What's going on at safety?
This week's Patriots mailbag focuses heavily on the composition of the team's 53-man roster and some of the surprising decisions made by coach Bill Belichick.
There is a lot of ground to cover as the Patriots' preparations for the Sept. 12 season opener in Miami are under way, so let's get right to them.
Q: Hi Mike, how are we to understand Bill Belichick's mindset at safety? Surely he knew some time ago that Brandon Meriweather, understandably, was going to be cut/traded and inexplicably James Sanders as well. In that light, Sergio Brown should have had more practice/play time and Ras-I Dowling some at safety in the preseason if they are the backup plan. If so and given the weak market, it makes the Sanders release all that more troubling. In fact it feels unsafe at safety now. Your thoughts? -- Jake Malone (Vancouver, British Columbia)
A: Jake, I was surprised at Meriweather's release, but I think I now understand Belichick's thinking. Reading between the lines, he saw a player who wasn't improving, freelanced and didn't necessarily fall in line with the way he wanted things done. Although we all saw a 2007 first-round pick, Belichick wasn't judging things based on draft status but instead on what he was seeing in this preseason. Combine that with Belichick's view on the other safeties -- I think he wants hardworking Patrick Chung to lead the position; I believe he really likes Sergio Brown; and I think he feels Josh Barrett and James Ihedigbo also have a chance to help -- and one starts to see the reasoning behind the move. As for Sanders, to me, that move was purely economics (he was due a $2.8 million base salary). I believe Belichick felt he has similar level of players at a fraction of the cost, and Brown in particular played a lot in the preseason. We'll see how it all turns out.
Q: Mike, with our recent and pretty obvious hole at the safety position, what do you think the odds are of Belichick bringing in Darren Sharper? And if he did come in and play for us, would he start opposite Chung or play a role as the third safety like Sanders did last year? -- John (Knoxville, Tenn.)
A: John, I could see them signing Sharper at some point this season, but for now I think the plan is to go with what they have. I believe Sergio Brown is a player on the rise in their view. He's the key here from this perspective. Barrett and Ihedigbo offer special-teams value, something Sharper does not at this point.
Q: Hey Mike, the release of Brandon Meriweather does not come as a surprise. What does come as a surprise is the fact that it was simply just a release. Why didn't the Patriots try to get anything for him? Could they have gotten a third for him? I did read up on the Bears signing of him, and they mentioned that Meriweather might not have had too many options which would support the fact the Patriots just released him. Any input? -- Peter Toohey (Virginia Beach, Va.)
A: Peter, if the Patriots could have received a third-rounder for Meriweather, I think they would have pounced. There simply wasn't that level of interest from what I understand. Although it's possible they could have received a late-round pick, I think sometimes Belichick likes the idea of cutting a high-profile player like that to send a message to the other players in the locker room. That's what I think happened in this case.
Q: Hi Mike, why didn't the Patriots place LB Jeff Tarpinian on injured reserve before cuts? Wouldn't that have been one more spot to keep a guy like TE Will Yeatman? Is Tarpinian really going to crack the rotation this year? -- Elias Shamos (Los Angeles)
A: Elias, this seemed like a natural move to make, although I think we can now come to the conclusion that the Patriots think Tarpinian can help them this year. Early in camp, he was doing some good things in 9-on-7 work, and he projects as a good special-teams player; he runs well. Similar to Meriweather -- and how many of us were viewing him as a 2007 first-round pick and Belichick saw something different based on performance -- I think Tarpinian falls in the other category. Many of us are viewing him as an undrafted free agent, but Belichick wasn't looking at him based on that status but instead at what was a pretty good body of work from the time he was on the field.
Q: I love seeing Jeff Tarpinian, a former U of Iowa guy, stick with the Pats although I haven't heard much about him. However, I don't understand cutting [Steve] Maneri and not him given the depth issue it seemingly creates on the O-line. Is he that valuable? What am I missing? -- Grant (Ames, Iowa)
A: Grant, I think Tarpinian helps you in two areas -- first on special teams, then possibly on defense. Maneri was a fourth tackle, and my view is that the team would have liked to have kept working with him, but a fourth tackle is a fourth tackle, especially when you have Matt Light (two-year deal), Nate Solder (first-round pick) and Sebastian Vollmer (2010 second-team All-Pro) atop the depth chart. Those are some of the tough decisions deep teams such as the Patriots have to make.
Q: Mike, do you think the Patriots will re-sign Alge Crumpler? I don't think he was physically ready for training camp so the Patriots cut him and brought in several other TEs to compete. Now that rookies Lee Smith and Will Yeatman were picked up by other teams, will the Patriots re-evaluate Crumpler's condition? If he is healthy and can block like he did last year, the Patriots will re-sign him. -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A: David, I could see this happening at some point after the first week of the season, which would be past the deadline when vested veterans' salaries are fully guaranteed. I think Crumpler would fill the role of the third, blocking-type tight end and the team would be fine. The only negative from the Patriots' perspective is that you're paying more and miss the chance to work with a younger player who has more upside at this stage of his career. But that's the way the business goes, and it's almost a case where the Patriots are victims of their own success because the roster is so deep and they can't keep everyone.
