For Patriots QB Tom Brady, the fire seems to be burning just as deep as ever. (USA TODAY Images)
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady may be heading into the twilight of his career, but he doesn't sound much different from the player he's always been after putting together one of the most impressive stretches in the history of the franchise here in New England.
His approach hasn't changed. Although his team hasn't won a title since they last hoisted the Lombardi trophy back in 2005 following a 2004 season that was arguably one of their greatest team efforts, that drought only seems to continue fueling the fire of the man who essentially put the Patriots on the map after winning three in his first four years as a starter.
It may have been a while since their last championship, but that hasn't stopped New England from having quite a run over the last decade. Since 2003, this team has won double-digit games in every season, which in the NFL is an astounding achievement considering the restrictions every franchise faces thanks to the salary cap. Fans actually haven't even seen a losing season since back in 2000 (they went 5-11 that season), and since then the worst record this team has finished with was back in 2002 when they finished 9-7.
Over that span Brady has been at the helm for all but one, having suffered a knee injury in 2008 in the season opener that left him as nothing more than a spectator that year.
While he was gone, he married his wife Gisele Bundchen, and when he returned he had a new appreciation for the game he loved and realized how quickly it could all be taken away.
"The reality is in this sport, you really never know. ...Any day could be your last day in football," Brady told the Associated Press back in May of 2009. "You come out and it's a very physical game and I think you're just grateful for having a chance to compete in practice and be on a team and having a great job. I don't think about the end too often."
"(But) when you sit on the sidelines for an entire year, you realize how much you love it," Brady added. "Not that you need that to happen to be grateful to play, but you experience things in a much different way and a way that I never experienced as an athlete. I love being out here."
Despite missing all of 2008, Brady currently holds the fourth-longest consecutive game streak among active quarterbacks. (USA TODAY Images)
Aside from the knee injury, Brady has remained durable and has played in 80 consecutive regular season games, the fourth longest active streak among quarterbacks in the NFL. He trails only Eli Manning (151), Philip Rivers (129) and Joe Flacco (96) in that category, and he recently talked to SI.com's Peter King about a variety of topics, including the fact his commitment to his health and durability are at the forefront of his approach in making sure he's there for his team each week.
“It’s hard to explain this to people, but the commitment I make, in terms of keeping my body in shape and my nutrition right, should make me healthy," Brady told King. "I feel better today than when I was 25, and I know that’s hard for people to believe, but I do. I work at it. Basically, I work all off-season to prepare my body to not get hurt. I can’t help the team if I’m on the sidelines. I’ve got to be durable.”
What he does to make that happen is something he holds close to the vest. While he wouldn't reveal during his interview with King what that secret was, Brady said that the things he does are done with the hopes of making him a better player on the field and that's what people will ultimately judge him for.
“It’s all very well-researched,” Brady said. “But that’s for the other guys to figure out. I’m not going to give away any state secrets. I’m not here to be king of the weight room. I do things to make me a better quarterback, whatever they are. Does it work? You be the one to judge. Watch me play. Then draw your own conclusions.”
For now Brady will shortly enter into yet another year of organized team activities, and once again he'll have another young quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo in the mix. Garoppolo was another early round pick who some feel could one day replace Brady, but the veteran has already been in this position after the team also drafted Ryan Mallett in the third round back in 2011. Mallett is now likely on his way out after this season, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if Brady leaves Garoppolo in the same position in the years ahead.
However, having been a player who unseated an established veteran himself, Brady's fully aware that should he begin not playing up to the team's lofty standards that he himself has set, the time could come where he's no longer the guy who Bill Belichick feels gives them the best chance to win.
That's why he's once again spending another offseason preparing for one more chance to get another championship before that day comes. He'll be 37 in August, which at that age the chances are there could be moments that could lead to those who will start critiquing every incompletion, every errant pass, or every turnover. However, that's not something Brady's worried about, and despite his age he told King, “You know, you don’t have to suck when you get older.”
