Monday, July 30, 2012

Red Sox Junction, What's your Dysfunction?

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

One-hundred and two games into the season and the Red Sox still remain a mess on and off the field. Only sixty games are left in the season.  After a big three-game series with the New York Yankees (on National broadcasts, sparing the eardrums from the horrific banter of Jerry "No Insight of any Value" Remy and Don "Dope" Orsillo), the Red Sox have clawed their way to .500 yet again.  Has time run out on the 2012 season?  Is there still hope for the second Wild-Card play-in spot?  Add in the non-waiver trade deadline looming a day away, and the intrigue continues for the most disappointing team (OK, maybe the Philadelphia Phillies were more disappointing this season) of the year.

The Red Sox are still in last place, a half-game behind the Toronto Blue Jays.  They are four games out of the wild card, but take that with a grain of salt, as there are seven other teams in the same or better position.  What are the odds of the Red Sox outplaying all of these teams and leaping ahead to grab one of those two spots.   Taking two of three from the New York Yankees picked up a whole game in the standings.  Let me put it this way, it was a late July series and I got no trash talk text messages from the Big Yankee.  The Red Sox have been reduced to a pesky gnat!

The problems start at the top: John Henry is out of the picture, apparently.  With no leadership from him (or any leadership ever from Tom "Hey it's me. That guy that produced Roseanne on television" Werner), it falls to the ever-divisive Team President Larry Lucchino.  Lucchino set-up the team to fail this season, over-riding the wishes of General Manager/Puppet Ben "Theo Lite" Cherington by hiring Bobby "Booby" Valentine as Field Manager and then saddling him with Bob "Moose" McClure as pitching coach and Gary "I hate you, Bobby" Tuck as Bullpen Coach. Without the backing of the General Manager and coaches who were thrust upon him and not his choice, Valentine finds himself stuck in the middle with players openly pining for the manager they ran out of town last year.  Add in the former General Manager holding the team hostage as they failed to take advantage of their leverage as Theo Epstein tried to move to the Chicago Cubs front office, instead letting it drag out for months and getting next-to-nothing in return.

With the dysfunction already in place, the Front Office then brought back the players who drove Terry Francona out of town, as the entire "Chicken and Beer" club returned, with no ramifications whatsoever. Rather, they walked into training camp knowing that they had all the power, as they drove the prior manager out of town and were never punished.  Add in designated hitter and designated crybaby David Ortiz doing his annual sulking about his contract, this time whining incessantly about being paid three times the going rate for an over-thirty-five year old designated hitter.  Sure, he was stuck on a one year deal, but since that is the only way he has performed these past years (and since no one else wanted him), he was pretty much stuck no matter what.

Ben Cherington then started unloading the team's cheap, young talent (Jed Lowrie, Josh Reddick) and their starting shortstop (Marco Scutaro) in return for...well, in return for crap.  As millions of dollars went onto the disabled list early and often, first baseman Kevin Youkilis got into it with Manager Bobby Valentine, resulting in months of lingering resentment and eventually a trade of Youkilis, a former all-star who can play first-base or third-base, by Cherington for..well, in return for crap.  Add in second-baseman Dustin Pedroia making the statement (about his boss, no less) that it is not how things are done around here, again with no ramifications in any way shape or form.  The inmates were truly running the asylum. 

Now, as the trade deadline approaches, everyone should be scared of Cherington making any deals, not encouraging them. As much as the team needs to look for 2013, the question of who belongs making decisions seems to be more important than actually what gets done.  Ben Cherington is batting .000, Bobby Valentine is counting the days until he is gone, and the architect of the entire mess, Larry Lucchino, talks of lollipop dreams like the team is going to magically flip a switch as if they were the 1978 New York Yankees.  Sorry, Larry, but Bobby Valentine is no Billy Martin, David Ortiz is no Reggie Jackson, and Dustin Pedroia is no Thurman Munson.  Besides, there is no Louisiana Lightning taking the ball every four days.

This team is cooked.  As former Giants, Patriots, Jets, and Cowboys coach Bill Parcells once said, "You are what you are."  This is a .500 team. This team is walking, talking, dysfunction.  This team is not going 45-15 down the stretch, they are most likely going 30-30.         The Red Sox need to think about who is in the future plans and who needs to pack their bags, and the time to do that thinking is shrinking.  

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sunday Morning Coffee Break

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

Sunday mornings are all about relaxing, drinking coffee, and (today) watching the Olympics (even if it is only cycling) on NBC while waiting for the USA Men's Basketball team inexplicably on Versus or NBC SportsNet or whatever they call it.  With that, let's look at what's going on in Boston Sports with a run-through the major sports teams in town:

BOSTON RED SOX:
Well, they won a game, at least. The Red Sox got a much needed win against the Bronx Bombers last night, with Jon Lester showcasing his ineffectiveness with his on-off alternating by inning, by batter, by pitch.  Whatever is wrong with Jon Lester, it is not physical.  He is throwing all the same pitches he's highlighted the past 5 years in Boston, but something--be it mental or mechanical--is holding the lefty back this year.

Granted, with Vicente Padilla blowing the game by giving up a dinger to his arch-nemesis, Mark Teixeira, in the eighth inning, an evening where the Sox actually got to Yankees ace C.C. Sabathia appeared to be going to waste.  Enter the unlikely hero, Pedro Ciriaco, whose fly-out to center field turned into a triple after being comically  misplayed by Curtis Granderson (feel free to tweak any Yankees fans you know by stating: Austin Jackson would have caught it).  With that, Andrew Miller vultures a victory and Alfredo Aceves sweated through the save (not so much how he pitched, but did you see him sweating like a fat man in a steam bath? Yikes).

So at long last, the Sox get an uneven win in this uneven season, desperately clawing their way a game closer to .500.  Of course, it would not be the Red Sox without even more controversy, as Carl Crawford was left on the bench with nary an explanation, leading to more hurt feelings in this summer of shame. Bobby Valentine tried to play it off as a rest-day with a ridiculous comment about a "four-day program", instead of having the stones to simply say: "Carl Crawford is not going to play against tough lefties." From the look of the game, Valentine should have benched Jacoby Ellsbury as well, as he was looking quite over-matched against big CC.

Tonight, the Red Sox have the presence of Terry Francona in the ESPN booth looking over their shoulder and reminding the players that their horrid play last September is why Bobby Valentine is in the dugout and not holding the ESPN microphone.  Maybe they can take inspiration from that and really tank the second-half and get Valentine out sooner rather than later.  Or maybe the summer of mediocrity will linger on into fall.  Red Sox Fever, catch it...

* * *

PATRIOTS:

Injuries are always the key news at this time of training camp.  Reading reviews about how Chandler Jones did in a one-on-one match-up in a drill really is not big news.  That rookie 7th round pick cornerback Alfonzo Dennard did  not practice due to a hamstring injury, that is news.  That Rob Gronkowski dropped two passes at practice is not new. That veteran linebacker Tracy White did not finish practice, that is news. That Brandon Lloyd is catching everything in sight is not really news.  That rookies Jeremy Ebert and Nate Ebner have not found the field due to injury, that is news. Injuries are always the big news of training camp.

