Pats' free-agent forecast: Linebackers

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Pats' free-agent forecast: Linebackers

This is the third in a series of position-by-position looks at the Patriots heading into free agency. Today's position: Linebackers.
Wbo's on the roster? Dane Fletcher, Gary Guyton, Niko Koutouvides, Jerod Mayo, Rob Ninkovich, Brandon Spikes, Tracy White, Markell Carter, Jermaine Cunningham, Jeff Tarpinian. Patriots need level? If we're talking outside linebacker, it's a 7. Inside? 4. Position overview? Let's start inside, where the Patriots are pretty well stocked. Jerod Mayo is the quarterback of the defense from the middle, a sure tackler and one of the best in the league when he's fully healthy. Brandon Spikes is one of the best downhill run-stoppers they've had since Ted Johnson. If his head is in it, he'll be good for a while. Dane Fletcher is a nice, fast complement to those two. On the outside? Rob Ninkovich is still riding the crest of his performance wave and is a reliable guy. Jermaine Cunningham? Incredibly non-impactful. Markell Carter, a late-round 2011 draft choice, seems to be a player the team is intrigued by. The team is still yearning for a guy to bring pressure off the edge from the linebacker level. As for guys on last year's team who are hitting free agency, Gary Guyton's play has slid precipitously. Niko Koutouvides and Tracy White are primarily special teamers. Who's out there? Stephen Tulloch, Lions. A short (5-foot-11), sturdy (240-pounds) downhill plugger, the Patriots don't really have a spot for him on the inside.Jarret Johnson, Ravens. A nine-year veteran of the edge spot in the Baltimore 3-4, the underrated Johnson would be a fit for the Patriots. But the Ravens and Jets may have dibs.Kamerion Wimbley, Raiders. I had to asterisk Kam because - as of Friday afternoon - the Raiders still hadn't released him. But with a huge guarantee kicking in on March 17, the Raiders are going to lop him if he doesn't take a pay cut. And when they do, Wimbley will become the best outside pass-rusher on the free agent market.Manny Lawson, Bengals. Maybe better suited to a 4-3 because he's on the lean and long side, it's not a stretch to use Rosey Colvin as a comp. Lawson is 6-5, 240 and can drop in coverage. Other names of note? Niko Koutouvides, Gary Guyton, Tracy White, Tully Banta-Cain, Lofa Tatupu,Free agent forecast? Johnson, Wimbley and Lawson are the names you may recognize. The Patriots' pro personnel department does a remarkable job of cycling through the bottom of the roster names that aren't on our radar, though, so you can expect a "Who's he?" moment in the coming weeks.

Czarnik 'playing bigger' while looking to secure job with Bruins

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Czarnik 'playing bigger' while looking to secure job with Bruins

It’s not difficult to see why Austin Czarnik might have been a little overlooked headed into this Bruins training camp when forecasting favorites among the forwards to win a roster spot on the big club. After all he’s only 5-foot-9 and 167-pounds coming off just one very solid season at the AHL level for the Providence Bruins, and there are bigger, stronger forwards candidates that maybe rank a bit higher on the prospect list than him.

But the 23-year-old Czarnik put together an excellent training camp last fall before finishing with 20 goals and 61 points for the P-Bruins last season, and now he’s doing the exact same thing again this time around.

“Yeah, I feel more comfortable. I think we could have been a lot better in a lot of areas. Overall I think everyone is just happy to be back on the ice,” said Czarnik, who along with Frank Vatrano was one of the real starts of camp last season. “You know that type of mentality and you know mistakes are going to happen, and you’ve just got to move forward from it so everyone’s happy to be back.”

The former Miami University star is clearly happy to be back, and it’s showing on the ice with each chance he gets to show his tenacity, withering fore-check and his willingness to crash the net despite his smallish stature.

Czarnik was one of the most dangerous forwards on the ice for the Black and Gold in their preseason opener, and collected a key assist on Boston’s first goal of the game when he pushed a puck through the neutral zone before setting up on odd man rush for Jimmy Hayes and Jake DeBrusk.

This time around Czarnik scored the game’s only goal on a nifty rush during four-on-four play through the offensive zone by Ryan Spooner, who drew in the defense and dished to Czarnik for a wide open tap-in chance.

