Commentary

Mail: Mixed bag this week

Updated: May 15, 2012, 12:23 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

The draft is over and the Patriots have completed their rookie minicamp. Free agency has slowed down. Mandatory minicamp isn't for another month.

We've reached a point on the Patriots' calendar where there isn't one dominant topic on the minds of emailers. We have a little bit of everything this week.

Let's lead it off with a neat factoid about the club's loaded receiver position.

Q: Mike, the Pats currently have 5 players on their roster with more than 900 yards receiving this past year. I would think that's unprecedented. Can you confirm? -- Steve (Laguna Niguel, Calif.)

A: Steve, this speaks to the depth and quality of the Patriots' receiving corps. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there has never been an instance in NFL history where a team had four or more players play at least one game for a team in a season and each of those players had at least 900 receiving yards the previous season (either for that team or a different team). The Patriots have five as you mentioned. Wow.

Q: Hi Mike, do you believe that Brandon Lloyd understands that while he might be an important piece of the WR puzzle, that Brady gets the ball to the open guy, spreads the ball around and will not overly focus on getting him the ball given the talent/playmaking ability of the other WRs/TEs? -- Tman (Belmont, Mass.)

A: I haven't been around Lloyd over his career, so I don't know him well. But what I do know is that if he comes with Josh McDaniels' recommendation, and McDaniels has had a good working relationship with him, that's a good enough endorsement for me. I think McDaniels has a good feel for offensive personnel, personalities and how it all fits together.

Q: Hey Mike, I know the Pats have signed a slew of free agent WR's (Stallworth, Lloyd etc) and other than Lloyd none have demonstrated big play ability. I would have liked to see them try out Braylon Edwards as he would give them a big physical receiver across from Lloyd. If character issues are the reason they did not then what about the draftee [Alfonzo Dennard] that was arrested earlier last month? I also believe he would have been a low-cost, high-reward kind of investment especially if he competed against the other receivers that are not expected to the make the team. What's your take? -- Paul Bardauskas (Dartmouth, Nova Scotia)

A: Paul, I think they are as deep as can be at receiver, and when it comes to big-play ability, Stallworth also fits the bill. Receiver is one of the last spots I think they need help at right now. As for Edwards and the idea of "character," I think the Patriots pick their spots. Comparing them to the rest of the teams in the league, I'd put them in the middle in terms of taking those type of "character" risks -- not overly conservative, but also not afraid to roll some dice (e.g. Aaron Hernandez, Alfonzo Dennard). No team is filled with 53 choir boys; that's just not realistic. While every case is different, I do think it's generally easier to work with a younger player than an established veteran who might be more set in his ways.

Q: Last week you did a roster projection and did not have Brian Waters making the roster. What is his status going into camp? -- Harry (Newton, Mass.)

A: Harry, Waters is under contract at this time and is scheduled to earn $1.4 million. That is a reasonable salary for a starting guard, and Waters seemed to fit in nicely last season. But when Josh McDaniels was asked about Waters last week, and his return, he said he didn't have any information on that. That answer raised my antennae a bit. One factor to consider is that Waters isn't at voluntary workouts -- he didn't take part in them at Kansas City, either -- and he had mentioned the possibility of retirement after the Super Bowl. I don't have any concrete information on Waters' situation, but I just don't feel comfortable putting him in the "slam dunk, he's definitely back" category at this point.

Q: Mike, it's hard to argue with the success the Patriots have had under Bill Belichick -- three Super Bowl wins and five Super Bowl berths. Everything is magnified when you have that level of success. Having said that, has Belichick adopted to the sub-package personnel a few years too late? The [Patriots'] three Super Bowl championships were primarily built around top level defenses with efficient offenses. The last two Super Bowl teams [which both lost] have been built around top level offenses and average defenses. I can't help but think if Belichick adopted a bit earlier maybe we have two or more Super Bowl wins. We have been so consistent, winning more games than anyone, but we have no rings since 2004. -- Matt (Boston)

