Commentary

Can we expect a better defense?

Updated: July 24, 2012, 2:09 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

A few topics come to the forefront when recapping the Patriots' offseason as the team nears its first official practice of training camp Thursday.

The one that stands out the most -- defense -- leads off this week's mailbag.

The 2012 Patriots season is one of the most anticipated in recent memory. One of the main areas we'll be watching is whether some of the alterations and injections of youth on defense make a difference.

The mailbag will be published every Tuesday throughout the preseason and regular season. It's because of you that the 'bag was filled all offseason, even at some of the slowest times on the NFL calendar. Thank you for that.

Let's roll.

Q. Bill Belichick threw his own drafting system out the window because of ONE statistic (being facetious, of course) -- third-down defense. How many times did we see their opponents facing a 3rd and 5, a 3rd and 7, even a 3rd and 15, and the Pats' defense was unable to generate any pressure, resulting in another timely third-down conversion? They proved they can hunker down in the red zone and limit opponents to field goals. But getting off the field more often before then would create a cascade of benefits: 1. Help rest defensive workhorses like Vince Wilfork; 2. Give the ball to Tom Brady and the offense in better field position; 3. More time for Brady and the offense to develop a rhythm. I wouldn't doubt if a few of this year's draft choices are used as third-down specialists -- Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette especially. Your thoughts? -- Matthew M. (Syracuse, N.Y.)

A. Matthew, how Belichick has seemingly altered his value system for defensive personnel is the theme of the offseason. In the past, I think Belichick viewed prospects through the lens of the 3-4 defense. The two-part question that would be asked of a potential first-round draft choice was "Where does he fit in the 3-4, and can he help on third down?" These days, because the game is so spread out and the Patriots are in sub packages more than the base 3-4 (63 percent to 34 percent in the 2011 regular season), a player who projects to a sub role has a greater value than he might have had five years ago when the statistics were probably flipped. The 3-4 isn't as important, and athletic players who can play in space have greater value. This is the first year Belichick's draft approach reflects that he is on board with that line of thinking. The third-down defense was 28th in the NFL last season and 32nd two years ago. Here is a link from a "building a better sub defense" blog entry from last month.

Q. Hi Mike, I see a lot of guys getting ahead of themselves in projecting the immediate improvement on D, but surely the rookies and pick-ups will need some time to gel into a unit. Should the D improvement only be judged by performance in the second half of the season? -- Stuart (Cape Town)

A. Stuart, I wouldn't wait until the second half of the season to judge defensive improvement. While there might be some early growing pains -- and you'd always like to see the defense playing its best at the end of the year -- we can't just dismiss the early part of the schedule. If you're the Patriots coaching staff, you want to see consistency from the young players and evidence that they aren't flashing one day and tailing off the next. You can get a good idea of that early on.

Q. Hi Mike, commentators keep saying that last year's Patriots were the 31st-ranked defense in the league. By yards, they're right. But dead wrong in points, with the Pats at 15th in the league with 21.4 points allowed per game. Why do commentators choose yards allowed as the defensive stat, when points on the scoreboard are what counts? I think the defense was middling, not terrible. Your thoughts? -- Chance (Savannah, Ga.)

A. Chance, I'm going to play both sides here. On yards versus points, it's not even a question. It's the points -- every time. Still, there were times last season when the Patriots' defense looked more terrible than middling. It wasn't a consistent unit, but they are positioned to improve this season.

Q. Hey Mike, my question is about Brandon Lloyd. How is he faring so far with the Patriots? Can we expect him to be an above-average receiver who can haul in 10-plus TD's? -- Jakub (Holden, Mass.)

A. Jakub, my first impression after watching Lloyd in offseason camps is that he will fill the outside receiver role that Belichick probably had ticketed for Chad Ochocinco last season. At 6 feet and 200 pounds, Lloyd balances out the receiving corps, giving it a different type of target than some of the smaller, quicker options such as Wes Welker and Deion Branch. If you take Lloyd's numbers when playing under Josh McDaniels (4.74 catches, 78.9 yards per game), you could project a 76-catch, 1,262-yard season if he plays all 16 regular-season games. If you want to factor in that Brady is throwing him the ball this season -- and that there are a lot of other weapons on the field that defenses must account for -- it could be reason to increase that projection.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Fells
Michael DeHoog/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesIf former Bronco Daniel Fells is healthy and up to speed on the playbook, he should make the final roster.