While offensive linemen Sebastian Vollmer and Logan Mankins are hardly on the roster bubble, there are many players (such as Dennard, White, Ebert, and Ebner) who need to be on the field to show the coaches they have what it takes to make the 53-man roster. As Bill Parcells famously said, "You don't make the team in the trainer's room."  Defensive lineman Myron Pryor, tight end Daniel Fells, and offensive linemen Nick McDonald and rookie Markus Zusevics need to open eyes just to make the team.  None of them has a job locked up in any way, shape, or form. Pedaling the stationary bike on the sideline never won anyone a job.

* * *

CELTICS:

The Celtics roster is set; for this year and next.  With only three players on a one year deal (veteran's minimum contracts for Chris Wilcox, Keyon Dooling, and Jason Collins), the Celtics heavy lifting on the roster is over, pending future injuries. The next stage is to get everyone healthy, into a regular training camp, and ready to go against Ray Allen and the Miami Heat to kick off the NBA season.  General Manager Danny Ainge did a great job of rebuilding (or re-loading may be more appropriate) the team this off-season. Bringing back Kevin Garnett was easily the most important move, as without him the entire off-season is a matter of blowing up the team and starting over from scratch.   Once that domino fell into place, it was a matter of bringing back everyone they wanted short of Ray Allen, and getting two guards to replace Allen and provide additional scoring from the bench. While another big man would be nice, they don't grow on trees and definitely not for small money (see the contract Mr. Kim Kardashian Kris Humphries picked up this off-season).

* * *

BRUINS:

Go away, Tim Thomas. Just shut your mouth and go away.

* * *

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Training Camp Countdown: Part Six-Linebackers

The New England Patriots Training Camp started on July 26th. Now the Patriots season finally kicks off in earnest and will go non-stop through (hopefully) February. In this lull, the rest of the sports landscape in Boston sees the Red Sox continuing to flail away with little sound and no fury; the Celtics Summer League continues as everyone digests the sign and trade for Courtney Lee; and the Bruins...well, not much brewing with the Bruins right now.


Outside of Tom Brady at Quarterback and the Special Teams Specialists trio, questions abound going into training camp for the Patriots. I wanted to finish the off-season by seeing how things shake down on offense and who ends up where on defense.  The offensive line running backs defensive backs, defensive line, and wide receivers/tight ends got much love earlier in the off-season. Let's finish strong and jump in to the sixth and final installment of all things Patriots (almost got them all done before training camp!) with a look at the...

LINEBACKERS:

All discussion of linebackers and the Patriots begins with the defensive captain, number 51.  Jerod Mayo is the truly the heart of the defense, and no one player is more important in how they line up and what plays are made or not made, than Mayo. Mayo may not put up gaudy sack numbers, or interceptions, but he is the prototype of the Bill Belichick inside linebacker: he makes tackles.  Mayo helps take away the running game and underneath patterns on defense.  Mayo has shown the ability to get at the quarterback in pre-season games in previous years, but for whatever reason, once the real games start the defense goes back to predictable and Mayo goes back to regular role as arguably the cog that makes the defense go.


Next to Mayo at inside linebacker is Brandon Spikes.  A bit of a fool off the field, Spikes none-the-less makes up for his lack of straight-line speed (which allowed him to drop to the Patriots when they drafted him) with play-making ability.  Spikes is weak covering tight ends and backs (I cringe every time I see him in pass coverage) but has great football intelligence and anticipation. Next to Mayo, they combine to fill the middle of the field behind Vince Wilfork and give the Patriots a very strong "up-the-middle" backbone on defense (when all are on the field with safety Patrick Chung).  Health has been the bane of Spikes' career in the red, white and blue, as his injuries (and stupid suspensions) seem to detract from his impact with him on the field only 50% of the season.  The more number 55 lines up next to number 51, the better the defense will be.


All eyes are on first round pick out of Alabama, Dont'a Hightower at linebacker.  Hightower is expected to play multiple positions at linebacker and make an immediate impact.  Lauded for being a smart, versatile playmaker in college, Hightower already appears to have a fan in coach Bill Belichick, who has uncharacteristically gone out of his way to laud his play early in training camp.  Haven't heard Belichick talk up a young linebacker like that since, well, since Jerod Mayo.  Take that as a good sign.


Bobby Carpenter was an intriguing pick-up by the Patriots this off-season, as he is a veteran who seems to have never lived up to potential.  The important strength of Carpenter is that he can play regularly if needed, unlike the undependable Dane Fletcher and Tracy White, who are also back-ups inside, but both are primarily special teams players. If either finds their way to the field for the regular defense, it means injuries and is NEVER a good thing.  Number 52 and 58 should been seen on special teams...otherwise, there is a reason why the defense is giving up chunks of yards.  


Carpenter is only 28 and was a former first round pick.  There is not as much tread worn off his tires as one would think, with Carpenter having only 3 starts in Dallas and coming off hte bench primarily.  Carpenter is insurance against injuries and should help keep the defense fresh by rotating in.  Carpenter has struggled to find a fit in the NFL, but if there is one skill the Bill Belichick team has, it is putting players in a position to succeed and play up their strengths. If they can do that with Carpenter, he may be one of those Mike Vrabel-type diamonds in the rough they dig up on occasion.


Niko Koutouvides and Jeff Tarpinian are largely the back-ups on the outside to the hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker players such as Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham and Chandler Jones who, depending on the scheme, can be defensive ends or outside linebackers.  Somewhere out of these five (and Jake Bequette, Trevor Scott, and maybe Justin Francis) must come some kind of pass-rush.  Tarpinian and Koutovides are special teams players primarily, and rookie Chandler Jones should line-up with Rob Ninkovich for the majority of the base defense.  Without Andre Carter (unsigned) and Mark Andersen (free agent going to Buffalo for an obscene amount of cash) and their 20 combined sacks, the defense needs to generate consistent pressure on the opposing quarterbacks.  


Jermaine Cunningham remains the enigma wrapped in a riddle, the second-round pick flashing potential his rookie campaign, but then being buried on the bench for most of last season.  If he is ever going to make an impact, the time is now.  Potential does not cut it in the third season.  This is make or break for Cunningham.  Produce, or be cut, that is what he is looking at this summer.

Finally, the linebackers include the usual camp fodder in long-shots Mike Rivera and Aaron Lavarias. Rivera, an inside linebacker, has bounced around multiple practice squads since 2009 and likely will not make the team or practice squad.  Aaron Lavarias is hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker who bounced on and off the practice squad last year and his best bet is to do the same again this season.  Alex Silvestro appeared to be in the same boat but has spent this off-season at tight end, which seems to make his chance to stick worse, but maybe that flexibility pays off.  


