- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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New England Patriots looked impressive in their preseason-opening win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Optimism among emailers to the Patriots mailbag is high.
The main themes this week are roster-based, with the spotlight shining on different areas and how the final 53-man roster might be constructed.
The hot topics:
1. How the receiver position will shake out.
2. Moving parts at safety.
3. Value of backup quarterbacks.
4. Cornerback Darius Butler's future with the team.
Let's get right to the questions ...
Q: Out of Welker, Ochocinco, Branch, Edelman, Price and Tate, whose roster spot is most in jeopardy? This seems like a very pressing discussion when considering the amount of bodies there are at WR plus Slater's special teams impact, it seems there is no way they will carry seven wide outs. My guess would be that it is either Branch or Tate. Thoughts? -- Ramin (San Marcos, Texas)
A: Ramin, I could envision the team carrying seven receivers when accounting for Slater, who is really more Larry Izzo-like from a special-teams perspective. But if I had to pick one receiver whose spot could be in most jeopardy among that group, it would be Tate. With his impact as a kickoff returner somewhat negated by the kickoff being moved up 5 yards, he would be the first one to come to mind. But overall, I'm sticking with the seven and then trimming from another area. A big part of the consideration is that Welker and Branch are in the final year of their contracts, and projecting for the future is important, too.
Q: Hi Mike, I mailed in last week about what happens if Price has a strong showing, and if Branch could be a surprise cut. I did not make the mailbag as it probably did not make much sense at the time. With Price's performance, could Branch be a suprise cut? -- Sans Milbury (Danvers, Mass.)
A: Sans, Branch doesn't carry huge financial numbers ($2.2 million base salary), and given his comfort level with Tom Brady and the offense, I have him on my latest 53-man roster projection. I see the Patriots' three-receiver set having Ochocinco, Branch and Wes Welker. On Taylor Price, that was an impressive performance Thursday, but even he acknowledges that the key is continuing to build trust with the team's quarterbacks by being in the right place all the time. That is still developing.
Q: Mike, what's going on with Julian Edelman? Is he on track for picking up where he left off in the Jets' playoff game? Is he looking as impressive in practice as you expected? I think he deserves a real chance to excel in the offense this year. He excelled in that last playoff game when everyone else was just going through the motions. What's yor take on him up to this point? -- Kerry (Palm Beach, Fla.)
A: Kerry, I think Edelman has earned the trust of quarterback Tom Brady, which has put him in position to possibly contribute more on offense this year. I thought it was interesting that when Brady talked about the receivers recently, he mentioned Edelman right after Ochocinco, Welker and Branch, and I don't think that was a coincidence. Edelman played just eight offensive snaps in the preseason opener, had two unsuccessful kickoff returns, and has since been held out of practice. So I'm not expecting to see him Thursday in Tampa Bay. I see Edelman as a more confident player on the practice field in this year. On the flip side, one scout from another team shared his report that said injuries were a concern of his when it came to Edelman's long-term viability. So that's something to keep in mind as we move forward.
Q: They haven't signed Darren Sharper or T.J. Houshmandzadeh yet but this appears to me the most open minded and aggressive Belichick has been in years. If the do get one or both of them, this could be one of the most competitive camps that Bill has ever had. Is he just doing his due diligence or is there a different mind set here because of the short free agent period as fallout from the lockout? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A: David, I think it is more due diligence than anything. Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio noted Monday that the team's free-agent visits, in number, are the same as at this point last year. So the approach is no different than what we saw in 2010.
Q: Mike, with the Patriots bringing in Darren Sharper for a workout I think they could be looking to replace two players. First, James Sanders with his high cap number could be gone, only to be replaced by the veteran Sharper, and the Pats could be adding in Sharper the type of veteran leadership the club lost with Alge Crumpler not returning. Your thoughts? -- Jerry (New York)
A: Jerry, I look at it a little differently. To me, Sanders is exactly what they need at safety right now, a steadying presence who might not be a Pro Bowl-caliber player, but you know what you're going to get him from on a daily basis. I've often felt Belichick would prefer the player who might be a consistent 7 on a scale of 1-10 over the player who might flash a 9 one day, but then a 5 the next. I think that is the dynamic in play at safety right now, with Sanders in the straight 7 category and Brandon Meriweather the more volatile 5 and 9 guy. As for Sharper in a Crumpler-type role, that could be the case, although I think Sanders also fits that bill. In retrospect, the Patriots probably wish they re-signed Jarrad Page, who was with them last year and is now in Philadelphia.
Q: Mike, do you have any insight as to why Brandon McGowan was released? I know he missed last year due to injury but was he just rusty or was he out of shape or injured? The team is very thin at safety and they keep bringing in guys for work-outs. You would think that McGowan would be the ideal candidate to provide depth at the position given his prior success and familiarity with the system. -- Gregg (Scottsdale, Ariz.)
A: Gregg, just from my view at practice, McGowan looked a step behind. To be fair, he had only a few days of practice before the decision was made, but I noticed a difference between him and backup safeties Bret Lockett and Sergio Brown in terms of how well they were running.
