Commentary

High hopes for Pats' new D

Rookie Dont'a Hightower and Belichick's changes raise expectations

Updated: July 31, 2012, 3:27 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Patriots followers are excited about rookie linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

Based on the submissions to this week's Patriots mailbag, Hightower's potential impact on defense was the hot topic.

If Bill Parcells were the coach, this is the time where he might say something like, "Hey, before we send him to Canton, can we get him taped up for the fifth practice of his NFL career?"

The Patriots' defense received a makeover this offseason from Bill Belichick, and Hightower projects as a big part of the mix. That's where we lead off this week.

Q. Mike, after watching the Pats practice for two days I was very impressed with number 45, Dont'a Hightower. He seems to have great size and coverage skills. Looks like the real deal. Thoughts? -- Pete (Central Vermont)

A. Pete, I can understand why you had that feeling. Hightower has been impressive. He looks like a solid draft pick, and he plays with a mean streak. The main thing that comes up with him is that people can't believe he is 270 pounds and can still move like he does. He should be fun to watch.

[+] EnlargeHightower
Stew Milne/US PresswireBy all accounts, rookie linebacker Dont'a Hightower has been impressive so far at camp.

Q. I'm so desperate for football to start that I watched the thrilling LSU-Bama 9-6 OT shootout from last November, just to see more of Hightower. I was impressed with him in the run game and he was able to generate some pressure on the QB. However, he seems very slow in space and does not move well east-to-west. Once Jefferson or the running back turned the corner, there was no pursuit. I don't know what role the Pats have slated for him, but I am concerned about his ability to defend in space (either tackling or covering receivers), for a lack of speed will be an issue. Will this be required of him with the Pats? Or has he shown you that this will not be a problem at the next level? -- Chris (Andover, Mass.)

A. Chris, that's impressive football dedication. Hightower has mostly been playing forward through the first four days of camp. I haven't seen much of him going the other way coverage-wise. One thing I would say is that he seems to have good football instincts, such as anticipating a screen pass and putting himself in position to make the play. I've seen that a few times from him.

Q. Hi Mike, do you think we're going to see Hightower work as an edge rusher at all this year, or is he going to stay off the line like a Jerod Mayo or Brandon Spikes? From the early reports at camp it sounds like he's been working with those guys, but I'm curious to see how much they think they can throw at this kid right away. -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)

A. Tim, I think we'll see both from Hightower. When I think about the possibilities for this defense, the Pats can be flexible based on the versatility of their personnel. Hightower has shown he can rush from the edge, doing so in Alabama's sub package, and I think he'll be on the field in those situations for the Patriots. Belichick praised Hightower's football smarts the other day. I think they'll throw a lot at him, and he'll contribute early.

Q. Mike, fellow Minuteman here, '94. I'm hoping for a big "I told you so." On your weekly blog, I said before the draft and after the draft I wanted Hightower and Mark Barron (didn't really see a lot of Chandler Jones) because I believe they are both elite. I saw Hightower as a player that can just play all over the field. He's far from just a ILB (a position we supposedly weren't in the market for). -- Derek (Wayland, Mass.)

A. You nailed it, Derek. I had him pigeonholed as an inside linebacker and didn't see the fit.

Q. Hey Mike, if you're right about the new-look linebackers with Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes in the middle, am I wrong to be concerned about Spikes' lateral speed? I always thought he was best suited for the Ted Johnson role in the 3-4. What does your scouting say? -- Gooby (Boston)

A. Gooby, Spikes showed in the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl that when he is on his game, he can move well enough, so that isn't a big concern. I like the idea of a bigger linebacker group because it looks like they're willing to concede some bulk up front for more athleticism and length. Those linebackers will be crucial against a ground-and-pound approach.

Q. It's sort of unfair to even talk about it since we don't know what we should expect, but the big story this season must be the defense. Now, I understand the changes that were made and how little time was left for corrections before the season started. Still, it moved from downright awful to fair towards the end of the season. Now can it move from fair to good over the course of this season? Can it surrender less points? Can it spend less time on the field? A positive response means more activity for special teams on returns and more time for the offense on the field, which means trouble for opponents. Of course you need games, but at some point in the season people will be wondering how much the Patriots have improved on defense? They may not say it and even deny it, but if they find confidence in the defense they are going back for something that was left behind last year. At the very least you should get them to acknowledge they will break the curse, but it will be like pulling teeth. -- Derry L. (Cohasset, Mass.)

A. Derry, this is the story of the offseason, training camp and season: Is the defense better? The offense should hold down its end of the bargain, but it's a new-look defense -- doing things differently -- and what we'll see is a faster, more athletic unit. The secondary still has question marks, but the front seven looks quite promising.

