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What can Gronk do for encore?

When the Patriots took the field for organized team activities Thursday, tight end Rob Gronkowski didn't take part in drills. Instead, he worked off to the side with other players recovering from injuries.

Gronkowski underwent offseason surgery on his left ankle, but he is expected to be ready for the start of training camp. Then, when it comes to the 2012 regular season, what possibly could he do for an encore?

That is where this week's mailbag begins, before moving on to other areas of the roster, such as running back, receiver and the 'Backerhood.

Here we go:

Q: Rob Gronkowski just had the greatest pass-catching season of all time for a tight end, and one might say the best part was that his blocking was better than his passing stats. But now that he is a known star (and certainly embraced that life), what can we expect of him? Can we expect anything along the lines of 90 receptions, 1,300 yards, 17 TDs? Or will his receptions/yards go down and TDs go up with the addition of Lloyd? -- Anthony (Portsmouth, N.H.)

A: Anthony, it's obviously going to be difficult for Gronkowski to match his production from 2011. You don't see those types of seasons come around too often. But at the same time, it's not like he snuck up on people last year, so it's reasonable to still expect a top level of performance as long as he's healthy. I see Gronkowski as the type of player whose stats might go down a bit in 2012 -- that's an awfully high bar he's set -- but who will still have a major impact based simply on his presence.

Q: Why haven't we seen a Gronkowski extension yet? I was shocked it wasn't attempted midseason the way he was dominating, maybe with the idea of locking him up before things exploded. Are the Pats taking a risk letting him play another year to then try to extend him? -- Cody

A: Cody, I think there is a risk either way one looks at a situation like that; sometimes striking those "early" extensions can backfire on teams. As for why we haven't seen an extension yet, in a lot of ways I think dealing with contracts is like an airport runway. All the planes can't take off at once and there is a balance to strike on the salary cap -- not everyone can have a top deal. Right now, Wes Welker is at the front of the line, and I think until there is some more certainty there, it's harder to focus on some of the others. Gronkowski has two years remaining on his contract, so there is still time. If it doesn't happen in the coming months, I also think there is something positive from a team perspective when it comes to on-field performance, with Gronkowski still chasing that contract. His time will come.

Q: Hi Mike, here is a thought about Joseph Addai. I hear a lot of talk about where he fits on this roster, but I think you hit it on the head in your Saturday chat leftovers. He is just an insurance option in the event of Stevan Ridley/Shane Vereen not playing to their talent levels or injury. If those two and Woodhead are healthy, I'm not sure where Addai would get snaps. I think Addai is a better pass- protector/pass-catcher than Woodhead in that role but probably not quite as elusive in the running game anymore, and he would have to make the team at Woodhead's expense, because there is no way they are keeping four pure running backs. It looks like there will be three tight ends, a whole host of qualified receivers to keep around, and McDaniels seems interested in keeping a fullback. I think that all happens at the expense of a running back. I also think that though Vereen has plenty of size to be an every-down runner, he caught about 25 balls a year during his college career and should be a guy who can be a dual threat on third down without giving away run versus pass, assuming he can make the strides he needs to in pass protection. If he can do that, there will be no need for Addai. I'd like to see the snaps break down about 40/40/20 (percent) for Ridley/Vereen/Woodhead when we look back at things after next season. Thoughts? -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)

A: Tim, I put Addai into the "bubble" category for the reasons you mentioned. In a "ridiculously early" 53-man roster projection, I ultimately put him on the roster because I thought it was too risky to keep just three running backs, especially given the pounding players at that position take and projecting injuries. But the point is a valid one because if you keep three quarterbacks, four running backs, one fullback, three tight ends and six receivers, that's a lot of skill-position players and it will require trimming somewhere else. Something has to give.

Q: Most of the season last year the Patriots didn't have a fullback on their roster; it wasn't until later in the year that they added one. I know they have added Spencer Larsen and Tony Fiammetta since then. Do you think it is still possible that they will have their third TE or another player perform those duties to have a more versatile team? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)

A: David, when it comes to versatility, Larsen is actually one of the first players on the roster who comes to mind. He has done a little bit of everything in his four seasons in the NFL -- playing fullback, linebacker and on special teams. So I wouldn't pigeonhole the fullback position as one that makes the Patriots less versatile. And if Fiammetta finds a way to stick, I wouldn't be surprised to see him carry the ball at times as a bigger option (a la Heath Evans in 2005).

