- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Now two weeks into training camp, one can get a better feel on whether offseason expectations that accompanied players have a chance to become reality. That sums up a top theme in this week's mailbag.
Elsewhere, one of the big questions is how the team's offensive line will come together. It's been a hodgepodge up front the first two weeks of training camp.
Let's get right to it.
Q. Hi Mike, like you, I was really excited to see what Vereen would show in camp. Should we be disappointed? -- Steve (San Diego)
A. Not necessarily, Steve. I thought he might challenge for the No. 1 role, and I don't see that at this time, but it doesn't mean he won't be a contributor. I just think Stevan Ridley has taken the ball and run with it at this point, and rookie free agent Brandon Bolden has also been a surprise. Vereen is on the first kickoff return unit, as well as the first punt coverage unit, so he's positioned to be on the 46-man game-day roster. At this point, though, he looks like a reserve option in the committee-type approach. That can always change.
A. Donnell, I like what we've seen from the running game, particularly close to the goal line. Stevan Ridley (5-foot-11, 220 pounds) and Brandon Bolden (5-11, 220) are the team's bigger backs and they run with power down there. I also see more big-play ability from the whole group: Ridley, Bolden, Danny Woodhead and Vereen. All of them seem to catch the ball well, too.
Q. How is Dowling performing and progressing so far in camp? I can't wait to see him in action in preseason games. In the two games that he played last year, his physical play on the line is something we haven't seen since Ty Law. That, combined with his height, makes me believe that he could overtake McCourty on the strong side. How do you see the CB position playing out? -- Mike (Wellesley, Mass.)
A. Mike, Dowling has made a few nice plays on the ball the past two days, with an interception on a long Brian Hoyer pass on Sunday, and a diving sideline pass breakup (Tom Brady intended for Brandon Lloyd). There have been a few other plays that weren't as effective, but I think the biggest thing is that they've had 10 practices and he's been on the field for all of them. That's how you give yourself the best chance to get better. Contrast that to rookie Alfonzo Dennard, the seventh-round draft choice out of Nebraska who has missed the past eight practices, and it shows how Dowling has built some momentum. As for the cornerback spot, I see Devin McCourty on the left side, Dowling on the right side and Kyle Arrington in the slot.
Q. If everyone stays healthy, could you see a significant drop in passing yards allowed and/or third down defense in 2012 with the Patriots' secondary? -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)
A. Alvin, between the top of the cornerback depth chart of McCourty, Dowling, Arrington and Moore, and the top of the safety depth chart with Patrick Chung, Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson, I think they have a chance. But I still have a question as to whether there were enough reinforcements brought in for the secondary. One other point on this topic -- it is intertwined with the front seven. I do think the Patriots will be better in the front seven, which should help the secondary. Those are always intertwined.
Q. With Matt Light and Robert Gallery now retired, and Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer recovering from injury, what should the Patriots do along the offensive line? Are there any free agents available to fill the void? Should they draft o-line highly next draft? And is depth needed more at guard or at tackle? Tackle seems to have more young top-tier players, whereas guard has older players like Waters and Mankins. Can the young players step up? -- Tom (Bangor, Maine)
A. Tom, the offensive line has been a trouble spot in practice, with a shortage of numbers and inconsistent performance. In terms of who is out there to potentially sign, Adam Caplan has a nice summary on the Sideline View website. I see the issue as greater at tackle at this time, as some injuries have hit hard at the depth. Also, right tackle Marcus Cannon seems like a better fit at guard instead of tackle from this view.
Q. Hi Mike, the O-line has been a concern for me with members of the offensive line sitting out due to injury or retiring/considering retiring. With Mankins and Waters as a question mark, do you believe that this offensive line will we ready to defend Brady at the season's start? Can Dante Scarnecchia step up to this challenge? -- Michael (Irving, Texas)
A. Michael, I could see this as a potential trouble spot early in the year if Mankins and Waters are not back. A lot of the top contenders in the NFL have questions on the line (Baltimore and Houston come to mind) and I'd put the Patriots right in there, especially given some of the moves a rival like the Bills made this offseason to focus on pressure to disrupt Brady.
