- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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It has been a challenging offseason for the Patriots, from Wes Welker's departure to Aaron Hernandez's murder charge and Alfonzo Dennard's arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence.
Commentary and analysis has come from all angles, and I wanted to lead off this week's mailbag by challenging two things that caught the eye.
A Pioli presence is needed. Scott Pioli did a super job in his role as vice president of Player Personnel (2000-2008), and one line of thinking is that, since he left, there hasn't been anyone to challenge Belichick on personnel decisions. The idea is that if Pioli was with the Patriots, maybe the selections of Aaron Hernandez and Alfonzo Dennard aren't made because he was willing to question Belichick. Pioli and Belichick seemed to have a great working rapport, but it's not like Pioli himself didn't run into some "character"-type problems in Kansas City (e.g. murder-suicide of Jovan Belcher). That dynamic shouldn't be overlooked when this topic is discussed.
Polian had Hernandez off the board. Former Colts president Bill Polian said in his current role as a media analyst that Indianapolis had taken Hernandez off its draft board in 2010, and as we have learned, it wasn't the only team. While Polian has proven to be excellent in his role as a football analyst, it also should be noted that when he was running the football operation in Carolina, he selected receiver Rae Carruth in the first round. Carruth was later convicted of conspiracy to murder, which shows that while Polian might have made the correct decision on Hernandez, he didn't carry a 1,000 batting average over the years.
These thoughts came to mind as I was putting together this week's mailbag, because there haven't been too many players involved in murder cases in the history of the NFL. As it relates to Hernandez, the piling on has been significant, and I thought Doug Farrar's piece of Yahoo! Sports nicely captured this dynamic and how focusing on responsibility, more than blame, is the first step in moving forward.
With Patriots rookies scheduled to report to Gillette Stadium on Sunday, July 21, the process of moving forward begins soon.
What type of impact might the Patriots' turbulent offseason have on the 2013 season? We'll start this week's mailbag with that question, as there is plenty to digest.
Q. Mike, maybe I am just a Patriots homer, but looking at this team's schedule and knowing the AFC East, I see them with a minimum of 12 wins. Seems like the rest of the league/national media are making it seem as if the Patriots are going to fall off this year, but I don't see it. Thoughts? -- Michael (Walpole)
A. Michael, even with such a turbulent offseason, I still see double-digit wins as well and a deep team that should contend for the AFC Championship. This team has a resourceful coaching staff and a talented roster. Whether it's 10, 11, 12 or more wins, the key as we've seen is being positioned to play your best football when it counts. No one can truly predict how that will play out because of injuries, but two things that I believe will help the Patriots in this area are better depth and a better defense compared to last season.
Q. Mike, the roster looks solid and deep. I'm not worried about being too thin at wide receiver. Both Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman will have YAC that we did not see from this club last year. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will be motivated by all of the trash talk about the Patriots being on the decline. Russell, Orr, Bird, and Brady: we have been blessed. Heck, Red Auerbach and Belichick may be the best coaches ever in their respective sports. -- Paul (Lexington)
A. Paul, if Amendola and Edelman are healthy for 16 games, I don't think there will be a major issue at receiver. Those are two talented receivers; it's just a question of whether they will be available from wire to wire. I understand why some might view the Patriots as vulnerable because there are some big questions in the passing game, and it's been a very tough offseason off the field, but I don't see another team in the AFC that is a cut above the rest. So I still see the Patriots in the mix.
Q. Mike, do you expect reporters to quiz returning players on the Hernandez situation when training camp begins, or will they assume it is a waste of time and not bother? -- Bert (Norwood)
A. Bert, I would expect a heavy emphasis on that in the early days of camp. I would also expect Bill Belichick to give the players clear directions on how to handle it all. This was the biggest story of the NFL offseason and how it will affect the Patriots going forward remains a big story. It doesn't just go away.
Q. Mike, do you think with the recent arrest and charges against both Hernandez and Dennard (and let's not forget these are not the only NFL players being arrested and charged this offseason) that the Patriots would contact all the players on the roster and lay down the law on how they should behave when in the real world? What contact does the team have with players currently? -- Lee T. (United Kingdom)
A. Lee, that makes a lot of sense whether the message is coming from ownership, the coaching staff, captains or members of the player development staff. I expect that has happened.
Q. Hey Mike, I was wondering what the difference is between a DUI and suspicion of DUI. It would seem that suspicion of DUI would not be a slam-dunk case against Dennard and would not merit his release from the Pats. I would be very disappointed if the Pats let him go in this situation. -- Zadam A. (Toronto)
A. Zadam, Denver Broncos executive Matt Russell, whose blood alcohol level was .246, three times the legal limit, was arrested for driving under the influence when he crashed into a police car. In Dennard's case, the blood alcohol level wasn't registered when he was pulled over for allegedly not driving straight and smelling of alcohol. Thus, the arrest is for suspicion of DUI.
Q. Mike, this is sort of a vague question which might be hard to answer, but how much do the teams know about off-field matters of players before signing? For NFL teams, player evaluation should be the center of football operations and they sign players who are expected to contribute on the field. As we saw in recent weeks, often the off-field issues prevent players to get on the field. I am curious how much the teams invest in studying the off-field issues. -- MarkJ (Japan)
A. Mark, teams spend millions of dollars in the scouting process, and it's a year-round process. However, every club operates with some form of a "blind spot" when it comes to personnel, but as Bill Belichick has said, when a team signs/drafts a player, it gets everything that comes with that player. Understanding that "everything" is a big part of scouting.
Q. Mike, with all that has happened recently with Hernandez and Dennard, could we see Robert Kraft make some quick changes to the personnel department? Are Nick Caserio's and Jon Robinson's jobs at stake? -- Darren (College Park, Md.)
A. Darren, Caserio and Robinson are very good at what they do, and I'd be shocked to learn that their jobs are in jeopardy. I could envision some more oversight from ownership on some of the personnel decisions and character evaluations -- in which Bill Belichick has final say -- in light of recent events. But I don't anticipate any staff changes.
Q. Where is the investigative reporting on the Dennard case? Why was he in Lincoln? Where was he drinking? Public or private? What do witnesses say? How much did he drink? -- BR (Eagan, Minn.)
A. BR, I think Dennard was in Lincoln, because his girlfriend and young daughter live there. If he didn't already figure this out, it's probably a place he wants to avoid in the future. Overall, this is a situation where the on-the-record police report doesn't marry up with Dennard's side of the story, and not all the facts are known. July 31 is the next important date as Dennard is scheduled for court for a hearing on whether he violated his probation.
Q. Mike, you always say that the Patriots give everyone a clean slate when they come in. Is one possible DUI enough to dump Dennard? What would they do if it was Jerod Mayo or Rob Ninkovich? I know Dennard has past issues, but either they really do get a clean slate or they don't. -- John (Mainland China)
A. John, I think the idea of a clean slate is different for each player. Obviously, a player who has had some problems in the past (e.g. Albert Haynesworth) gets to start fresh here, but there might be less tolerance if some of the same issues start to surface again. Dennard had done enough in his 14 months with the Patriots to lead Bill Belichick to write a letter vouching for his character, so that has to mean something. At the same time, every situation is unique, and the timing of this one couldn't be worse for Dennard. The Patriots' image has taken a significant hit this offseason, and it wouldn't surprise me if the idea of sending a message -- to both players and their paying customers -- by releasing Dennard is at least considered.
Q. Hey Mike, I have been an unabashed Bill Belichick admirer and supporter since his Cleveland days. I became a Patriots fan the day Bob Kraft hired him. So it hurts me to say but I think hubris has caught up with him. It started with the drafting of Brandon Meriwether in 2007. This was followed by drafting Aaron Hernandez, who many NFL teams said they would not select because of character issues. Throw in the drafting of Alfonzo Dennard, who was charged with assaulting a police officer before the NFL draft, and it is not a good picture. Then there were the signings of Albert Haynseworth and Chad Johnson.The result was four wasted draft picks and dollars on two non-productive players. Andy Reid got undone in Philly because of questionable personnel decisions late in his tenure. I am afraid Belichick is following the same path due to hubris and poor personnel judgment. Your thoughts Mike. -- Ben (Grass Lake, Mich.)
A. Ben, my thought is that Bill Belichick built a championship program with certain principles in mind, and I think many of those are still in play today. There are a lot of good players on the roster who seem to check out both on and off the field -- Tom Brady, Logan Mankins, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, Devin McCourty, Nate Solder, Matthew Slater among them. So the cupboard is far from bare, and no team hits on every selection. At the same time, I've asked myself the question, "Has Belichick strayed a bit from the principles on which he's built the program by taking on too many risks on players who don't meet the standard?" It's a good debate, and I believe both sides could be argued with success. If we go back and look at the 2004 draft, for example, there were plenty of questions about the players brought in that year after the first round.
Q. Mike, since it now seems likely the Pats will be carrying $7.5 million in "dead money" next year, how important do you think it is for the team to try to carry cap money into next year to offset this blow? -- Tom (Miami)
A. Tom, there is still a chance the Patriots could receive some cap relief, but if they don't, it naturally tightens their margin for error. Every dollar must be spent wisely, and salary cap space becomes more important.
Q. Mike, Brandon Lloyd, Deion Branch, Randy Moss, and TO. Three-part question: Who has more left in the tank? Which one is New England most likely to sign at some point this season? Which one would have the greatest impact on NE's offense? -- JB (Dallas)
A. JB, three-part answer: (1) Lloyd; (2) Branch; (3) Lloyd.
Q. As a Clemson fan, I saw all of Brandon Ford's games last year. He has tremendous hands, and he's quick (though he wasn't an excellent blocker). Any chance he sticks with the Pats, at least as a practice squad guy? -- Charlie (Portland, Maine)
A. Charlie, given the questions at the tight end position, Ford has a good chance of sticking around if he performs well in training camp. There is another rookie tight end, Zach Sudfeld of Nevada, who flashed in spring camps, so there is some good young competition there. Given Ford's skills as more of a "move" tight end, which is what the Patriots are losing in Aaron Hernandez, he'll be a fun player to watch. Here is a link to some general thoughts on the Patriots' tight end position.
Q. In a recent post, I think you put too much emphasis on the pure Y and a combination TE offense. Although the two-TE offense was prolific last year, it was so only because Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez had the talent. See other teams trying to copy it without the success we had last year (i.e. Baltimore). I don't think the coaching staff will try to duplicate the two-TE dynamic this season. They no longer have the personnel. The Pats' offense is designed to maximize available talent on the roster and create mismatches for the opposing D. The Pats no longer have a dynamic F TE on their roster so I see them reducing that role's importance/use this season. I think the Pats will simply find ways to get their best skill players on the field at the same time. Who those players will be in September is to be determined, but I can't see Daniel Fells or Hooman [Michael Hoomanawanui ] be those guys, as you suggested. If I had to guess, I would put my money on Shane Vereen. Can catch like a WR and run like RB. Too shifty for LBs and can avoid tackles from CBs. Thoughts? -- Nick (Boston)
A. Nick, I agree that you don't just plug two new tight ends in and try to maintain the same type of offensive structure. Every year is different. Overall, my feeling is that the Patriots are a "game-plan" offense, which means they want to be able to adjust on a weekly basis to attack an opponent's weakness. Some weeks that could mean two tight ends. Other weeks it could mean three receivers or two backs. And there will always be a balance between that line of thinking, and having something they do well and rely on regardless of the matchup.
Q. Hi Mike, I want to ask you about the third-down back position. Besides the physical skills, this position requires a level of emotion and "clutchness" to be successful. Our last two guys, Danny Woodhead and Kevin Faulk, had that. -- Dave (Boston)
A. No question, Dave, and I still wonder if the Patriots will regret not being able to find common ground with Woodhead in free agency. The deal Woodhead signed in San Diego seemed reasonable to me. Now the challenge falls to Shane Vereen and Leon Washington. I think they are capable of filling that void, but they have to go out and prove it.
Q. Has BB and the coaching staff returned to Foxborough? -- Jim K. (Kennebunk, Maine)
A. Not yet on a full-time basis, Jim. The rookies report July 21, and my understanding is that is when coaches return.
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