Patriots

Jags safety misses second practice; how will they cover Gronkowski?

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Jags safety misses second practice; how will they cover Gronkowski?

FOXBORO -- For as much talent as the Jaguars trot out onto the field defensively, there's no clear-cut answer for how they'll cover Rob Gronkowski. 

"Hope they don't throw him the football," Jaguars coach Doug Marrone answered when asked how to guard the Patriots tight end. "Hope he drops it. There is no secret formula. I’d like to watch a game where someone has been able to do it. He is going to make his plays and you hope those plays don’t end up killing you."

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The Jaguars rank 20th in the NFL when it comes to defending tight ends, according to Football Outsiders, allowing 44 yards per game on six targets. Against Pittsburgh's Vance McDonald (15 targets) and Jesse James (one target) in the Divisional Round, Jacksonville was gashed for 11 receptions and 124 yards, including 107 yards after the catch. 

On paper, the Jaguars should match up better against tight ends than what they've shown. They have a pair of athletic linebackers who have the size/speed combination to run with bigger pass-catchers and contest them at the catch point. They also have a long and hard-nose corner in Jalen Ramsey, who doesn't shy away from the physicality associated with defending a tight end. 

But talk to Patriots defenders, the same ones who try to match up with Gronkowski on a daily basis, and it's not that simple. In general, linebackers just can't match the First-Team All-Pro's athleticism in the passing game. Corners, who are accustomed to playing on top of their responsibilities in coverage in order to protect against the big play, are too easily boxed-out. Even the tough ones. 

That's why safeties are so often the choice when coaches try to determine who should check Gronkowski. Patrick Chung is Gronkowski's toughest matchup on his own team. Tennessee's All-Pro Kevin Byard was competitive for a time last week, but Gronkowski (six grabs, 81 yards, one touchdown) eventually had his way with the rookie. The results were even worse for Pittsburgh safety Sean Davis back in Week 15. 

The Jaguars will throw a different look at the Patriots. Their Cover-3 scheme -- run by defensive coordinator Todd Wash, who spent two years in Seattle as the defensive line coach -- is reminiscent of what the Seahawks showed the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX. Like the Seahawks, the Jags will "match" out of their zone at times, meaning their defenders won't necessarily be anchored to one spot on the field, dedicating themselves to one particular zone. For instance, if the Patriots place three receivers on one side of the field, Ramsey and corner AJ Bouye could end up aligning in close proximity to one another. That's how the Jaguars ensure that they have the best chance to match skill-sets with the receivers running through their zones. 

That kind of defense, though, could play right into New England's hands when it comes to Gronkowski's usage. In Super Bowl XLIX, the Patriots went with three receivers to Tom Brady's left and lined up Gronkowski wide to the right all by himself. Seattle didn't have a corner go out on the island with the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder. It was linebacker KJ Wright. Gronkowski ran right by him for a 22-yard touchdown. 

Jacksonville's linebackers Myles Jack and Telvin Smith are as athletic as any pair in the league, but if a similar situation pops up on Sunday, Brady's decision should be just as easy. 

If the Jaguars choose to match Gronkowski over the middle of the field with one of their two interchangeable safeties -- Tashaun Gipson or Barry Church -- they'll be opting to cover New England's top offensive threat with two of their weakest defenders. Plus, Gipson is dealing with a foot injury that has held him out for two practices this week. If he's at all limited, that could press second-year safety Jarrod Wilson, undrafted out of Michigan last year, into action. 

How the Patriots use Gronkowski in the AFC title game will be fascinating to watch. Will they use him as one of four vertical threats to stress Jacksonville's three deep defenders? Will they have him try to puncture the soft spots in the intermediate areas of Wash's zone scheme? Will they incorporate him in the screen game, as Jerod Mayo suggested on this week's Quick Slants the Podcast, to take advantage of an aggressive defensive front? Or will the Patriots isolate him on the outside, trusting him to win his one-on-one matchup?

If the Jaguars come up with the answer to slow down Gronkowski, without outright doubling him, they'll be the first to do so in some time. He's averaging 109 yards per game in his last five, and he has four touchdowns in that span.

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Patriots' first-round pick Isaiah Wynn out for season with torn Achilles

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Patriots' first-round pick Isaiah Wynn out for season with torn Achilles

There are loads of ways for an NFL team to stock its roster. Free agency, restricted free agency, undrafted free agents, trades, practice squad poaching. Gotta try ‘em all.  

So just because the NFL Draft is the most celebrated and extensively covered avenue, it doesn’t mean drafted players are inherently better. 

Which is good, because the Patriots have been getting kicked in the head by the top of the draft over the past few years. 

The latest instance? An Achilles tendon rupture suffered by first-round offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn Thursday night against the Eagles. Wynn, the 23rd overall pick out of Georgia, is done for the year. 

The Patriots had two first round picks this year and Wynn was kind of the “safe” draft pick. His Georgia teammate, Sony Michel, taken by the team with the 31st overall pick, was supposed to be the dice roll. Both Mike Mayock and Mike Lombardi -- Patriot friendlies -- reported in the days leading up to the draft that teams were concerned about Michel being “bone on bone” in his knee.

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Voila, Michel was there at 31. The Patriots drafted him -- despite the knee forecast -- because he’s really good and the team believes that the late-first and second-round picks are good times to spend selections on talented players that may have warning flags accompanying them. 