Q. This o-line went from being heavily stocked to almost out-of-stock. This being the case, it had me wondering about possible options. Then I saw the story about Carolina Panthers tackle Jeff Otah being released after failing a physical that would have sent him to the Jets. Before you throw me under the bus, I'm not saying the Patriots should take him; just curious why a team doesn't pick him up and place him on the PUP list? Understand his knees are weak, but his WILL to want to play is still there (he is looking to strengthen up by joining an offensive lineman program) and he was a solid tackle. Is it too expensive to hold a player while he recovers? Reason the Pats picked up [Jake] Ballard is because they know he will be 100 percent for next year and not the case for a player like Otah? -- Matt (Newport, R.I.)
A. Matt, if the Patriots felt like Otah could help them (immediately or even down the road), I don't think they would hesitate. But after seeing what unfolded with the tackle-needy Jets, who needed him and let him go, it makes me think it's unlikely the Patriots would take the plunge. I have to admit, when the Jets traded for Otah, my first thought was that it was a Patriots-type deal (low risk, high reward) and I was somewhat judging on the surface of Otah having been a former first-round draft choice. I think it's a case where the expectations that come with the draft status haven't been matched.
Q. Hi Mike, I am really perplexed that no one seems to be paying much attention to the biggest question mark for the Patriots: the state of Sebastian Vollmer's back. Back injuries are often debilitating and even career-ending. I think there is a 50-50 chance that he's done. Then we have Nate Solder and marcus Cannon so the real question for the Patriot's is whether Scarnecchia keep Tom Brady upright? -- Rob (Newton, Mass.)
A. Rob, I agree that Vollmer's status is a big story. My sense is that the club is taking a conservative approach with him in training camp, with an eye toward the longer haul. I could be way off on that, and I'm not dismissing the serious nature of a back injury because those can be career-altering ailments. In the event Vollmer is not there, I believe they will be in the market for help. That tackle spot looks too thin to me.
Q. Mike, with the offensive line problems do you see Tom Brady playing in either the first two exhibition games. I think you can make a case of allowing the two backups to play to see which one has the most potential. -- Mike (Central Vermont)
A. Mike, I do think Brady will take some snaps in one of/both of the first two preseason games, even if just a few. Just to get him used to game tempo and maybe continuing to develop that rapport with Brandon Lloyd. Overall, though, I think we'll see a lot more of Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett in the first two games.
Q. I have read what you've written about Rob Ninkovich playing some defensive end. Is this a permanent switch for him? Will he see much time at DE this season? Is he switching because he might do better there, or to make space for Dont'a Hightower and Ninkovich to both be on the field at once? -- Tom (Bangor, Maine)
A. Tom, I think Ninkovich will play both, depending on what scheme the Patriots are employing. If I had to guess, I think he'll wind up playing more end. He's an underrated pass-rusher.
Q. Hi Mike. With news last week that Aaron Hernandez was taking handoffs in practice, I had flashbacks (OK, they were nightmares, horrible, frightening nightmares) to late last year when he received what was characterized by the team as a "head injury" (concussion?). Do we really want Hernandez taking handoffs? Isn't the whole idea to get him "in space" where his open field moves confound opponents? Isn't that what makes Hernandez special -- his moves in the open field? Why make it easier (by putting him in a more confined space where there are more defenders) for the defense to hit him? He's already versatile enough given that he lines up as a traditional TE, and as a WR and in multiple spots at those 2 positions. -- Tman (Belmont, Mass.)
A. Tman, I understand the line of thinking, and I'm sure it is part of the consideration for the coaches, as well. You're balancing things in the sense that you don't want to expose Hernandez to added injury risk but he is also one of their most dynamic weapons with the football in his grasp, so any creative offensive coordinator is going to look for ways to get him touches. That's one way to do it. I'd be OK with the handoffs, but it's the punt returns that might concern me more than anything because of the speed those coverage players generate when they're coming right at you.
Q. Mike, looking at the Patriots preseason games 2-4, they play three games over 10 days. That appears to be a lot of competitive football in a short period of time, especially when you include the two-day practice sessions scheduled with Saints and Bucs. Do you think this is too much football over a short period and will this limit the amount of play time the Pats first unit plays in any of the preseason games? -- Dennis (West Palm Beach, Fla.)