As for quarterbacks who played at a high level late into their careers, one comparison can be made to Denver's John Elway, who retired at the age of 38 after winning back-to-back Super Bowls in 1998 and 1999. He walked away at the top of his game and on the heels of two incredible years for the Broncos before hanging it up in what was an emotional press conference. Brady is now in that territory in terms of his age and recently tied Elway's mark of five Super Bowl starts at quarterback back in 2012.
We all know how Elway's career ended, but Elway also admitted at the time that there were injuries and ailments that lead to his decision to not take a shot at trying to get one more ring. His body told him it was time to call it quits, and as a result, he walked away in a manner that most players can only hope for.
"I have a chronic bad [left] knee," said Elway during his retirement press conference. "It got to the point where it was preventing me from doing the things I wanted to do. Last year, I fell on the football twice and hurt my ribs on both sides. I'd never done that before. Nagging things that used to go away in a week were lingering four and five weeks."
Elway was a running quarterback and had no issue diving for extra yards and sacrificing his body in doing so. Brady's earned the reputation for his effectiveness during quarterback sneaks, but he doesn't tend to put himself in positions to take the hits that Elway did. Whether or not he can continue doing the things to remain healthy will obviously be the question as he tries to extend his career, but the odds seem to be in his favor for him to play into his forties.
But for that to happen, he'll also need to continue playing at the same high level. He's been smart with the football over the past four seasons, having thrown fewer interceptions (4 in 2010, 12 in 2011, and 8 in 2012) than the 13 he threw in 2009. He threw 11 in 2013, and there were a few that were hard to put solely on his shoulders. Ill-advised throws and bad decisions are usually signs of deterioration in a quarterback's skills, and that's something Brady hasn't shown to this point.
Whether or not that changes remains to be seen. He probably won't be perfect, and as a result there will still likely be some whispers over the next few years about his future and whether or not the end is indeed getting closer.
Obviously nothing lasts forever, and what has transpired over his career here in New England is nothing short of remarkable. It's going to be hard to imagine not seeing him calling signals someday, but it sounds like he'll still be part of the game he loves in some fashion.
“There’s nothing that can wake me up at 5 o’clock in the morning on a Thursday in May like getting ready for a day of football," Brady told King. "I want to play a long time. There’s nothing I like doing that’s close to football. What’ll I do when I’m done playing? I don’t know, but I know it won’t be nearly as fun. I can tell you neither me nor Peyton [Manning] will probably be very far from the game of football when we’re done.”
Hopefully if all goes well it will be a while before we find out exactly what that is.
Sometimes the best deals are the ones you don't have to make, and fortunately for the Patriots part of their problems in 2013 will hopefully be solved by a few guys who were already in the fold heading into the 2014 campaign. That made things a little easier in free agency, as New England already had a few key players who will end up being welcomed re-additions to their football team on the defensive side of the football when we see them again just a little over two months from now.
Contrary to the annual reactions of many after free agency kicked off (and those groans are never late), this isn't a team that lacks much in the talent category. Much of New England's issues in 2013 stemmed from personnel losses thanks to injuries that absolutely decimated a group that started off with so much promise, and it started right smack in the middle of a defense that looked better than they had in years.
Early on, the duo of Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly was one of the most dominant up front we had seen in quite some time. The two clicked so well together, and the opportunity to play together was one Kelly had been looking for since he signed with the team back in May of last year.
"You get to the end of your career, you get the opportunity to play with a real good team like New England -- it came down to a couple teams -- but I guess after talking with Coach [Bill] Belichick and then just the opportunity to play with Vince," Kelly told Patriots Today at the time. "You wanna play with someone that can play. You know, you always watch people who play your position. I mean, he's a real good player. A hell of a player."
Their time together lasted just four games, and in that moment in Atlanta where Wilfork was carted off the field, Kelly saw the writing on the wall.