So it’s a couple of big plays in each of the first two preseason games that led to goals, and a genuinely excellent level of play throughout both contests. It’s something the Bruins coaching staff has taken note of along with his skating speed and hardnosed mentality, and now they have to figure if it fits in with their other NHL pieces.

“We were just talking about it. Everybody has that same feeling. He’s playing well. He moves well. He’s on the puck. He competes, and that’s the thing you’re looking for really,” said Bruins assistant coach Joe Sacco. “Like right now, we know there’s going to be mistakes made by a lot of our players, especially the younger ones.

“We’re looking to see who’s got that competitive, you know, that competitive fire. [We’re looking for] who’s going to go out there and who can compete at a high level. I know he’s not big in stature, but he plays bigger than he is. He’s had two pretty good games so far.”

Czarnik had a couple of good games early in B’s camp last year before flat-lining a bit at the end when the NHL jobs were seriously on the line, and the 23-year-old wants that story to change endings this time around. It remains to be seen where he’s going to fit as yet another center among Boston’s group of training camp players this month, but Czarnik might just force the Bruins to make a tough decision if he keeps playing at his current high level.   

McAdam: Seeds of first place Red Sox planted in A.L. East basement

McAdam: Seeds of first place Red Sox planted in A.L. East basement

NEW YORK -- Worst to first.

Again.

Sound familiar?

It should, since the Red Sox are now making this a habit. For the second time in the last four years, the Red Sox have rebounded from a last-place finish -- two, in fact, in this instance -- to claim a division title.

On Wednesday, they won it the hard way -- by losing the game, 5-3, on a walk-off grand slam by the New York Yankees' Mark Teixeira, but clinching first thanks to a loss by the second-place Toronto Blue Jays.

It's as though the Red Sox were determined to win it on a trick bank shot. They had already won the A.L. East more conventionally in 2013, by actually winning their clinching game. But the awkwardness of blowing a three-run lead in the ninth was soon washed away in a spray of champagne and beer in a raucous clubhouse.

"One inning,'' declared John Farrell, "should not take away from the fact that we're champions.''

Indeed, the Red Sox had already paid the price to get to this point with two consecutive finishes in the division basement. They had to wait for their young foundation to mature and evolve.

Mookie Betts went from being a good, promising player to a legitimate MVP candidate. Jackie Bradley Jr. transformed from defensive marvel and streaky hitter to solid, all-around All-Star. Xander Bogaerts continued to improve and finally checked the "power'' box.

"I don't know what expectations we had coming in,'' confessed Bradley. "You just know that as long as you play hard, do the right things, keep together. . . We knew we had a talented team, but you still have to play the game. We were able to play the game at a high level this year.

"I think we knew this could happen in spring training, that we could be a pretty special team.''

By this year, the growing pains were over. The young stars had arrived and were ready to not just flash potential, but this time, do something with it.

"Everything came to fruition,'' noted Bradley, "and we're here.''

Along with the expected developments, there were surprises: Sandy Leon went from fourth-string journeyman to starting catcher, unseating several teammates along the way. Steven Wright went from bullpen long man to All-Star starter. Andrew Benintendi came from nowhere to claim the left field job in the final two months.

Some of this was planned. The rest -- and this is the beauty of sports -- was not.

"We had two rough years," said Farrell. "But at the same time, it was true meaning in the struggles. We're benefitting from that now.,''

The team showed a powerful finishing kick down the stretch, obliterating anything and anyone in its way in the final month, winning 11 straight, including seven in a row on the road -- all against division opponents.

The road-heavy second-half schedule that threatened to derail them instead toughened them and served as a springboard.

Comparisons will be made, of course, to the last two championship teams - 2004 stands alone for obvious reasons. Farrell was the pitching coach for one (2007) and the manager of another (2013).

"This is a more dynamic offense than those other teams,'' said Farrell. "We've got more team speed, we've got more athleticism. I can't say that this is a better team; it's different.''

"Better'' may have to wait until November, and the end of the postseason. It will require a World Series victory to match 2007 and 2013.

Time will tell. But for a night, there was enough to celebrate.

"By no means,'' said Farrell, dripping in champagne, "is this the end. This is just the beginning of our postseason.''