Q. Hi Mike, I have a question about tight end Daniel Fells. I thought he was just about a lock to make the roster, but a couple notes on the blog the last few days have made me think you guys aren't so sure. I thought he would be perfect for the role played by Alge Crumpler in 2010 and Dan Gronkowski at times in 2011, where he is used as mostly a blocker, but also a threat to release and catch a pass at times. I think the obvious issue with Nate Solder and Thomas Welch as the third tight end was that they were 100 percent one-dimensional, where a guy like Fells/Crumpler/D. Gronkowski doesn't tell the defense what they will be doing on the play. What type of scenario do you see causing Fells not to be on the roster going into Week 1 (outside of injury)? -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)

A. Tim, I'd put Fells as more of a receiving threat than Crumpler or Dan Gronkowski. Fells seems pretty athletic for a 6-foot-4, 265-pound target. He has averaged 11.4 yards per reception over his career. In his final two NFL seasons, Crumpler wasn't running as well and averaged 8.2 and 8.7 yards per catch, respectively. I'd put the 2010 version of Crumpler/2011 version of Dan Gronkowski almost into the same category as an offensive lineman serving as a tight end, whereas Fells is more of a traditional tight end -- an equal contributor as a blocker and pass-catcher. Fells is opening camp on the active/physically unable to perform list, so it might be a few weeks, if not more, before we see him. If he is healthy, one scenario in which he doesn't make the final cut would be if he struggles picking up the offense. But I'd be surprised if that happens.

Q. From your "Patriots season ticket lineup" post, it seems as though one notable omission from the lineup was Wes Welker. Do you think it's telling of his future status with the team? -- Chris (New York City)

A. Chris, when I first scanned through the players pictured on the front of season tickets for Patriots games, it did seem curious as to why Welker wouldn't be one of the 10 chosen. Then it quickly made sense. At the time the tickets were designed, Welker wasn't under contract. How foolish would the team look if it had Welker on a ticket and he hadn't reported to camp? Someone with a skeptical view might ask, "Why not quickly make a change after he signed the franchise-tag tender?" but maybe it wasn't possible. I'm sure the team will put Welker on its GameDay cover, which is the magazine sold at the stadium. I don't see it as a big deal.

Q. Mike, how about a true opinion column on the Welker situation. You are an expert at playing the middle of the road, "I can see both sides" angle. How do you really feel, given what you know, about the Pats position? This is going to come back and bite them, and I can't say they don't have it coming. -- Torka (Peru, Vt.)

A. Torka, I would have gone three years, $27 million for Welker, with $18-20 million in bonuses/guarantees. I don't think the Patriots were willing to do that, but at the same time, I'm not sure that would have been enough for Welker to sign anyway. To answer your question, I feel like the Patriots could have extended more than they did, and even that might not have been good enough. Welker represents everything I'd want in a player on the team and in the locker room. I feel like I've written that 1,000 times.

Q. Hi Mike, I was reading your 7/17 mailbag, and I'm astonished at the number of fans who are surprised Welker didn't get a contract extension. How is this news to anyone? They've done this time and time again (justifiably so, in my opinion), with more than a dozen key contributors in the Belichick era. Some work out, some don't. The list spans from Wilfork and Brady to Deion Branch (first tenure), Asante Samuel, Corey Dillon, Randy Moss, Logan Mankins, etc. He's a slot receiver, a cheap role to fill on the team. That's great and all, but why would a team pay huge dollars for the best slot receiver in the game? I'd rather have the best quarterback, a great outside threat in Lloyd and two of the best tight ends in the league. It's simply not fiscally prudent to pay that much for a slot receiver in the modern NFL. Moreover, he'll never play up to his contract. He's 31 now and his numbers will begin to dip in the next year or two, whether it's a gradual decline or a steep one. This should have been pretty obvious from the outset. The Patriots have already gotten the best Wes Welker has to offer, and he's not going to get better in the next four years, so why pay him huge dollars? I love the guy. He's awesome. But I don't want the Pats paying that much for him going forward. -- Jeremy R. (Somerville)

A. Jeremy, I respect the opinion, but I'd quibble with one thing. It's a disservice to Welker to call him a slot receiver. Welker is an every-down receiver who played 89 percent of last season's offensive snaps (and wasn't always in the slot). He has been durable and dependable. In the end, the question to ask is, "Do you think you can get three more years of top production out of Welker?" If the answer is yes, I don't see any reason to hesitate, creating more flexibility on the cap by consummating a $9 million per season average with $18-20 million guaranteed. But would Welker accept? We're not talking about five or six years of contract length.