"I'm sure they're going to try to run the ball more," defensive tackle Tommy Kelly told the Boston Herald, while talking about what to expect with Wilfork being gone. "I mean, we're lighter up front now. Take Vince out, I mean, I'd try to run the ball more. That's being smart, but I think we're more than capable of handling the job."
Little could Kelly have guessed that just one week later he'd see his season washed away in the rain in Cincinnati after he injured his knee during New England's first loss of the year. Despite the initial thought he might return, he never made it back after the injury ultimately saw him end up on injured reserve weeks later. It was certainly one of the turning points in a season that started off so well, and it took away two terrific components from a defense that no longer looked as formidable as they did just weeks earlier.
The Patriots fought on, and Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, and Sealver Siliga did the best they could to fill the void while those two were sidelined. The experience was certainly great for those three players, but the fact both Kelly and Wilfork will be back in 2014 is something that is tough to overlook. Fans haven't seen him in action yet so it's tough to say what type of player he'll be coming off of that injury, but one would have to believe Wilfork will still be a problem for opposing offensive players. Granted, the workload and snaps will likely be lowered for the veteran tackle, who played in 177 of 219 defensive snaps (80.8%) before tearing his Achilles. However, he and Kelly should be welcomed additions to a group that was a fairly solid tandem before they went down.
Lost not long after that was linebacker Jerod Mayo, whose injury overshadowed what was arguably one of the most exciting finishes of the season during the Patriots come-from-behind win over the New Orleans. Mayo left Gillette Stadium that night with his arm in a sling and his loss marked more changes in a defense that lost yet another veteran leader.
Fortunately Bill Belichick planned ahead for such a moment, with several players each spending time with the "green dot" on their helmets during last year's preseason. That designation goes to the player who calls the plays in the huddle and Mayo was the one who up until that week had handled those duties. From there Dont'a Hightower was forced into that role, with the second year linebacker having been one of the players who had experienced that responsibility in the preseason. It's unlikely that he could have imagined how important that experience would end up being, and it's the overall preparation for the unknown by Bill Belichick that helped the Patriots continue on.
They were forced to play their final ten games without Mayo, and he'll be another addition to New England's defense that should make the Patriots better than they were after he went down. But his absence could end up being a big reason why the team may find Hightower making bigger contributions this year, as the increased playing time, along with the experience in Mayo's role calling the plays, should make him even better this season.
Another player who benefited from the added playing time was linebacker Jamie Collins, who saw increased snaps down the stretch while Brandon Spikes was banged up. Now that Spikes is gone, it marks yet another one of the positives New England walked away with from last year's trying season.
Getting an All-Pro back like Mayo is an offseason move that any team would be excited to be able to make, and fortunately for New England they already have him in-house. The veteran has been New England's leading tackler, and his importance tends to get lost as he does a lot of the dirty work in the Patriots' defense. As a result, having him back on the field should hopefully free some other guys up around him and allow them to be more effective.
He's been working hard this offseason and Rob Ninkovich recently pointed out that Mayo has been pushing him in the weight room as the two continue getting ready for the upcoming year.
“He’s a pretty explosive guy,” Rob Ninkovich told the Boston Globe of Mayo, who he's been working out with this offseason. “So I try to keep up with that guy. He’s looking good right now. I’ve been training with him for a long time. It’s always good to somebody to push you and make you better than what you are.“
That's certainly promising news. With the draft now out of the way these are three key guys who will allow first round pick Dominique Easley to have some time to develop, and will hopefully play a part in helping some of the newer players get acclimated. But in the meantime these are also three players who will add to an already improved and battle-tested group when they get back on the field in the months ahead.
Coming into a team like the Patriots, rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo obviously knew he'd have some big shoes to potentially someday fill while sitting behind Tom Brady on the depth chart.
His day in the sun is likely years away, but that doesn't appear to be stopping him from doing all he can to start the process to ready himself for the day when the ball might eventually be placed in his hands.
According to NESN's Doug Kyed, Garoppolo has spent his time burying his head in the playbook and doing his best to make sure the guys around him are just as up to speed with New England's offensive system, with the rookie quarterback apparently already carving out a leadership role with his new team.
