With training camp around the corner, this week's mailbag leads off with the contract situations of quarterback Tom Brady and offensive lineman Logan Mankins. From a business standpoint, those are two of the most pressing issues facing the club.
One e-mailer asked if those situations might be related, but I don't see a strong link there. I think they are two distinct entities, and within the mailbag, I present one possible move that could create goodwill between the team and the two players.
When it comes to X's and O's, there were more questions on Terrell Owens as a possible fit in New England than any other issue surrounding the Patriots. I would not endorse that move based on the present roster, an opinion formed in part because of what former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said about the possibility.
There were a few questions that I filed away to answer in the coming weeks.
One was whether Brady will be on a "pitch" count in training camp. I'm not sure, but I'm interested in learning the answer. Another was on the position-specific composition of Patriots' special-teams units from 2009. I'll try to put that together for next week.
Meanwhile, one e-mailer asked where he might find copies of Patriots games from the 2007-08 so he could re-live the undefeated regular season again. Any readers who might have a suggestion, I'll pass it on next week.
Q. Hey Mike, welcome back! So I keep hearing that Tom Brady is unhappy with his contract situation and he may hold out, and that he may demand a trade next, and blah blah blah. It's coming from so many sources and so sporadically that I don't know what to believe anymore. Can you tell me what you've heard/what you know, and then what you think is going to happen. Can a deal be struck before training camp? -- Arjuna (Derry, N.H.)
A. Arjuna, I did some reporting Monday on Tom Brady and his contract situation with the Patriots. I'd be shocked if Brady holds out. He is expected to be in town; the sides have been talking, on and off, since 2009. But I don't think a deal will be struck before training camp, because my understanding is that talks aren't currently in an "active" state. I don't sense any major issues between the sides. At the same time, I don't think it would be accurate to paint a picture of both sides singing "Kumbaya" when they get together at the negotiating table. This is business; in this case, that means a process that de-personalizes things to a large extent. I think Brady gets that. I still believe the sides will strike a deal, just as I believe the Colts -- with Peyton Manning entering the last year of his contract -- will ultimately strike a deal.
Q. Mike, I am still a little confused on the Tom Brady contract situation. Besides the uncertainty of the [collective bargaining agreement] for 2011 and beyond, are there other reasons that explain why the Patriots are not negotiating? What is the 30 percent raise issue? I believe that the value of the Patriots' franchise decreases by 20 percent immediately if Brady were to leave. Kraft must understand that. -- Jeff (Boston)
A. Jeff, I'd start by saying the Patriots are negotiating with Brady. It's not as if they haven't talked about a new contract; they just haven't found a middle ground. It's the same thing with the Colts and Manning. The labor uncertainty is a factor that has contributed to the sides not striking a deal, although I wouldn't read too much into the 30 percent raise issue specifically. Yes, that's a hurdle (a player's base salary can't increase more than 30 percent from one year to the next), but I see it as a minor one if both sides are committed to striking a fair deal. In my opinion, the bigger factor with labor uncertainty is this: With the NFL ownership/player landscape in line for a significant change in 2011, it lessens the urgency for the Patriots (and Colts, with Manning) to strike the deal now.
Q. Mike, it seems that one [of] the reasons why Vince Wilfork didn't exert his leadership last season was his contract battles with Patriots management. Will Pats management learn from its mistake last year and make sure that Brady is signed and happy before the season begins? -- Pete (England)
A. Pete, it's always easier to spend someone else's money and alter someone else's budget; with that in mind, my suggestion is that the Patriots would be wise to take a Tennessee Titans/Chris Johnson-type approach by focusing on a short-term fix with both Brady and Mankins. On Monday, we saw the Titans shift some money around in Johnson's current deal, sweetening his 2010 contract by about $2 million. It seems to me that doing that makes a tangible statement to the player that he's important, while also acknowledging the challenge of reaching a long-term deal given the uncertain labor situation. If it creates a better locker-room dynamic in New England, I think it would be a smart investment in this year given the current dynamics.
Hey Mike, what do you see happening with Mankins? I'm talking bottom line -- is he here, and if so, when? If he is gone, when would that be? I know Mankins is the best offensive lineman the Pats have, but let's be real here. He's a guard. He's not a left tackle, he's not a QB. I've always been a fan of Mankins because of his playing style and no-nonsense attitude, but when it comes right down to it, I have a hard time saying that any guard is worth the kind of money Mankins wants, and the last thing the Pats locker room needs is an angry veteran. -- Rick (Pelham, N.H.)