Either way, this unit needs to step up and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and stuff running games early and get teams out of their offensive rhythms.  Too many long drives last season left the Patriots defense on the field too much and their offensive play-makers sitting on the sidelines drinking Gatorade and Vitamin Water, or whatever sugary drink  they guzzle down while watching the defense give up chunks of yardage and opposing offenses convert third downs.  


It takes the linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs working together to get this unit to be a strength again, rather than a liability.  It is the only thing holding back that final step to winning the Super Bowl that has eluded this team.  If the defense is going to allow them to steal a playoff game when the opposing defense stymies Tom Brady and company, the linebackers are going to be a key cog in doing so.  



Friday, July 27, 2012

New England Patriots Training Camp - Days One & Two: 7/26 & 7/27/2012

Not to be quoting the Dave Matthews Band or anything, but with the Patriots training camp kicking off at long last, I find myself with so much to say, so much to say.  Feet first, let's just jump right in:

  • JOSEPH ADDAI: 
    • The first surprise cut of training camp came right away as running back Joseph Addai apparently flunked out of the conditioning test, quitting on the drill and team on day one.  No big loss, here.  If Addai was going to get on the field for the Patriots, it would not have been a good thing.  For the Kevin Faulk fan club, this is great news.  Probably no running  back brought in right away, as undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden should get plenty of reps alongside Shane Vereen and Steven Ridley.
  • BRIAN WATERS:
    • The veteran guard who walked on after training camp last year and had a pro bowl season is apparently planning to do the same.  As far as I am concerned (and apparently Bill Belichick, as well) Waters can show whenever he wants if he is going to be ready to go for game one.  Waters has all the leverage in this situation.  If he wants to retire, he just stays home.  Obviously, based on his play and his $3 million bargain salary this season, the Patriots want him back.  The worst thing to do would be to fine him, suspend him or do something stupid like call him out.  I am sure he and Belichick have a date when he will report.  Until then, there's nothing to report.
  • VISANTHE SHIANCOE: 
    • Shiancoe is here to prevent the tragedy that was the Super Bowl when the offense sputtered with Rob Gronkowski injured and reduced to Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez as the only play-makers as Deion Branch struggled to get open.  Shiancoe can block, but is especially someone who can run a route and get open. When Daniel Fells is healthy, the Patriots can go four deep at tight end and have sufficient depth to withstand some bumps and bruises.
  • TOM BRADY: 
    • It's always about number 12.  Nothing is more important. Remember that. Always. As Brady goes, so goes the Patriots.  The greatest quarterback in NFL history is never to be overlooked or taken for granted. As he keeps rolling along with record-setting performances at age 35, it is important to step back and appreciate Tom Brady.
  • ROB GRONKOWSKI: 
    • Forget the summer of Gronk.  All that matters is Big 87 is on the field catching passes from Tom Brady.  The off-season and off-field stuff are nothing that really matters.  He was not arrested. There was no one getting shot. He didn't stab anyone to death, hide the evidence, and pay off the relatives so as not to go to jail (cough-Ray-cough-Lewis-cough).  He had some fun (he is young and wealthy) and he apparently did his rehab.  As long as he's ready to go opening day, that's all that matters.
  • INJURIES: 
    • Cross your fingers. This is the wildcard of any season.  Who is healthy matters the most.  Right now, the Patriots know that TE Jake Ballard will likely be stashed on injured reserve for 2013, but the big question marks are OG Logan Mankins coming off knee surgery and OT Sebastian Vollmer and his injured back and other assorted injuries. Otherwise, TE Daniel Fells has been out since the beginning of the team activities, DT Myron Pryor and WR Jeremy Ebert are slightly dinged and should not miss much.  Undrafted free-agent offensive linemen Markus Zusevics and Jeremiah Warren are injured as well and need to get on the field as soon as possible.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sunday Morning Coffee Break

Sunday mornings are all about relaxing, drinking coffee, and (today) watching Tiger Woods try to make a final round charge in the British Open on ESPN.  With that, let's look at what's going on in Boston Sports with the Red Sox approaching the trading deadline and the Celtics roster re-set:

BOSTON RED SOX:

The Boston Red Sox are rapidly approaching the trade deadline, with nary a move in sight.  Does the Larry Lucchino led front-office try to make a sad, pathetic attempt to grab the second wild-card spot to lose the one-game play-in?  Do the Red Sox blow-up the roster by moving any tradeable parts on the roster and start reloading for next year?  I've opined on this multiple times (here and here), and the fact remains: This team is not exciting, not winning, and most importantly, boring.  


Josh Beckett and Jon Lester are huge disappointments. Clay Buchholz is up and down, and if healthy may be their best starter. Daisuke Matsuzaka is coming back soon and Aaron Cook (seriously?) has outperformed the Dice-man. Big lefty Felix Doubront started off great, but has hit his wall this season and needs to be watched so as not to burn him out with too many innings.  Daniel Bard (if he gets straightened out in Pawtucket) and Andrew Bailey (if he ever gets healthy) should return to rescue the bullpen which has kept the team in contention by overachieving all season long. A solid closer and set-up man should do wonders for saving Alfredo Aceves and the rest of the arms throughout the rest of the season.


The offense, when healthy, can score some runs, but anyone not in the long-term plans needs to be moved to a buyer so as to get something in return that potentially could fit into long-term plans. Cody Ross, Ryan Sweeney, Kelly Shoppach, Pedro Ciriaco, Mauro Gomez, Daniel Nava, Mike Aviles, and Nick Punto should not be part of any long-term plan and if anyone is desperate enough to want any of them, they should be traded post-haste.  The Red Sox should be taking on single-A prospects with a flaw (as that would be the best they could conceivably get for these bozos) and see if their minor-league staff can turn them around or use them for future trading chips.


* * *

BOSTON CELTICS:

The Greg Stiemsma era appears to be over as the Minnesota Timberwolves have decided to throw enough cash at "the Steamer" to get him out of Boston.  Danny Ainge wasted no time and brought in veteran minimum contract and defensive specialist Jason Collins from Atlanta.   Collins, a much better player than Greg Stiemsma or the recently departed Ryan Hollins (leave it to the Clippers to throw a two year deal at this chump), is a solid back-up to Chris Wilcox and gives the Celtics a legitimate big man off the bench.  Not a great shot-blocker, scorer, or glass cleaner, Collins has size, knows how to play defense, and can give a solid 12-15 minutes off the bench.  For this team, that is a huge asset as Fab Melo is probably on a three year plan (remember how Kendrick Perkins was stapled to the bench until his body was NBA ready?) before he gets any real minutes.