"He'll be walking around, and he'll just walk up to me and shout me out a play and ask me to tell him what is that I've got, my responsibilities," undrafted tight end Justin Jones told Kyed Thursday at Gillette Stadium. "And I think that's one of the key components of being a great quarterback."
It's likely going to be a pretty interesting transition for Garoppolo. After all, the former Walter Payton Award winner out of Eastern Illinois has gone from being a record-breaking passer for his college team, to being just a clipboard holder with his current one.
In the months ahead he'll get to see what it's like during practice while watching his favorite player and now teammate, Tom Brady, call the shots and show him what it takes to succeed at the NFL level. Brady has preached about hard work and desire during his tenure as the team's quarterback, which is what allowed him to achieve greatness despite being just a sixth round pick out of Michigan. That hunger and desire is what got him to where he is now, and so far he hasn't shown any signs of letting up.
Watching film is also something Brady has been known for over the years and it appears that Garoppolo is already following that example. The rookie told the media earlier this week that studying is what separates the great players, and it's something that may one day prepare him for when the moment finally arrives where he's potentially asked to carry on the tradition that Brady has built here in New England.
"Film and playbook, that's what makes a quarterback great," he told ESPN Boston this week. "You have to have the physical tools obviously, but when you get into the film room, get with the coaches and talk about the playbook, that's what really separates you."
Studying film and becoming a leader. It may be a while before his day will come, but it sounds like he's already doing the right things to potentially be ready when it does. He spoke about the opportunity he's been given after he was drafted, and he's glad to be a part of it.
"It's crazy being able to go to Boston and learn from Tom, learn from Coach [Bill] Belichick and all the coaches and all the players," said Garoppolo. "It's a great opportunity for a guy like me, a young player. I still have a lot to learn and I know that and I'm excited about it."
The 2014 NFL Draft is over and the New England Patriots have made their selections as well as added the first group of UDFAs to bolster the roster. It's important to note that the UDFA position is a volatile one and players will be added and dropped pretty frequently between now and training camp.
If he's ready to go by training camp, Dominique Easley will be looked to provide an upgrade at the interior pass rush for the Patriots in 2014. (USA TODAY Images)
With that in mind here is a look at the "Much Too Early 53 Man Roster Projection 1.0" for the post-draft week and take a look at how things may play out. Of course how these players actually perform on the field as well as the ever present threat of injuries will determine who is left standing in September. And they may still add some more veteran pieces, (read Dustin Keller) as the summer approaches.
It should be noted that because of the Browner suspension for the first four weeks of the season, the Patriots can in essence keep 54 players on the roster. But for simplicity sake here, we're going with the best 53.
Quarterback - Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett, Jimmy Garappolo
The Patriots go back to a three QB team this fall, Brady remains the starter and Garappolo won't be pushed too hard in his first camp, giving him time to develop his game and learn the Patriots offense.
I still don't buy the Mallett trade rumors and barring any huge jump in play by Garappolo in training camp, will remain Brady's backup. But this will be a fun group to watch this summer.
Opening day roster- all three.
Running Backs – Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, James White, Brandon Bolden, Jonas Gray, Stephen Houston, Roy Finch
Going into mini-camps, OTAs and training camp, the big back remains Ridley although Houston is an intriguing option if the fumble-itis problems return. But for now Ridley, Vereen and White should all make the final 53. White and Vereen have similar skill sets however and if one really has a bad summer could be cut loose. That leaves a group of four to fight it out for one roster spot as I believe they keep four.
Opening day roster- Ridley, Vereen, White and Bolden (4)
Fullbacks/H-Back – James Develin, Tyler Beck
Develin was used quite a bit last season and is a valuable asset in the short yardage running game as a blocker. But will they keep this position now that three QBs are on the roster? Unless something breaks at the QB position, the team may opt to use Hooman as the H-back....keep this position circled in training camp.