A: Matt, I'm going to play both sides here. First, it's the "defend Belichick" side and it's the idea that if David Tyree doesn't make a ridiculous, on-the-helmet catch, we might not be having this discussion. So to win a Super Bowl, there are breaks that are needed along the way. That game really could have gone either way. Same with Super Bowl XLVI. They were right there. So I think just looking at the bottom-line results isn't totally fair. But I do think it's taken Belichick a little longer than I anticipated to turn the defense around, and that is partly tied to the idea of being in the sub defense more than the base. In January of 2011, I remember writing that the 4-3 edge rushers who had been traditionally passed up by the team should be on the radar because of the high percentage of sub defense.

[+] EnlargeMatt Patricia
AP Photo/Evan PinkusThe Patriots named Matt Patricia their defensive coordinator last week.

Q: Mike. any insights into defensive coordinator Matt Patricia's philosophy on how defense should be played? And do you think his promotion will give him a bigger say in things like how aggressively they play or is it just recognition of good work with no real changes to the style of the defense? -- Joe (Waimea, Hawaii)

A: Joe, Patricia learned under Bill Belichick, so his philosophy is tied to that. I don't think we're all of a sudden going to see the Buddy Ryan "46" defense being played on a regular basis here. The defense will probably look similar to what we've seen in recent years -- focus on fundamentals and create a game plan to correctly identify and then eliminate what the offense relies on most. One figures the hope internally is that maybe with some better players running the defense, the results improve.

Q: Any comments from Pepper Johnson about Matt Patricia being named D-Coordinator? -- Blake (Washington, D.C.)

A: Blake, I have not spoken with Pepper Johnson and haven't seen anything elsewhere. I would imagine he was disappointed, as one of his goals was to become a coordinator. At the same time, it's not like he doesn't have a very important role on the defense -- not only coaching the linebackers but also managing the personnel that is coming in and out of the game. I'm not sure how the salaries match up, and that would be a key consideration.

Q: Hey Mike, how do you feel about our defensive line? I feel like it's woefully thin for a 3-4 front, and not much better in a 4-3. Also, where do you project Hightower/Spikes to play this season? I can see Chandler Jones at DE in the 4-3, Spikes at MLB, and Mayo/Hightower at OLB, but my impression was we were going back to a 3-4. Does Hightower really fit as a 3-4 OLB? -- Anthony (Portsmouth, N.H.)

A: Anthony, I think if we look at the defense as we have in the past -- through the lens of the 3-4 defense as a base -- they are thinner than desired. But as Bill Belichick noted at the draft, and as has been charted on ESPNBoston.com in recent years, the base defense is being played less and less. You almost have to build your defense these days with the sub in mind, and need versatile players who can fit in multiple spots. There are going to be games when they need to go big in the 3-4 -- against the Jets, as an example -- and I think they have the personnel to do it for a few games. But if they were planning on playing the 3-4 extensively this year, I think the personnel could be an issue. So in the end, I think we would probably be most accurate by looking at things less from a 3-4/4-3 perspective, and more from a sub defensive viewpoint. As for Dont'a Hightower, I think he fits in a lot of places and playing outside in certain schemes is one of them.

Q: Hello Mike, why don't the Patriots bring in at least one more veteran to compete at safety? This is still a sore point in the Pats defense and I am not sure it has been completely addressed. Many of those players on the roster are either unproven or unknown or special teams players. There is plenty of competition at the receiver position so why not have the same level of intensity at safety? -- Paul O (Kenosha, Wis.)

A: Paul, with the 90 roster spots, a team can only be so well stocked at so many positions, like the Patriots are at receiver. So I think that's part of it. If the roster limit was 100, I'd think Bill Belichick would gladly bring in another safety or two. But based on what they have, and some of the versatility of other defensive backs (e.g. Devin McCourty, Will Allen), I can see why they aren't pushing harder for an addition at the position. I think the big question is, "Would a Yeremiah Bell or Chris Crocker really be that much of an upgrade, if at all, over what is already on the roster?" I don't feel strongly they would be.

