Patriots

Patriots sign rookie free agent tight end Sam Cotton from Nebraska

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Patriots sign rookie free agent tight end Sam Cotton from Nebraska

FOXBORO -- The Patriots are annually one of the busiest clubs when it comes to turning over the back-end of their roster. That process is ongoing and has been particularly noticeable at the tight end spot over the course of the last week. 

Last week the team announced it had released tight end Michael Williams. On Wednesday, it was Rob Housler who was let go with a failed physical designation. On Thursday, the team added to the group, signing undrafted rookie free agent Sam Cotton. 

Cotton joins a position group that includes Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, James O'Shaughnessy, Matt Lengel and fellow undrafted rookie Jacob Hollister. The 23-year-old played in 31 games, starting 23, during his four-year career at Nebraska. He caught 17 passes for 185 yards and three touchdowns, including eight for 87 yards in 13 games as a senior.

At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, Cotton was one of the more impressive athletes in this year's rookie class of tight ends. His 4.80-second 40-yard dash -- recorded at Nebraska's pro day -- was solid and would've ranked him 12th among tight ends at this year's combine. Some of his other numbers, though, were more outstanding. His 6.87-second three-cone drill would've ranked second among tight ends in Indianapolis for this year's combine. His 127-inch broad jump wouldn've been fourth, and his 35.5-inch vertical would've been sixth. 

Cotton is now the third Nebraska product on the Patriots roster (joining Vincent Valentine and Rex Burkhead), and he's the fourth player to play under Bo Pelini. Third-round rookie defensive end Derek Rivers from Youngstown State is the most recent Pelini pupil as Pelini now serves as head coach of the Penguins. 

Cotton's father, Barney Cotton, was a Nebraska assistant under Pelini and was let go with the rest of Pelini's staff following the 2014 season. Despite his father's departure from the program, Cotton decided to remain with the Huskers.

"I thought of all the guys here and how, if they see the coach's son jump ship when a new staff comes in, just how detrimental that could have been to the team," Cotton told the Lincoln Journal Star. "And I thought about all the guys and tried to set an example by staying.

"Whether or not that worked, I guess we'll never know, but I like to think that it was good for them to see the coach's son be able to stay and play for their dad's replacement."

Barney Cotton is now the offensive coordinator at UNLV. 

Patriots QB Tom Brady is highest-ranked NFL player on ESPN's 'World Fame 100' list

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USA TODAY Sports

Patriots QB Tom Brady is highest-ranked NFL player on ESPN's 'World Fame 100' list

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is among the most recognizable and popular athletes in sports, but where does he rank when compared to other famous athletes?

ESPN's recently unveiled its 2019 "World Fame 100" ranking that uses social media followers, endoresement dollars and search score to compile a list of the world's most popular athletes.

Brady is the highest ranked NFL player on the list at No. 31, good for a seven-spot increase from 2018.

You might be a bit surprised that a legendary player like Brady, who just won his sixth Super Bowl championship last month, wouldn't even crack the top 25. One thing holding him back is the popularity of football outside of the United States. The sport doesn't have the same global appeal as basketball or soccer do.

One area Brady doesn't rank among the highest is social media following. He doesn't have an official Twitter account, just Instagram and Facebook pages. Many athletes have verified Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. Just four of the 30 athletes ranked ahead of Brady have a smaller social media following.

The No. 1 ranked athlete on the list is Juventus superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Soccer players make up five of the top 15 spots.

Other Boston athletes joining Brady on ESPN's list include his Patriots teammate Rob Gronkowski (No. 97) and Boston Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving (No. 47).

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Names to know: Slot receiver options for Patriots if they wait for 2019 NFL draft

Names to know: Slot receiver options for Patriots if they wait for 2019 NFL draft

There's still time for the Patriots to sign a free-agent wideout. There's still time for them to acquire a pass-catcher via trade.

But what if they decide the best way to continue to build depth at the position around Julian Edelman is to dip into the draft?

The Patriots have of course had their share of cracks at rookie receivers, using 16 picks to take wideouts with Bill Belichick at the helm. Most recently, they've used draft choices on Braxton Berrios (sixth round, 2018), Malcolm Mitchell (fourth round, 2016), Devin Lucien (seventh round, 2016), Jeremy Gallon (seventh round, 2014), Aaron Dobson (second round, 2013) and Josh Boyce (fourth round, 2013). 

Dobson, Chad Jackson (2006), Bethel Johnson (2003) and Deion Branch (2002) are the second-round choices Belichick has been willing to spend at the position. The Patriots haven't taken a receiver in the first round since Terry Glenn in 1996. 

Is the situation at that spot such that Belichick would be willing to use the No. 32 pick in this year's draft on a receiver? If he wants to wait until the second round -- where the Patriots have picks No. 56 and No. 64 -- who may be there waiting for the call? 

WHAT ABOUT FREE AGENCY?

Here are a few of the names worth keeping an eye on come next month, as the Patriots have expressed interest in free-agent wideouts since the new league began but have not been able to land a dependable starting-caliber player in that time. With this list, we'll focus in on players who could potentially contribute inside since it appears that's something for which the Patriots -- given their interest in Adam Humphries and Golden Tate -- are looking.