Opening Day Roster - (0)
Tight End – Rob Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui, D.J. Williams, Asa Watson, Justin Jones
After all the speculation that the Patriots were targeting one of the many TEs at the top of the draft, they did the typical Patriots MO and took none of them. They have brought in a couple of intriguing prospects including the 6'8 Jones and Watson, brother of former Patriots tight end Ben.
I still believe that Dustin Keller will eventually sign with the Patriots and one of the two UDFAs will find their place on the practice squad...possibly both if they perform well.
Opening Day Roster- Gronkowski, Hooman, (Keller?) (3)
Wide Receiver– Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Brandon Lafell, Danny Amendola, Josh Boyce, Kenbrell Thompkins, Matthew Slater, Mark Harrison, Jeremy Gallon, Reggie Dunn, Greg Orton, Ja-Mes Logan
Much like the tight end position, the team paid scant attention to WRs in the draft adding only Gallon in the 7th round. But their depth is strong and with a second year of the system for Dobson¸ Boyce, Thompkins and Amendola inside the Patriots offense, they should be much improved from last summer.
As of right now, I think they still keep only six WRs and Dobson, Edelman, Lafell, Amendola, Boyce and Slater virtual locks to make the roster, but... it isn't inconceivable to imagine they'd keep seven wideouts.
Competition will be fierce at WR with Thompkins, Harrison, Gallon, Dunn, Orton and Logan all vying for a roster spot. With the injury history of both Amendola and Edelman, Gallon with his production from the slot has the inside track for a practice squad slot. Don't go to sleep on Logan who was very productive for the past three years at Ole Miss and is a tall (6'3) receiver who excels at working underneath.
Opening Day Roster- Dobson, Edelman, Lafell, Amendola, Boyce, Slater (6)
Offensive Tackle – Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Cameron Fleming, Marcus Cannon, RJ Mattes, Jordan Devey
The starters Solder and Vollmer are locked in and solid. Cannon is a lock and is versatile because of his ability to move inside to guard. Fleming is an interesting addition. He played only RT at Stanford but is also a lock and may be this season's swing tackle.
Opening Day Roster- Solder, Vollmer, Cannon, Fleming (4)
Offensive Guard – Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, John Halapio, Josh Kline, Chris Barker
One of the key story lines of training camp will be to watch this position; Mankins is a lock and is still a valuable commodity. Dan Connolly however due to his cap number and struggles inside could very well find himself on the outside looking in.
They drafted the tough Halapio and are high on Kline who worked himself into a roster slot last year. With Cannon and Stork having the option of sliding over, this will be a contentious position once July rolls around.
Opening Day Roster- Mankins, Halapio, Kline (3)
Center – Ryan Wendell, Bryan Stork, Braxston Cave
Stork, the 4th round draft pick from Florida St. is a lock, Wendell was re-signed to a 2 yr deal but could easily be replaced. Stork is going to push Wendell for the starter position and could win it outright in camp. If he doesn't, they'll keep both because he has the versatility to play guard in a pinch if need be.
Opening Day Roster – Stork (1)
Total number Offense (24)
Defensive End – Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Zach Moore, Jake Bequette, Michael Buchanan, Armond Armstead
Nobody was more overworked than the starting combo of Jones and Ninkovich last year. The team needs a rotation that will keep them fresh. They added the very intriguing Moore from a Div. II school but he's raw and will be a developmental project. That's bad news for Jake Bequette who has barely sniffed the field in two years.
A couple of things here, the team lists Armstead as a DE and newly signed Will Smith as a LB so if you're wondering why....there's the answer. Buchanan will need to step up his game in year two and join in the rotation.
Opening Day Roster – Jones, Ninkovich, Armstead, Buchanan, Moore (5)
Defensive Tackle – Vince Wilfork, Dominique Easley, Tommy Kelly, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, Sealver Siliga, Marcus Forston
Another great position to watch this summer, with surprisingly only Easley as the team's 1st round pick as the only lock here. Wilfork and Kelly are coming off of serious injuries and will bear close watching. Kelly was arguably their best DL before suffering a knee injury against Cincinnati last year. Siliga was a pleasant surprise in mid-season and Chris Jones can fill the old Mike Wright position as the sub-interior pass rusher.