A. Rick, I don't expect to see Mankins at the start of camp. He is not under contract and thus he can't be fined. I think he is dug in with his position. He is highly principled and it is my opinion that he is the type of player willing to sit out the season. So, bottom line, I could see this situation extending through the season with no resolution.
Q. Hey Mike, do you think the Jets' signing of D'Brickashaw Ferguson will influence the Patriots' dealings with Mankins? Are the two equal in skill level and is this something that Mankins could add to his anger towards the Pats in saying how they treated him? I don't recall what the Pats' initial offer was to him. I'd like to see how it compared to it. -- Steve (Dallas)
A. Steve, on the surface I could see Mankins being initially upset when he read about Ferguson's contract extension with the Jets. But in this case, I think the details add important context. Mike Florio at ProFootballTalk.com had a nice breakdown of Ferguson's contract and I think that the Patriots would be like to sign Mankins to a deal with that type of structure. So in the end, I don't see the two contract situations being closely related.
Q. Would Flozell Adams be a potential option to soften the blow of Logan Mankins' situation? Adams' biggest weakness is lateral quickness, which is somewhat mitigated shifting over to guard. If Mankins signs, the Pats have extra depth, never a bad thing on the offensive line. If not let Mankins search out deals and trade him to the highest bidder. -- Matt (Las Cruces, N.M.)
A. Matt, I don't see the Patriots and Adams fitting together. I'd argue that the Patriots are one of the NFL's deepest teams at offensive tackle. I don't think they need another one, especially a guard (they're already experimenting with Nick Kaczur at the position).
Q. Mike, really no T.O.? Is he that absurd of an option given the other "veterans" we seem to always pick up at the WR slot? I just don't see the downside -- nevermind the locker room stuff -- that has no actual effect anymore. T.O. has been outed and he wants back in -- period. We need the help of able-bodied and legit WRs. T.O. lining up is enough of a threat just to help the running game alone, never mind if he actually catches 25-plus balls. -- Steve (New York City)
A. Steve, there were more questions on Owens in this week's mailbag than any other non-contract-related topic. I was on vacation the past two weeks, but in catching up on NFL headlines, it sounds like it was a result of Owens saying he would be open to playing with New England. I wouldn't make the move based on the present makeup of the receiver group, and even if there were more of a need, I still wouldn't pull the trigger because of the risk and threat to locker-room and team chemistry. I liked Tedy Bruschi's comments on the topic on NFL Live. Bruschi's comments were transcribed by Andy Hart of Patriots Football Weekly.
Q. Hey Mike, I was reading a bit about Sebastian Vollmer today and I came across this piece from last year, in which you provided analysis on the Pats selecting Vollmer in the second round. I don't mean to rake you over the coals, but I did get a chuckle reading your comment that "Even though he played on the left side in college, he won't be asked to protect Tom Brady's blindside." Not that many could have predicted his development, but it really is amazing to see how opinions change on a draft after a year or two. At the same time, it got me thinking about how some players work out great in a particular scheme, but might not have the same impact for another team. There were a lot of circumstances that lead to Sea Bass starting for the Pats, but BB [Bill Belichick] and [assistant head coach Dante] Scarnecchia didn't seem to have any reservations about keeping him on the line when [[Nick] Kaczur came back. Do you think that Vollmer was an underrated talent coming into the draft, or do you think the particular circumstances in New England are what has lead to his quick development? -- Jon (Chicago)
A. Great submission, Jon. I like it because it shows how quickly opinions can change, adds some accountability to the process, and shows how some of the media-based draft "scouting" reports influence opinion. A lot of people were wrong on Vollmer, who was an underrated talent coming into the draft (he wasn't invited to the combine). I also think the Patriots' system has aided in his development.
Q. I was curious what happens with a player's roster spot when he is suspended. Especially when someone is suspended for a whole year. Does the team have to use up a roster spot to keep them on the team or do they go on a special list? -- John (Concord, N.C.)
A. John, a suspended player does not count against a team's 53-man roster. One good example this year is with Seattle Seahawks linebacker Leroy Hill. He is suspended for the first game of the season. While the Seahawks would prefer to have Hill for that game, the team does receive the benefit of keeping one additional player who would have otherwise been cut for one week. The Patriots had a similar situation with Kevin Faulk in 2008.
A. Curtis, if we are looking solely at pass-catching statistics, I'd lean toward Hernandez. I think both will help the team's red-zone offense -- as well as veteran Alge Crumpler -- but I see Hernandez having a bigger impact as a pass-catcher, in part because he played in an offense with similar concepts at Florida.