* * *


Courtney Lee was a great pick-up.  The Celtics really did not give up anything of value, and with Houston trying to free-up cap space (as always!), the Celtics were lucky the Rockets were willing to sign-and-trade Lee to get him in green.  Losing the 38 year-old defensive liability Ray Allen doesn't sting so much with Jason Terry AND Courtney Lee in the fold now. E'Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson, Sasha Pavlovic, Sean Williams, and a few second-round picks is the equivalent of "junk".  Johnson is the only player with potential upside (and even that is limited) in the package, to get a guard who can start, score, has finals experience, and is only 26 years old.  Look for the Celtics to add to the end of the bench by offering a veteran's minimum deal to Keyon Dooling and maybe Mickael Pietrus (if he gets no better offer).  Second-round pick Kris Joseph, Jamar Smith, (Smith and Joseph take up two roster spots for under $1 million combined) and perhaps summer-camp star Dionte Christmas with E'Twaun Moore out of the picture will fill-out the end of the bench. 


* * *

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Training Camp Countdown: Part Five-Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

The New England Patriots Training Camp starts on July 26th. At that time, the Patriots season will kick off in earnest and go non-stop through (hopefully) February. In this lull, the rest of the sports landscape in Boston sees the Red Sox realizing they may have been better off holding on to Kevin Youkilis until he was healthy and hitting to get something better back in trade; the Celtics Summer League in full swing as everyone tries to see if the kids left after trading for Courtney Lee are alright; and the Bruins sharpening their skates as the season of Tuukka Time rapidly approaches.

Outside of Tom Brady at Quarterback and the Special Teams Specialists trio, questions abound going into training camp for the Patriots. I want to see how things shake down on offense and who ends up where on defense.  The offensive line running backs,  defensive backs, and defensive line got some lover earlier. Let's jump in to the fifth installment of all things Patriots a look at the...

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:

Wes Welker is back for this year. While there is not a long-term fix for Welker's contract situation, he is back at least this year.  Keeping TB12 happy with his favorite safety valve is never a bad thing.  Whether the team and Welker can cobble together a two or three year deal that works for both sides over the next year is definitely something to keep an eye on.  For insurance, the Patriots still have Julian Edelman and new draftee Jeremy Ebert in the case of needing to break the glass and replace Welker. 

Bringing in Brandon Lloyd, as I reviewed in May here, could be the best pick-up this side of Randy Moss for the Patriots:
Brandon Lloyd, the best deep threat in the NFL, signed on this off-season with full knowledge of the Josh McDaniels playbook from playing for him in Denver and St. Louis. Unlike Chad nee Johnson Ochocinco, he knows the playbook already.  What seems remarkably understated is that Lloyd, like Welker, is one of the best receivers in the league in this specific offense: it is tailored to his skills specifically, just like it was to Randy Moss. Lloyd is going to put up jaw-dropping Randy Moss-esque numbers. Be prepared.
The best battle is for who lines up opposite Lloyd on the outside in the three-wide set.  Jabar Gaffney, Deion Branch, and Donte Stallworth are three veterans, all have experience and success playing with Tom Brady in this offensive system, and all seem to be competing for one or two spots at the most.  It really doesn't seem likely that all three will make the roster, as there are so many needs on defense and depth at running  back seems necessary.  Jabar Gaffney, like Brandon Lloyd, had his best seasons playing with Josh McDaniels at Offensive Coordinator.  Gaffney has proven versatility in this system, having lined up all over the field and bringing toughness and the ability to move the chains.  

Deion Branch has lost a step for sure, but he has the complete trust of Tom Brady. TB12 obviously loved having Branch back, but I really wonder if Branch holds off Donte Stallworth.  Stallworth has the potential to line up as a deep threat opposite or next to Brandon Lloyd and really help open up the underneath for Welker and the tight ends.  Stallworth, like Gaffney, has played in the system and was a big contributor in 2007.  Unless he has lost a step, he brings something that this offense has missed.

That said, Deion Branch outlasted Chad nee Johnson Ochocinco last season when everyone expected him to be put out to the pasture.  Branch knows Brady, and that is hard to duplicate.  With an offense that is so dependent on the receivers being on the same page as TB12, familiarity really is important.  So who stays of the three veterans and who gets cut? It may have to be simply who stays healthy. Maybe a player starts on the PUP list, or someone gets hurt in training camp.

Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater are basically special teams players. Jeremy Ebert and Britt Davis are likely practice squad players, and Jesse Holley is trying to get another team's attention.   Edelman and Slater, barring injuries, won't touch the field other than special teams. Ebert, if he contributes on special teams, could make the team rather than having the Patriots squeeze him through waivers. 

Everyone knows what Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez bring to the table. They are simply the most dynamic pair of tight ends on the field ever.  Both are so different, but both bring so much to the table.  Having those two on the field along with Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney is going to give Rex Ryan an ulcer trying to decide which two run free. If healthy, Gronk and Hernandez should both continue to grow as players and fill up the stat sheet. 

Daniel Fells is a pro, and unlike the past two seasons, gives the team a legitimate back-up tight end who can block and contribute running routes.  While there is little behind Fells this year (Jake Ballard is an intriguing pick-up for next season), one expects the team to grab another tight end if only to push Fells.  Rumor has it that the team has kicked the tires on Visanthe Schianco after having Bo Scaife on the roster for a few weeks prior.  With luck, the Patriots should need no more then 3 tight ends on the roster, but as the Super Bowl showed, with an injured Rob Gronkowski,the Patriots lost a huge weapon. With new receivers and Fells, the team should be able to avoid that kind of issue again.

In conclusion, there are some fun roster battles in store, and a lot of production expected from all the pass catchers.  This group looks like it could really be interesting out on the field and score a lot of points and drive defenses crazy.  This group is easily one of the strongest and deepest on the team.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Spare Neurons: Monday, July 16, 2012

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

Here is where you find the random thoughts, caffeine-fueled rants, "smacking the dashboard and screaming at radio hosts" diatribes, and bizarre observations that pop into my head and, while interesting, need an outlet: 


  • CELTICS:
    • As the free-agents sign, and the team that takes the court this fall comes into focus, the Celtics look like they have their starters and top bench players lined-up, and it is just the end of the bench that needs to come into focus. Here's a very early peek:
    • CENTER: 
      • Kevin Garnett, who does NOT want to play center; 
      • Greg Steimsma, who technically could still bolt to another team if he gets an offer; 
      • Chis Wilcox, who, when healthy last year showed that he can run the floor, rebound, and provide energy off the bench; and 
      • Fab Melo, who will have a great red shirt season getting the crap beat out of him at practice by KG.
    • FORWARD:
      • Paul Pierce, who may actually show up in some semblance of shape this fall and not tank it until January;
      • Brandon Bass, who finally looked like a player who knew the offense in the playoffs' 
      • Jeff Green, who is healthy at last and may be the most pivotal player on the team, as having someone who can score early and often other than Paul Pierce is going to be a huge boon to the team. I love what he can bring to the offense, and I STILL BELIEVE it was the right move to trade Kendrick Perkins for him;
      • JaJuan Johnson, who is size and projection, nothing more at this point; and
      • Jared Sullinger, the first round pick who can score down low.  Sully can be a key cog coming off the bench, and hopefully can make an impact a few times this year.
    • GUARD:
      • Rajon Rondo, who is the offense.  As Rondo goes, so goes the Celtics.  Who knows, maybe without the Ray Allen scowl hanging over him, he can step-up and distribute without worrying about who has how many touches;
      • Avery Bradley, who is hurt.  Bradley showed his potential last season, and, like Rondo, may thrive without the Ray Allen playing time issue hanging over him (or, I could just be rationalizing with Allen being gone);
      • Jason Terry, who should step into Ray Allen's shoes with nary a loss (can I just stop talking about Ray Allen already? Wow.).  Terry is a perfect fit for the Celtics and should cover for Bradley being out of the lineup early in the season and provide baskets for the second-unit.

