Morgan down the sideline and a touchdown pass in the back of the end zone to Morgan. Safety Jordan Richards was also a little late getting over to help Butler along the back line on the Morgan score, but the Patriots appeared to be in man coverage.

* Defensively, coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia continue to play games with their secondary. Lining up in a 3-3-5 set, they had Butler and Devin McCourty playing outside the numbers with a rotation of safeties that including Pat Chung, Tavon Wilson, Duron Harmon and Richards. Chung had one of those hit-or-miss days. He nicely disguised a safety blitz and would have buried Brees during 11-on-11, but he also couldn’t stay with either of the Saints two tight ends, Ben Watson or Josh Hill. Watson, a former member of the Patriots, just returned from the birth of his fifth child (holy mackeral) and was incredibly productive, prompting Brees to call him one of the Saints unsung heroes. Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo can attest. He had nice coverage on Watson down the seam but was beaten by a back shoulder throw that Watson contorted his body to corral.

* Second-year defensive lineman Dominique Easley flashed as a pass rusher on a couple of snaps, and on one of those occasions, he put interior lineman Senio Kalemete on his hindquarters. But, by and large, the Patriots didn’t seem to get any consistent push when given the opportunity, which was a carryover from how one-on-one rushes went, with the Saints winning six of the nine battles. Only Chandler Jones really dominated his matchup, slapping aside the impressive Terron Amstead.

* Meanwhile, the Saints were able to get to the feet of both Brady and second-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, exploiting the interior offensive line that once again featured three rookies, left guard Shaq Mason, undrafted center David Andrews and right guard Tre’ Jackson. I counted three sacks, two coming in red-zone work. Brady also threw a ball across his body while rolling to his right. That too was in the face of pressure and I’m guessing he would have taken the sack as opposed to making such a high risk throw around the 50-yard line. There was also a touchdown pass to receiver Danny Amendola in the red zone wiped out by a pick and an offensive pass interference call. Couldn’t tell whether it was receiver Josh Boyce or Brandon Gibson but suffice to say, the coaching staff wasn’t pleased. Both Brady and Garoppolo did throw red-zone touchdowns to . . . guess who? Yep. Gronkowski.

* Brady also capped off a semi-impressive 11-on-11 drive by floating a pretty touch pass over two defenders into Amendola’s arms in the corner of the end zone. The only issue with that was Boyce was also in that exact corner, running what appeared to be the same route. Brady smiled and gently head-butted Amendola after the play but clearly someone screwed up the route.

* Garoppolo’s work early was marked by the same hesitation that has highlighted much of his camp. He went 2-for-6 in the red area and sort of meandered in the pocket on one of those attempts. The product of Eastern Illinois -- Saints coach Sean Payton's alma mater -- did close the practice with a couple of nice two-minute drives, on one of which he went 4-for-5, hitting running back Dion Lewis in the flat twice, then undrafted rookie tight end Jimmay Mundine on an out-cut a nd then a post that resulted in a score.

With Butler's departure inevitable, Patriots' corner search is on

With Butler's departure inevitable, Patriots' corner search is on

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 at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at the position group that received more attention than any other during Super Bowl 52: Cornerback. 

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


No single position group experienced as many dips, climbs and dives as Patriots corners did during their rollercoaster season. In September alone, the communication was a mess, Malcolm Butler got benched, Stephon Gilmore got benched, and Eric Rowe suffered a serious groin injury that allowed Gilmore to quickly get his job back. Second-year special teams standout Jonathan Jones might've been the team's best cover man at that juncture. Then, as soon as Gilmore started to find his footing, he was diagnosed with a concussion. The group started to put it together in the second half with solid performances against the Raiders in Mexico City and the Bills in Buffalo. Gilmore was particularly strong as the season wore on, showing the man-to-man cover skills and the knack for getting his hands on footballs that made him one of the highest-paid players at his position last offseason. But in the end, in the Super Bowl, with Butler benched again, the group (outside of Gilmore, who played well against Philly) had too many letdowns in what was arguably the team's worst defensive performance of the season.

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Gilmore, Rowe, Jones, Cyrus Jones, Ryan Lewis, Jomal Wiltz

WHO ISN'T?
Butler, Johnson Bademosi

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?

