Commentary

At OTAs, hints of things to come

Updated: June 5, 2012, 1:55 PM ET
By Mike Rodak | ESPNBoston.com

Mike Rodak is making a special mailbag guest appearance as Mike Reiss takes some time off. This week's questions focus on roster options based on what has been witnessed at organized team activities and projections for the Patriots' offensive line. Let's get started.

Q: Hey Mike (or Mike or Field, or whoever is answering this question). With certain positions loaded for training camp competition, do you think Bill Belichick will stash a couple of guys on the PUP? I can see someone like Donte Stallworth or Jermaine Cunningham having a mysterious injury before the season begins, and instead of being outright cut he could stay on the PUP until his position is reevaluated around Week 6. I know Belichick has been smart about using the PUP list as an extended roster before, but it seems like the depth this season really begs for keeping a couple guys in waiting in case of injury. -- Eric (Clinton, N.Y.)

A: That's an interesting question, Eric. I think the most likely candidates for the active/physically unable to perform list to begin training camp are the players who have missed OTAs, and potentially may miss minicamp next week. As for the reserve/PUP list that knocks players out for at least six weeks of the regular season, I don't see any overwhelming candidates at this point. As you suggest, the Patriots received a boost from getting Brandon Deaderick off that list last year, but I don't think the team would want to keep an otherwise-healthy player out of training camp and the preseason, especially a player like Cunningham entering a critical year.

[+] EnlargeNate Solder
Stew Milne/US PresswireIn his second season with the Patriots, Nate Solder is likely to stay put at left tackle.

Q: Hi Mike, when I look at this offensive line, I see two talented tackles who will hopefully be protecting Tom Brady through the remainder of his career and beyond. My question, though, is are we overlooking the possibility of Sebastian Vollmer playing left tackle and Nate Solder playing on the right side? Vollmer filled in for Matt Light on the left side impressively as a rookie in 2009, and then in 2010 cemented himself as one of the top right tackles in the game. Last season was somewhat of a lost year, but when healthy, he was used exclusively on the right side. Solder experienced success on both sides as a rookie this year, and appears poised to be a cornerstone of this line for the next decade. Will Solder really be a better player than Vollmer in 2012 (assuming good health for both)? When Buffalo comes to town and Mario Williams is lined up on Tom Brady's blind side, who gives the Patriots the better chance to protect him, Vollmer or Solder? -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)

A: Tim, I think the team wouldn't want to disrupt its offensive line more than it has to at this point. Solder may have been better off at right tackle in his rookie season to protect him, but now in his second season, as the 17th overall pick, I don't think the Patriots want him anywhere else but at left tackle. On the right side, Vollmer has significant recent injury problems, and moving him to left tackle would create more instability along an offensive line that is currently without Brian Waters and Logan Mankins in organized team activities.

Q: What's your early take on Nate Ebner? My guess is special teams. Though he is a DB, he seems to have some pretty good speed and moves. Have you seen any of his rugby videos? The caliber of some of the athletes aren't at the NFL level, but he seems to have a gear other players don't have. But given his performance as a rugby player, I wonder how he might do on punt returns as a special-teams option? -- Joe Lamoureaux (Plymouth, Mass.)

A: Joe, Ebner has practiced once in front of the media thus far, after rehabbing an unknown injury during rookie minicamp and the start of OTAs. He played only three defensive snaps last season at Ohio State and was a special-teams ace there, so certainly he projects to a similar role to begin his career in New England. In the first practice in which reporters had a chance to watch Ebner practice, he was on the first-team kick return unit, an indication that he might be part of the special-teams core group if he makes the 53-man roster.

Q: Mike, how likely is it that Wes Welker's desire for a deal has been hurt by his playoff performances? He was absent in 2010, benched against the Jets in 2011, and couldn't make the catch in this past Super Bowl. Could he be seen as soft in the playoffs? -- Gick (Bangkok)

[+] EnlargeEbner
AP Photo/Paul VernonNate Ebner's rugby skills may be put to use on the special-teams core group if he makes the Patriots' 53-man roster.

A: I'm not sure that is a factor, Gick. In fact, he had 27 receptions in three playoff games in 2007, including 11 in Super Bowl XLII. He was also the team's second-leading receiver in Super Bowl XLVI, with seven catches. I think one of the major sticking points in his negotiation is that the Patriots don't view him as an elite receiver in the mold of Calvin Johnson, although it's worth noting that Johnson turned in a 12-catch, 211-yard, two-touchdown performance in his first career playoff game.

