- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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One of the interesting parts about this week's Patriots mailbag is that there wasn't a single question about the season-opening opponent, the Tennessee Titans.
Perhaps it speaks to the Titans as more of an unknown team. Outside of running back Chris Johnson, there isn't a lot of star power in Tennessee, but the Titans are a tough team and opening on the road in that environment is going to be a challenge for the Patriots.
Another possible reason that Patriots-Titans isn't generating much discussion is that roster cuts and trade acquisitions generally spark much more discussion and debate, and those are still fresh. This mailbag is filled with that type of stuff.
Bill Belichick has his annual surprises when it comes to roster construction, so here goes ...
Q. Hi Mike. Remember the good old days, back when it looked like the Pats had finally solved their WR concerns by picking up a glut of talented receivers with knowledge of the system and experience playing with Tom Brady? If you'd told me then that we'd end up cutting them all and trading some loose change to the Rams to get Greg Salas, I'd have laughed. I wish the new guy well, though he's not had training camp with the team. So I was wondering -- what do you think would be reasonable expectations to have of his contributions this year? Want to pick an over/under for his receptions? -- Dan (Sheffield, U.K.)
A. Dan, I think Salas will get up to speed quickly given his background with Josh McDaniels' system. He had 27 receptions in six games last year, and if we take that average (4.5) and multiply it over 16 games (assuming good health) you come up with 72. One might say that number is a little high, especially given all the weapons around him in New England that will command the ball, so let's lower it to 60 catches to be "conservative." You buying? I am.
Q. Hey Mike, I just wanted to say this trade for Greg Salas is going to be amazing. The guy is a physical player at receiver with great hands. Brady is going to love him. -- Mike (Honolulu)
A. Mike, based on where you're writing from, it seems you might have a background watching Salas play at Hawaii. Two things intrigue me about the acquisition: 1) Wes Welker factor. This reminds me of when the Patriots traded for Welker in 2007, and how they saw something in Welker that would produce big things in their system. They acquired a star before he was a star, and I'm interested to see how it unfolds with Salas in that regard; 2) Economic value. Salas is signed at modest rates for the next three years, so they've acquired what could be an asset at a very reasonable level.
Q. Mike, as the roster is ever evolving before the first game and it may not be too wise to read it deeply, are you surprised that the Patriots did not sign a QB to the practice squad? With all the talk surrounding the QB depth, I expect to see another young QB and am not sure how to read it. -- MarkJ (Japan)
A. Mark, I am surprised that the Patriots didn't sign a quarterback to the practice squad. We know that can always change, but I checked the practice squads of the other 12 teams that are carrying just two quarterbacks on their current 53-man rosters and seven of them have a quarterback on their practice squad. So that leaves the Patriots and five others who have just two quarterbacks on their roster and no quarterback insurance on the practice squad. The Patriots surely have a shadow roster (players they would call in the event of emergency), and it wouldn't be surprising if Brian Hoyer was No. 1 on the list. The fact he's still available almost makes him like the third layer on the depth chart, if that makes sense.
Q. Mike, you often comment that developing quarterbacks is good business, partly for their trade value. Are you rethinking the value of that with the releases of Brian Hoyer and third-rounder Kevin O'Connell with nothing in return? -- Johnny (Rutland, Vt.)
A. Johnny, I still think developing quarterbacks is good business. It's just hard to develop good ones, and it seems that recently more teams have preferred to reach up in the draft to select their own rather than trade for one from another team.
Q. Mike, is it possible that the plan is to have Julian Edelman considered to be the emergency third QB (even if not outrightly declared to be so)? He has college-level experience, speed, quick decision-making, knows the receiver routes, and we don't know what they practice behind closed doors. It frees up a roster spot as well. -- Erich (New Hampshire)
A. Erich, that would make sense in the event of an emergency, sort of like Kevin Faulk was in 2009 and 2010.
Q. Mike, with regard to Brian Waters, it looks like he's holding out for more money, which I think he deserves after last year's strong performance. But it also looks like the Pats have decided not to boost his pay (maybe that will change if the guard play is poor over the first few games). My question is: Assuming the offensive line is playing well, if Waters decides to rejoin the team midyear, are the Patriots obligated to create a roster spot for him and pay him his prorated salary, or can they just cut him and save the roster spot? -- David (Needham)
A. David, it might seem like Waters is holding out for more money, but we don't know that for sure and I'd be careful assuming anything along those lines. For all we know, Waters has family considerations or a potential illness in the family keeping him back in Texas. As for the question, the Patriots aren't obligated to keep him in that scenario. They might receive an initial roster exemption while they sort things out, but there is nothing that would stop them from cutting him if they so desire.