Q: Mike, I was surprised to see you having Deion Branch over Jabar Gaffney on the depth chart at this point. Despite his value, I see Deion on the bubble and one of the three (Anthony Gonzalez, Donte' Stallworth, Chad Ochocinco) surprising us. -- Tom Giblin (Lexington)

A: Tom, putting Branch at No.3 on the receiver depth chart was more a result of what we saw at last Thursday's organized team activity. I probably could have done something like 3a) Branch; 3b) Gaffney. But the point I wanted to make is that I sense more and more followers looking to move on from Branch and I don't quite understand why. I think he still has something to offer, and that a big part of the reason he slowed down late in the 2011 season was overuse. It also caught the eye that he was returning some punts in the OTA, as he could be an option in that area at some point in 2012.

Q: Hey Mike, another WR question. With Jabar Gaffney getting a multiyear deal, doesn't that make him a lock for a roster spot? Considering all the questionable receivers (Ocho, Edelman, Gonzalez, Branch) have one-year deals, it makes sense, right? -- Sean A (Boston, Mass.)

A: Sean, I'd focus less on the length of the contract and more on the bonuses/guaranteed money. And when comparing Gaffney and Branch, they both received the same signing bonus ($250,000) and count about the same against the salary cap. Here is a comparison of the two deals -- Gaffney and Branch -- which shows Branch is actually slightly richer from a bonus perspective.

Q: Mike, I know it's early so you haven't gotten a chance to assess the wide receiver position in camp much. However, based on your instincts, who do you think will be the odd men out at wide receiver? Chad Ochocinco, Deion Branch, Donte' Stallworth, Julian Edelman and Anthony Gonzalez seem to be the notables on the bubble. It looks like the only players who are locks at the position are Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney and perhaps Matthew Slater. What's your prediction? -- Oliver Thomas (Wilmot, N.H.)

A: Oliver, I see it similar to you. I would decisively make Matthew Slater a lock as a special teams captain. So if forced to pick now, without the benefit of watching a training camp competition unfold, my receivers would look like this: 1) Welker; 2) Lloyd; 3a) Branch; 3b) Gaffney; 5) Edelman; 6) Slater.

Q: Hi Mike, I think that Wes Welker is the best slot receiver in the NFL, but among our top four pass-catchers (Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, and Welker), I think he is the easiest player to replace from players on our roster. No one else has Lloyd's outside/deep threat skills, Hernandez can line up all over the field and Gronk is Gronk. If we didn't have Welker, Edelman and Gonzalez are capable of filling in for a little while without changing the Pats' game plan; any other substitution would require more X's and O's adjustments I think. I don't have a problem with the way Welker has handled his contract situation, but as a Pats fan, I am glad that Kraft & Co. haven't given the 31-year-old the big-money extension that he and his stats say he has earned. Thoughts? -- Rory (Minneapolis)

A: Rory, I think the drop-off after Gronkowski/Hernandez is more extreme than the drop-off from a Welker to someone like Edelman and possibly Gonzalez or seventh-round pick Jeremy Ebert. But the one thing I'd be careful about is looking solely at physical makeup, because Welker, in many ways, has been the heart and soul of the Patriots' offense over the last five years. One game, in particular, comes to mind -- Dec. 13, 2009 -- a home contest against Carolina. Gillette Stadium was dead. The Patriots were not playing well. It was early in the second half and Welker was the spark that changed everything. That has happened quite a bit over the last five years, and your question had me looking in our archives for that 2009 story.

Q: Hey Mike. I wonder how involved Robert Kraft is in setting the terms for player contracts. The Pats definitely run a tight ship. One would have to think Kraft is involved at some level. -- Gooby (Mass.)

A: Every year, the Patriots have a budget that they operate within, and that is obviously set by Kraft. Part of what makes the current regime so successful is Bill Belichick's understanding of personnel and economics, and how he sets values within that budget.