      • Keyon Dooling, Mickael Pietrus, and  E'Twaun Moore are all options to return and fill in behind the guards and provide a little depth.  Who the Celtics can afford to bring back and wants to play for the minimum is the big question.

  • PATRIOTS:
    • The deadline for signing Wes Welker to a long-term deal has passed and the New England Patriots face the prospect of hitting the repeat button on this franchise tag deal.  The issue comes down to the one word that defines the New England Patriots front office: VALUE.
    • The Patriots see Welker as a slot wide receiver on the wrong side of 30 with one major knee injury not too long ago who fills a specific role on a specific offense with a quarterback like no other in football who trusts Welker absolutely.  His value to the Patriots is in the short-term: the minute he loses a step of that knee-buckling stop-and-start quickness, he becomes just another  undersized slot receiver who can't get himself open.  Welker see his statistics compared to the rest of the wide receivers and thinks he should be paid like the elite.  
    • Sadly for Welker, the Patriots are going to hardball him, and they are 100% right to do so.  Wes  Welker did not, and could not, put up numbers like he does in New England in Miami. Short of Peyton Manning (Welker to Denver, that would be an interesting trade), Drew Brees (who has plenty of help in the slot) or Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay just drafts more of 'em, and they don't overpay 'em at wide receiver) would have the smarts and skills to utilize and take advantage of someone like Welker lining up inside for their offense.
    • Welker will play this year and produce, and maybe be back next year on another one year deal (or sign a two year deal at the most), but most likely the Patriots see how the Nate Ebner era goes in New England. Welker is a great player who played out a contract that went from ridiculous in the eyes of the NFL "experts" to a huge bargain, but who unfortunately will be another veteran who has to get his deserved money elsewhere (see: McGinest, Willie and Seymour, Richard). In New England, the long-term, big money only goes to the young, and those named Tom Brady.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

RED SOX FEVER? Yeah, it's a disease for sure!

The Boston Red Sox came storming out of the all-break...with:

  • Adrian "I went from hitting like Ted Williams to Wade Boggs--without the OBP--in just one year" Gonzalez sitting out with an aching  back from allegedly bending down to sign an autograph, 
  • Jacoby "I'll be healthy when my agent Scott Boras says I'm healthy" Ellsbury returning to action, 
  • Dustin "I  hate Bobby Valentine because he doesn't play cribbage with me" Pedroia still out with a thumb injury, 
  • Pedro "Who???" Ciriaco as their hottest hitter in the line-up,
  • Will "Pack your bags, Youkilis" Middlebrooks back in the line-up after resting a tweaked hamstring,
  • Carl "Set-back, which set-back is this? I'll only miss a few pre-season games...oh, it's July already" Crawford still rehabbing something or other every other week,
  • Mauro "Seriously, who is this guy?" Gomez in the line-up again, 
  • Franklin "I sucked so bad that the worst pitching staff in baseball [Colorado Rockies] couldn't wait to dump me" Morales is the best starting pitcher on the staff,
  • Clay "Hemorrhoids, anal fissures, and gastrointestinal bleeding, oh my" Buchholz returns from the disabled list,
  • Cast-off Kevin "F-You Boston!" Youkilis is the reigning American League Player of the Week, and
  • Josh "Fried Chicken and Beer, Baby!" Beckett no doubt spent the All-Star Break training feverishly to have a great second half and re-establish himself...yeah I don't buy it either.
The Red Sox management seem to be self-deluded into thinking the team has a chance to win.  They have a manager in Bobby Valentine that everyone else on the team and coaching staff seems to hate (see Gordon Edes at ESPNBoston.com), a General Manager in Ben Cherington whose track record of trading Kevin Youkilis, Jed Lowrie, and General Manager Theo Epstein has resulted in the Red Sox losing good players, a great GM, and in return....nothing of any value. Ugh.  Now, I wonder if I want GM Ben Cherington making any trades at all; it appears his track record shows him being hosed on every deal he has made so far. 

Despite beating Tampa in the first game after the break, it looks like another half of bad starting pitching, inconsistent hitting, and mismatched pieces on the chessboard.  Meet the second half Red Sox, same as the first half.  The Red Sox appear to be standing pat and, as President Larry Lucchino said "waiting for the varsity" to return in the second half.  Unfortunately, the varsity wasn't up to snuff last year, or the year before, or the year before that.  What makes anyone think that this season they will be up to the task in the second half.

Training Camp Countdown: Part Four-Defensive Line

The New England Patriots Training Camp starts on July 26th. At that time, the Patriots season will kick off in earnest and go non-stop through (hopefully) February. In this lull, the rest of the sports landscape in Boston sees the Red Sox realizing they at least can't lose any games while on the All-Star Break; the Celtics reeling from Ray Allen's diva act heading to South Beach, and the Bruins seem content to do nothing and hope Nathan Horton is healthy.  


Outside of Tom Brady at Quarterback and the Special Teams Specialists trio, questions abound going into training camp for the Patriots. I want to see how things shake down on offense and who ends up where on defense.  The offensive line running backs, and defensive backs got some lover earlier. Let's jump in to the fourth installment of all things Patriots a look on the other side of field starting with the...


DEFENSIVE LINE:


Defensive Tackles/Nose Tackle:
The defense starts with one man in the middle, the big man in the middle: Vince Wilfork. The one true nose tackle, Wilfork is the player the defense revolves around. Teams run away from him, and his size and quickness make him a complete defensive player. Arguably the most irreplaceable player, the Patriots' defense moving to a 4-3 and 4 down linemen nickel schemes  allow Wilfork to do more than simply clog the middle and tie up blockers.  Wilfork can rush the passer, fill passing lanes, and move the pocket more effectively in this role. An all-pro as a 3-4 nose tackle, Wilfork is (along with linebacker Jerod Mayo) the glue in the middle of the line.


Behind Wilfork in the interior of the defensive line is Kyle Love, who opened eyes with his high energy play next to Wilfork.  New arrival Jonathan Fanene should provide good depth and fill-in as needed while keeping Love and Wilfork fresh (especially if the defense keeps giving up 10-12 play drives).  Fanene was a great pick-up who should benefit from getting out of Cincinnati and having a team worth playing for each week.  He has a high-motor and appears by all accounts to be a Bill Belichick kind of guy.  More of an end, he may end up as a Mike Wright type inside lineman, coming in on third down to rush the passer.  With him and Love playing next to Wilfork, expect the middle of the defensive line to stay strong. 