Q. Mike, in all this talk about Brian Waters not reporting, it seems no one has considered that BB has agreed to let him report late to give the Pats roster flexibility in preseason and to start the season. This allows the Pats to look at more players that are released by other teams. -- Fergydick (Sault Ste. Marie, Canada)
A. I think Belichick has been willing to let Waters set the timeline, which is showing respect to a 35-year-old veteran who has accomplished a lot in this game. But there comes an end point when that graciousness ends, and I think we've reached it. The Patriots are now in regular-season mode, and I think Belichick views it this way -- you're either on the train or you're not. While they'd like Waters back, they've taken steps to add depth because they have little control over whether he will come back.
Q. Hi Mike, are these really the players we will see next Sunday? They appear to be short at receiver and linebacker. At receiver they have one wide guy (Brandon Lloyd), three slot guys (Welker, Edelman, Salas) and one special-teams player. At linebacker, they have the top three, a recovering-from-injury Tracy White and little known Mike Rivera. Is this enough to start the season? On the other hand, they appear to have more tight ends, defensive ends and defensive tackles (especially with Myron Pryor on the PUP list) than necessary. Do you feel they will balance some of these areas before the Titans game? -- Jim C. (Seminole, Fla.)
A. Jim, we could see a few minor tweaks before the game (maybe linebacker Niko Koutouvides), as the possibility of a short-term injured reserve transaction is in play, which would open a roster spot. While those areas might be a bit more thin than desired, a few points to consider are: 1) Tight end Aaron Hernandez is receiver-like in many ways; 2) Salas can play inside and outside; 3) At linebacker, they have the starting three and then when they go to nickel, they take one linebacker off (Dont'a Hightower), and when they go dime they take two linebackers off (Hightower and Spikes). So while there is lighter depth at linebacker (and obvious concern in the event of injury), the position has been reduced somewhat in terms of usage.
Q. Have the same bad feeling with the cuts at receiver and linebacker I had last year when BB cut Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders. God forbid Brandon Lloyd or Wes Welker gets hurt. Are you also puzzled by the Jeff Demps IR decision? Looked like he provided some desperately needed speed to the Pats' offense. How would you grade BB as a GM this offseason? -- Al (Westerly, R.I.)
A. Al, I was disappointed to see Demps go on IR because he's the type of electrifying talent that makes you not want to miss any time he has the football in his grasp. At receiver, I'm interested to see what Salas can do. He could be a Wes Welker, Part II. Of course, it could just as easily go in the other direction, so we'll have to wait on that one. I think they'll be OK at linebacker (see previous question/answer), although your concern is more than reasonable given Brandon Spikes' recent injury history. As for a grade on Bill Belichick's work as a general manager this offseason, can I give it an "incomplete" for now? That only seems fair. They haven't even played a game yet.
Q. Why didn't the Pats put Jeff Demps on the 53-man roster and then place him on IR? They could have done this since that went down to 52 players on the active roster. This way Demps could come off IR. -- Al V. (Venice, Fla.)
A. Al, there are two reasons I can think of why this didn't happen: 1) Demps' injury was more severe than initially thought and required more time to heal; 2) They want to save the short-term designation for a different player.
Q. Please explain Bobby Carpenter's release. Scratching my head over that. Every report showed him as the top backup. -- Rick (Lethbridge, Alberta)
A. Rick, that caught me by surprise as well. I don't have an answer, but here is one theory: Maybe the coaching staff felt that the difference between Carpenter and Jeff Tarpinian wasn't that big, and once Tarpinian cleared waivers and landed on the practice squad, it created the situation where they felt more comfortable parting ways with Carpenter.