DAY 1 OPTIONS

AJ Brown, Ole Miss 
Brown, according to some experts, could be in the mix as the top receiver taken in this year's class. But if it's his teammate DK Metcalf who goes first, and if true "X" options like N'Keal Harry go early, Brown could end up sliding. At 6-feet, 226 pounds, he'd certainly qualify as a big slot, but he can uncover with his size as well as his route-running. He's not afraid to mix it up as a blocker, which the Patriots would appreciate, and he's aggressive enough to run through contact with the ball in his hands. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compares him to JuJu Smith-Schuster. 

Parris Campbell, Ohio State 
Campbell isn't thought of as a first-round receiver by most, but his athletic traits could attract someone near the end of Day 1. He lit up the combine at 6-feet, 205 pounds, running a 4.31-second 40 (96th percentile among receivers, according to MockDraftable.com), jumping 135 inches in the broad jump (98th percentile) and clocking a 4.03-second 20-yard shuttle (90th percentile). He may project more as a "Z" than a true slot since he's shown an ability to burn off the corner as a jet-sweep specialist. He's also a threat in the screen game, where he can use his speed to slice through defenses. He may not be the draft's most polished route-runner, but he has physical gifts that can't be taught. On special teams, he could fill a role for the Patriots both as their kick and punt returner. 

Deebo Samuel, South Carolina 
Samuel is another inside receiver who's built to withstand the punishment pass-catchers absorb over the middle of the field (5-11, 214 pounds) but has the athleticism (4.48-second 40) to break games open. He's an explosive returner (four kicks brought back for touchdowns) and has produced against some of the best competition college football has to offer. He put up 10 catches for 210 yards and three scores against Clemson last season. 

DAY 2 OPTIONS

Mecole Hardman, Georgia 
The Patriots love to draft Bulldogs, and there are a couple of receivers from Georgia in this year's class who may catch their eye. Riley Ridley is more of an outside threat who'll use his body to shield defenders and pluck passes out of the air with dependable hands. Hardman, meanwhile, is an undersized burner. The 5-10, 187-pounder ran a 4.33-second 40 at the combine and has drawn comparisons to Seattle's Tyler Lockett (51 percent of snaps in the slot for the Seahawks in 2018). Hardman has only spent two seasons as a receiver so he won't be a short-to-intermediate route-running whiz. But maybe with some coaching, and if he gets a good reference from coach Kirby Smart, he'll provide the Patriots with an explosive presence from the slot. He might be available to the Patriots in the third round if they wait to pounce at the position.

Andy Isabella, UMass 
We dove deep into Isabella's skill set here, but he's worth mentioning again as a potential option. The fact that he was a down-the-field player at UMass (4.31-second 40) who's projected as a slot -- he's admitted he's working on interior routes leading up to the draft -- means he could have some versatility within offensive formations. That's something the Patriots typically like to see. Isabella could be dangerous as an end-around option, and he has solid short-area quickness (4.15-second 20-yard shuttle) to redirect in the middle of the field for Tom Brady.

WHAT ABOUT A TRADE?

Terry McClaurin, Ohio State
The Patriots haven't plucked players from the Urban Meyer tree in some time, but McClaurin would make sense as the next. He profiles as one of the best all-around athletes in the class at the position (4.35-second 40, 37.5-inch vertical), and his top MockDraftable.com comparisons include Chad Jackson, Bethel Johnson and Cordarrelle Patterson. McLaurin got some experience working in the slot at Ohio State and showed reliable hands. He's also a potential core special-teamer who has the size, speed and competitiveness to excel on fourth down.

DAY 3 OPTIONS

Greg Dortch, Wake Forest
At 5-foot-7, 173 pounds, Dortch isn't going to give the Patriots some of the inside-out versatility that they like. He worked out of the slot almost exclusively at Wake Forest. And his frame won't make him an imposing player in the run game as a blocker. But he's tough. He suffered a punctured small intestine while scoring against Louisville, stayed in the game, scored twice more, and then later that day had to be rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. He returned two punts for scores last year and averaged 11.0 yards per return with one muff.

Hunter Renfrow, Clemson
Renfrow has been projected as a Patriots fit since he was working the short-to-intermediate area for Clemson in the College Football Playoffs years ago. Surprise, surprise: He tested as a quick change-of-direction target at the combine (6.8-second three-cone, 4.19-second 20-yard shuttle) who could be the next Danny Amendola as a slightly-built slot. If the Patriots want to wait until Day 3 to nab a slot option with experience performing under pressure, Renfrow could be their guy.

Cody Thompson, Toledo 
We had Thompson going off to the Patriots in a seven-round mock draft earlier this offseason. Here's what we said at the time: "Quarterback-turned-receiver. MAC product. Possesses special teams value. Seventh-round pick. Sound familiar? Thompson isn't going to be the next Julian Edelman, but he does have some intriguing qualities to work with. Because he doesn't have breakaway speed (4.57 40), he might be a slot receiver even though his frame (6-1, 205) makes him look like an "X." Furthering his case for the slot would be his agility numbers -- 6.87 three-cone, 4.03 short shuttle -- and his willingness to block. Thompson has experience as a returner and has blocked three punts in his college career, meaning there might be a spot for him on the roster even if he doesn't contribute offensively."

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