Q. I think the last receiver position comes down to Donte Stallworth vs. Deion Branch vs. Jabar Gaffney. Do they keep two and who do you think makes the roster of these three guys based on performance so far in camp? -- Fletch (New Hampshire)

A. Fletch, of the group, I'd put Gaffney in the lock category. He looks real good to me. Then it would come down to Stallworth versus Branch, and I'd lean toward Branch because he is a little bit more of a complete receiver. Could they keep Stallworth and Branch? That's probably a luxury they can't afford, especially since neither contributes heavily on special teams.

Q. Mike, my question is if an offseason winner has ever been cut from the team. It's surprising to see Jermaine Cunningham on the list even though you, Rodak and Yates all had him off the final roster. If he makes the team, who does this effect? Could BB possibly be pumping up his trade status? It's unique to see BB talk so positively about someone that hasn't proved much. -- Matt (Boston)

A. Matt, I'm tipping my hand now. Cunningham will be on my next 53-man roster projection. I saw pass-rushing burst in practice and an arsenal of moves that I didn't know he had. I think he is finally healthy, which is a big part of it. As for an offseason program winner not making the team, it has happened before. In 2010, offensive lineman George Bussey was a draft choice out of Louisville who was one of the winners that year, but he never stuck on the team.

Q. Mike, it would seem to me the writing is on the wall pointing toward the end of Wes Welker's Patriot career unless he's willing to come in at an extremely team-friendly number. If that is indeed the plan, do you expect it to show up in play-calling? I know much of Welker's production comes from getting open on those short timing routes so he should still have a solid season, but I wonder if they start to move away from him a bit and toward other targets with a longer future outlook with the team. -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)

[+] EnlargeJabar Gaffney
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaReceiver Jabar Gaffney has looked strong in camp and appears to have a lock on making the final roster.

A. Dean, I don't think the Patriots will stop throwing to Welker to keep his stats down. There is a clear line between what matters most -- wins and losses -- and a contract situation. Where I think we saw the team make some contingency plans was the selection of slot receiver Jeremy Ebert in the seventh round, and I wouldn't be surprised if they bring back Julian Edelman in 2013 as a free agent. They'll always protect themselves like that, but I don't think they go much further than that on these types of things.

Q. Hi Mike, you have mentioned multiple times the Patriots' tendency to be in their sub package more often than their base 4-3. My question is who and what position typically gets subbed out in favor of another defensive back? Furthermore, is it different from last year? Thanks! -- James T. (Cambridge, Mass.)

A. James, that could depend from game to game. Through the first four days of training camp, the Patriots have been taking a linebacker off and adding a defensive back.

Q. Mike, the NFL season is about attrition. How nice would it be at midseason to have the following players coming off the PUP: Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer, Brandon Spikes, Alfonzo Dennard and maybe Deion Branch? The extra talent may give some guys extra time to properly heal. -- JoeFla (Orlando, Fla.)

A. Joe, a player is only eligible for the reserve/PUP list if he opens training camp on the active/PUP list. That eliminates Spikes, Dennard and Branch as they've already been on the practice field. In a perfect world, I'm certain Belichick wouldn't want to wait on Mankins and Vollmer if he didn't have to. They are two of the team's best linemen, and while it's nice to add depth midseason, there isn't much doubt that they have greater value to the team if they are on the field in Week 1. Along with Mankins and Vollmer, the players eligible for PUP this year are defensive lineman Myron Pryor, tight end Daniel Fells, center/guard Nick McDonald, Ebert, tight end Jake Ballard and offensive tackle Markus Zusevics. My guess is that Mankins, Vollmer and McDonald have the best chance of coming off in training camp.

Q. Mike, would you sort out the difference between active/PUP and NFI [non-football injury] in terms of what teams can and cannot do and which rights of players are guaranteed? -- MarkJ (Japan)

A. Mark, they are the same thing. The only thing different about the NFI list is that the ailment occurred away from football. Players on both lists can begin practicing at any time in camp. If they don't, they open the year on reserve/PUP and can't start practicing until after the sixth game.

Q. I am excited to hear about the offensive playmakers and look forward to an exciting season when we have the ball. My question relates to the matchups. I can't help but notice a theme -- the front seven on D is looking promising, and the O-line is looking spotty in places; the receivers look amazing, but questions remain in the secondary. What's impossible to figure out is how related the two are. Is Jermaine Cunningham looking better because Marcus Cannon is struggling against the rush? Is Ron Brace going to look as strong against Logan Mankins or Brian Waters? Would Brandon Lloyd look as good against the top corners in the league that will be blanketing him? Really my question is, are some of these potential strengths really just born from other weaknesses? Any color you can provide on this would be interesting. -- Jimmy (London)

A. Insightful thoughts, Jimmy. Level of competition always has to be factored in. One example came in one-on-one drills over the weekend. First-round draft choice Chandler Jones had a nice move on first-year offensive tackle Kyle Hix and got credit for a sack on one rush, but when he went up against Nate Solder, it was a different story, with Solder stonewalling him. Lloyd is the real thing regardless, and I'm judging Cunningham not necessarily based on whom he is beating and the result of the play but the technique and explosion he is playing with. Same with Brace. It's hard for me to truly judge technique -- I'm not a coach or scout and don't pretend to be one -- but it looks good to a layman.