After those three roster locks there is a lot of depth, but nothing but question marks. Brandon Deaderick, Myron Pryor and Ron Brace are three players I have no clue on their status.  All three could make the team and challenge Love and Fanene for playing time, and yet all three could be cut.  Brace was a second round pick from Boston College (playing next to current Packer B.J. Raji at the Heights) who has done absolutely nothing since arriving in 2009. Both Pryor and Deaderick have flashed potential, but have not been able to stay on the field to take the next step like Kyle Love did last season.  Pryor and Deaderick both have the potential to disrupt inside and help move the pocket, but, again, seeing them do it in pre-season games is not the same as seeing them take the next step in the regular season.  Brace has great size, but for some reason has not been able to work his way onto the field. The trio is a mixed bag that will get a lot of attention  from the coaches as they navigate the roster bubble throughout training camp.


Marcus Harrison was signed and on the roster for one whole day last year.  A former Chicago Bear, he has battled health problems and is quite a long-shot to make the roster after not playing in the league last year. Marcus Forston went into last college season ranked in the top three at his position and looking like a first or second day draft pick.  Instead, he was suspended a game down at the U of Miami and then blew out his knee.  From top prospect to walk-on, he faces an uphill battle to make the roster and is likely to be picked-up elsewhere or make the practice squad.


Gerard Warren also returns, and as a steady veteran, like last season, he is likely around only in case of an injury inside. Warren is a run-stuffer and knows the defense. Expect him to be around to provide locker room leadership or be on-call if needed.


Defensive Ends: 
Here's a scary thought: Rob Ninkovich is the only known quantity at defensive end. Think about that for a second.  Ninkovich, a kind of Mike Vrabel-lite, can generate a little pressure and hold the edge, but is neither athletic nor powerful.  He is a guy that knows the defense, is smart, and makes plays.  Behind him are first round pick, Chandler Jones, Trevor Scott, potential huge bust Jermaine Cunningham, third-round pick Jake Bequette, and Justin Francis.


Trevor Scott is expected to be the Andre Carter/Mark Anderson type veteran signed on the cheap who can rush the passer and provide a little bit of toughness and veteran savvy.  Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette are complete unknowns at this point and need all of training camp for the coaches to see if they can contribute at defense this season.  I think the best bet is to get those two on the field on third down and pin their ears back and go at the quarterback, much like Bill Parcells did with a young Tedy Bruschi back in the day.  Learn the defense as the season goes on, but for now provide pure speed and power rush.  


Jermaine Cunningham, a second round pick who hasn't found his way to the field much in two seasons, is walking around training camp this summer with all eyes on him.  Does he take the next step and earn significant playing time and show why he was worth a high pick? Or does he even make the team out of training camp.  With Gerard Warren, Brandon Deaderick, Myron Pryor, and Jonathan Fanene being able to slide outside to end in certain defensive sets, the need at this position could lead to Cunningham being cut loose.  

Justin Francis is an undrafted free-agent from Rutgers. As Bill Belichick loves those UFAs, and since Francis was pals with his son at Rutgers, the kid at least has a shot.  A long-shot, but a shot all the same.  Andre Carter, if healthy, potentially may come back again, but as he is still a free agent and not healthy yet, he stands more likely to sign and join the PUP list, or sign during the season if the need arises.


As the Giants have shown, a front-four/front-seven who can stuff the run and pressure the quarterback can cover-up a shaky secondary.  The Patriots defense starts in the trenches, and these guys are the ones who need to makes some strides to get the defense off the field and let Tom Brady and the explosive offense more opportunities to get to the end zone.  There is a lot to look for on the defensive line as training camp draws near. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Spare Neurons

Ray Allen leaving Boston for the Heat seems odd in today's NBA.  A lot was said at the press conference, but no real answers were given.  Was it Rondo? Was it ego because  Kevin Garnett got his money first? Was it the pay-cut? Is he really title-driven?


I believe his issue is all about Avery Bradley.  Allen flat-out got hurt and lost his job to a younger, better defensive player.  Sorry, Ray, but the job was won by Bradley.  Add that to the trade rumors at the deadline that had him out of town, and I believe Ray Allen had made up his mind never to wear green again by April.  No one turns down twice as much money like he did unless his ego was hit hard.  Sorry to see him leave, but, Ray, don't let the door hit on the rear on your way out.  Beating Miami is now twice as sweet.


* * *


The MLB All-Star break came at the right time for Boston. The Red Sox desperately need the time-off to regroup and decide to reload or unload.  The starting pitching has been abysmal, and since the team has put all their eggs in that basket, it appears that they feel they have to ride Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz until the end of the line. Beckett has no value and is untradeable with his contract.  Buchholz's injuries mean that there is no chance of getting equal value for him.  Lester remains a huge question mark, time and again failing to take the next step to becoming an ace.  Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, these thre ee have effectively sunk the Sox this season.


* * *

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Middle of the road, man it stanks/Let's run over Lionel Richie with a tank

Half-way through the 2012 MLB season and what can one say about the Boston Red Sox? No depth? Too many injuries?  Not enough pitching? Missing their closer? Missing their shortstop(s)? How about everything that can go wrong, has gone wrong?  I'm going with all of the above.  The Red Sox, despite their massive payroll, have been entirely middle-of-the-pack.  Time to examine what little has gone right, as almost everything has gone wrong with the Red Sox so far in the 2012 season.

The base numbers back it all up: The Red Sox are entirely ordinary--middle of the pack in pitching; middle of the pack in hitting; middle of the pack in the standings. The stats don't lie. The Sox are 10th overall of 30 teams in their total VORP for batters (Value Over Replacement Player--think of it as a scrub player equals a zero [absolutely ordinary]--above that, good and below that, bad); The Red Sox also rank 13th of 30 in their total VORP for pitching. Yes, it is simplifying the stats looking at total VORP, but look at the best teams, they are at the top of the rankings. Total VORP usually tells the story: Texas, Washington, and the Yankees are top three total VORP for pitching; St Louis, Texas, the Yankees (and Washington) are the top in total VORP for batters.  Check the standings and you see Texas, Washington, the Yankees and St Louis: the proof is in the pudding.


