- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Bill Belichick is adjusting on the fly.
That is one of the themes of 2011 Patriots training camp, with Belichick giving the team's defense a new look. Time will tell if it sticks.
In a regular year, this is the type of stuff Belichick would have been doing in the spring. That is when new ideas are explored, hundreds of repetitions are taken by players and analyzed by coaches, and then the question is asked, "Are we carrying this into training camp?"
At that point, the process would continue again. All the reps would be taken in training camp, and analyzed by coaches, and then the question would be asked, "Are we carrying this into the regular season?"
Belichick currently finds himself playing catch-up.
There was no offseason this year, a result of the lockout, so his experimentation has to take place in front of everyone at training camp. He hopes it all works out, but even he isn't sure at this point. He might not know until the regular season.
Call it the "lockout effect," which ties into the main theme in this week's mailbag.
Q. Mike, with the Pats signing all these defensive linemen, who is projected to make the roster and who do you think will be cut? -- Harry (Bloomington, Ind.)
A. I really believe Belichick is still experimenting right now. This normally would have been done in spring camps, and then carried into training camp, but he has to do it now. He has three weeks to figure it all out, with Aug. 30 the first roster cutdown (75 players) and Sept. 3 the final cutdown (53 players). Here is how I would break down the 21 players I'd classify on the roster as defensive linemen:
Q. The Patriots had a very young defense last year. I don't think they want to completely abandon their youth movement, but now they have brought in some more veterans. Do you think one of their biggest challenges is getting the right mix older and younger players and getting them to play together? -- David
A. I like this point, David. The Patriots got a lot older on defense with their recent moves, assuming all players stick. This is something Belichick needs to be careful of when constructing the final 53-man roster.
Q. Is Ron Brace being on PUP another case of Bill Belichick "managing" the roster. It seems to me that every year there are one or two guys who might make it back from injury but don't, only to start practicing after Week 6 and playing as soon as a roster spot opens up. Does BB figure that an injured player will have a hard time making the gameday roster the first 6 weeks, so why waste a roster spot? -- Ted (Boston)
A. Ted, I think it's smart business to have some players on PUP to open the season, but in this case if Brace was 100 percent healthy and in top condition, I think he would have started on the active roster. Now that Brace is on the PUP, I do think it's smart business to leave him there as it will buy time through the season's first six weeks to see how things shake out on the line. If the Patriots do play a four-man line, I think I'd give Brace a chance at a defensive tackle spot before giving up on him. That's what he played at Boston College.
Q. Hi Mike, I'm curious about will happen to Mike Wright once he recovers from his concussion. With the four most recent signings of Gerard Warren, Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, and Mark Anderson, where do you see Wright in the upcoming season? Also what are your thoughts on rookie Markell Carter, how do you think he will contribute in 2011? -- Nick (Southborough, Mass.)
A. Nick, if healthy and in a good place, I see Wright as a key contributor on the 46-man game-day roster. I think he fits best as a pass-rusher in sub packages and a backup lineman.
Q. Mike, I appreciated your analysis of what the Patriots are doing on the defensive line stating that they are "being set-up to morph into a different look at any time." I think that's exactly it. My question is why does this seem advantageous now? Is BB trying to take advantage of a lack of opponent preparation due to the lockout? Or are we simply seeing the next brilliant stage of BB's development as a defensive mastermind? He could quite possibly be setting a new standard in defensive strategy. -- David (Phoenix, Ariz.)
A. David, in my view, Belichick has always favored a "multiple" defense. This isn't the first time we've seen this, but it takes a special group of players to be able to pull it off. I still maintain that what the Patriots did in the 2004 Super Bowl against the Eagles, when they switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 in the most important game of the season, was one of the greatest scheme alterations on the fly in football. Totally unexpected and underappreciated. As for this year, I think a big part of it is that Belichick had all lockout to study the team's defense, and saw some flaws in the 3-4 system based on the personnel he had. He also had time to study other teams that are successful on defense and I think the idea of running a 3-4 defense with 4-3 type spacing made some sense. Let's see if they stick with it a bit longer.