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaConsidering Wes Welker's uncertain future with the Patriots after this season, will we see less of him on the field? Don't count on it.

Q. Hey Mike, don't you think it's time we temper expectations for this season? I expect a playoff berth absolutely, but I think 12-4 or 11-5 is more likely because I think we're going to see significant growing pains on the O-line. Matt Light is gone, Mankins is out likely for the time being and Waters' status seems to be a big secret. Also the D-line is going into a new season without arguably its two best pass-rushers from last year (Andre Carter and Mark Anderson). Has everyone forgotten that in football you start with the trenches, and build up? -- Mike B. (Cambridge, Mass.)

A. Mike, the defensive line will be OK. The first four days of training camp have been very encouraging in that area. As Belichick said the other day on Sirius XM Radio, "No one was talking about Andre Carter and Mark Anderson at this time last year." A few questions along the O-line are fair to bring up. In the end, I think they'll put it together. I predicted 13-3, in part because I think the AFC is down this season.

Q. Hey Mike, could you please shed some light on the oft-used and vague term "failed physical?" Without having any specific knowledge of Joseph Addai or his physical, I'd like some clarification on the overall situation. What are the reasons a player could fail a physical, especially after already being under contract and practicing with a team? In Addai's case I'm guessing it wasn't a serious known injury issue, such as the knee or hamstring issues he had in 2011, as the Patriots wouldn't (or shouldn't) have signed him in the first place if he wasn't healthy. Can Addai have failed his physical for showing up too heavy? Could it be he just wasn't in great athletic shape, like Haynesworth's battle with Shanahan in Washington? -- Craig Z. (Berlin)

A. Craig, in Addai's case, he didn't pass the conditioning test. He hadn't taken one during his NFL days and unfamiliarity might have been a factor, but it's still no excuse. Players knew what they would have to do when camp started.

Q. Mike, I noted that both Alfonzo Dennard and Nate Ebner have had limited participation in camp practices to date due to injury. This usually isn't a good sign as it puts the player farther behind, and from what I recall those types of players usually don't pan out -- Chad Jackson and Taylor Price come to mind. Do you see Dennard and Ebner recovering in time to make a push for the 53-man roster? -- Neil (South Boston)

A. Neil, Belichick made this point on Sirius XM NFL Radio on Sunday, not specific to Dennard and Ebner but to young players in general. The condensed practice schedule in training camp makes it much harder to evaluate a young player who falls behind because of injury. This puts another significant obstacle in their paths, but I wouldn't count out Dennard just yet.

Q. Hi Mike, sounds like the Pats are having a good camp thus far. I was at Day 1 and was wondering since Brian Waters has yet to report, how much better the decision to bring back both Dan Koppen and Dan Connolly was. Any thoughts? -- Ben (Nashua, N.H.)

A. Ben, I think they would have brought Connolly back anyway. On Koppen, his presence now becomes that much more important. As for Waters, I don't think it's a slam dunk that he and the Patriots have an arrangement worked out for him to come back, as some have speculated. I am prepared for anything with his situation. If he's not back, Koppen probably starts at center, with Connolly at right guard.

Q. Is it true that Brian Waters does not count against the 90-player roster limit? If so, this seems like a very nice loophole particularly if there is some expectation that he will be joining the team later in training camp. -- Ron (New York City)

A. Correct, Ron, Waters does not count against the 90-man limit. The same is true with running back Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville.

Q. Hi Mike, I'd just like to make a comment regarding Brian Waters and the general reaction to his absence from the start of camp. Last year he was released from KC before training camp started and signed with the Patriots pretty much as training camp ended and he still managed to play at a Pro Bowl level. I think you're right in that he doesn't want the wear and tear of another training camp on his body and I believe he will be back for the regular season. -- Nate (Somerville, Mass.)

A. Nate, you could be right about that. It makes a lot of sense. The only thing I have caution about is that I know how strong Waters feels about being close to home in Texas. If he's really dealing with personal reasons on the home front, it could be a challenge for him to play here in 2012.

[+] EnlargeBrian Waters
Icon SMIBrian Waters' absence from camp has raised questions about his future in New England.