The Patriots played Rowe in prominent roles in each of the past two Super Bowls and he seems to be first in line to take over No. 2 duties with Butler certainly headed on to a new chapter in his career. Jonathan Jones showed in spurts that he could be an effective slot corner, but he suffered a season-ending injury in the Divisional Round and it's unclear what the Patriots will be expecting from him in 2018. Cyrus Jones is coming off of a torn ACL, and even before his injury, it looked like he may have a hard time cracking the regular rotation. This is one position -  like tackle  - that the Patriots don't want to be left thin. If we had to rank it, the need for another capable body would probably come in at about a 7 out of 10. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


There are a handful of relatively big names who will be on the market come March, including Butler. Trumaine Johnson of the Rams figures to be at the top of the class. Vontae Davis of the Colts is 29 and often injured, but in a corner-needy league, he shouldn't have much trouble finding a team. EJ Gains of the Bills could leverage his inside-out versatility to come away with a deal worth almost $10 million per year. Aaron Colvin of the Jaguars, Patrick Robinson of the Eagles, Nickell Robey-Coleman of the Rams and Leonard Johnson of the Bills give teams in need of slot help some options. Kyle Fuller of the Bears and Morris Claiborne of the Jets are two former first-rounders who've had up-and-down careers but showed last season they have still value on the outside. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?

It feels like the best athletes at the high school and college levels are getting smarter. Or their coaches are. Once again, there's a deep group of athletes peppering the incoming draft class at corner, which is, of course, one of the highest-paying positions in football. (Why so many top-tier athletes are still playing running back, on the other hand, is beyond me.) Alabama's hybrid star in the secondary Minkah Fitzpatrick will be long gone by the time the Patriots pick. Same goes for Ohio State's undersized burner Denzel Ward and Iowa's ball-hawking 6-foot-1 cover man Josh Jackson, in all likelihood. At the bottom of the first round, though, players like Auburn's Carlton Davis (who has drawn comparisons to Richard Sherman because of his length and ball skills) and Colorado's Isaiah Oliver (a one-time Pac-12 decathlete with a 6-foot-1 frame) could be available. Would the Patriots want to invest a first-round pick at that spot? If they feel like they have good depth at the position already on the roster but want to take a flier on a mid-round selection, they could hope Louisville's Jaire Alexander (who dealt with injuries in 2017 that will probably hurt his draft stock) lasts into the third round. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


One name that's sort of intriguing on the free-agency market is Davis'. You've heard tales similar players ending up in New England before. He's spent the majority of his career without much of a shot at a title - though his Colts made the AFC Championship Game in the 2014 season. He should be low-cost. He had season-ending groin surgery last year, was released in November and went unclaimed. He'll be 30 before the start of next season, but he may be worth a roll of the dice to help a relatively young Patriots secondary. If he doesn't pan out, no harm done. Hard to envision Belichick and Nick Caserio investing big money into this position with Gilmore on the roster, but maybe they'll deem one of the free-agent slot options worth a shot if he's cost-effective. Otherwise, the Patriots may try to take advantage of a draft that seems - at least right now - as if it's deeper at corner than it is at some other spots on the defensive side of the ball, like on the edge.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

 

Report: James Harrison could return to Patriots

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Report: James Harrison could return to Patriots

James Harrison was a larger than life figure during his time in Pittsburgh. 

It was as if God molded him to be a member of the Steelers: massive, physical, and an absolute bruiser.

But at the end of the day he is a football player. And athletes in this sport don't particuarly like time on the bench.

Mike Tomlin and the rest of the Steelers organization were reminded of this fact in a very harsh manner.

At the end of the December, Harrison made a late season move to sign with the Patriots. It left his former teammates in Pittsburgh frustrated, and his former fans confused.

But at the end of the day he just wanted to be on the football field again. And that's exactly where Belichick put him.

Harrison had the opportunity to appear in many more situations, and had several sacks at the end of the season.

Now there is a new report from Christopher Price of the Boston Sports Journal that he could re-sign with the Patriots in 2018.

A source close to Price and Harrison said "there's a reasonable chance" that he could be on the roster next year.

He will be playing this upcoming season at age 40, and has previously stated he'd like to play one or two more seasons.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE