Commentary

Did Pats fix their defensive woes?

Updated: June 26, 2012, 12:34 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

In four weeks, the Patriots will be hitting the practice fields for the start of training camp. The team's 2012 season seems to be one of the most highly anticipated in recent memory.

In his 13 years as coach, Bill Belichick has often managed his roster carefully leading into camp, specifically using the physically unable to perform list (PUP) when it comes to injured players. Projecting some of the players who might fall into this category leads off this week's mailbag.

On top of that, one of the regular themes of the offseason shows up again -- the defense. Have the Patriots done enough to improve in this area?

This is a time of year when coaches and support staff take that one final vacation before the start of camp, but that doesn't mean there isn't plenty to dissect. So here we go.

Q. Mike, this is the season for speculation. How about the injury list? There is a large group of guys in recovery. Who do you see on the PUP or maybe the number of games able to play? -- JoeFla (Orlando, Fla.)

A. Joe, one thing that's important to differentiate is the active/physically unable to perform list at the start of training camp and the reserve/physically unable to perform list after the final cutdown. There is a difference, as those on the active/PUP count against the 90-man roster limit and can start practicing at any time during camp (and once they start practicing, they are no longer eligible for any PUP list). Those on the reserve/PUP list are out for at least the first six weeks of the season and don't count against the reduced 53-man roster limit. At this point, I don't see any clear reserve/PUP candidates outside of tight end Jake Ballard, meaning I think every player outside of Ballard has a chance to practice at some point in training camp. Here are some possibilities for active/PUP: guard Logan Mankins (ACL), offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (ankle/back), defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene (left knee), receiver Jeremy Ebert (leg), tight ends Rob Gronkowski (left ankle) and Daniel Fells (leg), defensive lineman Myron Pryor (presumed shoulder from 2011) and rookie offensive lineman Markus Zusevics (pectoral muscle).

Q. Mike, please frame an argument representing why you think the Patriots will be able to do something that no team has done in the Super Bowl era since the 1970-71 Cowboys and 1971-72 Dolphins -- lose the Super Bowl one year, and then return the next year and win it? A losing Super Bowl team hasn't even returned to the SB the following year since the Buffalo teams of the early 1990s. A near-30-year season-ticket holder, I'm wondering how something that last happened two generations ago might come together for the 2012 Patriots. -- George (Warwick, R.I.)

A. George, I think the AFC is down a bit in 2012, which should help. I also like the layout of the schedule for the Patriots in terms of the bye, short weeks, long weeks, etc. I think the offseason focus on building better depth will pay dividends, and the projected improvement on offense and defense has them primed to contend. The history has to be respected, but I don't think the fact it hasn't been done since the early 1970s makes it unlikely to happen in this case. In fact, if we look at just recent history, the so-called "curse of the Super Bowl loser" hasn't been as much of a factor when it comes to those teams making the playoffs.

Q. Hi Mike, I'm not as definitive as most people predicting the Patriots' defense as being "most improved" this year. I think, like the O-line, that there are still some concerns here. First, we've lost our two best pass rushers in Mark Anderson and Andre Carter (still unsigned, injured and a year older); second, I don't see the D-backs as significantly improved (who knows if Devin McCourty gets better, Ras-I Dowling has an injury history, and Sterling Moore, while he made a great play on Evans, he still let Evans get behind him in the end zone with 20 seconds to play). While I love Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower and Jake Bequette, the rookies are just that, rookies.

A. Tom, I think this is fair. I don't think anyone is saying this defense doesn't have big questions to answer. A lot of it is an unknown right now. The area I particularly hang my hat on is third down, where I think they will be better because they should have more athleticism and speed. Of course, one might say it doesn't take much to be better than the 32nd- and 28th-ranked unit on third down, which is what they were the last two seasons, respectively. So I haven't taken a huge leap there.

Q. Hey Mike, how do you feel about the re-signing of safety James Ihedigbo? Is he a safety that really made much of a difference last year when playing? Frankly, I didn't really follow him that much; is it a good signing? -- Marko M. (Indiana)

[+] EnlargeJames Ihedigbo
Stew Milne/US PresswireJames Ihedigbo will likely have to fight for a roster spot, but he knows the system and could help the Patriots on special teams.

A. Marko, the one-year contract Ihedigbo signed is a modest deal that reflects he's a depth option, not a front-line starter in the eyes of the team's top decision-makers. He played 67 percent of the defensive snaps last year, in part because of injuries, regression of others (e.g. Sergio Brown), and personnel decisions (e.g. releasing James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather). With Patrick Chung, Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson atop the depth chart, Ihedigbo could be in a fight for a roster spot. But he's a smart player who could help on special teams, so there is some value there.