Q: Mike, what kind of year are you predicting for Rob Ninkovich? I think he showed some flashes of above-average pass rush as well as pass coverage last year. Will the addition of two versatile LBs cut into his playing time? -- Matt (Brighton, Mass.)

A: Matt, I put Ninkovich into the category of players (with Deion Branch) who might see a reduction in playing time but it could help them produce more. Ninkovich had one of the highest playtime percentages last season (82 percent), and I thought he was solid overall. But bring that playtime number closer to 70 percent and he might be even fresher and more explosive. I think Ninkovich is a solid, smart, versatile part of the defense and will continue to be.

Q: Why haven't we re-signed James Ihedigbo? He was a great special teams player, was our most consistent safety (not saying much), and seemed by all accounts a great team player. As a No. 4 safety, he seems a perfect fit, and I can't imagine him asking for a lot of money. Where's the disconnect? Also, a bit miffed how the Patriots have handled Welker. I'm 100 percent behind "it's a business," but Welker signed the tender and has done everything right. Doesn't this just set a precedent saying "if you want a deal, you should hold out"? Just seems bad business in every way. -- Tony (Portsmouth, N.H.)

A: Tony, health is apparently the big holdup with Ihedigbo, as his shoulder is not yet 100 percent. The Patriots have not given out his No. 44, which could be an indication that it's just a matter of time before he returns. As for Welker, I think his comment to the Boston Herald about negotiating "getting worse" was more from a big-picture standpoint than the talks getting worse from after he signed his tender. Important context there.

Q: With Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower all able to rush the QB, play man, play zone and hold up at the point of attack, is this the return of the 'Backerhood? -- Nick C. (Rochester, Mass.)

A: It very well could be, Nick, but I can't help but think the person most qualified to answer that question is Tedy Bruschi. I'm writing it down so it can be part of our first podcast of the season.

Q: Hey Mike, just finished watching some of Jake Bequette's highlights, and he looks a lot like Jason Babin. He's fast off the line and has impressive closing speed in the open field. Do you think that this is a valid comparison, or am I hoping for too much out of Bequette? -- Dylan (West Palm Beach)

A: Dylan, I think one aspect of the comparison that works is when looking at it from a position-specific standpoint. Both are probably the best fit as an end in the 4-3 more so than a 3-4 outside linebacker. Babin has had an interesting career, being drafted in the first round by Houston in 2004 but never truly breaking through until his 2010 season with Tennessee. There were a few years there when he was with Seattle and Kansas City (2007-2008) where he was just hanging on to stick in the league, but now he's viewed as one of the NFL's top rushers. There is some mixed opinion on Bequette from scouts I've spoken with, so I'm interested to see more in training camp -- more than just highlights -- to make a determination like this.

Q: Mike, after giving us the schedule at last Thursday's organized team activity, I was wondering if the Patriots provide lunch for the media at the stadium like they do for the players, or do you have to bring a bag lunch or go out. It looks like media members are very busy all day. -- Pete (Central Vermont)

A: Pete, the Patriots media relations staff often provides lunch for reporters (Papa Gino's pizza more often than not). It is always appreciated. I also have gone old school and brought back the peanut butter and jelly sandwich in recent years. A bit healthier, and always good to have in the bag.

Q: Hi Mike, change of pace question for you. After last season ended, I half expected Kevin Faulk to wind up on Bill Belichick's coaching staff; he seemed like that kind of guy from afar. Obviously, he's not quite ready for that yet. Which of the current Pats do you think might make that jump or which do you think COULD make that transition and be successful? Along the same lines, do you think anyone on the team has a future in broadcasting once they hang it up? -- NBP (Calgary)

A: NBP, I'll play along and take the rookies out of it, because their story is just starting to be written. On the broadcasting side, cornerback Kyle Arrington, kicker Stephen Gostkowski, receiver Donte' Stallworth and offensive lineman Donald Thomas were a few to come to mind. On the coaching side, receivers Deion Branch and Julian Edelman, tight end Aaron Hernandez, quarterback Ryan Mallett, linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive lineman Gerard Warren were a few names that seemed like that might be a nice career path for them.