Commentary

Mailbag: Lining up with concerns

Updated: August 21, 2012, 1:33 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Back-to-back weeks in which the Patriots have struggled along the offensive line have emailers to the Patriots mailbag concerned. That's the topic that leads things off following Monday's 27-17 preseason loss to the Eagles.

If offensive line was the most popular topic, returner Jeff Demps wasn't far behind. Followers are excited to see the speed that Demps brings to the field.

It's a quick turnaround; after Monday's game, the Pats head to Tampa for joint practices on Wednesday and Thursday leading into Friday's third preseason contest against the Buccaneers.

Q: Probably like most of Patriots nation, I was frustrated and dismayed at how poorly our offensive tackles seem to play. Nate Solder let everyone get into his body, rarely using his length and often losing leverage by standing up too straight. When he squatted a little lower, they ran around him. Nothing scares me as much or has disappointed me as much this summer as our left tackle position. I never had high expectations for Marcus Cannon, but I sure did for Solder and they are already crashing down. To be clear, I realize there's no help on the way. None in sight. Half the league and the entire AFC East is in bad shape with their offensive lines; there's not going to be anything to pick up on waivers. In other words, this is what we've got. If these aren't just sophomore slumps being worked out in practice, it doesn't matter how many weapons Brady has, he'll be walking wounded by Week 3. And seeing how badly the backup QBs played, I'm not instilled with confidence for the future. Your thoughts? -- Jason (Los Angeles)

[+] EnlargeCannon
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesMarcus Cannon has struggled so far during the preseason at right tackle.

A: I thought both Solder and Cannon had a tough time in pass protection on Monday night, which reflects some of what we've seen in practice on a regular basis. I ultimately think Solder will be OK; too much talent there and also top-notch coaching from Dante Scarnecchia. But that doesn't mean the concern should be dismissed, nor should some of Solder's solid work in the run game. As for Cannon, it has been my thought that he probably fits better at guard, although I don't think the club has any plans to move him there, unless Bill Belichick is altering his thought process from last week. It should help to have starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer returning from the physically unable to perform list.

Q: Hi Mike, with the early concerns at the offensive tackle position and with Sebastian Vollmer coming back soon, do you think there's a chance Vollmer and Solder switch positions? Maybe not permanently, but at least to start the season. They have played both tackle positions and with Solder's struggles so far, does it make sense to have Vollmer protect Brady's blindside? -- Scott (Burtonsville, Md.)

A: Scott, while it's possible, I wouldn't pull the plug on Solder at left tackle just yet. While there have been some early struggles, I think it would be a panic move to switch things around this quickly. Solder has a bright future ahead of him, and sometimes when you make a move like that it can backfire in the long run. I think part of developing young players is sticking with them through some early growing pains.

Q: Not sure how I feel about this offensive line. Unless Brian Waters shows up to camp in tip-top shape and Sebastian Vollmer has overcome his back issues, I'm worried (certainly against Buffalo). Those being "what if" scenarios how do the Patriots go about filling these voids? When we hear about these "random" offensive linemen being signed, what is Nick Caserio's philosophy in these signings? Does he look for a type of lineman? Physical attributes? Success in college? #KeepBradyUprightIn2012 -- Matt (Newport, R.I.)

A: Matt, in some of those cases Caserio is just looking for a body to add depth so the top line guys don't get overtaxed. There aren't a lot of capable linemen out there to help fill some of those voids. In terms of what the Patriots look for, intelligence, size and strength are a few things that come to mind. I think the Patriots have enough depth/experience on the interior. It's the tackle spot where there are more concerns.