A. Dennis, I do think it's too much football in a short period of time, and it puts Bill Belichick in a position where he'll have to manage the roster/playing time carefully. If I had to sum up my thoughts, I think he will build things around the third preseason game in Tampa and the joint practices leading up to that game. One of the benefits of doing that is working in the heat, which could be a good simulation for what the team will face in the season opener Sept. 9 at Tennessee.
Q. Mike, who do you think needs to step up in the preseason games to make the roster? -- JoeFla (Orlando, Fla.)
A. Joe, one player who comes to mind is fifth-year defensive end Trevor Scott. He looked like a sure bet to be on the first unit at left defensive end, but a few things have happened since the early part of camp that have altered the picture: 1. First-round pick Chandler Jones is getting more time at right defensive end; 2. Rookie free agent Justin Francis seemingly has made a strong bid for a roster spot; 3. Scott's own performance has appeared to slip in one-on-one rush drills. So I'm interested to watch him in the preseason to see if he can recapture some of the pass-rushing spark that he had early in his career.
Q. Hi Mike, I think the position battle shaping up to be as exciting as any is the defensive end spot. From your reports so far, it doesn't look like they're using the big guys like Deaderick or Fanene at the position like we saw with Mike Wright and Shawn Ellis at this time last year, which leaves the true edge guys to fight it out. If Jermaine Cunningham is really going to throw his hat into this fight, it's going to get interesting. Two young draft picks with potential, a talented veteran trying to prove he can come all the way back from a serious injury, an overachieving former long snapper picked up off the scrap heap, and a third year guy who's probably playing for his football life. I am more than anxious to see how they rotate these guys through in the first preseason game. -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)
A. Tim, right on the money. The defensive end spot has been one of the most enjoyable to watch in camp. A lot of good competition and youth there.
Q. Mike, looking back now at the 2009 and '10 drafts, it's not a surprise why this team has so much potential. Chung, Jermaine Cunningham, Rob Gronkowski, Hernandez, McCourty, Zoltan Mesko, Brandon Spikes, Vollmer, Ron Brace, Julian Edelman, Hoyer, Myron Pryor, Kyle Love. All of those players are projected to make an impact on this team. The jury is still out on the 2012 draft but it looks impressive. Can you elaborate on your thoughts? -- Matt (Boston)
A. Matt, like almost every other team, I think the Patriots hit a rough patch in the draft from 2006 to 2008. I think they have since come back very strong. The Gronkowski/Hernandez picks are game-changers. In the end, I think Bill Belichick has been overseeing a transition from an older team in 2007, and to turn it over and still win consistently, it is an impressive thing to see.
Q. Mike, has Josh McDaniels tipped his hand at all how the fullback will be used? Belichick made the comment over the weekend that the playbook is pretty much completely installed, so the plebeians like me hope that the fullbacks got in on some screens and goal line work. -- Tyler (Peterborough, N.H.)
A. Tyler, nothing definitive on the fullback position, and in fact, there is no guarantee that the team will definitely keep one. Tony Fiammetta was placed on the exempt/left squad list, meaning he can't play in 2012. Also, Spencer Larsen has missed a handful of practices of late. That has left Eric Kettani as the lone fullback at practice, and I view him as more of a long shot. At this time, if I had to project a 53-man roster, I wouldn't have a pure fullback on it.
Q. We've seen BB utilize the PUP as a way to gain some additional roster flexibility heading into the season before (Kevin Faulk in 2011 comes to mind). Considering the logjam, could we see that happen with one of the dinged up WRs such as Deion Branch heading into 2012? -- Ray (Alameda, Calif.)
A. Ray, one thing to keep in mind is that a player can't be placed on PUP if he has practiced in training camp. Branch has already practiced, so he isn't eligible for that list. The players eligible for PUP are: offensive linemen Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer and Markus Zusevics; tight end Daniel Fells; defensive lineman Myron Pryor; and tight end Jake Ballard.
Q. Hey Mike, I know you can only be placed on the PUP if you start training camp on the Active/PUP, but what about a player that isn't on your roster at the start of training camp, are they still eligible? I'm thinking of Andre Carter in particular. Can they sign him sometime in August and PUP him so he's ready to contribute in October/November? -- Marc (Boston)
A. Yes, Marc, that would be an option for the Patriots with Andre Carter. They'd have to be willing to pay him on PUP, which for some teams might be a deal-breaker.