Q. With Randy Moss and Wes Welker being the leaders of the WR corps, do you see them him helping out and coaching the youngsters, primarily Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman? I can see Tate evolving into a Randy Moss type of player and Edelman becoming a Wes Welker of the future. -- Andrew Child (Mexico, Maine)
A. No doubt about it, Andrew, and I'd add Torry Holt and David Patten into that mentoring role as well. That was something that I noticed throughout organized team activities. One area that I view differently, however, is the connection between Tate and Moss. I don't see Tate oozing athleticism like Moss does (few compare to Moss). Overall, I still see Tate as a wild card in the Patriots' wide receiver picture. He is still raw as a route-runner.
Q. Hey Mike, Just wondering if you know if practices will be open to the public when the Saints come to New England for a few days of practice? -- Curtis (Somerset, Mass.)
A. Curtis, those practices are scheduled to be open to the public. The exact schedule has not been announced. Here is the original press release.
Q. Mike, when it comes to roster spots, the Pats should have a lot of competition with all the new draft picks. Are there any spots where we have good depth where we might see some surprising cuts? For instance, would Brandon McGowan be a casualty if one of the CBs can play S in a pinch (like Springs could have last year)? Could we lose a Kyle Arrington or Matthew Slater because Devin McCourty is in theory a special teams ace in addition to the 3rd or 4th CB? At what point does LeVoir become a luxury (since we have Light, Kaczur and Vollmer at OT) over someone with potential like Thomas Welch? What veterans do you see in the most trouble fighting for spots? -- Chris (Orlando, Fla.)
A. Chris, I see some real solid competition across this roster. I think offensive tackle and safety are the spots with the most depth right now, and with three tight ends looking like a lock to make the roster, it could thin the ranks at running back by one. Two veterans who I would keep on the radar in this regard are Fred Taylor and James Sanders, because of a combination of their place on the depth chart, salaries and other factors on the roster.
Q. I understand Fred Taylor is a 34-year-old running back, but if you watch him run and disregard his age, I don't think there's any question he's a better runner than every other back the Patriots have. Don't you think the fact that Bill Belichick didn't put Taylor on injured reserve last season should quell any speculation that Taylor might not make the team? Clearly the Patriots value his talent when he's available. He's not comparable to an aging LaDainian Tomlinson, Edgerrin James or Shaun Alexander. -- Tyler (Huntington Beach, Calif.)
A. Tyler, I think Taylor can still help the Patriots, or any team for that matter. But I'd caution reading too much into the team's decision-making from last year as to how it will impact this year. Players have to prove themselves again every year, and Taylor is no exception. There are also other factors on the roster, at other positions, that contribute to a player's hold on a spot.
Q. Hi Mike, in response to your player rankings and my own curiosity, why hasn't BenJarvus Green-Ellis received more carries? From the little we've seen from him, he seems like a young, solid runner who has shown flashes of potential. I don't feel like we've given him a fair shot to make an impression. I'd hate to cut him. Is Green-Ellis' limited playing time due to other areas of his game, like blocking, catching and pass protection, something I'm missing? -- Ben (Los Angeles)
A. Ben, my main thought on Green-Ellis is he's been trumped by more experienced players on the roster, so in a sense it's less about him and more about the players in front of him. If the Patriots are keeping just four running backs this year, and you have Laurence Maroney, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor and Green-Ellis as the top five, it creates a potential tough call. Do you keep a proven veteran who might be in his last year with the team or a younger, potentially promising player in Green-Ellis?
Q. Sammy Morris seems to play well in spurts. Then, in every year, just as he is doing well, he gets hurt. Is there any explanation of how he can be so snake-bitten? If he had been completely healthy, would he have been the answer to our starting running back problem? -- Harry (Providence, R.I.)
A. Harry, part of it might be Morris' physical running style. He often initiates contact. But overall, it's tough to say what has contributed to his injuries over the years.
Q. With an increasingly younger defense do you think the Patriots will blitz more this season? It seems in the last couple of games with that "organized chaos" play they were able to keep some teams in check. Will we see more in '10-'11? -- Nick (Hull, Mass.)
A. Nick, it's hard to believe, but the Patriots actually blitzed more than 40 percent of the time in 2009. That ranked them as the seventh-highest blitzing team in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. I think the key is actually lowering that number and finding a way to generate pressure out of the standard four-man rush. As for "organized chaos," I think the package will be part of the team's playbook in 2010, but it's more like a baseball pitcher using a changeup. You don't want it to be your main pitch, but it can be a nice way to keep the hitter off balance.