Q: Hey Mike, I was curious, any news on how well Chad Ochocinco is doing during the OTAs and offseason? How is he competing with the endless amount of other WRs? I really hope he makes the cut, because I believe he is still an above-average WR. -- Marko M. (Indiana)

A: Nothing stood out to me with Ochocinco's performance in OTAs the past two weeks, Marko. However, this is something I would like to hone in on this week at OTAs, and next week at minicamp, as the wide receiver competition remains a major storyline heading into training camp. To this point in OTAs, I've been focusing more of my attention at practice on defensive drills.

Q: Mike Rodak, I very much appreciated your posts on Ron Brace. I've been chasing the other Mike (Reiss) for information on Brace and Cunningham for a couple of months now. I've been wanting to know how hard they have been working and responding to a little "adversity" in their development. Much is expected of second-round draft picks. Mike, I'm assuming that you tried to be as even-handed as posible in your reporting of Brace's comments. My immediate reaction is after four years at Boston College and three years in the Patriots system in the company of some very polished professional athletes, I would have expected that this young man would have a better understanding of what it takes to be successful both on the football field and especially in life. As a person still working in his 60s, cancer survivor, and someone who still runs 10 miles and bikes over 50 miles, my message to Ron Brace is nothing in this world is ever going to be handed to you. You have to work for it! -- Speed (South Boston)

A: Thanks, Speed. Both players certainly have flown under the radar in what is a critical time for them in their careers in New England. In Brace's case, it's very important to note that he was speaking somewhere that likely felt comfortable for him -- where he attended high school -- and that minutes before he had a much more reserved take toward his career when he spoke to reporters on camera. Even still, I think his comments during the banquet may very well be true to his mindset. On one hand, it takes a certain level of self-confidence to perform at a high level as a professional athlete, but on the other I think many fans were upset that his remarks lacked a level of humility consistent with his accomplishments in the NFL.

Q: With all the talk about what receivers will make the team, could you see Matthew Slater getting cut because his value is strictly special teams? I remember special-teams captain Sam Aiken was cut after the 2009 season due to the lack of role he had in the offense. -- Peter (Reading)

[+] EnlargeSpencer Larsen
AP Photo/Charles KrupaSpencer Larsen has been part of the Patriots' top kickoff return team for organized team activities.

A: Good recall on the Aiken reference, Peter. There is some overlap between the two situations: Aiken was coming off a contract extension when he was released and was also a special-teams captain. However, when it comes to players on Bill Belichick's favorites list, there aren't too many higher than Slater. It's just something difficult to envision at this point, especially with Slater getting a $2 million signing bonus in the contract he signed this offseason.

Q: Do you think the Pats could go back to the good old days of running out all kinds of different formations instead of just 3-4 and 4-3? I remember seeing times where they would only have 1 down lineman and a bunch of people walking around and could definitely see them doing some 2-5-4 or even 1-5-5 formations. -- Noah (Jacksonville, Fla.)

A: Noah, I think it all depends on how you label some of those alignments you mentioned. In a 2-4-5 nickel, for example, you could have two linebackers out of the five who may be players such as Chandler Jones or Jake Bequette -- defensive ends by name -- who are simply standing up instead of lining up in a two-point stance. That can create confusion for the defense by itself, but effectively you are still using the same personnel as a 4-2-5 nickel. In a 2-5-4 or 1-5-5, it's a question of who those fourth and fifth linebackers would be, assuming Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower are your top three options. Obviously, some of those linebackers would need to rush the passer, so you then have a question of whether you would rather have Dane Fletcher (as a linebacker in a 2-5-4) or Jonathan Fanene (as a down lineman in a 2-4-5) getting after the quarterback.

Q: Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, Nate Solder, and Ras-I Dowling. All four are extremely talented, explosive athletes with massive upside. Who do you think is most likely to have the Rob Gronkowski "burst into a super dominant player" sophomore season? Which are the coaches highest on at this point? -- Anthony (Portsmouth, N.H.)

A: While I don't have any concrete insight, Anthony, on how the coaching staff views these players, it's hard to overlook that Solder started 13 games last season and will be taking over a critical position along the offensive line, left tackle.

Q: Mike ... been thinking about a few dynamics to the team this year. First, how often do you see the Pats using a FB, percentage wise? Second, if Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are 100 percent, how often do you see the team playing with both tight ends this year compared with last? Lastly, with all the additions at WR, I know Welker and Brandon Lloyd will see the majority of snaps, but who comes in third? -- Greyson (Spokane, Wash.)

A: Greyson, I don't think the Patriots would have signed two fullbacks if they didn't anticipate using them for at least 15-20 percent of snaps. In the case of Spencer Larsen, he brings positional versatility, already being part of the top kickoff return team for organized team activities. At tight end, I think you'll see both on the field at least half the time. At wide receiver, I envision Jabar Gaffney beginning to secure the job as the No. 3 receiver. But overall, you raise an important point, which is that the addition of a full-time fullback would take snaps away from other positions.

Mike Rodak

ESPN Buffalo Bills reporter

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