Q: Hi Mike, could there be some Pats/Jets style gamesmanship in the Will Yeatman claiming by the Dolphins? Looking at their 2010 they were pretty much a one-TE-on-game-day team (they used a FB in two-TE sets). Fasano is still there and there is already another TE on the roster. So they have either undergone a shift in thinking on roster-building, or Yeatman is in for his institutional Pats knowledge (as he was widely expected to return on the practice squad). Your thoughts? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A: Dean, I asked Bill Belichick about this Monday, and this was his response: "We hadn't begun our game plans for Miami yet. Whatever information anybody gets on that, I think is very marginal. In all honesty, sometimes it can be more harm than good. 'They do this, they do that, watch out for this, watch out for that,' and then they don't do it and it's just a waste of time."
Q: While we love to be armchair GMs and say things like, "Wow, how can the Pats cut both Sanders and Meriweather?" or "How can the Pats only carry two tight ends?", don't we need to assume that Bill Belichick has a plan in place, such as signing veterans after Week 1, like Darren Sharper and Alge Crumpler? Am I too naive to think that if we in Patriot nation are thinking, "What are they thinking?", that they have already thought about it? -- Dean (Revere, Mass.)
A: Dean, you're not naive in my view. Bottom line, from a pure football perspective, there isn't another person in the NFL I'd rather have running a football operation than Belichick. We can debate his moves, and that's part of the fun, but I think it's safe to assume he knows what he's doing. He's not always right, but I think he has earned the trust of the team's fan base.
Q: Hi Mike, do you think the decision to keep only two tight ends on the roster has anything to do with Nate Solder's background as a tight end. Could they be thinking that when they go for that "3-tight look" they can simply slide in an extra tackle? It's not as if Crumpler was a threat in the passing game and who knows, maybe every once in a while Solder can do his best Vrabel impersonation. Either way, it could lead to some interesting matchup problems in the run game. -- Marcus (Ellington, Conn.)
A: Marcus, although I think we could see Solder come on as a third tight end at times, I don't think that factor had much of anything to do with going with just two tight ends. The key factor to look at in my view is that if Rob Gronkowski suffers an injury, who plays there? It wouldn't be Solder. This is a risk I'm surprised Belichick is taking, given the heavy emphasis on two-TE packages in the offense, but I'm sure he has a plan. I would have kept Yeatman.
Q: Mike, can you give us more info on Brian Waters? More specifically, how much does he have left and why did the Chiefs release him? He's clearly had a great career, but everything I read talks about his five Pro Bowls, but nothing really talks about how good he was last year, and how he's projected to play this year. Will he be the weak spot on the line? How will he compare to [Stephen] Neal last year? -- Rick (Pelham, N.H.)
A: Rick, I spoke with one personnel evaluator who did work on Waters, and he was absolutely gushing about him. He thinks he is going to be a great addition to the Patriots and still has something left. I spoke with Kansas City Star NFL reporter Randy Covitz this weekend, and he shared insight on what contributed to Waters' tenure with the Chiefs ending. Once Waters gets into game condition, I don't envision his being a weak link. I think he's going to help the team.
Q: Hi Mike, the situation at long snapper is somewhat alarming. What are your thoughts on that? -- Neil (South Boston, Mass.)
A: Neil, I think it's a concern. You're lining up for a game-winning field goal, and that's the player with his hands on the ball in a pressure moment, and it's a rookie free agent in that position. He holds the fate of the team in his hands at that point. Veteran James Dearth looked a little heavy when he was brought in last week, and my sense is that the club was looking for someone who could move a bit better, which led them to Danny Aiken. Maybe Aiken will become the next Lonie Paxton, but right now, it's an unknown. It's always easier to look back now, but it makes you wonder whether the club wished it had extended itself more for Paxton before he departed as a free agent in 2009. The Broncos gave Paxton a huge deal to lure him away, and you have to draw the line at some point, but the Patriots still haven't found his replacement three seasons later. A strong argument could have been made to keep Paxton at those big numbers based on some of the other moves the Patriots made that year (e.g., Chris Baker, Joey Galloway).
