Commentary

These Patriots a work in progress

You can bet Rex Ryan took note of Tom Brady's uneasiness with his new targets

Updated: September 10, 2013, 3:48 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

The New England Patriots opened the regular season with a 23-21 victory over the Buffalo Bills, but they didn't exactly look like a well-oiled machine. Thankfully for them, there are no style points in football.

The opening performance has sparked a series of concerns among emailers to the Patriots mailbag, and at one point as I was answering the questions it was almost easy to forget that the Patriots actually won the game. We've touched on that dynamic quite a bit in recent years, how the bar has been raised to a high level when it comes to New England football.

The frustration that I sense from some emailers is that having quarterback Tom Brady is viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime situation, and there is a feeling that management isn't fully taking advantage of that.

With that backdrop, let's get to the questions:

Q. Mike, I have absolutely zero faith in the Patriots' rookie receivers after Sunday's game. I had little or no faith in them after looking at their college tape to begin with. We can't rely on Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman (who were great) every game. We need other people to step up. Rob Gronkowski will certainly help when he returns, but that might not be enough. We certainly cannot continue like this long term if the Lombardi trophy is going to return to Foxborough. -- Steve (Memphis, Tenn.)

A. Steve, one of the big takeaways from the game was that two rookies they were counting on -- receiver Kenbrell Thompkins and tight end Zach Sudfeld -- looked a lot like rookies. This was different from what we mostly saw in the preseason. There is no sugarcoating it and you don't sweep that concern under the locker-room rug, but at the same time, you don't make long-term judgments based on one game. I think I've been pretty consistent when noting that there are going to be some early growing pains when it comes to the young targets. I still believe that this receivers group has the potential to be faster and more explosive/talented than what we saw in the past few years. It's just going to be a process to get there, and teams evolve over the course of the season. If we haven't learned that by now, we haven't been watching very closely.

[+] EnlargeDanny Amendola
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliIt seems Danny Amendola has picked up where Wes Welker left off as Tom Brady's favorite target.

Q. Hi, Mike, you said last week that the team is looking at Aaron Dobson as a developmental player now. Do you think he's active if healthy on Thursday, given the uncertainty with Danny Amendola's health and the less than awe-inspiring performance from Kenbrell Thompkins against the Bills? I think his development is going to be critical for this team, as they had obvious trouble in the red zone with no big physical targets. Also, should we be disappointed that neither Dont'a Hightower nor Jamie Collins could displace Brandon Spikes as the second linebacker in the nickel? -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)

A. Tim, the point on Dobson was that he has the second-round draft pedigree but probably has further to go at this time when compared to fellow rookies Thompkins (undrafted) and Josh Boyce (fourth round). I also think he has the greatest upside of the three rookie receivers. If healthy, I would think he dresses Thursday (he was limited Monday and still listed with a hamstring injury). As for the nickel defense, Spikes and Hightower rotated in the second half on Sunday. Collins, who is still learning the defense, has a longer way to go.

Q. Hey, Mike, in the past, Tom Brady has been very good against the blitz. However, now with the receiving corps he has and its general lack of experience, do you think that Brady and the offense are "ripe" for blitzing? I can see an even bigger target on Brady's back now until the offense gets in sync. -- Glenn (Boston)

A. Yes, Glenn, that is how I'd describe my thoughts from Sunday's season-opener. It wasn't hard to tell that Brady is still in search of a trust with pass-catchers other than Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman. So if you're an opposing defense in the coming weeks, it makes sense to focus energies on those two in coverage, bring pressure (especially on third down), and attempt to speed up the decision-making process for Brady. Spinning it ahead to Thursday, the Patriots should beat the Jets, but I'd say this: If I'm Brady and the New England coaching staff, Rex Ryan is probably the last defensive coach I want to see on the opposing sideline, given this situation.

Q. Hi, Mike, in his news conference last Wednesday, Brady mentioned exerting greater patience with the wide receivers. My opinion is that Brady's pursuit of perfection prevented a lot of receivers from making it here. I know you'll reference that previously cut receivers didn't really make it elsewhere, but I feel those first couple of years are really crucial in an NFL receiver's development and making mistakes are a part of that. Your thoughts? -- Gary (Cambridge, Mass.)

A. Gary, I go along with that thought, to a point. I have wondered in the past if Brady's lower patience level has played a part in some of the struggles of rookie receivers (even some veterans, too). That's part of why this season has been so intriguing to me, because the Patriots almost have been backed into this corner to go with youth at receiver. So I don't just dismiss the thought. But at the end of the day, my feeling is that if you get the right rookies (e.g. Deion Branch, David Givens in 2002), it still would work out.