Q. Mike, I am usually optimistic when it comes to things like the Welker situation, but for some reason I do not have a good feeling that he will be back with the Patriots beyond this season. Do you have any encouraging words that can change this bad feeling I have? -- Matt (Providence, R.I.)

A. Matt, it's up in the air. It would seem unlikely that the team places the franchise tag on Welker again in 2013, at a cost of $11.4 million, so Welker would hit the open market. At that point, anything is possible. I wrote last week that the situation is puzzling because I believe Welker wants to be in New England and that the Patriots want him. I'm interested to see how it all unfolds and which side ultimately "wins" based on its negotiating stance. I'm surprised they couldn't find a middle ground.

Alfonzo Dennard
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesWith his decent ball skills and the Pats' need to improve at cornerback, could Alfonzo Dennard be an X factor this season?

Q. Hi Mike, assuming his legal issues get resolved to let him play, what are your thoughts on Alfonzo Dennard? Before his legal troubles, he was highly regarded at CB, which was somewhat of a weakness for the Pats last year. Could he potentially be an X-factor? -- Gora (New York City)

A. Gora, when I watched Dennard in offseason camps, he reminded me of Ellis Hobbs. You see him playing outside corner and he is not very big for the position, but he seemed to be competitive in coverage and had good ball skills, batting away a few passes. He has a chance to help the team, but I wouldn't put him above the No. 4 spot on the cornerback depth chart at this time.

Q. Hey Mike, I was just looking at some of the starting quarterbacks for the upcoming season and wondering, do you think that Bill Belichick is going to give Ryan Mallett some preseason playing time to showcase his arm and how much he has learned in his time with the Pats to try and see if there are any trade partners out there? It looks like some teams -- San Francisco and Arizona, to name two -- could take a flyer on a new quarterback? Maybe a 2013 second-round pick? Your thoughts? -- Phil B. (Braintree, Mass.)

A. Phil, we'll see a lot of the backup quarterbacks, which is the norm in the preseason. I want to see how they progress, because the preseason is really the only time we get to see them in game conditions for an extended period of time, where they have to react to a number of situations. This is when the coaching staff ascertains key information on backups that can help shape decisions over the next 10 months, into next offseason. I don't see the Cardinals making a trade for Brian Hoyer or Mallett after doing something similar with Kevin Kolb and not having it work out as desired. Also, Hoyer is scheduled for unrestricted free agency in 2013, so any team could just sign him then. In the end, I'd be surprised if either quarterback is traded. A lights-out preseason by either of them could alter that mindset.

Q. Why haven't the Pats, or any other team for that matter, attempted to sign Andre Carter? He was very good for the Patriots before he got hurt, so is it just an injury concern, or something else also? -- Ben (Lenox, Mass.)

A. Ben, my feeling on Carter is that it's all related to health. He is still recovering from a serious quad injury in which he basically had to learn how to walk again (he said he had a hitch). He has been working out and rehabbing to give himself a chance. Not sure if you had a chance to see it, but here are some of Carter's comments from a recent interview on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

Q. Mike, please explain to me how Stevan Ridley is being classified as a serial fumbler by a host of NFL pundits. Both ESPN and NFL.COM have him with 87 carries, 5.1 yards per carry and ONE fumble, which I believe was recovered by the Pats. I remember one other drop that went out of bounds and evidently does not get counted as a fumble. The league average for backs with over 60 carries is 1.3. Adrian Peterson is averaging 7 fumbles per year. One fumble in 87 carries does not a fumbler make. -- John F. (Walpole, Mass.)

A. John, Ridley did fumble twice last season. It's just that one of them came in the playoffs and wasn't counted on official stats. The most accurate way to put it is that Ridley had a bad stretch with ball security and he has some work to do to earn back the trust of the coaching staff. Kevin Faulk had something similar early in his career, and he ended his career known as one of the team's most sure-handed players.

Q. Mike, I believe that the Patriots are going to have a talented group of players at training camp. With all this talent, can the Patriots afford to keep Jake Ballard on the 53-man roster and cut a player knowing that Ballard won't play until late 2012 or mostly likely 2013? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)

A. David, they don't have to keep Ballard on the 53-man roster. They will have to keep him on the 90-man roster in training camp, and through the 75-man roster cut, if they don't want to expose him to waivers. The way I envision it unfolding is that Ballard will be on the roster until Aug. 31 and then will be moved from the active/physically unable to perform list to the reserve/physically unable to perform list.

