It is great to be talking football X's and O's again. This week's mailbag is all about hard-core football, which is refreshing after an offseason full of lockout talk.
One of the things catching the attention of emailers is a different look for the Patriots' defense in training camp. Whether it's permanent remains to be seen, but the possibilities were easily the dominant topic of emails.
As usual, Bill Belichick has come out with a plan for his club, and it surprised many, with trades for Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco. Then came the cuts of Ty Warren, Alge Crumpler, Marcus Stroud and Nick Kaczur.
Belichick sure knows how to shake things up.
Let's get to the questions
Q. Mike, the Albert Haynesworth acquisition has been characterized as low risk, high reward. The high reward part is obvious given the talent of the player. I'm not so sure about the low risk. Yes, he can be cut at any time, but does that make it low risk? Based on Ty Warren's comments, the Pats are trying new schemes at the expense of players like Warren and presumably to the benefit of Haynesworth. If Haynesworth doesn't work out, don't those new schemes go for naught because the centerpiece personnel is gone and so is the former personnel? That seems like risk to me. -- Brian (Mansfield, Mass.)
A. Brian, there is definitely some risk involved, so I think it just depends at what level one wants to characterize it. I think it's fair to put it into the "low" category because I don't think Belichick would be reliant on one player when putting together any schemes. That wouldn't be smart given the injury rate in the game. In regard to Warren, I don't think the reason he was cut was solely because of scheme. That might have been part of the consideration, but I think salary and health were part of it, too.
Q. Hi Mike, there's a lot of talk of the Patriots switching to a four-man defensive line with the addition of Haynesworth. If this happens, could you explain to me what happens at the inside linebacker position? I guess Jerod Mayo would always be on the field, but what about the others? I'm particularly interested in Brandon Spikes and his role, because I've been very excited about his prospects this year and have heard some good initial things coming out of training camp about him. -- Tom Mangin (Medford, Ore.)
A. Tom, the Patriots could do a couple of different things at linebacker. First, the question is how many linebackers you want on the field. Is it a pure 4-3, or maybe a 4-2-5 nickel or 4-1-6 dime? I think whatever it is, you can expect to see Mayo. In a 4-3, he probably plays the weak side, with Spikes looking like a Pepper Johnson-type presence in the middle.
Q. With all this talk about the Patriots switching from the 3-4 to the 4-3, who would be the DE opposite Jermaine Cunningham? -- Nathan (Boston)
A. Nathan, there are a lot of different options depending on what the Patriots are trying to accomplish, but Eric Moore projects to fit that type of role. He's been a 4-3 end for most of his career. I think the Patriots like him, but that's one spot that remains a bit of a question mark in my view.
Q. Hi Mike. Lots of speculation that the Patriots are going to play more 4-3 this year than in previous years. I'm not sure if that is speculation or not, but with Ty Warren's release and the addition of Haynesworth, it seems more than plausible. Do you think the staff feels this is the best utilization of talent for this particular year, or do you think this may be a shift in philosophy after many years in the 3-4? If the Pats continue to pass on edge players in the draft and in free agency, I like the move as it seems they've had a hard time finding the right personnel to pressure the QB in the 3-4 scheme. A 4-3 in itself is not the elixir to getting a better pass rush, but may be a better use of this year's talent. Wouldn't be surprised to hear in the coming months that this may be why they passed on the OLB/DEs we all wanted them to pick in April's draft. -- Kevin (Framingham, Mass.)
A. Kevin, I think the Patriots will continue to be a multiple defense, switching what they do from time to time, but I do think we'll see more of the four-man line if Haynesworth is ready to go. I think a good coach doesn't force his system on a player but rather adapts his system to the players he has. I don't view Haynesworth as a great fit in the Richard Seymour-type defensive end role in the 3-4. I think lining him up at defensive tackle -- playing different techniques as part of a four-man line -- is the way to go. Set him loose to do what he does best -- get after that quarterback.
Q. Hi Mike. The Patriots have started training camp by practicing in the 4-3 and a lot of fans think they will change their base defense to a 4-3. Correct me if I am wrong, but didn't the Patriots start training camp last year practicing the 4-3 before they practiced the 3-4? Is all the talk about switch to a 4-3 much ado about nothing and the Patriots will still be a 3-4 team with the ability to be versatile? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A. David, this is the same question I asked Ty Warren because you are right on the money. This wouldn't be the first time we've seen a certain defensive look and then it gets scrapped. This was Warren's response: "Before, it was more like, 'Let's try to do something different and if this doesn't work, we're going back to base.' Now, it's more like, 'This is what we're doing.' That's my whole outlook on the deal. You have to play to your personnel, too."
Q. Hi Mike, do the Pats have any interest in Lofa Tatupu? I remember rumors of them liking him coming out of college and his dad was beloved around New England. -- Sean (Hudson, Mass.)
A. Sean, former Patriots safety Lawyer Milloy tweeted that he thinks Tatupu would be a great fit in the New England defense. I think he'd be a fit almost anywhere. He's a good player. But the reasons I think it would be a long shot are economics and what the Patriots already have at linebacker; they are pretty well stocked where Tatupu would line up.
Q. What's the likelihood that the Patriots will go after Osi Umenyiora? -- David (Palo Alto, Calif.)
A. David, I think Umenyiora obviously could help the Patriots, but I view this one similar to Tatupu when it comes to the compensation/contract that would come with the player. Part of the reason Umenyiora is in the news is because he's upset with the Giants because of his contract, so a team acquiring him isn't going to have to give up only a high draft pick but also some more coin. I don't see the Patriots in that market.