Q. Mike, after watching this Nate Ebner story online, it's hard not to root for him. I'm hopeful he makes the team. What are your thoughts on Nate so far? -- neezo (Portland, Maine)

A. Neezo, there wasn't anything definitive that stood out to me in the few organized team activities I saw, as well as the two days of practices at mandatory minicamp. Ebner is going to have to make it happen on special teams, first and foremost, so his time to truly shine is going to be when the full pads are on and the players are banging. If I had to guess now, I'd think the practice squad is the likely destination for Ebner.

Q. Any update on Andre Carter? When do the Pats have to make a decision to bring him back? How is his health? Do they have cap flexibility to bring him back? Have not heard much about him recently and thought he played well until he got hurt late last year. -- Matt (Boston)

A. Matt, there is no deadline for the Patriots to make a decision, in terms of NFL rules. If another team shows interest, that could accelerate things if the Patriots do want to bring him back, as widely assumed. Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com had a nice piece recently that updated Carter's health status. In that piece, Carter said it would be awesome to return.

Q. Mike, I notice that a lot of people think Marcus Cannon can only play at tackle. Now I love Cannon, I think he's a great young lineman with a very gifted skill set and great size, but don't we already have our tackles of the future in Sebastian Vollmer (an All-Pro who consistently neutralizes the opposing team's best pass rusher on a weekly basis, when healthy) and Nate Solder, a guy who showed great skills in his rookie year and I think he'll make a jump in his second year? So why does no one think about playing Cannon at guard? He played guard last season when he was subbed in, and I think he could be a great fit at guard for the future. And even if Brian Waters comes back this year, I think it will be his last, and I'm really excited at the thought of having Cannon and Vollmer line up next to each other on the right side, and Mankins and Solder on the left side for the foreseeable future. Thoughts? -- Kyle (Bedford, N.H.)

A. Kyle, Cannon playing guard is certainly a possibility. As you mention, he has that flexibility. At this time, given Matt Light's retirement and Sebastian Vollmer coming back from ankle/back injuries, my sense is that the coaching staff thinks the best fit is at tackle for 2012. Another thing to keep in mind is that Vollmer's contract expires after the 2012 season, which could create a vacancy at right tackle as well. So in the short-term, Cannon's best chance to play could be at tackle. As for the best long-term fit, it seems fair to say that could be at either spot.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Cannon
Stew Milne/US PresswireWhile Marcus Cannon has the ability to play guard, the best fit for him this season is probably at tackle.

Q. If Brian Waters retires, is there another guard outside the organization the Patriots could go after? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)

A. David, I think the answer is already on the roster, possibly veteran Robert Gallery, who was signed this offseason. As for players currently on the market, former Patriot Russ Hochstein is available and he's filled in admirably in the past. Then the question becomes: Is he an upgrade over the depth already in place, which includes Ryan Wendell, Nick McDonald, Donald Thomas, Jeremiah Warren, etc.? My sense is that they would stay in-house.

Q. Mike, with the NFL Network's top 100 recently revealing Rob Gronkowski as the second-best tight end on the list, I was wondering where you would rank him among the league's best tight ends. Do you believe he is better than Jimmy Graham? Gronk was targeted less, had more catches, his numbers were better across the board, and he broke just about every record for a tight end. Your thoughts? -- Ky (Eastvale, Calif.)

A. I'd take Gronkowski because I think he is a true tight end, a player who is equally as valuable in the blocking game as the passing game. To me, that's the essence of the tight end position, that combination player. Graham strikes me as more of a receiver with the TE designation, somewhat similar to Aaron Hernandez.

Q. Hey Mike, I am usually pretty conservative when big-name free agent/trade opportunities come up, as I usually think there isn't much likelihood the Pats get involved. I don't get my hopes up, but in this case, I have to say Percy Harvin is a guy that could completely change this offense from being great to being unstoppable. I can only imagine a lineup with Gronk and/or Hernandez on the line, then Welker in his slot plus role, and then you have Brandon Lloyd and Harvin outside. I think I just got flagged for too many men, but holy smoke, Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady must be drooling if this is really something they are considering. Tell me I'm not dreaming. -- Jimmy (Dublin)

A. Jimmy, I hate to be the one to wake you from such a pleasant dream, but the Vikings have no plans to trade Harvin. This is a long shot scenario, which is fun to think about, but I feel confident in saying it won't be happening barring a real unexpected shift.

Q. Mike, I'm a bit skeptical about the addition of Brandon Lloyd to the receiving corps. From what I've seen of him, he makes a lot of really spectacular catches, but usually because he doesn't get open and the ball is thrown to him anyway as a sort of bailout by the QB. I wonder how this will fit with Brady and the Patriots' offense, which is based on high-percentage plays and mismatches. -- Jeromy J. (East Palo Alto, Calif.)

