Cowboys Big Three receivers are tough covers

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Cowboys Big Three receivers are tough covers

FOXBORO The New England Patriots have seen their share of big receivers and pass-catching tight ends this season.

But the Dallas Cowboys?

They have the kind of three-headed receiving monster unlike anything this Patriots defense has seen all season. When talking about the Cowboys' passing attack, you have to start with tight end Jason Witten, the team's leader in receptions (27), yards (366) and Pro Bowl selections (7).

"I evaluate (Witten) as one of the all-time greats," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "There's a lot of good tight ends in the league and there's good players at every position, but he's as good as any player and I'm glad we only play him once every whatever it is -- three or four years -- that's plenty."

Dallas also has 6-foot-2 Miles Austin, who had more than 1,000 yards receiving a year ago. And rounding out their trio of talented pass-catchers, is 6-2 Dez Bryant who is . . . we'll let Pats safety Patrick Chung tell you about Bryant.

"He's good. He's big, fast, strong," Chung said of Bryant. "He knows how to go up there and get the ball. He's good after the catch. He's a beast."

New England has had mixed results this season in dealing with big-time wide-outs and tight ends. In the 38-24 win to open the season against Miami, the Patriots had lots of problems trying to contain 6-4 Brandon Marshall who had seven catches for 139 yards.

The following week, New England defeated the San Diego Chargers 35-21, despite Vincent Jackson having a huge game. The Patriots took away San Diego's top receiver at the time -- tight end Antonio Gates -- and did not allow him to make a single catch. Gates had just one ball thrown his way.

"They made it difficult for me to get off the ball," Gates said following the loss. "They made it difficult for me to make a play on a ball. Every time I looked around, there were two guys around me. They had a game plan. They wanted to take me out of the game, and that's exactly what they did."

A similar approach to defending the Cowboys, however, seems unlikely.

Trying to take out any one of their Big Three receiving targets would in all likelihood create more opportunities for the other two to make plays.

However, having seen a number of large receivers and other talented tight ends already this season, should bode well this week for the Patriots in preparation for a Dallas passing attack that's ranked third in the NFL.

"It always helps that this is not the first time we've seen it, going against different guys this season," said Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty, who leads the Pats in tackles with 39. "The biggest thing is just the physical nature of the bigger receivers. Most of the time, they're bigger than the corners they're facing. They try and use that to their advantage."

And the Patriots will try to use the momentum gained from a solid defensive performance last week against the Jets, as a springboard going into the Cowboys game.

"That's what you want, to get better from one week to the next," said Patriots defensive lineman Shaun Ellis. "I think with us and our defense, we're doing that."

It's official: Patriots nab third-round compensatory pick in Collins trade

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It's official: Patriots nab third-round compensatory pick in Collins trade

The Patriots received a conditional fourth-round pick in 2018 from the Browns in return for Jamie Collins. That's how the trade was described on the league's transaction wire. 

The "condition" of that fourth-rounder? Well, if the Browns received a third-round compensatory pick in 2017, the Patriots would nab that pick instead. 

On Friday, the NFL announced that the Browns had in fact been awarded a third-round compensatory pick, which meant that almost three full weeks after Super Bowl LI, everything was still coming up Patriots.

In actuality, the odds were pretty good all along that the Patriots would get what they got

Cleveland lost Pro Bowl center Alex Mack in free agency last offseason when he opted to sign with the Falcons. Because compensatory picks are based on free agents lost and free agents acquired, and because the Browns did not sign any similarly-impactful free agents, there was a good chance Mack's departure would render a third-round comp pick that would be shipped to New England.

Had Mack suffered a significant injury that forced his play to drop off or limited his time on the field, a third-rounder may have been out of the question, but he played well (named a Pro Bowler and a Second Team All-Pro) and stayed healthy -- lucky for the Patriots -- missing just 17 total snaps in the regular season. 

The Browns comp pick that will be sent to New England is No. 103 overall. The Patriots were also awarded a fifth-round comp pick, No. 185 overall. That was a result of the league weighing the departures of Akiem Hicks and Tavon Wilson against the arrival of Shea McClellin.

The Patriots now have nine selections in this year's draft: One first-rounder; one second-rounder; two third-rounders; one fourth-rounder*; two fifth-rounders; two seventh-rounders.

The third-round compensatory pick acquired by the Patriots carries additional value this year in that it is the first year in which compensatory picks can be traded. A near top-100 overall selection may allow the Patriots to move up the draft board or build assets in the middle rounds should they be inclined to deal. And we know they oftentimes are. 

* The Patriots forfeited their highest fourth-round selection in this year's draft as part of their Deflategate punishment. They acquired a fourth-round pick from the Seahawks last year. Because that would have been the higher of their two selections, that's the one they'll lose. They will make their own fourth-round pick at No. 137 overall.

Gronkowski says he has 'no doubt' he'll be ready for start of next season

Gronkowski says he has 'no doubt' he'll be ready for start of next season

When it comes to projecting Rob Gronkowski's health, it's been best to steer clear of absolutes. There have been too many injuries, too many surgeries, to predict exactly how he'll feel months in advance. 

Still, in speaking with ESPN's Cari Champion recently, he said he had "no doubt" he'll be ready for Week 1 of the 2017 regular season. 

"Yes, for sure," he replied when asked if he expected to be good to go. 

Gronkowski also fielded a question about his long-term future in the sit-down. Lately it's been his coach Bill Belichick and his quarterback Tom  Brady who receiver all the life-after-football queries, but Gronkowski, 27, was asked how much longer he'd like to play. 

"I’m not really sure," he said. "I mean, I still love playing the game, and as of right now, I want to play as long as I possibly could play. My mindset is to keep on going."

Gronkowski landed on season-ending injured reserve in December after undergoing a procedure on his back -- his third back surgery since 2009. He's had nine reported surgeries -- including procedures on his knee, forearm and ankle -- since his final year at the University of Arizona.