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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Patriots suffered a devastating blow in Friday night's 17-16 exhibition win over the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium when valuable fullback James Develin suffered a potential season-ending injury.

According to a team source, Develin broke his right leg after making a 10-yard reception from Jimmy Garoppolo midway through the fourth quarter.

Develin rolled to his left and snagged the pass before taking a hit from Carolina linebacker David Mayo. Develin landed awkwardly and his leg appeared to bend back.

After being attended to by several members of the medical staff of both teams, a cart was summoned to take Develin off the field. An extremely popular player in the locker room, many of Develin's teammates, including longtime captain Matthew Slater and tight Michael Hoomanawanui, as well as coach Bill Belichick came out to check on him before he was taken off the field.

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Develin, a former defensive lineman at Brown, was signed as a free agent by the Patriots in 2013 and has carved out a niche role in the offense. An excellent blocker, Develin also has chipped in with an occasional catch and rush. He scored a touchdown on a 1-yard pass from Tom Brady in last year's AFC Championship Game win over the Colts.

Saga continuesA subplot to the Deflategate saga has been the role of ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, who on Jan. 20 reported that 11 of 12 balls used by the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game win over the Colts were underinflated by two PSI.

The information proved incorrect and Mortensen, who cited "league sources" in his tweet, removed his post — but not until August. Now it seems Mortensen may be backtracking on his backtracking.

After earlier saying he should have done a "better job vetting'' his story, Mortensen, appearing on the Doug & Wolf radio show on 98.7 in Arizona on Thursday, said he stands by his original story and said reports "that somebody from the league deliberately leaked balls information to me is so much baloney. It actually is insulting.''

Mortensen said both sources said it was 11 of 12 balls but that one source said "two pounds" and the other said "significantly underinflated.''

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Mortensen went on to say: "I have had both Krafts, Jonathan Kraft and Bob Kraft, call me and apologize for ah, just the way this thing has gone down.''

Appearing on the pregame show on 98.5 before Friday's game against the Panthers, team president Jonathan Kraft contradicted Mortensen's claim.

"I think that throughout this whole situation a lot of information out there was false," Kraft said. "We don't blame the reporters, we blame their sources. We asked the league to correct the misinformation . . . The sources of the misinformation are the only ones that need to apologize. We haven't [apologized] and we have no need to. Our issue is with the people who were leaking misinformation.''

Student of the game

Jordan Richards can often been seen bouncing through the Patriots locker room wearing a backpack and sweats — looking more like a college kid hustling to class than a professional football player.

It's pretty apropos because Richards played the role of a college student really well, majoring in public policy at Stanford, where the safety was not only a two-time All-Pac 12 first-team selection but a three-time All-Pac 12 All-Academic choice.

Yes, he's a pretty smart cookie when it comes to the books and the football field. That intelligence is a big reason the Patriots selected Richards in the second round (64th overall).

Some critics panned the pick on draft night, saying New England reached for a player who ran a 4.65 40 at the combine, but it's clear the Patriots put more of an emphasis on Richards's passion, leadership (the captain was called "Coach'' by his Cardinal teammates), and production on the field rather than his combine scores.

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"Jordan is a really sharp kid,'' said Belichick. "He's very into football, has a really good understanding of the game. Even at the college level, I think he did some things that you don't normally see guys do — [his] level of sophistication and anticipation and awareness — so that was very impressive.''

Richards, who started the second half and finished with five tackles, including one for a loss in Friday's win over the Panthers, has been enjoying his introduction into NFL life. There's plenty to learn and he's trying to soak it all in.

"Everyday is a new day,'' said Richards, whose dad, Terrance, grew up in Natick and played defensive line at Tufts from 1975-79. "I'm trying not to ever make the same mistake twice. Obviously I want to play perfect football and football is an imperfect game, but I'm trying to make sure I'm doing the right things, that I'm making the right calls and seeing the adjustments before things happen on the field.''

Belichick has been impressed with Richards's ability to adapt quickly to the pro life and translate his classroom work to the field.

"You can really see how much he's able to absorb and turn that into production and functionality on the football field,'' said the coach. "He's shown the ability to apply it both on defense and in the kicking game. In the running game and the passing game. He has a lot of passion and he works hard, and those things are evident, but they're also showing up in his performance and his production.''

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Richards, who gained a reputation as a thunderous hitter at Stanford, where he collected 247 tackles and nine interceptions in 54 career games, is appreciative of the support he's received from the coaching staff and the veteran safeties on the squad, including Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung.

"The entire safety room, including [coach Brian] Flores, has been great,'' said Richards, who is third among Patriot defenders with seven tackles through the first two exhibition games.

"I'm just trying to learn as much as I can. I just want to see the game the way they see the game because they have a lot of experience.''

Praise for Connolly

Veteran guard Ryan Wendell, who returned to practice this week after spending time on the physically unable to perform list following offseason shoulder surgery, had some heartfelt words for former teammate Dan Connolly.

Connolly retired before the season, citing family and health as reasons. Connolly, a Patriots captain last season, said he had been diagnosed with four concussions during his 10 seasons.

"Awesome guy and an awesome teammate and one of my best friends,'' Wendell said of Connolly. "It was an honor to play with him and be around him for the last seven years. I wish we could play together longer . . . but he's still plugged in, he knows what's going on around here and he's going to be our biggest fan this year.''

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Vollmer exits

Offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer took himself out of the game late in the first half and was talking to the trainers. He was replaced by Cameron Fleming. There was no postgame update on his status . . . Receiver Jonathan Krause left after taking a heavy hit in the third quarter. He held on to the ball, however . . . Seldom-used receiver Zach D'Orazio caught an 8-yard pass in the fourth quarter . . . The Patriots placed Jake Bequette on injured reserve a day after he went unclaimed on the waived/injured wire. The 2013 third-round pick came into the league as a defensive end and was converted to tight end entering this season before suffering a training camp injury . . . The Patriots rushed for 100 yards on 26 carries, but 36 of those yards came on scrambles by Brady and Garoppolo. LeGarrette Blount led the running backs with 29 yards on seven rushes . . . Panthers QB Cam Newton went through his warm-ups wearing a Batman jersey and gold cleats . . . Patriots rookie guard Shaq Mason turned 21 on Friday . . . Former Patriot Kyle Love started at defensive tackle for the Panthers . . . Among the many New England connections to the Panthers are linebacker Luke Kuechly, who collected a school and ACC-record 532 tackles in 38 games at Boston College. Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman was born in Boston and holds degrees from Springfield College and Southern Connecticut State.


Jim McBride can be reached at james.mcbride@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.