Q. Mike, going into camp, I assumed that given a choice between the two, BB would probably keep Branch around and cut Donte' Stallworth loose. That said, I feel like every time I read your updates from camp, I'm reading about Stallworth doing some very good things on the field, while Deion appears to have been limited. I know Deion has the advantage of more time in the system, but I'm concerned by the slow start as well as the fact that he seemed to run out of gas at the end of both the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Do you see the race leaning a bit more toward Stallworth these days? -- Matt (Chelmsford, Mass.)
A. Matt, since Branch hasn't been on the field much over the past 4-5 days, I think you have to lean Stallworth at this time. But I do think that competition is fluid. I just haven't seen enough of Branch at this point to tell if he can still run effectively. It's been easier to see with Stallworth, who provides a little more of an outside threat than Branch.
Q. Mike, what happens to Robert Gallery's $400K signing bonus? Can the Patriots recover all or some of it since he retired? -- Rob (Needham, Mass.)
A. Rob, the Patriots can recover this money if they choose to pursue it. The most famous case of this was when Barry Sanders retired and the Lions successfully recouped the unamortized portion of the signing bonus, which was several million.
Q. One player I'm interested in that I haven't heard anything about is DB Malcolm Williams. Much like Ross Ventrone last year, he split a lot of time going back and forth from the practice squad to the active roster, playing primarily on special teams. I also remember earlier in the offseason he said he wanted a chance to get snaps at safety. He is very physically gifted but does he have the skills to make the final roster? Or will he return to the practice squad? Or not make the team at all? Thoughts? -- Axl (Fort Worth, Texas)
A. Axl, Williams showed up in Monday's practice with a nice tackle of tight end Alex Silvestro. Overall, Williams will have to prove it on special teams to earn a roster spot, and he doesn't look like a potential contributor on defense. I'd guess the practice squad for him again in 2012.
Q. Kareem Huggins is not the first player to be cut within a day or two of his signing. Does the team give prospective players a medical physical and/or a conditioning test prior to signing? -- Ron (New York City)
A. Ron, players always get a medical physical before signing to ensure they are healthy and there are no unexpected things that crop up. The conditioning test, I assume, would come after the signed contract. In the case of Huggins, Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald reported that the team didn't feel comfortable with his injured knee after signing him, so perhaps there was some internal second-guessing.
Q. Mike, looking for some fantasy football opinion here. I drafted heavy on NE. Admittedly somewhat purely as a fan, but honestly because of their anticipated performance this year. I picked up Hernandez based on his versatility in the O and now teams might be keying in on Gronk (he wasn't available anyway), Stephen Gostkowski for anticipated scoring opportunities with both FG and PAT due to this potent offense and his solid history both fantasy and reality, Lloyd for the new deep threat and his RAC potential, and their defense for an expected improvement. These were the best NE picks available options at my pick opportunities. Either fantasy or reality, I don't see a comparable offense at least in AFC East. What do you think? -- Chris (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan)
A. For sure, Chris, if we're looking at just the AFC East. I don't think the other three teams can match the Patriots' firepower.
Q. Hi Mike, I have been a faithful reader for years and appreciate all of your hard work and insight. I have never written you before, but am compelled to do so by current circumstances. The 7-year old of a very close friend has recently been diagnosed with kidney cancer, and my wife and I are leading fundraising efforts to help keep the family afloat and allow them to focus on their family rather than their bills (we created a website http://luv4lexi.wordpress.com and a luv4lexi page on Facebook), and have circled up a group of friends to do what we can, but I think we need help to reach a wider audience. Is there anyone you could recommend that would serve as a good resource to bounce some questions off of? I know this is your busy time (understatement of the year?) but thought it was worthwhile taking a chance. -- Randy (Centerville, Mass.)
A. Randy, maybe this can be part of a start to help Lexi. I admire what you're doing for your friends and am wishing Lexi and her family strength in this tough time. I'd recommend reaching out to the Cape Cod Times as a vehicle to possibly help spread your message.
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3dEric D. Williams