Q: Mike, when it comes to Jeff Demps, I wonder where on the roster his presence might impact a spot. It doesn't seem as though any your roster projections have him taking away a spot among the running backs. So it figures to be a special teams impact. Do you see someone like Donte' Stallworth (getting some work in camp as a returner), Julian Edelman (valuable in all phases but a primary returner), or a primarily special teams only player (Niko Koudivides comes to mind) perhaps being squeezed out for Demps? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)

A: Dean, I view Demps in the same mold as Matthew Slater with the receivers. While Slater is listed with a "WR" next to his name, he's really a special-teamer. So while Demps will have the "RB" next to his name, I view him mostly as a special-teamer initially. So with that in mind, someone such as fullback Spencer Larsen -- another player in the offensive backfield who was going to have to make his mark on fourth down -- comes to mind as a player who could be most affected. Often times, these aren't 1-for-1 tradeoffs, but I see five backs making it (Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, Brandon Bolden and Demps), which would presumably make it hard to keep a fullback.

Q: Hey Mike, I have two thoughts on Demps. 1.) Do you think the Patriots had to promise Demps a spot on the 53 to get him to sign? It would seem very un-Patriot like, especially for a guy who hasn't been training for football. 2.) It seems like the Patriots' kick return problems coincided with the new rules about wedges. I feel this is something that has been overlooked by many in the media. Just like the running game is just as much about the line as the back (look at Houston), the return game depends on blocking. Thoughts? -- Chris (Boston)

A: Chris, I don't think the Patriots promised a roster spot for Demps, but they did offer him a good opportunity to earn one. On second thought, I think you bring up a good point. The blocking is often overlooked. As a returner, there are still times that you're going to have to make one guy miss, but more often than not, you will only be as good as the other 10 players on the unit allow you to be.

Q: Why didn't Demps get drafted in the spring? -- Paul Giuliano (Merrimack, N.H.)

A: Paul, once Demps made it clear that he intended to pursue track and field and the Olympics, teams backed off.

Q: Hi Mike. Heard that Demps has small hands which might blow up this thought before it begins; but, could you see the Pats putting Demps in a 5-wide set as the deep threat? With true world class speed, wouldn't he have to be covered by a CB, and maybe a safety rolling over to his side? This would mean single coverage on at least 1 of Lloyd, Welker, Hernandez, Gronk, etc. Or would a defense take the chance that Demps, because of his size, would be bumped off his route and just single cover him? -- Tman (Belmont, Mass.)

A: Tman, I understand the thought, as defenses would have to respect that speed. However, one thing to keep in mind is that it takes more than world-class speed to play that position. Technique is as important to route running as speed is; for example, how does the player react to a jam at the line of scrimmage? If it were as simple as running fast, a team would just sign someone like Usain Bolt.

Q: Mike, how has Stephen Gostowski looked in camp? I don't think I have heard anything about him, or even much on Zoltan Mesko either. I hope that with these two that no news is good news, and they both had good camps? -- Matt (Riverside, R.I.)

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What best describes your thoughts on the Patriots' O-line after two preseason games?

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Discuss (Total votes: 7,429)

A: Matt, both have been solid. As you saw Monday night, Gostkowski's leg is as strong as ever with the 51- and 55-yard field goals he made. Mesko looks primed to enter the discussion among the league's top punters. He is also hitting the ball well.

Q: Mike, I'm still a little concerned about the Patriots' defense. It's great that we have some great names in the WR competition -- i.e. Stallworth, Lloyd, Welker, Gaffney, Branch -- but I'd rather have that competition on defense. Check out the Patriots Super Bowl winning teams and the names on defense is like a who's who of top talent. Seymour, McGinest, Bruschi, Phifer, Vrabel, Law, Harrison, Izzo, Johnson, Colvin. Compare those names to stand out guys we have on our roster at the moment. Wilfork, Jones, Hightower, Mayo, Spikes, Chung, McCourty. I'm still a little concerned there's too much emphasis on offense and giving Tom Brady the best weapons possible. We know Tom can make anyone look good. Look at Deion Branch. I think we need to go back to 2003 and start getting bigger names on D. Thoughts? -- Ryan (United Kingdom)

A: Ryan, I think the defense remains the big question for this team. We know the offense should be able to move the ball and put pressure on the opposition, but can the defense become more of a dictating unit? There are some early promising signs, but we know not to read too much into preseason results. Two main thoughts come to mind: 1) I'd focus less on the idea of "big names" and more on the development of some of the younger players who could soon become big names. There are some exciting young players (e.g. Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower). Belichick used all but one of his draft picks on defense, which I'd cite as an example of his focus on improving that side of the ball; 2) The change in approach is notable (going away from the traditional Belichick 3-4 defense) as a shift that reflects how the game is changing. I think this is an important change made by Belichick, one that puts more emphasis on speed and playing in space.