Q. Were the Patriots ever interested in bringing Randy Moss back, or do they believe Ochocinco has more left? -- Evan (New York, N.Y.)
A. Evan, I'd be surprised if the Patriots were truly serious about bringing Moss back.
Q. Mike, my thought is that Randy Moss would have been that one more piece (that deep threat) the Pats needed for the Super Bowl. Don't get me wrong, I love signing Ochocinco but he isn't the deep threat. Would you see the Patriots giving Randy a two-year deal to take him out of retirement? -- Mike Byam (Washington, Vt.)
A. Mike, I think you're right about Ochocinco. I think he might open things up for Wes Welker underneath with some good route running, but it won't be like Moss, who opened it up with his speed down the field. I thought Ochocinco was a little faster. As for Moss, I just feel like the Patriots had moved on after the trade and weren't looking back.
Q. Hi Mike, supposedly Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth restructured their contracts, but they are able to practice with the team. Are they able to do this because they've reached an agreement in principle with their agents, but have kept the same contract from their previous team until they can sign a new one/practice on Aug. 4? Is that what they're doing? -- Gary (Cambridge, Mass.)
A. Gary, that's my understanding of that situation. There was some confusion among media members with that rule, including myself.
Q. Hey Mike, can you shed any light on what's going on with the relationship between Logan Mankins and the Pats (most notably, Mr. [Robert] Kraft)? With the signing of Matt Light most recently, is this going to affect signing Mankins to a long term deal at all? -- Peter (Virginia Beach, Va.)
A. Peter, I'm not sure whether there has been any movement there. I don't think Light's return will have an impact on what happens with Mankins.
Q. Mike, with all the recent signings -- such as Brandon McGowan and Kevin Faulk -- we seem to be overstocked at RB, S, WR, DL. Were rosters expanded with the new CBA? If not, we have some interesting cuts ahead, don't we? I see many bubble players here for some named veterans. Your thoughts? Also, do the Pats bring back any of the players already cut? -- Peter (Tampa Bay)
A. Peter, training camp rosters were expanded from 80 to 90, but the regular-season roster will still be 53. Injuries in training camp will play a factor in some of the roster cuts -- I see players such as McGowan and Faulk on the bubble -- and I think the return of veteran tight end Alge Crumpler would be a good move if he returns to full health.
Q. Mike, here are my thoughts on why Crumpler won't be back. First, unlike last year when the story was how his rigorous offseason training had rejuvenated him, this year Alge's recovering from major surgery. Second, if [Nate] Solder isn't starting at LT, can't he play the role of the massive blocking TE? -- Juan (San Francisco)
A. Juan, one of the reasons I think Crumpler would be a good re-sign is his presence in the locker room. The dynamic of the locker room is so important, especially when adding a Haynesworth and Ochocinco, and I think Crumpler is the type of commanding presence who could make a difference in that regard, not to mention in a blocking role on the field.
Q. Mike, do you think there's any chance the Pats re-sign Ty Warren? I haven't seen him picked up anywhere yet. Do you think it was it a money thing or are they worried he might not have anything left? -- Mike (New Jersey)
A. Mike, I do think money was part of it, but I think the sides had been heading in different directions from about this time last year. When Warren opened training camp on the active/physically unable to perform list, I think that was the clincher.
Q. Hey Mike, while I'm excited but apprehensive about the trades, I'm perplexed by Bill's nonchalant attitude in regards to pass rushers (DE/LB). We cut Tully Banta-Cain and have nothing but sixth-round, no-name draft picks and undrafted free agents. Call me a cynic, but the inability to get off the field and get after the QB has cost us going back to the 2007 Super Bowl. I don't care what defensive tackles we acquire, unless we find a DE/LB to get after the QB, I see another early playoff exit, Why does everyone except Bill and the Patriots realize the urgency of getting a speed, pass-rushing specialist. And, Mike, I know you are sleep deprived, but please don't insult me with either Rob Nikovich or Jermaine Cunningham as part of your answer. -- Howard (West New York, N.J.)
A. Howard, I'd start with Banta-Cain. I thought he dipped last year, and although a sports hernia injury might have been part of it, I wasn't expecting him to return to 10-sack form in 2011. I think your overall point is fair, although I don't know whether "nonchalant" is the right word for how Belichick views the position. I think his standard is very high. I do think he could take a few more chances in the draft in this area. As for this year's defense, all I'll say is that I wouldn't count it out. It's early, but the first thought that came to mind when watching them Sunday was the Buffalo Bills' defenses from 2003-04 with Pat Williams and Sam Adams in the middle. That defense was very tough to play against. and I think that's where the Patriots are heading.
Q. Mike, do you know what is taking so long to sign our top three draft picks? I was under the impression that rookie salaries were more or less slated along a rookie pay scale. Is there really that much to negotiate? It seems like getting your top 3 guys into camp would be a priority. -- Matt (Brighton, Mass.)
A. Matt, one of the big issues for first-round pick Nate Solder is a fully guaranteed contract. Adrian Clayborn, the 20th overall pick, was given a fully guaranteed deal by the Buccaneers. So it makes sense to think Solder will be looking for the same thing. I could see the Patriots balking at that. That's where I think the standoff is. I'm less clear on cornerback Ras-I Dowling (second round, 33rd overall) and running back Shane Vereen (second round, 56th overall).
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.