Opening Day Roster – Wilfork, Easley, Kelly, Siliga, Jones (5)
Outside Linebacker - Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins, Will Smith Ja'Gared Davis, Josh Hull, Cameron Gordon
Mayo returns from a serious injury and he and Collins are the starters....Smith surprisingly is listed as a LB but will be an edge rusher. The team gave Gordon a rather large signing bonus for an UDFA so they obviously have plans for him. But if there is another position that screams veteran addition this summer, the outside linebacker position is it as it is among the thinnest on the team.
Opening Day Roster – Mayo, Collins, Smith, Gordon (4)
Inside Linebacker – Dont'a Hightower, Steven Beauharnais, Chris White, James Morris
Hightower takes over the middle linebacker position for the departed Brandon Spikes, now with the Buffalo Bills. The team will be looking for a big second year jump from Beauharnais who was red-shirted in his rookie campaign. Morris was an UDFA steal from Iowa, who was very productive for the Hawkeyes and looks to replace the departed Dane Fletcher in sub-packages.
Opening Day Roster – Hightower, Beauharnais, Morris (3)
Cornerback – Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan, Justin Green, Travis Hawkins
This position was upgraded the most with the additions of Revis and Browner, and as a result the loss of Aqib Talib was quickly forgotten. The cornerback position is now the deepest on the team and it's been many years since that has been the case. At some point Ryan will see some time at safety, perhaps even Browner but this position is rock solid.
Opening Day Roster – Revis, Browner, Dennard, Arrington, Ryan (5)
Safety – Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung, Jemea Thomas, Nate Ebner, Kanorris Davis, Tavon Wilson, Jeremy Deering
McCourty and Harmon are locks to make the roster and are at least right now your opening day starters. Chung was brought back for depth and STs play, we may still see Ryan and Browner at safety in some packages. Thomas is a nice player who can play at safety or slot corner so his versatility is a plus. Deering is the wild-card here, a fast jack-of-all-trades who could make some noise.
Opening Day Roster – McCourty, Harmon, Chung, Thomas (4)
Total number Defense (26)
Specialists: Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Danny Aiken, Tyler Ott, Charley Hughlett
Gostkowski and Allen were an excellent tandem in 2013, and nothing changes there. With a camp competition at long snapper, it would be nice to see a Harvard guy get the nod.
Opening Day Roster – Gostkowski, Allen, Ott (3)
Total Roster (53)
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At 6'8", tight end Justin Jones is an intriguing prospect. (USA TODAY Images)
The Patriots watched some of the top tight ends come off the board this past weekend before they had a chance to grab one, and as a result they looked to some of the guys who failed to get drafted to try and add some depth.
On Monday they announced the signing of nine rookie free agents, including three tight ends in Tyler Beck, Justin Jones, and Asa Watson. Prior to the draft the Patriots weren't exactly stacked at that position, and coming up without one of the top prospects leaves them with some uncertainty. Rob Gronkowski's knee injury remains a big question mark heading into the year and as it stands right now, unless someone emerges, they're still lacking any real depth behind Michael Hoomanawanui.
As a result, it's an opportunity that is knocking for all three of these free agent prospects. The good news is if they can break through, it's entirely possible one (or more) of those players could factor into the mix in the months ahead. Hopefully they'll fare better than last year's undrafted free agent Zach Sudfeld, with the Nevada standout having a tremendous preseason but wasn't able to carry that into the regular season.
During last year's exhibition season, Sudfeld was targeted eleven times with eight receptions, including five first downs and a touchdown. He was also targeted twice with two receptions on third down, both of which were first downs.
That wasn't the case during the regular season. He was targeted just three times, two of which were picked off and never looked like he and Tom Brady were in sync. The team seemingly released him on October 3rd with the intention of placing him on the practice squad, but the Jets grabbed him.