Q: Hi Mike, seeing Michael Bush's two TD runs from inside the 5 for the Bears vs. the Redskins on Saturday got me wondering who is going to get the rock for the Pats in those situations. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was so automatic I took him for granted. Is Stevan Ridley the man? I think BB is taking quite a bit of risk for going with such a young group of RBs. -- MainerMike (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

A: Mike, from what we've seen in training camp to this point, Ridley and Bolden would be top options in close. Both are bigger backs -- 5-foot-11, 220 pounds -- and run with power down there. No doubt, this was an area Green-Ellis thrived. My one thought on the running back corps is that I think there is more big-play potential with the group this season. More explosive, but they'll all have to prove they can be as reliable as Green-Ellis when it comes to ball security.

Q: Hi Mike, I have a question: Why all the love for Kyle Love? I must be blind. Most Patriots followers seem to think he's important. As best as I can via TV, I watch the defensive line play and I find his play mediocre at best. He stands up a single blocker about half the time. That's it. In the playoffs, he was easily blocked by the Ravens and Giants. Besides his level of play, do we really need another wide-body? Should we not deploy quicker, faster and taller players, even at the DT position? -- Will (Sonoma, Calif.)

A: Will, I think Love is an ascending player who has grown in the system in his first two years. On Monday night, it was really his rush that helped set up Jermaine Cunningham's big hit on Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. He was a backup as a rookie and became a starter and first- and second-down run-stuffer in his second season (2011-12). This year, he looks primed to stay on the field on some third downs as well as becoming a solid presence inside. I think he's a nice complement to Vince Wilfork up front in the four-man line the Patriots have been running, in which they want two big bodies inside (Wilfork/Love) with two hybrids to each side (Jones/Rob Ninkovich). The two big bodies inside are important because they help keep the D stout against the run.

Q: Hey Mike, I was wondering what your thoughts on Jabar Gaffney were at this point. My assumption had been that he was essentially a roster-lock and would carve out a role as a steady contributor, but I haven't heard much about him, good or bad. Any information I'm missing here? -- George (Boston)

A: George, Gaffney has had a quiet camp. I still put him on the roster, but it's not as much of a certainty as I thought it to be when he initially signed.

Q: Mike, what's the story with Jonathan Fanene? I had high hopes for him but it sounds like he hasn't seen the practice field yet during camp. The size of his contract guarantees he'll make the club, but what can we reasonably expect from him this season? -- Owen (Baltimore)

A: Owen, Fanene was on the field early in camp and was a tough player to block. His quickness inside showed up in one-on-one drills. But something -- whether it was a new injury or perhaps a reaggravation of an old one -- has sidelined him. I would think this is a concern to the coaching staff, as Fanene's knee had been bothering him in Cincinnati.

Q: Hey Mike, any chance the Pats go after Shawne Merriman? -- Nate (Whitinsville, Mass.)

A: Nate, I'd be very surprised if the Patriots look at Merriman. They have a stocked depth chart at defensive end, with some promising youth -- Jones, Ninkovich, Cunningham, Trevor Scott, Jake Bequette and Justin Francis. Just don't see the fit here.

Q: Mike, in answering a question about Mike Rivera, you said "He is a first-year linebacker from Kansas who is a little bit bigger at 6-2, 255, and spent last year on the practice squad." I know that during their first year a player is referred to as a rookie. Is a player in his second year called a first-year player because he played one year? Or is Rivera a first-year player because he was not on the roster last year? -- Acton (Sarasota, Fla.)