The Red Sox players who are gone, not performing well, or not even getting on the field has been discussed and written about non-stop so far this season.  The over-achievers and those carrying their own weight? That list is much shorter than the lists of disappointing and disappeared players.  Today is the day to focus on the positive, as there has not been much of it.  That said, even trying to be positive, this is Boston, and somehow positives just bring up more negatives. It feels like 2002, not 2012 at Fenway Park:

  • ALL-STARS:
    • David Ortiz, DH: 
      • As the designated hitter position slowly dissolves away from big, slugging specialists, Ortiz continues to turn-back the clock as a classic masher. Despite his cries of disrespect and longing for a long-term deal, the fact is that his market is limited and his fit is in Fenway Park.  He is 36 and has performed while on a one-year deal. Why would management give in to him now?  Regardless, the man has earned every penny this season.  22.7 VORP so far this season, and a .998 OPS?  I  repeat: David Ortiz is overpaid, yet he still has earned every penny. Let him get angry, let him complain, just keep his bat in the line-up.  For all Adrian Gonzalez has failed to be so far in a Boston uniform, Big Papi has totally re-invented himself as a masher of lefties and left his horrible seasons (see 2009, for example) far in the past.
    • Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C:
      • He may not be the starter, but he is the best catcher in the AL so far this season. Salty is second on the team with 16 dingers, and is slugging his way to a 14.1 VORP so far this season. Funny, but there has not been a peep about the Sox missing the "Captain" Jason Varitek so far this season from Pink Hat Nation.  That alone shows how well Saltalamacchia has done this season.  Salty has always had the potential to mash, and his confidence at the plate has shown itself behind the plate as well. He is doing the job and showing why the Red Sox made the right choice getting him, and leaving Russell Martin for the Yankees to inexplicably keep playing with the best collection of catching prospects clogging up in the minor leagues.
    • Cody Ross, LF:
      • An afterthought in the off-season, Ross and his .900 OPS have kept the middle of the line-up from being an abyss.  With injuries and dismal performances all around, Ross has shown his fit at Fenway by slugging away at the green monster.  As one of the few right-handed power bats in the line-up, Ross is setting himself up nicely for a big off-season payday.  Someone, maybe Boston, will shell out the big bucks for Ross.  He may not be more than a Trot Nixon/Tom Brunansky-type hitter, but Ross has truly been one of the few bright spots at Fenway Park this year.
  • THE JURY'S STILL OUT:
    • Will Middlebrooks, 3B:
      • The phenom has joined the big-league team and relegated Kevin Youkilis to a change of Sox.  Despite some dings and strains, Middlebrooks has certainly lived up to his hype, becoming the first home-grown power hitter in Boston since...Youkilis himself? With 21 of his 51 hits for extra-bases, Middlebrooks gives the Sox another right-handed power bat with Ross, when on the field. How he adapts when pitchers adapt to him will be key, but for now, he looks like the real deal
    • Daniel Nava, CF:
      • A non-prospect who did not even garner an invite to spring training, the Sox have ridden the hot-hitting Nava and his desperately needed .849 OPS and 14.3 VORP.  Sure, its a small sample size, and yes, there is a trip back down to AAA or a release in his future, but for now, he's hitting and should be playing. The long-term outlook may not be bright like Middlebrooks, but so far Nava has been one of the top 5 hitters on this team.  With All-Stars like Dustin Pedroia hurt, Kevin Youkilis not hitting before hitting the road, Adrian Gonzalez hitting singles, and Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury out, Nava has been one of the few players to step-up in their absence.
    • Felix Doubront, SP:
      • The best starter this season? Yup, Prince Felix of the Crimson Hose.  Outperforming even Jon Lester (aka the only starter who looks almost like he cares out on the mound), Doubront has flashed some of that potential that the Sox front-office raved about these past few years.  Unfortunately, it is only half-way through the season and Doubront has been looking shaky lately.  In his last 5 starts, Doubront has slipped to Beckett/Buchholz level with a 5.93 ERA.  Has he hit a wall, or will he bounce back to his early season form?
    • Franklin Morales, SP/RP:
      • Wait, Franklin Morales has been the Sox second-best pitcher this year? A cast-off from the Rockies whose pitching is historically bad this season? That Franklin Morales?  Yeesh. This just emphasizes how terrible Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Clay Buchholz have been this season. Morales has a small sample-size this season, and his larger body of work suggests its not long until he resorts to form.  Has he finally learned to pitch, or has he simply not been caught-up to by the rest of the league?
    • Scott Atchison, RP:
      • Daniel Bard is in AAA after a colossal failure as a starter.  The Sox best starter in spring training (Alfredo Aceves) is closing as Andrew Bailey has been on the disabled list all season. Scott Atchison has just taken the ball and got results out of the bullpen.  Nothing flashy, no high strikeout totals, just outs. As a player bouncing up and down for years now, is it a mirage? Is he the real deal? I doubt it, but he's one of the few Red Sox players that one can root for and feel good about.  On a team full of malcontents, beer and chicken, and Bobby Valentine, Atchison at least appears to be a regular guy, a good guy, and a blue collar pitcher who takes the ball and does his job.  The team could stand a few more players like him.

That's it? That's what almost $200 million buys a team for production above replacement-level?  Sadly, it does for the Red Sox in 2012.  A lot of "maybe's" exist for the Red Sox in the second half of the season, but it looks most likely that General Manager Ben Cherington needs to take a long look at what is worth keeping, and what is worth unloading and gearing up for 2013.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Training Camp Countdown: Part Three-Defensive Backs

The Patriots Training Camp starts in three weeks. At that time, the Patriots season will kick off in earnest and go non-stop through (hopefully) February. In this lull, the rest of the sports landscape in Boston sees the Red Sox getting swept by Oakland (Freaking Oakland!?!) on the west coast; the Celtics are shuffling money around to try and build a bench and go (Brandon) Bass fishing; and the Bruins are keeping goalie Tim Thomas until some one's starting goalie blows out a knee, apparently.  


Outside of Tom Brady at Quarterback and the Special Teams Specialists trio, questions abound going into training camp for the Patriots. I want to see how things shake down on offense and who ends up where on defense.  The offensive line and running backs got some lover earlier. Let's jump in to the third  installment of all things Patriots a look on the other side of field starting with the...

DEFENSIVE BACKS:


It seems odd seeing the Patriots secondary referred to without "much-maligned" in front of it. This unit took a lot of (deserved) abuse this past year.  To simplify matters, let's break them out into Cornerbacks and Safeties to simplify:


CORNERBACKS:
The two starters are likely  Devin McCourty on one corner, Kyle Arrington as the third (slot) corner, and healthy at last, Ras-I Dowling on the opposite corner.  Dowling and McCourty are huge question marks heading into their second and third seasons respectively.  Dowling impressed enough in limited pre-season time to warrant a starting spot last season until injuries (as they had done in college) derailed him.  McCourty, after a sensational rookie season, got torched repeatedly last year, even warranting a move to safety at the end of the season.  Arrington had numerous interceptions last season, but did not make any lists as any kind of shut-down cornerback.  


Arrington fits best in the slot, being able to stay with the small, quick receivers in the open field.  Dowling has great size, and--if healthy--can be what the Patriots missed  more than anything  else last year: someone capable of covering the large, dynamic wide receiver in the Brandon Marshall, Andre Johnson, and the like who have had field days against New England in the past.  McCourty, who excelled in primarily zone coverage in 2010, had significant difficulties with more man-to-man coverage last season getting torched early and often.  Whether it was a loss of confidence, a lack of safety support without James Sanders and Brandon Merriweather playing behind him, or some kind of combination, the Patriots definitely need McCourty to bounce back to his 2010 level. Without better corner play, the Patriots have no chance to shut down opposing offenses. The Patriots have desperately needed that 3-and-out defense, that big stop, that big turn-over, that defense take over a game and jump-start the offense.  