Now one year later, while Watson, Beck, and Jones never had their name called, they have a big opportunity to potentially make a name for themselves on the field over these next few months. Taking a closer look at each one, there are certainly some reasons to believe that one could eventually emerge, which sets up an interesting storyline heading into training camp.
Tyler Beck, Bowling Green - Beck appeared in 13 games in 2013, finishing the season with 10 receptions for 177 yards. The 6'2", 257-pound senior's stats were a bit limited, and for any fans hoping he'll be a guy who can help give the Patriots the type of third down threat that Gronkowski does (10 receptions, with 8 conversions including 2 touchdowns last season) Beck will have to do something he didn't do last year and establish himself as that type of player in the NFL. Of his 10 catches last year, not one came on third down (6 catches for 130-yards and two touchdowns on 1st down, 3 catches for 34 yards on 2nd down, 1 catch for 12 yards on 4th down). Overall of his 25 career receptions, he made just one third down catch, which was a two yard pick-up in 2012.
Justin Jones, East Carolina - Jones is certainly the most interesting of the three, standing a massive 6'8". On paper this would have most people salivating at the prospect of having someone that tall catching passes. Unfortunately, Jones was ineligible for his senior season due to his grades, even despite spending his time in summer school. He finished his career with 52 receptions for 598 yards and 12 touchdowns in 32 games, including a career-high 25 catches in 2012. He was a red zone threat, with two of those 25 receptions coming inside the opponent's 20-yard line, both of which were touchdowns. Needless to say after missing his senior season, Jones should be hungry and looking to prove himself, which could potentially make him someone to watch in the months ahead.
Asa Watson, NC State - If the name sounds familiar, it's with good reason. Watson is the brother of former Patriots tight end Ben Watson, who was a 1st round pick selected by New England back in 2004. Unfortunately Asa has some obstacles to overcome as he's also battling health issues after undergoing heart surgeries in 2010 and 2011. He reportedly has Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, which causes the ventricles of the heart to prematurely contract. It doesn't seem to be a concern in his eyes, as he reportedly told a few teams that asked about it, that "it's a nuisance rather than a hindrance." Obviously the Patriots felt it was worth the risk.
The 6'2", 239 pound Watson did a "Draft Diary" this past offseason with USA Today, and said his older brother Ben, who is ten years older, was always someone he looked up to.
"I just tried to copy him as much as I could," wrote Watson. "I was playing football in the street, then watching him on Friday nights, seeing the great impact that he had at his high school. It was a fun childhood with me, him and four others. It was a packed house, but you always had somebody to play with."
Now he's got an opportunity to potentially start his pro career with the same team.
The 2014 NFL Draft is in the books and now teams are scrambling to sign UDFA (undrafted free agents) to round out their rosters. The New England Patriots stuck to their own formula of building for the future, selecting many of their players with their eyes on 2015 and beyond.
Will second round pick Jimmy Garoppolo be the next QB for New England? (USA TODAY Images)
While we often hear in the media talk about "loading up" to take advantage of QB Tom Brady's window of opportunity closing for a fourth Super Bowl, the Patriots aren't a team under the Bill Belichick regime to push all their chips on the table to take a shot at the big prize. This year's draft was further proof that the team builds with the future in mind.
Belichick did quote about Brady's age however in what was a somewhat surprising pick, which we'll get to more on that point later. But in a draft with so many offensive weapons and many tight ends at the top end available, the Patriots took none of them.
Here is the breakdown of the picks and players selected:
Rd 1 Pick 29 Dominique Easley DT Florida
Rd 2 Pick 62 Jimmy Garoppolo QB Eastern Illinois
Rd 4 Pick 105 Bryan Stork C Florida State
Rd 4 Pick 130 James White RB Wisconsin
Rd 4 Pick 140 Cameron Fleming T Stanford
Rd 6 Pick 179 John Halapio G Florida
Rd 6 Pick 198 Zach Moore DE Concordia-St. Paul
Rd 7 Pick 206 Jemea Thomas S Georgia Tech
Rd 7 Pick 244 Jeremy Gallon WR Michigan
Biggest Surprise Move: Taking so many players (Easley, Stork, Halapio) with injury concerns. Just a year after seeing their roster, most especially their defense decimated by injuries, their first pick (and most talented) Easley has had both knees blown out by ACL injuries.