Q. Hi Mike, I have to say I am a little disappointed that both Jabar Gaffney and Deion Branch were released. I really enjoy watching the veteran receivers play with Brady. Is there any chance we might see them back in a Patriots uniform at some point this season? -- Andrew (Newton, Mass.)
A. I think so, Andrew, although Gaffney was working out for the Dolphins on Monday and could be a consideration there. Branch still has a locker set up at Gillette Stadium, and reportedly there is mutual interest in his return at some point.
Q. You make a big deal about the signing bonuses the Patriots paid out this year for players no longer on the team, but if you don't give them you won't sign free agents who are signed for depth. Instead, give Belichick credit for not keeping guys that don't make the team! Losing bonuses is part of the nature of the business. -- Buster (Boxboro)
A. Buster, I don't think I was making a big deal out of it as much as pointing out a fact. One would think the bonus money paid out to players not on the club (which tops $6 million, if we add Gerard Warren and Donte' Stallworth, whom I overlooked) is higher than desired. I understand you have to pay to build depth, but just as I'd praise the team for a shrewd free-agent signing (e.g. Mark Anderson in 2011), an objective view also points out when they don't get bang for the buck.
Q. Mike, your analysis of Greg Salas over Deion Branch was right on the money, and keeping him as the third receiver makes a lot of sense. My second-guess would be the decision to keep Visanthe Shiancoe over Branch. If we can consider the fourth receiver (Branch on the depth chart if he were on the roster) and the fourth TE a usual game-day inactive, doesn't it make more sense to have Branch on the roster in that role, ready to step in if one of the top depth-chart guys can't go? His familiarity with Brady and the offense would seem to be more valuable than what Shiancoe could offer. Could that decision have been strictly financial? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A. Dean, let's see what happens with Shiancoe in the coming days here before we answer this one. If Shiancoe lands on the short-term IR list, opening up a spot for Branch to return, then it changes the context of things. I wouldn't be shocked if that happens. If it doesn't, let's revisit this topic next week. At this point, I don't view the decision-making as financially based.
Q. Mike, I am happy to see BB shuffle the roster. The defense the past couple years was nothing short of pathetic. Hopefully some new blood will help. My question is this: Do you really think the Patriots can just flip a switch and be a cohesive unit on opening day? There was nothing that happened in the preseason to suggest that. Poor offensive line, nothing from Brandon Lloyd, etc. I think the Pats will struggle on Sunday, especially if Chris Johnson runs wild. Can the Pats turn it up a couple notches on Sunday or will it take time for this team to come together? -- Paul O. (Kenosha, Wis.)
A. Paul, I think we'll see a more well-oiled machine on opening day than we saw in the preseason. I buy into the Robert Kraft line of thinking when it comes to the preseason. This is what Kraft said: "I don't pay too much attention to preseason. I used to in my early days of ownership. I don't think there's a lot of game planning. I also think that at least our team doesn't want to show a lot. I don't think it's indicative of what we're about. I think it shows where we need to work and what our deficiencies are, but I like this team."
Q. Hey Mike, I'm a little confused about the new IR rule. What criteria must a player satisfy to be eligible to return midseason? Which Patriots, if any, are candidates? -- Andrew (Franklin, Mass.)
A. Andrew, any player on the roster through Sept. 4 is a candidate for this shortened IR rule (it can only be used on one player). So tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and running back Shane Vereen, two players who were held out of practice Monday and potentially could be sidelined for a little while longer, are a couple of players to monitor in this regard. Or the Patriots might elect to wait to use it for a player who gets injured in a regular-season game.
Q. Dear Mike, without a staggering depth on wide receiver, do you believe the Patriots can place a formation with three tight ends: Daniel Fells and Rob Gronkowski at TE, with Hernandez lining up at WR? If so, can it be advantageous? In what aspects? -- Frank D. (Tallahassee, Fla.)
A. Frank, this is certainly possible, as we saw the Patriots use those three tight ends together for 10 plays in the third preseason game against the Buccaneers. A few times, it was in short-yardage situations when they wanted a heavier package. Other times, it was on early downs. What you often get against that package is the opponents' base defense, and it can be easier to find some advantageous matchups because of the diverse skills of the tight ends.