Q: Mike, can you please help us understand this animosity towards Brandon Meriweather. In his four years in the league he has proven himself to be an exceptional reliable player. His stats are good, too. The only reason his sack-total is not on the way to 20 like his INT-total is because Bill Belichick has always played him conservatively. Rodney Harrison made the 30/30 club but he was often injured and probably made many of those sacks by improvising. BB has made it clear he doesn't want Meriweather going off script. So please give us your thoughts on this. -- Ray (Dorchester, Mass.)
A: Ray, Meriweather's production shouldn't be overlooked from his first four seasons, although I think he could be more consistent. Some of the criticism is probably based on expectations from his draft status, as a lot is expected of first-round draft choices. At this point, a team would hope a 2007 first-rounder would be evolving into a team leader and playmaking force. I think Meriweather has flashed that at times, but not to the level of the player drafted behind him, linebacker Jon Beason.
Q: Mike, have you heard anything about Mike Wright this year? He ended up on IR last year due to a concussion, and I haven't heard boo about him this year. I suspect he's not doing too well, based on the dearth of information. -- Tim (Tewksbury, Mass.)
A: Tim, Wright has been out of practice for weeks because of an undisclosed injury. Before he was sidelined, he told reporters he felt all his concussion-based issues were in the past, but now it makes you wonder if they've cropped up again. I'm glad you brought Wright up, because his absence shouldn't be overlooked; he was the team's best interior rusher last season (5.5 sacks). Here's hoping he can find himself in a better place in the days and weeks ahead.
Q: How many practices do I have to sit out before you start to get worried? -- Albert in Foxborough
A: Albert, I don't see your situation as a huge deal, similar to Randy Moss in 2007. Moss had shown enough on the practice field early in camp that year, so when he was sidelined for weeks after tweaking his hamstring, the only question was whether he would be ready for the season opener. I think you will be ready for Sept. 12 in Miami. I'm looking forward to seeing what type of impact you will make.
Q: Mike, can you provide your instincts on our key players out due to PUP and NFIs? Which ones do you think are out for precautionary reasons and which ones have injuries that you think could bleed into the regular season? I'm interested specifically in Shane Vereen, Brandon Tate, Albert Haynesworth, Brandon Spikes, Brandon Deaderick, Ron Brace, Shaun Ellis and Ras-I Dowling. -- Kyle (Cranston, R.I.)
A: Kyle, of the group, I think Tate is the closest to returning. We saw him working out pretty aggressively Monday with fellow injured players Julian Edelman and James Sanders. My expectation is that Deaderick and Brace open the year on the PUP list. My sense is that Vereen and Dowling, who are missing valuable time as rookies, are another week-plus away. I'd expect Haynesworth, Spikes and Ellis to be ready by the season opener.
Q: Mike, obviously Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett looked great last game. We look to have one of the best QB groups in the NFL. When do you see the Pats moving Hoyer or Mallet and what do you think we could get? Do you think Hoyer could get us a second-round draft pick by next April? -- Charlie (Denver, Colo.)
A: Charlie, I don't think either Hoyer or Mallett would yield a second-round pick at this point and that's why I think both stay on the roster in 2011. They have greater value to the team than what the trade return would be at this point. If they keep performing the way they did in the preseason opener, I think a second-round pick is a realistic scenario by next April. As we've seen multiple times in recent years, a capable quarterback is a valuable commodity.
Q: Hi Mike, why do you think people aren't more sold on Brian Hoyer? From the start he has shown good decision making, which it seems BB values highly, as well as solid skills with his throws. I might be a little biased with the Michigan State connection, but I think he'd do at least as well as Matt Cassell did, if put in that situation. People seem to be all about Mallett being the obvious next in line guy, but why not feel pretty good about Hoyer in that role? -- Karen (East Lansing, Mich.)
A: Karen, I think more folks are catching on to Hoyer now after his performance in the preseason opener. It takes a lot to successfully run this offense, and now in his third year, he looks efficient and confident in doing so. As for Mallett, he is obviously a bit more highly touted coming out of college and I think his physical gifts -- the height and strong arm -- naturally draw a little more attention. But I still view Hoyer as the No. 2 at this time.
Q: Given Darius Butler's size and speed, could he play safety? He's a little light but should be able to put 10 pounds on that frame. It seems like he might be a guy who needs to be able to play more than one position to make the roster. -- Paul (Lexington, Mass.)
A: Paul, I think Butler is really struggling at cornerback right now in practice, and I understand where you are coming from in terms of picking another position to see if it might help increase his value to the club. Tackling is especially important at safety and that isn't really Butler's forte. I don't see the fit for him there.
Q: Mike, Darius Butler looks like a goner to me. What are the chances the Pats attempt trades to dump players they otherwise will probably cut? -- Steve Foster (Friendswood, Texas)
A: Steve, I could see that with Butler. The one thing that might save him is that the club is a bit thin at cornerback now with second-round pick Ras-I Dowling still sidelined. But if the team knows Butler is not in the plans, I could see exploring a trade for some type of future consideration. Maybe a change of scenery would help Butler.