Stork and Halapio both saw their stock drop due to durability issues; Halapio played 2013 with a torn pectoral muscle. These moves also double as their most risky as well. Halapio however gets big points for toughness playing through a painful season.
Dominique Easley, the Patriots top pick in the draft has had ACL surgery on both knees.
(USA TODAY Images)
Offensive Line Solidified: Injury concerns aside, the pieces added will inject the OL with some much needed youth and size. Stork will provide Ryan Wendell some camp competition at center and is a savvy pass blocker with 40 career starts in college.
Halapio a team captain at Florida, played in 51 games has a nasty demeanor and is very physical in the running game and is a good pass blocker. He'll push Dan Connolly for reps at camp this summer.
Fleming is a smart player who graduated with a degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics. He's got proto-typical size of a tackle at 6'5, 323 and he excels in the running game but has had issues in pass protecting against speed rushers. Playing behind starters Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, he'll have time to hone his craft and will provide good depth with Marcus Cannon.
Brady's Window: The selection of Garappolo is interesting in the aspect that the Patriots seem to be planning for life after Brady sooner rather than later. Bill Belichick, always one to measure his words carefully for the first time mentioned Brady's age as a factor for drafting Garappolo from E.Illinois.
"The situation we have at quarterback, I think that we felt as an organization that we needed to address that to some degree in the future. I think you're better off being early rather than late at that position," Belichick said.
"We know what Ryan's contract situation is, we know what Tom's age and contract situation is, and I don't think you want to have one quarterback on your team," Belichick added. "I don't think that's responsible to the entire team or the organization."
While many point to four years down the line as the point where Brady will have to be replaced, this points to a place sooner that the team feels it will need to be done.
Garappolo has good but not great size, excellent vision and touch on the ball and has a very quick release and quick feet which will keep him away from pressure. He shattered all of Tony Romo's records at E.Illinois but like Romo at times will attempt to force throws in very tight windows.
Other Observations: While much of the fan base was clamoring for a tight end, the team surprisingly took none of the much bally-hooed names out there but did add a couple of UDFAs. The selection of James White is interesting in that he's not big 5'9, 206, similar to Shane Vereen, can catch the ball out of the backfield and is dangerous in space. White also says he prefers to run inside rather than outside.
In a pre-draft interview, he said, "actually, I believe my ability to run inside is one of my strengths, especially on the zone plays we ran at Wisconsin. I believe I have the speed and vision to run outside but believe that my tape proves my effectiveness running between the tackles."
Zach Moore is a raw developmental prospect but intriguing with his size at 6'6, 269. He had tremendous production albeit at a lower level of competition at D2 Concordia-St.Paul. He'll at least push 3rd year DE Jake Bequette for a roster spot.
Jemea Thomas is a slightly undersized safety who likes to hit and play physical and can play safety or out of the slot at cornerback. He'll have to compete on Special Teams initially but plays all out, all the time and could find his way on the field.
Jeremy Gallon is an undersized receiver who had tremendous production at Michigan operating out of the slot. Only 5'7, his ticket to the already over-crowded logjam in the slot is thru Special Teams.
***One other note, while not selecting a tight end Mike Reiss mentioned to Bill Belichick this weekend if that could mean a move towards Mark Harrison the big, (6'3,230) WR to the 'move" TE position. Something that has been mentioned here and numerous other places....Belichick stated that it was not in the plans.***
This was a typical Belichick draft, no sexy picks, a few that will leave the fanbase scratching their heads but a solid one with the dividends to be paid down the road.
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