Q: Do you draw a relationship between the age of the Patriots and lack of results from our last few drafts? You cannot defend our draft record any longer. -- Rick (Lethbridge, Alberta)
A: Rick, thanks to colleague Mike Sando of ESPN.com, I punched up the age numbers for the Patriots roster, and it was ninth oldest in the NFL when including specialists, and fourth oldest in the NFL when not including specialists. I look deeper and see areas of the roster that have good youth (e.g., linebacker, safety, tight end) and others that are longer in the tooth (e.g., defensive line), then look ahead to 2012 and know the Patriots have multiple picks in the first and second rounds and think they are OK. As for their draft record, I could build a defense for it. First, when you look at the drafting around the NFL, one realizes that every team goes through a rough patch at one point or another. Although it's been notable to point out that just three of the players selected between 2006 and 2008 are on the team -- which isn't good enough -- I also think it's important to point out that some of the players selected those years were productive in their time in New England. The Patriots also received picks back for some of them, and I could make the point that the Patriots might still have some of those players if they hadn't had so many picks in 2009 and 2010. That balances the analysis off a bit for that stretch. Overall, I still feel as if the Patriots' drafting in Belichick's tenure ranks in the top third of the NFL when compared against the rest of the league.
Q: Hey Mike, with the recent cuts by the Patriots, I think we're getting a new perspective on the Pats '09 draft class. Initially seen as a pretty good draft class, this class has dwindled heavily in the last year. Seems like Patrick Chung and Sebastian Vollmer are definitely here to stay, and Julian Edelman is a solid contributor, but with cuts to many (Tate, McKenzie, Ingram, etc.) and others hanging by a thread (Butler, Brace) it seems like this is another example of reading into a draft class success too soon. What are your thoughts on the '09 draft class two years later? -- Arjuna (Durham, N.H.)
A: Fair analysis, Arjuna. I'd add rookie free agent Brian Hoyer (quarterback) and sixth-round pick Myron Pryor (defensive line) into the analysis from 2009, which tilts the view slightly more favorably. Tate was a bit of a mystery. He looked as if he was ascending, then flat-lined and really headed downhill from there. He was a different player from the second half of 2010 on.
Q: With the Patriots in real need of some sort of deep threat, do you think they would ever pick up the phone and call Randy Moss and at least consider bringing him back? Not to be the No. 1 receiver, but to be a deep threat so defenses just can't pack it in? -- Andrew Gordon (Boston)
A: Andrew, I don't see it right now, but one never knows how injuries will affect the team. If the Patriots get in a bind, I wouldn't be shocked if it happened.
Q: Hi Mike, do you feel it will take a few (3) or more regular season games for the team to shake out the the rust and we will be really able to see if there are any title hopes? -- Stephen Kelley (Nashua, N.H.)
A: Stephen, it sounds as though that's Belichick's view. Asked after the preseason finale whether he felt the team was ready for the regular season, Belichick said, "I don't think you can ever tell. It takes about three or four regular-season games before you really know what you've got. Without any game planning in preseason, it's hard to tell." I think it might even be a bit longer than that.
Q: Mike, was curious about your opinion of the effect Floyd Reese has had on the Patriots' drafting success over the last few years. When he came to the team in 2009, our drafting had been dismal. Since he came, the last two drafts have been very solid. What do you think Reese brings to the table that Belichick might have been missing in the years prior to his start in 2009? -- Matt (Clinton, Mass.)
A: Matt, I think Floyd Reese has been an asset to the organization as a point person on contract talks. Agents relay that he has great people skills and a very nice way about him. I think that is his primary role with the Patriots, as he is not intimately involved in personnel in his role as senior football adviser. The buck stops with Belichick in my view. From 2000 to 2011, it is my belief that he's been the person who makes the final call. That is not to discount the work of Scott Pioli and Nick Caserio, who have been excellent in their roles, but I do think it's Belichick making the calls -- and always has been.
Q: The fact that Reggie Bush is playing for the Dolphins this year is going to impact the opposing defenses, starting with the Patriots on "Monday Night Football." Do you think the Patriots can cover him in space? -- Memo Alfaro (Tijuana, Mexico)
A: Memo, I view this as one of the toughest matchups of the season opener, and one I expect Dolphins offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to try to exploit. This is how Belichick described Bush in 2009: "Similar to [Marshall] Faulk, a guy who could come out of the backfield and split out and be a receiver, but line up in the backfield and be a running back. Players like that are just rare, very hard to match up with, that give an offense a dimension that you just don't see during the course of the year." I expect the Patriots to be ready, with a few plans on how to handle Bush. I could envision linebacker Dane Fletcher being a part of it, as he had some of those type of duties last year.
Q: I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this way, but I have to speak up. As excited as I am to have a player the caliber of Brian Waters (probably will be the best right guard for us in recent history), nobody should be wearing No. 54. I know Tedy, himself, doesn't agree with me, but he is Mr. Patriot. When we first drafted him, I commented to my then-roommate, "He's a dead ringer for the 'Flying Elvis' emblem!" He then came to embody all that IS what Pats fans want from our players. As an owner of a signed Bruschi jersey and the owner of a dog named Tedy (yes, spelled that way), clearly I am a little biased. But I believe we should have retired No. 54 by now, honoring Mr. Patriot. After all, you think we'll ever see the stoic Belichick get choked up again at a retirement? That says it all. -- Jeremy Weiss (Baltimore)
A: Thanks for sharing the thoughts, Jeremy. I'm sure Tedy will appreciate them.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
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