Q. Mike, I'm beginning to question the Patriots' use of the 3-4 as our base defense. I do like the versatility that it gives a defensive genius like Bill Belichick but I have a few issues with it now. One, with so many teams switching to the 3-4 it's tougher to get the unique players needed for OLB. Second, it is not the change of pace it used to be when only us and Pittsburgh seemed to be using it. Lastly, I think our roster has more quality at D-line than linebacker, so it would behoove the Pats to have more D-lineman than linebackers out there. Could you envision us switching to a 4-3 base ever, or do you think as long as Belichick is in charge New England will be a 3-4 team? -- Kartal (Denver)
A. Kartal, I have spent some time on this 3-4/4-3 issue this offseason, learning more about defensive techniques within the team's system. The Patriots aren't a pure 3-4 defense. They have 4-3 principles within their scheme. It can happen quickly: one example would be using an outside linebacker as a defensive end, and then shifting the defensive linemen to different techniques (e.g. instead of having Vince Wilfork playing over the center, he would shade to one side, altering the overall "fit" in the running game). So in the end, I think we'll see concepts from both defenses over the course of the year, and it would be misrepresenting the Patriots' defense by pigeon-holing it as a pure 3-4 scheme.
Q. Hey Mike, I was just thinking about the situation with the Pats' coordinators, and a weird thought popped into my mind. A couple of years ago, I believe, the league began to require teams to have their coordinators give press conferences. If I remember correctly, this was thought to be something that Bill Belichick did not want to do, presumably because he wants to control the message. The question is, since no one technically carries the title of coordinator now, are the Pats exempt from this requirement? If so, is it possible that BB chose not to assign titles with this reasoning in mind and/or are there other benefits he could see by not having named coordinators? -- Darryl (Woodstock, Vt.)
A. Darryl, as I understand the rule, the Patriots are still required to make assistant coaches available once a week, so the no-coordinator approach does not circumvent that. I don't think it was a factor in Bill Belichick's decision-making.
Q. Hi Mike, nice to see the Pats playing again with Pat Patriot and the throwback uniforms next season as I simply love it. Is there a chance Pat Patriot will return permanently? -- Henry
A. Henry, I think we'll only see Pat Patriot for a couple games each season. As I understand it, the team hasn't entertained the possibility of switching back to the old logo.
Q. Hey Mike, what is the "Patriots Experience?" -- Joe (Los Angeles)
A. Joe, the "Patriots Experience" is an interactive football-themed playground at training camp. I'm including a link from the team's official website for more detail.
Q. Mike, what do you think about the supplemental draft picks? Harvey Unga for a seventh-round pick? Really? Who wouldn't do that? -- Jan (Auburn, N.H.)
A. Jan, I think a big part of it is that teams have their depth charts well-defined now and don't want to give up a valuable chip for a player who isn't a lock to make the roster -- and is already way behind after missing all the spring camps. That, to me, is one of the main reasons why teams like the Patriots seem to shy away from the supplemental draft.
Q. Mike, one writer projected that the Pats would cut LS Jake Ingram and slide rookie OL Thomas Welch, who can long-snap, into that role. Obviously having this versatility with Welch would free up a roster spot and is, at the least, an appealing possibility for the Pats. But I'm not so sure he'll be cut, for several reasons: the team used a 6th round pick on him last year, he developed a good rapport with the special teams units, and he was flawless in his snap attempts. What are your thoughts? -- Neil (South Boston)
A. Neil, I don't see Ingram getting cut. I could see Welch as an emergency option as a short-snapper on field goals, but asking him to long-snap on punts, and run his 300-plus frame up and down the field, doesn't seem like a smart move. The thought brings to light how snapping is more than just firing the ball between one's legs; there are coverage and protection aspects to the job as well.
Q. I have been a Patriots fan for 20 years and I am finally making my first trip to Gillette Stadium, coming out for Opening Day against Cincy. I will be staying in downtown Boston and I wanted to know if there were any buses, trams, or trains that go from downtown to the stadium? How much time in advance should I get there? Also, what sites would you recommend that I taken in around the stadium? -- Nathan (Oxnard, Calif.)
A. Nathan, enjoy the trip. The following is a link to the "Gameday" page from the Patriots' official website. It should answer most, if not all, of your questions. I like to arrive early, so I'd plan for anywhere from 2-4 hours before kickoff. I'd recommend a visit to the Patriots Hall of Fame, for sure, although it is not open on game day. The Kraft family has invested a lot into the Hall and it's a great place to capture the history of the team.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.