Q. Hey Mike, in your piece that referenced the "new-look" defense, you wrote the following about the secondary having the same old issues: "One factor to consider when evaluating the secondary: The Patriots' offense has been operating at a high level at this stage of camp." It seems like this has been an issue raised the past few training camps, and there has been a steady decline in defensive rankings since 2007. I know there are a lot of talented receiving threats coming from all over the field, but shouldn't our CBs be able to cover the deep part of the field against someone like Brandon Lloyd, who by all accounts isn't the speediest player but rather a crafty, field-position guy? I just hope that steady pressure by the front seven can make the job easier for the guys in the back end, especially if opposing teams will be airing it out to catch up with a potent offense. -- Casey (Plymouth, Mass.)

A. Casey, I see it as a mix. On some of these players, it's just offensive excellence. These receivers are making some excellent catches. On a few others, it's more of a defensive breakdown (e.g., Sunday's 45-yard bomb from Tom Brady to Lloyd looked like a misplay by safety Steve Gregory). I'd caution on referencing Lloyd as a field-position guy. He can run; he just doesn't fly like Randy Moss did.

Q. Hey Mike, had a thought the other day about the Pats' secondary, when you mentioned they had a rough day in practice but maybe should be graded on a curve considering the offense they're up against. Now, obviously talent is talent, but it seems a big part of playing well in the secondary -- particularly at cornerback -- is confidence. How can anybody retain a high degree of confidence when they're getting burned all the time by Brady and those receivers? I know that sounds silly, but to the extent confidence plays a part AT ALL, that can't be helping! Maybe it's not a coincidence that the only guys on the Pats who seem to regress as players are cornerbacks (Eugene Wilson, Devin McCourty, Darius Butler etc. ). -- Chris (Ossining, N.Y.)

A. Chris, I understand the confidence angle, and maybe there is a small part to it, but competing against the best, which forces you to raise your level of performance, is the type of environment that any coach strives for. Otherwise, what you might have is false confidence, which is going to catch up with you eventually.

Q. Mike, penalty flag on you for asking Bill if it felt like training camp! You're better than that. Unless, of course, that was the response you were looking for. -- Matt (Scarborough, Maine)

A. Matt, this is one of my new favorite parts of covering the team. Readers scout who asks the questions and hold the reporter accountable. Belichick took my question literally, but I think he knew what I meant. These rules make it hard to have a true training camp as those who have been around the league know them to be. I remember covering my first camp in 1997 at Bryant College, and I stayed in the dorms because it was early wake-up call and late to sleep (after a stop at Parente's, of course). In past years, Belichick has gone on and on about the old days, things like the Oklahoma drill and how it's not the same anymore. He didn't want to get into it this year. I never take that personally.

Q. Hey Mike, with the Jets not re-signing Jim Leonhard what are the chances the Pats take a look at signing him? I mean, talk about your prototypical Patriot move ... not only a former Jet but one of the leaders of Rex Ryan's defense and at a position of need. Seems right up Bill's alley. -- Sean (Falmouth, Mass.)

A. Sean, you're not the first emailer to bring up Leonhard. The injuries are a concern, and I believe they feel they have their Leonhard in Steve Gregory. Also, it's somewhat telling that the Jets really focused on safety help this offseason (Yeremiah Bell, LaRon Landry) and didn't pursue bringing Leonhard back. Ryan is a good defensive coach, and if he didn't think Leonhard had much left, it's hard to argue with him.

Q. Hi Mike, I was wondering, with all the history of the Pats signing veteran players, would they entertain Cedric Benson? Given the latest dump of Addai, I think he could give them an outstanding balanced attack at RB. We have always had bruisers in the past to offset the slashing RBs. What are your thoughts? -- John (Newport News, Va.)

A. John, I like the idea of sticking the young kids there -- Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead and even Brandon Bolden. Some big-play capability among the group, with Ridley positioned as the top option.

Q. Mike, tweeted you this same question but can you ask Tom Brady what his diet is like? I believe his nutrition is going to be the key to him playing into his 40s as he has expressed he would like. -- Phil F. (Marietta, Ga.)

A. Phil, Brady is obviously a huge diet/health person. He takes care of himself extremely well. If the opportunity presents itself, I will ask him for more specifics.

Q. Mike, it's been great to hear about players and formations, but I'm wondering about the all-important team chemistry. Now, I know it's hard to tell after a handful of practices, but isn't everything hard to judge after a few practices? I'm just wondering how all the guys are getting along, if there's a sense of closeness between this team. I think it's an important aspect that can sometimes get lost in the rigors of camp. -- Arjuna R. (Derry, N.H.)

A. Arjuna, you nailed it. Team chemistry doesn't just happen with a snap of the fingers after four practices. A big part of your chemistry is banding together through adversity, and there just hasn't been enough of that yet. Overall, as usual, it looks like a good group of players. As Brady said on Sirius XM NFL Radio, "If you're a bad guy, you're not going to be around. If you're not going to fit in, you're not going to be a very good football player. We've had so few of them over the years that just don't really work out."

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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