Q. Mike, what do you think the primary driver behind the apparent switch to a 4-3 is? Do you think it has to do with losing the offseason to the lockout, thus taking away time to teach the 3-4 to newly acquired players? It seems like learning a 3-4 defense, especially the Patriots scheme, takes more time than learning a 4-3. Most players are already familiar with some form of the 4-3 from college or prior NFL teams, and could come in and contribute immediately with less of a ramp up time. If this is the case, do you see the switch as a long term move, or will the Patriots migrate back to a 3-4 base in 2012 when the staff has a full offseason with the players? -- Bob (Holden, Mass.)
A. Bob, I think the primary driver was personnel-based. There is a projection that this alteration fits the talent better, and we'll see if it sticks long-term (there is still some experimenting going on). I don't think learning curve based on the lockout had much, if anything, to do with it. If anything, working more out of the two-gap style 3-4 would have been easier if that was the case. If I had to project, I think they will stick with this more aggressive approach this season and beyond.
Q. Can you share your thoughts on the cut of Ty Warren relative to the recent DL signings, specifically Ellis? I see Ty Warren as a better player than any of the recent additions (and I think he was only making $3 million; less than Ellis will be paid). Is the decision to go with Ellis et al over Warren a durability issue or something else? Was Warren wearing out his welcome? -- Adam (Arlington, Mass.)
A. Adam, I think the sides started going in different directions in the offseason after 2009. Reading the tea leaves, I think the Patriots weren't sold on Warren's commitment. In turn, I think Warren was hurt by Belichick's public remarks after he was placed on season-ending injured reserve last August. The time was right for both to move on.
Q. Mike, do you interpret the plethora of recent defensive line signings as a bit of a referendum on Jermaine Cunningham's ability to hold down the defensive end position? With the Pats' multiple look defensive approach, is there a chance they use him as an OLB in sub situations? -- Zack (Somerville, Mass.)
A. Zack, I wouldn't write Cunningham off just yet, but I do think he's had a slow start in camp. Specifically in one-on-ones in camp, I haven't seen much pass-rush diversity, but I think it's too early to dismiss his potential impact. Overall, I think Cunningham is an on-the-line player in this system, and when I think of an outside linebacker in sub packages, a player like Gary Guyton fits better in my view.
Q. Hey Mike, it seems like the Patriots are going to have some tough decisions in terms of who to keep and release. It seems like the Patriots have one too many of the same type of receivers. What are the chances one from the group of Brandon Tate, Taylor Price and Julian Edelman gets released? -- Ryan (Boston)
A. Ryan, if I made a 53-man projection right now, I'd keep all of them. One of the main considerations is that Wes Welker and Deion Branch are in the last years of their contracts and I'd be thinking ahead to 2012 as part of the decision-making. I also see Tate (kickoffs) and Edelman (punts) in lead roles as returners, putting them in the mix on the 46-man game-day roster. To this point, I think Price has shown promise in camp, making it too early to give up on him.
Q. Mike, in your chat last week you mentioned the Pats might not currently have confidence in Taylor Price's growth as a reason for Ochicinco's signing. However, with no offseason program, could it have been more of a safety measure on the Pats since there had been no real way to measure that grown? Honestly, with Price's ability to provide work on the special teams unit, could the potential person on the outside looking in be a late cut to Branch? Does Ochocinco make him expendable? -- Chris (Orlando, Fla.)
A. Chris, I've considered the scenario with Branch, but at this time I'd put him on my 53-man projection. I think his knowledge of the system and comfort level with Tom Brady puts him on the roster at this time. But let's see how the competition unfolds. At this time, it looks like Ochocinco and Wes Welker in the two-receiver sets.