Sterling Moore, he of the huge break-up in the end zone at the end of the AFC Championship Game in Foxborough against the Ravens, should benefit from a  training camp in the defense and lock-up the dime cornerback role.  Moore showed flashes of good play and potential, but is far from starting cornerback caliber at this time.  Alfonzo Dennard is the enigma, considered a potential second-day pick who dropped to the7th round due to an idiotic arrest right before the draft.  Dennard has talent, the question is what he does with his opportunity.  


Marquice Cole, the former Jet, is solely a special-teams player.  If  he is on the field, the Patriots are in trouble on defense.  Malcolm Williams is a long shot who needs to blow-up on special teams to make the team.  He is fighting in camp just to be seen and maybe just get on another team's radar to get picked up after cut-downs.


* * *


SAFETIES
As with the cornerbacks, at safety it is safe to pencil in Patrick Chung, Steve Gregory, and possibly second-round pick Tavon Wilson as starters going into this season. Chung is, when healthy (there's that phrase again), the star of the secondary.  Speed, athleticism, strength, and smarts define the young leader of the secondary. Without Chung (and LB Jerod Mayo) at full strength, the defense noticeably suffers.  Chung is a leader and potential Pro Bowl safety who must take the next step this season.  

Steve Gregory is the "free safety" in the defense (though Bill Belichick will say that their is no strong or free safety in the defense) and his strength is the deep part of the field and coverage.  His role will allow Chung to play in the box more, and play to his strengths instead of playing "center field" in the defense and reacting instead of attacking.  Expect Gregory to allow Chung to maximize his play-making abilities going after tight-ends, slot receivers, and running backs; more big hits, more turnovers should result.  


Tavon Wilson, like Tackle Sebastian Vollmer two years ago, had the draft "experts" frantically flipping through their notes to find out exactly who this guy was that Bill Belichick plucked out of nowhere.  Where Wilson was drafted doesn't matter once the games start for real, what matters is what he does on the field.  Fast, strong, and smart, Wilson has all the attributes Bill Belichick looks for in finding another safety to replace the "mistake" of Brandon "Big Bang Clock" Merriweather. Wilson can cover tight ends, he can run and cover deep, and he's able to make the plays in the passing game.  How quickly he gets the defense down will dictate how much he can make an impact on the field.  As far as him being picked in the first 50 picks, remember, Illinois was coached by Ron Zook, aka Friend of Bill Belichick. Who knows what was passed on that other teams may have missed about him.


James Ihedigbo rejoined the team recently and adds some depth to the safety position, and with veteran Will Allen on board, the team finally has some decent depth at the position.  Ihedigbo reminds one of James Sanders, a veteran lacking big time athleticism but making up for it with intelligence. Ditto for Allen, who also has the potential to fill-in at cornerback in a pinch if need be.  With his strong special teams play, players such as the oft-injured Josh Barrett and one of the biggest disappointments of 2011, Sergio Brown have a long road to make the team.  Ross Ventrone faces a fight with rookie rugby star Nate Ebner to make the roster as a special teams maniac, and even money leans toward Ebner making the practice squad, and Ventrone getting cut and re-signed another 15 times this season.


* * *


The secondary is going to be under scrutiny this season. Long a strength of the team in the glory days of the early 2000s with Lawyer Milloy at safety and later Rodney Harrison, and also with Ty Law and later Asante Samuel at cornerback.  The secondary has deteriorated into a weakness, coinciding with defensive whiz kid secondary coach Eric Mangini leaving to start Spygate, flame out in New York and Cleveland, and finally land on TV.  When the secondary improves, the defense improves.  The team needs the veterans to contribute and the kids to step up and make plays.  If that happens, a good team becomes scary good.  

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Spare Neurons - Sunday, 07/01/2012

THREE FOR KG:

So much for Kevin Garnett holding the Boston Celtics hostage during free agency. Garnett has agreed to two years (plus an option) at a 50% discount to last year's salary.  Kudos for general manager Danny Ainge for wrapping KG up at a team-friendly discount.  Now Pierce, Rondo, and Garnett are locked up for the near future. With Avery Bradley still signed-on that is four starters ready to go.  Center is a huge gaping wound that needs to be bandaged, but with no bigs available in free agency, do the Celtics make a run to bring back Nenad Krstic? The Celtics still own the rights to Nenad Krstic? Well, kind of.   Anyone can bring Kristic back  by buying him out of his Russian League contract, but the Celtics would still have his "Larry Bird Rights" and could re-sign him for more money going over the cap without (any real kind of) penalty.

Yes, Greg Steimsma should return, and the Celtics could bring back Brandon Bass, but neither is really the impact big man they need next to KG.  The bench still needs offense, be it Ray Allen or OJ Mayo (one of those two, hopefully), but Krstic could be a big who can rebound and stretch the floor on offense (he has that great step-back 17 footer just like KG) and keep things running steady until the young bigs are ready to contribute.

* * *

LATE NIGHT LOSERS:

Staying up for the West Coast games is hard enough.  Watching the Red Sox drop two of three games to the lowly Seattle Mariners on walk-offs in the bottom of the ninth and extra innings is just plain depressing.  Typical Red Sox baseball, leave Fenway Park and leave their bats behind as well. Losing to the King, Felix Hernandez, being shut-out  on the road is almost excusable. Last night, however, should never happened. Ten runners left on base; One for twelve with runners in scoring position; these are the stats of losers.  The Red Sox should have had sweep in their minds going out to Safeco Field against the most pathetic offense in baseball.  Instead they waste another good start (this time by Josh Beckett) and move on to game four of the series hoping to salvage a split with Felix Doubront on the hill.

* * *

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO:

Nice to see super-reporter Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston still hard at work digging up Patriots news in the doldrums between the mini-camps and training camp.  His Sunday morning "quick hit thoughts"--yet another reason why consumers do not bother putting out cash for the Boston Globe on Sunday Morning, although Greg Bedard does a great job with Reiss's old Globe Sunday Notes (which originated there with the legendary Will McDonough)--each week at ESPNBoston.com are a must-read.  He dug this up this week:
Players with Patriots ties on Canadian Football League rosters this year (the season began this weekend): Defensive end Shawn Crable (Hamilton Tiger Cats), defensive endMarques Murrell (Montreal Alouettes), and linebacker Deron Mayo, brother of Jerod Mayo (Calgary Stampeders). The CFL season began this past week.
Great stuff. Check him out at New England Patriots Blog (which he should push to take the name back from when he was at the Globe: Reiss's Pieces. C'mon Mike, take back that which is yours! )

* * *

New England Patriots: On Vacation as Free Agency Begins - Full Press Coverage

The 2019 NFL year has begun with the advent of free agency and as usual the New England Patriots are one of the quietest teams. While teams ...