Q. Mike, with Gino Cappelletti retiring as the team's radio analyst, it had me thinking that he was a rarity among pro football players -- playing special teams (including an excellent field goal/extra point kicker), a regular outside receiver and some defensive back also. He was truly a great athlete and Patriot, and one of my favorite "original" Patriots from the 60's. Your thoughts? -- Mike (Salem, Mass.)

A. Mike, I never had the chance to see Cappelletti play, as it was before my time, but I have had the pleasure to get to know him over the past 15 years in his role as a radio analyst. He has been extremely nice and helpful to me. He is a class act in my book.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicAmid the Penn State turmoil and newly announced sanctions, Pats fans are wondering how old friend Bill O'Brien is faring.

Q. Mike, like all Pats fans, I'm very excited about the opening of training camp and sure the mailbag will be heavily focused on that topic. I would like to inquire about a different topic, Bill O'Brien. The NCAA sanctions that he'll have to operate under are harsh, especially so for a first-time coach in the environment that is Penn State. What type of impact will that have on his coaching career in both the short and long term? Could you see him reaching out to Bill Belichick for advice and mentoring during this difficult period? -- Don (Mansfield, Mass.)

A. Don, I think O'Brien will absolutely reach out to Belichick and assume he already has done so. When you do solid work for Belichick and get his blessing to pursue another opportunity, that's a resource that any smart coach would tap whenever possible. These penalties are harsh from a football perspective, making it challenging for O'Brien to field a competitive team (e.g., he won't have as many scholarships to offer and can't entice players with a bowl appearance). But I'm a believer in O'Brien and think he'll tap every creative element in his arsenal to sell players that Penn State is the right place for them. It won't work for all players; the question is if it will work for enough of them. If my son was ever in position to play college football at that level, I'd want him to play for someone like O'Brien.

Q. Hello Mike, I have always felt timing plays an important part in life -- good timing and bad. For example, when Bill O'Brien left the Pats and was replaced by Josh McDaniels, I thought this was good timing for the Patriots. I always felt that McDaniels was the better OC. So here is my question, Mike: If Bill O'Brien knew last year what he knows today, specifically the Freeh report and the NCAA sanctions, would he still be the Pats OC? Or was he being nudged, albeit very quietly, out the door by Belichick? Your thoughts? -- Paul (Kenosha, Wis.)

A. Paul, O'Brien's contract had expired. My understanding is that he was looking to return to the college coaching side, mainly because it would give him a little more balance between work and family life. When I consider that, maybe O'Brien would have pursued other college jobs before landing at Penn State, assuming that was even an option. But I don't think he is privately kicking himself about the way his situation unfolded.

Q. Mike, I had the opportunity to meet with Eric Mangini, Bill Cowher and Leslie Frazier during their recent USO trip overseas. I was part of the coaches personal security escort, and had a chance to speak with them for roughly a half-hour in the lobby of their hotel. Both coaches were down to earth and shared a lot of insight into the game of football, as well as some leadership styles they used in managing today's athletes. Coach Mangini was awesome. Halfway through the conversation, he pulled out his Super Bowl ring and let me try it on. I was scared to death to drop it. Someone passed out pictures of me holding the ring, which I would share, but unfortunately the look on my face holding the ring was reminiscent of Ralphie holding the Red Rider BB gun in a Christmas Story. I just wanted to pass on the great experience with Coach Mangini. He was definitely not what I was expecting from what you see on the sidelines. He autographed a Patriots hat of mine, and was just an all-around pleasure to meet. He definitely boosted the morale of many of the troops he came in contact with. I hope that he enjoyed his trip to the AOR. -- Michael (Deployed Operation Enduring Freedom)

A. That's a great story, Michael. I just wanted to say thank you for your service and also for sharing this story. I've had similar experiences with Mangini.

Q. Hi Mike, we are up visiting on vacation from Florida. One of our planned trips is going to Patriots training camp next week. What's the best day to go? We were thinking of going Thursday. And also, how early should we get there? -- Dana R. (Deerfield, N.H.)

A. Dana, Thursday will be an exciting day to be at Patriots training camp because it's the first day. The practice starts at 1:30 p.m. I'd suggest making a day of it and arriving at the stadium around 10 a.m. Visit the team's Hall of Fame (there is an admission charge) before heading over to the gates a little early to ensure you'll get a seat.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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