Q: Interesting comment on Ty Warren and his draft position in your Patriots blog, opining that Warren would be more of a second-round pick based on the way the game is played these days. Isn't Michael Brockers a marginally more talented Ty Warren type? -- Don Ibod (Boston)

A: Don, some believe that's what Michael Brockers is, while others see Richard Seymour-type potential. Part of what made Brockers a challenging projection is that he hadn't played much at LSU, so you're banking on potential. I think the Patriots liked him.

Q: I'm curious about how Tavon Wilson performed this weekend. I know you said that rookie minicamp is just a way to lay the foundation down but I think he is going to play a big role for this team in the upcoming season. I think BB saw a guy that would fit his system when he drafted him with the 48th pick, and like his in-game instincts. -- Harley Kiner (Medfield, Mass.)

A: Harley, the full practice wasn't open to reporters, so there isn't much to pass along about Wilson, or any of the other rookies. One thing I would say is that when you look at his body type, this is a sturdy guy back there, and it makes sense that he is a willing tackler with his physical makeup. When you look at the picture of him standing next to seventh-round pick Alfonzo Dennard, the cornerback from Nebraska, the difference is noticeable.

Q: Almost every year an undrafted free agent or two makes the team. Based on the rookie minicamp, who looks like they have the best shot? -- Mark (Astoria, N.Y.)

A: Mark, it's too early for me, as we didn't even see the full practices. But I plan to circle back at full-team minicamp and early training camp with a few thoughts.

Q: Hey Mike, like a lot of people, I'm excited about Nate Ebner and his "untapped" potential. But based on his limited exposure to football, it's hard to imagine him being able to play safety at the NFL level. It requires so much instant recognition and being the QB of the defensive backfield, which players who have played their whole lives have struggled with. But watching Ebner's rugby highlights, he looked to me like a potential fullback or H-back type, with his speed and physicality. The Patriots are obviously looking for a fullback. Could you see them trying Ebner in that sort of role? -- Dave (New York)

A: Dave, I wouldn't rule it out based on the position switches we've seen with this team in past years. But I think the key is what Ohio State assistant coach Mike Vrabel, the former Patriots linebacker, told Tom E. Curran of Comcast SportsNet. "He's got the ability to run at a high rate of speed and move and bend without slowing down. He can run through traffic without losing speed. Guys that cover kicks and maintain their speed in traffic are what you're looking for." To me, if Ebner is going to make it, it's going to be in a Matthew Slater-type special-teams type of role.

Q: Hey Mike. What are your thoughts on Rob Gronkowski's off-the-field activities? He's been pretty much ubiquitous during the offseason, and there is more to come as he is set to appear on the upcoming Fox television series "The Choice." Gronkowski has been a great player for the Patriots and seems a gregarious character, but I wonder if all this celebrity stuff he's doing could be a distraction to the team. -- Robert (Liverpool, England)

A: Robert, I don't think it will be a distraction to the team, as long as it's not happening during the season. As for Gronkowski, he puts in the time he needs to, although I would expect him to get some ribbing from coaches and teammates at some point. I admit, like you, I have wondered if he needs to be careful about stretching himself too thin. But at this point, I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Q: Mike, I've come up with a nickname (a la Boston TE Party) for the BIG THREE linebackers -- Mayo, Spikes and Hightower. MASH UNIT, which is derived from their surnames: Mayo-Spikes-Hightower. It signifies toughness, hard-hitting, power and pain. Three SEC linebackers who have the potential to be the best in the league. -- Mark Andrew (Warrington, Pa.)

A: Mark, let's see if it sticks. I sort of like the Smash Unit, but not sure that fits. Any reservations of leaving Rob Ninkovich out of the mix? He played well for the Patriots last season, logging 82 percent of the defensive snaps.

[+] EnlargeHightower
Greg McWilliams/Getty ImagesDont'a Hightower had four sacks last season at Alabama.