Q. Mike, I watched almost every minute of the Patriots' preseason (as painful as that was at times). Putting on my amateur scouting cap, Brian Hoyer just didn't pass the NFL QB eye test for me. He makes good decisions, but his throws lack the zip of a Brady (or Mallett). I know you said that perhaps perception didn't match reality on Hoyer's value, but the Patriots (who are very tuned in on this sort of thing) tendered Hoyer at the second round this offseason. I guess what I'm asking is: Did Hoyer just have a bad preseason? -- Scott (Maine)
A. Scott, I don't think Hoyer performed up to the level he hoped. Part of that, in my view, was tied to the situations in which he was placed (often with a third-unit line and inexperienced targets). As for the second-round tender, the Patriots obviously thought highly of Hoyer because he was their No. 2 the last three seasons and there was value with that. One line of thinking is that once the offseason and preseason arrived, the coaching staff didn't see improvement and there was a feeling that the ceiling had been reached with him.
Q. Regarding Branch, don't you think that Brady had some say in the decision? Like if Brady went into Belichick's office and said "We need Deion here," I have to think he'd still be around. Therefore, I would have to think that Brady didn't go to bat for Branch. Thoughts? -- Chris (Boston)
A. Chris, I don't think that's fair to Brady. While Bill Belichick might ask for his input in certain situations, one thing that seems pretty clear inside Gillette Stadium is that employees are to concern themselves with their job, and their job only. That's Belichick's motto: "Do your job." If you start worrying about personnel decisions instead of carrying out your responsibilities at quarterback, it's limiting you from being at your best at what you're being paid to do. I buy into that, and I think the players do, too. I think Brady falls into line.
Q. Mike, any chance there will be a fallout in the future from so many veteran free agents not making the Pats' roster? It's not like other teams are lining up to pick these guys up (and some have retired or are injured). Is Bill showing a tendency to go with the cheap young guy with potential over the veteran? Will vets start thinking signing with the Patriots in the offseason might leave them cut come the end of preseason? -- Paul (Lexington)
A. Paul, I don't think there will be any fallout here. From my view, Belichick doesn't sell players on anything but the reality that it will be a competition and they'll be given a chance to earn a job. Nothing is a given.
Q. I was surprised the Pats did not put Jeremy Ebert on the practice squad. Do you think we will see him at all back with the team? -- GT in No VA (Falls Church, Va.)
A. For now, the Patriots are going with Sam Kirkland (Kent State) as their practice squad receiver over Ebert. As we've seen in the past, this can always change, so I wouldn't rule it out in the future. Ebert got off to a tough start with a hamstring injury in spring camps, and there might be a part of him that would benefit from stepping back for a bit and getting fully healthy again.
Q. What happened to Andre Carter? -- Kristen D. (Cambridge, Mass.)
A. Kristin, Carter remains a free agent. He's taken a few visits (Raiders, Rams) but hasn't signed, which is an indication to me that he's not fully healthy yet. Pass-rushers are hard to find, and if Carter was ready, I think he'd be signed by now.
Q. Hi Mike, after watching all the preseason games, I have a prediction for you: Nate Ebner will start at Safety by Week 12. Initially I was skeptical of the pick and his chances of making the 53, but he has shown a lot so far. Obviously the safety position is one of the easier spots to make the starting lineup on this team due to the revolving door of players, inconsistency and injuries. That being said, he is an extremely strong tackler, has a knack for making plays and his instincts (developed in a non-football setting) bring something unique. He did have a couple of blown coverages, but that will be corrected since he has shown that he is a quick learner, picking up so much and playing competently throughout camp. -- Anonymous (Andover)
A. Ebner was one of the big surprises to me in camp. He runs very well, seems to be around the ball and has good ball skills. He just needs a little more experience. He's one of the more intriguing players on the roster. We'll document this prediction and then revisit it at Week 12.
Q. Hi Mike, looking forward to another season of Pats football! Will you and Tedy Bruschi be doing the podcast again this year? I really enjoyed it last year. Thanks! -- Chuck W. (Eagle, Colo)
A. Chuck, thanks for the interest. We will be producing a weekly podcast, and the first is on the way. It is scheduled to be recorded at ESPN headquarters in Bristol on Tuesday.
Surprise roster cuts have some Pats fans second-guessing Bill Belichick.