Q. More of a comment than a question. I'm a big fan of BB and have been drinking the Kool Aid for years, but I'm really perplexed as to his thinking lately. Presumably, this past draft was teeming with players that allegedly fit our DL/LB "model" for OLB. Yet he passes on all of 'em. On the surface, he is content enough w/our young defense so much so that he doesn't draft for "rushing" need in the top 4 rounds. Then in camp he cuts a healthy Ty Warren, Tully Banta-Cain and signs Anderson, Haynesworth. Thoughts? -- Tom (Boston)
A. Tom, two thoughts come to mind. First, Belichick often makes the point that there are different parts of the team-building process: draft, free agency and trades. So while he didn't hit it in the draft, he addressed it through the other avenues. The issue with that, though, is that the only way to get younger is through the draft. I thought there were some good opportunities early in the second round, but the pick was cornerback Ras-I Dowling. Let's see how it turns out.
Q. Mike, we've heard a lot about the defensive line of the Patriots these last two weeks, and with good reason. However, I'm more interested in the secondary. Do you think Devin McCourty will improve on his stellar rookie season? Not only did he start all 16 games, but he recorded 7 INTs, 2 forced fumbles and a sack. Is it reasonable to think he'll reach double-digit INTs this season? Or has the word gone out that you don't throw to Devin McCourty? -- Sean (Richmond, Va.)
A. Sean, I think McCourty has been steady in this training camp. I do recall one play in red zone work where there was a breakdown with him, and it was quickly coached up by Belichick, but that has been the exception more than the rule. I might not go as far as to predict double-digit interceptions, but I do think with McCourty and a solid Leigh Bodden, the Patriots have as good a one-two punch at cornerback as I can think of in the Belichick era, right there with 2003 when Ty Law and Tyrone Poole played extremely well.
Q. Hey Mike, I wanted to follow up your Dashon Goldson follow-up. With the Patriots thin at the safety position wouldn't it behoove BB to try second-round draft choice Ras-I Dowling at safety? I believe it would ease his transition into the Pats' complex defensive backfield and give him a chance to let him acclimate to the speed of the NFL game. As a rookie I believe the safety position would better educate him upon the necessary "reads" and adjustments he would have to make during his transition to the NFL. -- Roberto (Medford, Mass.)
A. Roberto, Dowling played safety in high school and has the physical makeup to play there should the Patriots decide it's the best course of action. It would almost be like Eugene Wilson all over again, a corner drafted high in the second round making the switch. Right now, though, Dowling simply needs to get back on the field. He's been sidelined after signing late and participating in just one practice.
Q. Hi Mike, I find it curious that I have not seen anything written about Wes Welker. After his recovery last year from the knee, I expected there to be some conversation on how he looks the "year after" his surgery. Can you fill me in? -- Leslie (Lincolnville, Maine)
A. Leslie, my first thought is "same old Wes." There is one drill in training camp where four orange cones are placed on the field to create a rectangle for a tackling drill, and offensive players line up on one side, defensive players on the other. When it's Welker's turn, he is basically un-tackle-able, his quickness and sharp cuts a handful for any defender. Welker did lead the NFL in drops last season, and there have been a few drops in camp, but overall he looks solid.
Q. A quick question about the offensive line. Dan Koppen has been great but he's had some problems with the larger nose tackles and he's not getting any younger (or stronger). Who's his backup? And is his long term replacement already in camp or is that a need to be addressed after this season? -- Greg (Boca Raton, Fla.)
A. Greg, in the event Koppen sustained an injury, the Patriots would turn to Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell, Rich Ohrnberger or Chris Morris. That remains a question mark. If the Patriots had been in position to select a top center in recent drafts, I think they would have done so.
Q. Hey Mike, what are the chances we see a goal line touchdown from Nate Solder coming out of a mutiple tackle, tight end, 1 back set? He did use to be a tight end, I believe. -- Jason Brown (Nova Scotia)
A. Jason, that wouldn't surprise me, as Solder's hands were on display Saturday when he caught a punt from Zoltan Mesko at the end of practice. I could see Solder as the top backup at tackle on the 46-man game-day roster, as he's got some good work in the past four days as the top-unit left tackle while Matt Light remains on the active/PUP list.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.