Q: Hey Mike, do you have any insight why Belichick drafted Dont'a Hightower instead of Courtney Upshaw, considering Hightower is more of an ILB with Mayo and Spikes already on the roster? No knock on Hightower, I think he'll be a great pro. However, Upshaw is a true OLB and my thinking is they need a legitimate starter opposite Rob Ninkovich, especially if the Pats want to run a 3-4 next year. Any thoughts? -- Gabe C. (San Diego, Calif.)

A: Gabe, I thought Hightower was a pure inside linebacker and that's why he wasn't on my radar entering the draft. I think they are pretty solid at that spot with Mayo and Spikes, but what I've come to learn is that Hightower's combination of versatility (good rusher), production and leadership was a complete package that made a lot of sense, and he is more of a sure thing than Upshaw. As for the 3-4, you still have Chandler Jones as a possibility there, opposite Ninkovich.

Q: Mike, one of the players on the roster bubble is Jermaine Cunningham. Is he present for the workouts? -- Jim Keddy

A: Yes, Jim, Cunningham has been present for workouts. Cunningham was one of the players that free-agent signee Jonathan Fanene singled out as reaching out to him during the first week of the offseason program.

Q: In looking at your contract breakdowns for Gerard Warren and Jabar Gaffney, each has a workout bonus clause. How does a player earn the workout bonus? 20 reps of 225 on the bench? -- Modest Rob (Portland, Ore.)

A: Rob, players earn workout bonuses through their participation in the offseason program, more so than performance.

Q: Hi Mike, I am so intrigued by the Patriots' potential re-focus on the run with the fullback position getting more attention, and Daniel Fells being another quality blocker on the line. I am hoping, and wondering, if Bill Belichick is seeing the shift to more fast-paced, open-field defenses and is going to get back to the ground and pound attack to stay one step ahead of the competition. Can you shed some light on Josh McDaniels and his use of the run versus Bill O'Brien? -- Patrick (Dublin)

A: Patrick, between the signings of Spencer Larsen and Tony Fiammetta, and the return of Eric Kettani from the military/reserve list, the fullback focus has been a notable part of the team's offseason. But I don't think we're all of a sudden going to see the Patriots become a ground-and-pound team. That's not who they are. My take is that perhaps the fullback can help them become a better situational running team. It was sort of like the Giants last year -- they didn't run well in the regular season, but when they needed it most in the playoffs, they ran it well enough. I think there is an attitude and mentality that comes with that, and maybe the fullback helps the Patriots in that regard. Not all of them will make the roster, but it will be interesting to watch what impact they have in the preseason.

Q: Mike, I was wondering why there didn't seem to be a contingent of Patriots that attended Junior Seau's funeral service. John Elway and Peyton Manning were there as was LaDainian Tomlinson and Dan Fouts, but I didn't see any mention of any Pats in the articles I read. Do you have any thoughts on this? -- Ed Nelson (Haverhill, Mass.)

A: Ed, there was a private wake for Seau and Bill Belichick was there, among those representing the Patriots. The presence of the franchise was definitely there, it just wasn't as public as some others.

Q: Mike, do you anticipate that there will be media access to training camp practices? It was disappointing that there was such limited access during the recent rookie minicamp. -- Ron (New York -- from West Roxbury)

A: Ron, there should be full access to training camp practices, for both media and fans. As a media member, I was disappointed in the shortened access to practice, but that is within the club's rights, per NFL policy. In the end, it comes down to a team decision and how much they want to open things up. I obviously advocate for the open policy, but I'm also aware that many just want the team to win and support whatever Bill Belichick decides if it means more victories.

Q: My 17-year-old nephew is going to be in Boston for the summer. He's a die-hard Pats fan and wants to know if we can go to a Pats training camp session. I can't find where and when the camp will be held. Can you help? Thanks. -- Barry (Bedford, Mass.)

A: Barry, training camp practices are held at Gillette Stadium. The start of training camp has not been announced, but plan for the final week of July. The best thing to do is check Patriots.com as we get closer, and they update the schedule regularly, including late changes because of weather.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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