A. Jeromy, one of the things Josh McDaniels and the coaching staff likes about Lloyd is his work in traffic. He competes for the ball and is excellent on contested catches. Here is what Tom Brady said earlier this month on Lloyd: "He's got great ball skills and great body control. If you get it near him, he's going to catch it. It's just a matter of sometimes it doesn't look like he's really open and then boom, he springs open on you. So sometimes you think, 'Oh he's covered,' and then you get off him and then you watch the film and you're like, 'How did he get open?' He knows what he's doing to set the guys up and he makes the move and you have to trust that he's going to beat the guy and he does. It's just really a matter of, don't really let your eyes take away from what he's doing in his route, because ultimately he's going to get open at some point."

Q. Mike, when I look at the Pats' receiver depth chart one thing comes to mind: Seeing how Matthew Slater is used specifically for special teams, why can't we list him at a different position? Though he may not literally fill that role, it would at least open up a slot for a "true" receiver such as Donte Stalworth, who also adds a little height to our receiver corps and a downfield "threat"? -- Marc C. (Worcester, Mass.)

A. Marc, I know what you are saying in terms of the idea of the Patriots maybe keeping five, six or even seven receivers if Slater is included in that mix, even though his contributions as a receiver are going to be limited (44 snaps in 2011). The one thing I'd say is that changing Slater's designation isn't going to change much because Stallworth is likely competing against someone such as Julian Edelman, Deion Branch or Jabar Gaffney for a roster spot regardless. To me, Slater is a lock regardless of what position he's listed on the roster, and I think the coaches view him as a special-teamer more than a receiver.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Lloyd
David Butler II/US PresswireSkeptical about Brandon Lloyd on the receiving corps? Tom Brady isn't. "He's got great ball skills and great body control. If you get it near him, he's going to catch it," Brady says.

Q. Mike, as I read the articles at ESPN Boston, it appears that players only get a paycheck during the regular season and not during OTAs and training camp. Where does that leave rookies just signed for the season as far as money to live on until September and regular-season starts? -- Bert F. (Norwood, Mass.)

A. Bert, while players don't get a paycheck until the regular season, in many cases those signing contracts receive up-front payments in the form of a signing bonus. That helps. The team also eases some of the burden in terms of housing them, and when they are at the facility, feeding them. In the past, the meals were noted by veterans such as Junior Seau as an example of how the Patriots do things the right way for their players.

Q. Mike, any update on if the Saints are going to practice with the Pats before the first preseason game? I attended the Saints practices a couple of years ago and it was very competitive and interesting. -- Pete (Central Vermont)

A. Pete, nothing has been finalized or announced. One thing to keep in mind is that because the Saints play in the Hall of Fame Game Aug. 5, which opens their preseason, it's a tight window for them to practice before the Aug. 9 preseason game in New England.

Q. What is the status of the Patriots' radio broadcast tandem of Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti? I had read that Santos was gravely ill and his participation in the upcoming season was in doubt. Cappelletti's performance has been slipping in the last few years and the Patriots have introduced a third person, Scott Zolak, as a sideline reporter to pick up the slack. Santos is 72 and Cappelletti is 78. -- Mark M. (Chelmsford, Mass.)

A. Mark, the Boston Globe's media reporter, Chad Finn, wrote last week that Santos is expected back for 2012, although it is unclear if it will be for the full schedule. The article also included thoughts on Cappelletti. Here is the link (subscription required).

Q. Mike, do you ever attend any pregame festivities at Patriots-friendly locations for road games? It would be cool for fans to have a chance to meet you for some interactive Q&A. My Dad and I are both traveling to the season opener against the Titans this year and were wondering if you will be anywhere specific that weekend. -- Jeff C. (Bolingbrook, Il.)

A. Jeff, I am fortunate to attend the Patriots' home and road games, and this sounds like a fun idea. Some writers have tweet-ups, which is an informal gathering arranged through Twitter, and that is something we could try this season. We had something similar at the Super Bowl, and it was a lot of fun. If something like that could be pulled off, I'd also include the information in our weekly mailbag and chats.

Q. Will Troy Brown be working the Pats game in London this season? -- Nancy (Haverhill, Mass.)

A. Nancy, Troy Brown's analysis appears on Comcast SportsNet New England during the season. What I think you are referring to is what he won from taking part in the NFL's Broadcasting Boot Camp. Brown was selected to work on the air for one of the league's United Kingdom television partners on a regular-season Sunday in 2012.

Q. Mike, what type of training if any do new assistant coaches get? Many assistant coaches have never played the position they are coaching, so how do they get educated to teach the pros? -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)

A. Ashley, the Patriots do things a little differently than many clubs by starting some of their young coaches in personnel/scouting. That was where Josh McDaniels got some of his early work with the team. One of the reasons Bill Belichick likes to do this is so coaches get a feel for what the team is looking for personnel-wise before they get to the nitty-gritty of the position. After that point, it's a lot like a rookie player on the field. The young coaches learn under the experienced coaches.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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