Michel has already had a procedure to have his knee drained and may not play in this preseason. 

Some might also mention here that second-round pick Duke Dawson missed Thursday night’s game with a hamstring and cite that as evidence that furthers the head-kicking the Pats have been taking. But that would be dumb because Dawson will be back soon and he’s performed really well in camp. As has fifth-round linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. 

So it’s not like the Patriots go 0-for-April. They just have too many swings and misses on what should be fairly flat fastballs. 

Since 2012, the team has drafted 22 players in the first three rounds. 

Twelve are still with the team (Wynn, Michel, Dawson, Derek Rivers, Cyrus Jones, Joe Thuney, Vincent Valentine, Malcom Brown, Jordan Richards, Geneo Grissom, Duron Harmon, Donta Hightower). 

Of those, Hightower and Harmon are two that you would say have been vital players to the Patriots success. To a lesser degree, Thuney and Malcom Brown. 

Among the 10 who are gone, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan and Chandler Jones are ones who also had strong impacts. 

So that’s six out of 22. And only two of those impact guys remain. 

Unmitigated misses in the first three rounds would be Antonio Garcia (third-rounder in 2017), Dominique Easley (first-round, 2014) and Aaron Dobson (second round 2013). 

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Some guys did a little and aren’t here anymore (Jacoby Brissett, Tavon Wilson). 

More guys are still here, haven’t done diddly and don’t appear on the verge of being impact players  (Cyrus Jones, Valentine, Richards, Grissom). 

For whatever reason, the Patriots tend to kick ass later in the draft. Trey Flowers, Shaq Mason, Nate Ebner, Cam Fleming, James White, Joe Cardona, Elandon Roberts and Ted Karras have either fulfilled expectations based on their role and draft position or exceeded it (Mason, Flowers, Ebner and White in particular). 

But at the top they just can’t make the connection. And still they win. 

Why’s that? A lot of reasons. The main one being that -- in 2000 -- they got it right in the sixth round with the 199th pick. It certainly hasn’t been because of Adrian Klemm (second rounder, 2000). 

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Brady plays the hits, largely steers clear of newer faces in first action

Brady plays the hits, largely steers clear of newer faces in first action

FOXBORO -- We really couldn't stop talking about it.

Ever since Tom Brady announced earlier this week that the plan was for him to play against the Eagles on Thursday night, it was only natural to wonder: How would he look with the new guys?

We discussed the topic on our shows. We wrote about it. We asked players about it when we could. We asked Bill Belichick what it was like to incorporate a new guy.  

It seemed pertinent, after all. The Patriots lost a 1,000-yard receiver in Brandin Cooks and their most clutch receiver of 2017 in Danny Amendola. Since then they've brought in a number of bodies to help replace that production. This would be Brady's first game action since the turnover.

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The 41-year-old has served as an on-the-field tutor for some of his new teammates. He's done extra work with others. But on Thursday, it was almost as though Brady told those in their Patriots infancy, "OK, time for the grown-ups to play now."

Instead of peppering Eric Decker (who only received a few snaps with Brady) or Cordarrelle Patterson with passes, feeding them the reps that might accelerate their understanding of the offense, Brady played favorites.

Chris Hogan received seven targets. James White saw six. Julian Edelman got five, and Phillip Dorsett had three. Patterson got two targets, as did 2017 practice-squadder Will Tye. Jacob Hollister got one. Decker didn't get a target until the third quarter, when Brian Hoyer had entered.

It seemed relatively clear that Brady was more concerned with moving the chains and sustaining drives, establishing his own rhythm and a rhythm for his offense, rather than worrying about the state of mind of his new receivers.

And that makes sense. But at some point, Brady can't go all-in aiding in the readiness of a new player if it means less work for the guys he really trusts, the guys he'll be relying on in the biggest moments. It's their preseason, too.

I asked Brady after the game how he balances ushering along guys like Decker and Patterson with doing what's best for him -- sustaining drives, moving chains, leaning on his most trusted teammates even though they have oodles of experience together already.

"I think the coaches are pretty good at that and they kind of decide a lot of those things," he sad. "There's a lot of rotations in practice and we're all watching film together, we're in the meetings together, we're in the walk-throughs and so forth. 

PATRIOTS 37, EAGLES 20

"This is one element to getting to know people and preparation and so forth, and there's a lot that goes into it. So, I'm in there a lot with a lot of other guys that may not be as much on the field, but those things -- we’ve still got plenty of time left in camp to, as things take shape, to figure out who's going to be out there and who's going to try to help us win."

Some, though, are starting to slip behind. One of the newbs, Braxton Berrios, did not suit up Thursday. Kenny Britt arrived to New England late last season and hasn't yet practiced in full in training camp. Rookie first-rounder Sony Michel, projected to chip in as a pass-catching back, has been out for weeks.

Can't blame Brady for wanting to use his preseason throws on players he knows will actually be in Foxboro when things get started for real. As he noted, there's plenty of other ways for him to get to know the bubble guys between now and whenever they've earned his trust: meetings, film, practice, walkthroughs.

Thursday wasn't the time. That was reserved for Brady to go to his favorites. And he made the most of it, going 19-for-26 for 172 yards and two scores. 

For those of us interested in how he'll connect with someone like Decker -- who has struggled but may end up with a role given the team's depth at that position -- we'll have to wait at least another week. 

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