Q: Mike, is it unfair and too much to get excited that we have a pass rush ... ladies and gentlemen, we have a PASS RUSH! Seeing Mark Anderson, Eric Moore, Jermaine Cunningham, etc. consistently get into the backfield and get pressure on (and a few sacks -- what are they again?) gives me so much more confidence, even after only one preseason game. Too early? Yes/no? -- Mark (Dublin, Ireland)
A: Mark, it's always dangerous to look too much into one preseason game, but that stood out to me as well. It has looked that way in practice too. I think you'll like what you see from Andre Carter on Thursday in Tampa. He's looked good in practice.
Q: Mike, Dane Fletcher was obviously one of the big stories of the Jags game. While he is second string at MLB, is there any chance he supplants Ninkovich at the strongside? I don't know the intricacies of the position, but to my eyes, Fletcher probably only gives up an inch and five pounds to Ninkovich while seemingly being more instinctive and a more explosive athlete. A starting LB trio of Mayo, Spikes, and Fletcher would be pretty exciting. -- Juan (San Francisco)
A: Juan, I could see that scenario in time because I believe Fletcher has that type of versatility in him. I think it's a bit early to go there and view Rob Ninkovich as a better fit right now to play that spot, based on his experience and the different roles he's assumed in the system the last two years.
Q: Mike, which of the Patriots running backs do you think will make the roster and do you see anyone besides Green-Ellis and Woodhead getting playing time this season? -- Hannah (Lexington, Mass.)
A: Hannah, I see the Patriots keeping four backs -- one fewer than the norm -- and going with Green-Ellis, Woodhead and rookies Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. In this scenario, veteran Kevin Faulk opens the year on the physically unable to perform list.
Q: Mike, in your last roster prediction it seemed like you did not have the Patriots carrying many offensive lineman. This seems risky considering past injury history of the pats offensive line. If a lineman goes down will it be easy to bring in some more depth at the position? -- Harry (Bloomington, Ind.)
A: Harry, I went with nine offensive lineman, which I think would be OK. We'll layer it up with a blocker or two on the practice squad.
Q: Of all the veterans that the Pats have cut recently, do you see any being re-signed at a potentially reduced price? Even though the OL looked decent against the Jags, I'm thinking the return of Nick Kaczur would help ensure the kind of "quality depth" that BB is always looking for. -- Todd (LA via Portland, Maine)
A: Todd, it has been telling to me that Kaczur hasn't been picked up yet, which I wonder could be tied to his health (back surgery in 2010). The Patriots could use a boost, so it makes some sense, but if he's not healthy it won't make a difference. I think the team's biggest depth issue is on the inside and Kaczur, to me, is a tackle more than a guard.
Q: Hi Mike, do you get the sense that the Patriots are using the PUP list this year as extra insurance against injury at some "high impact" positions? Many observers believe that injuries will be up this year due to the impact of the lockout on offseason conditioning. With RB Kevin Faulk, and DL Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick, and Shaun Ellis all on PUP, I wonder if the Patriots are looking to keep some extra bodies around that won't count against the 53-man roster for the first six weeks of the season. Given that RB and DL are positions that see a fair amount of injuries, it seems like a smart strategy. Am I reading too much into it? -- Dan (Manchester, N.H.)
A: Dan, I think you're right on it. I think it would be smart for the Patriots to leave a few players on PUP, which they've done in the past. It's almost like creating another layer of depth, and since those players wouldn't count against the 53-man active roster, it's almost like a bonus when you get to Week 7 and have somebody in-house who might be ready to go in the event of injuries. I could envision defensive linemen Ron Brace and Brandon Deaderick, offensive lineman Marcus Cannon and running back Kevin Faulk starting on the physically unable to perform list or the non-football injury list.
Q: Mike were you as surprised as I was initially that the Bills only received a fourth-round pick for Lee Evans? I felt that they could have got a little more for him until I considered that we actually gave up less to get Ochocinco. Just another example of BB finding good bargains. -- Brady K (Beaver Falls, Penn.)
A: Brady, I was a little surprised at that, although maybe it's not so bad when considering the Patriots traded a fourth-rounder for Deion Branch last year. Every trade has different dynamics based on demand, and it looks to me like Buffalo could generate only one interested party.
Q: Mike -- you keep referring to the light crowds at practice. Couldn't much of that be attributed to the lockout? With no plans in place for practice, people who plan their vacation time around trying to get to see practice, out of towners, etc - the crowds are likely to be depleted. Also, those in town, maybe made other vacation plans that couldn't be changed, once the lockout was resolved and the practice schedule was finally released. Thoughts? -- Rich P (Memphis, Tenn.)
A: Rich, that is definitely a possibility. Another factor is that the schedule is fluid and it doesn't come out until a few days before practice, which also makes it hard to plan.
Q: Hey Mike! When's the podcast going to start up? Bruschi in this year? -- Gary O'Brien (Bozeman, Montana)
A: Gary, thanks for the interest. Expect to see something on ESPNBoston.com by the end of this month and then on a regular basis from there. Tedy is fired up, which is no surprise.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
How the roster will shape up at receiver is a hot topic in this week's mailbag.