A: Acton, the first-year designation for Rivera means he does not have an official accrued season because he was on the practice squad last year. So while he is in his second year with the team, he is technically viewed as a first-year player.

Q: Hey Mike, not a particularly urgent question, but what ever happened to Markell Carter? I thought he was on the rise as a budding edge rusher -- didn't they raise his practice squad salary last year to convince him not to leave? -- Max (Sparks, Nev.)

A: Max, the Patriots waived Carter before training camp began. Carter has yet to hook on with another team. I think the drafting of Jones and Bequette was going to make it hard for him to stick here. The Patriots did up his salary as an enticement to keep him on the practice squad last season but that didn't carry over to this season.

Q: Hi Mike, it seems that Coach Belichick likes the players from the Rutgers football program. So at first blush, it is not surprising that the Patriots brought in Justin Francis to camp. But Francis' former Rutgers coach (Greg Schiano) is the new head coach at Tampa and I'm surprised he didn't go there. Do you have any info as to how it came about that he came here instead of Tampa? -- Kevin (Hyannis, Mass.)

A: Good thought, Kevin. One thing the Patriots did well with Francis was aggressively court him before the draft, letting him know of their interest in him. They called him quite a bit and put themselves in a lead position when competing with other teams to sign him, with Pepper Johnson instrumental in that process. We can probably read between the lines and assume that the Buccaneers weren't as aggressive, which might have made the choice a bit harder for Francis.

Q: Hi Mike, I've heard of safety Nate Ebner's impressive showing in camp last week. The transition from rugby may be a tough one, however. In Australia there has been some high profile rugby players swap over to Australian Football, which if you haven't seen it, is more of a faster 360-degree game. These code swappers have notoriously struggled with their awareness of the field of play. American football seems to be a similar change from rugby. Has he looked like he has that awareness in camp? Can he adapt? -- Nathan Sewoff (Melbourne, Australia)

A: Nathan, one difference I see with Ebner is that he played in college at Ohio State, so this isn't one of those situations in which the player doesn't have a background in the American game. Ebner has impressed me in practice. He moves very well. From an amateur scouting perspective, I think staying in control with those movements and just understanding more of the game through the experience of playing should help him. Good ball skills, too. When the ball comes his way, he catches it, as we saw on Monday night.

Q: I keep looking for Tim Bulman's name in the blog. Where do you see him ending up -- 53-man roster, practice squad or a roster spot on another team. -- George (Whitman, Mass.)

A: George, I've been impressed with Bulman in training camp and think he will play in the league this year. At this time, I don't see a spot on the Patriots' roster, but that could always change with an injury. He's versatile and in good condition.

Q: Mike, the comments by ESPN play-by-play man Mike Tirico about preseason games are absolutely correct. I hope the new TV contract negotiations will make the appropriate changes. Your thoughts? Who is responsible for scheduling three games in 10 days? -- JoeFla (Orlando, Fla.)

A: Joe, part of this year's three-games-in-10-days schedule is because of the final preseason game coming on a Wednesday (the Giants, the Pats' opponent, open the season a week from that day). The other part is having a nationally televised game in Week 2 on Monday night. Just seemed like bad scheduling by the league, which has been stressing player safety. In this case, the actions don't support their words.

Q: Hi Mike, I was wondering if you can shed any light on the replacement officials and their struggles with the rule book. In the (few) games I've watched so far, I haven't noticed a lot of missed calls or blatant bad calls, but I have noticed things like not knowing where to spot a punt downed on the 4, or taking 3 minutes to figure out where to spot a ball after a face-masking penalty. I always figured the toughest part of officiating was being able to see enough of the game to make the calls. Do you have any insight as to why these refs seem to struggle with the 'rulebook' part of the gig? -- Andy M (Hinesburg, Vt.)

A: Andy, I break it down into two categories -- making the correct call, then understanding how the call should be enforced. The rulebook is so thick and different than what these officials are used to in many cases that it's a double whammy. Ugly stuff.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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