Q. Mike, is Stevan Ridley playing himself out of Foxborough? Do they do a second contract with someone who has talent, but lacks ball security? -- Dan (Leominster, Mass.)

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliStevan Ridley's lost fumble put him in Bill Belichick's dog house, but Shane Vereen's injury gives him a second chance.

A. Dan, they're going to need Ridley, so I expect him to re-emerge and I wouldn't be surprised if it's this week. With Shane Vereen (wrist) sidelined, and Brandon Bolden (knee) not playing in the season-opener, the numbers at running back are thin. The lost fumble is inexcusable. However, Ridley did run hard and was on his way to a nice game before the game-changing miscue, so I don't think it's a talent issue as much as a focus/concentration/discipline issue. As for a potential contract extension, there is no need to go there right now, as Ridley is signed through 2014. The sound strategy is to play out the season and once there is more information to assess, then a more informed decision could be made if the sides are interested.

Q. Mike, I'm glad for the division win, and I understand the receivers are a work in progress and I have faith in them. My issue yesterday was not only the lack of pass rush, but the lack of blitzes. You have a rookie QB, why aren't we blitzing? I really don't understand why the Pats don't blitz more. They have the personnel, let them get after the QB, especially young QBs. It's not like any of them are any good in coverage so let them go get the QB. Very frustrating to watch. Overall they played well, but if we can't pressure the Bills QB, we are in trouble. -- Ed Monroe (San Antonio)

A. Ed, there will be games with a heavier blitz percentage and the opener wasn't one of them. I interpreted that as part of an overall strategy to key on running back C.J. Spiller while also keeping quarterback EJ Manuel in the pocket and making him read coverage and beat them. Overall, I thought the defense did its part. It was far from perfect, and the Bills helped them out with a few critical mistakes (e.g. Stevie Johnson dropped pass, penalties). On the four-man rush, they were close a couple of times. It looked better to me when reviewing the game than watching it live. Also, they blitzed with five rushers on Johnson's touchdown reception, which reminds us that simply bringing extra rushers isn't always the answer, either.

Q. Mike, tough start of the season for the offense, with Gronk out, Amendola, Dobson and Sudfeld dealing with tough-to-overcome injuries like groin and hamstring, and Vereen breaking his wrist. Flash forward six weeks and those issues could well be a thing of the past, but what worries me is that time isn't likely to fix the issues on the interior offensive line. Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell seem to be struggling to pass protect, especially against guys like Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley and Marcell Dareus. Are my eyes deceiving me, or is the center and right guard area the weakest link? Is Marcus Cannon an upgrade at RG? -- Grandjordanian (San Diego)

A. The Bills had success getting Brady off the spot, making him move his feet, and part of what made it effective was that the pressure came from different spots. I thought it was more about receivers and their ability to get open quickly to help Brady than offensive line breakdowns. That was a more-jittery Brady than the norm and to me it ties back to not having the same level of trust/experience with his pass-catchers. Specific to Wendell, his low shotgun snaps would be more of a concern to me than anything else. For whatever the reason, quite a few of his snaps were coming in around Brady's heels.

Q. Hey, Mike, what is going on with the situation at the defensive tackle position? First they release both Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick, and now Jermaine Cunningham and Justin Francis are no longer with the team. I know they were looking at Armond Armstead to fill the void but, this is looking bad with only Joe Vellano as their backup. -- Jay (Los Angeles)

A. Jay, it's a three-man rotation at defensive tackle with starters Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly and then the undrafted Vellano -- who reminds me of 2005 undrafted rookie defensive tackle Mike Wright a bit -- behind them. They rotated the three of them throughout the opener, and they have tackles Marcus Forston and A.J. Francis on the practice squad for depth. The ends tie into this as well, where the depth chart has starters Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, with backups Michael Buchanan and Jake Bequette. In the opener, Buchanan came on as a rusher in sub situations and moved Jones to an interior rushing position.

Q. Mike, I'm surprised at the lack of depth at defensive end. Do you think this is related to the confidence that the coaches have in Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins as potential edge players? I know it's a multiple defense, but how do you see the base set being distributed between 3-4 and 4-3 looks? -- George (Boston)

A. George, I'm surprised, too. I didn't expect the players in the 3-5 range on the depth chart at the start of training camp to all be let go -- Justin Francis, Jermaine Cunningham and Marcus Benard. Maybe one of them comes back later in the year. Hard to tell how those decisions tie in to Hightower and Collins, but my guess would be that they don't.

Q. Can we stop with the Wes Welker references every time Amedola is spoken about? Tired of seeing his name, and that ship has sailed. DA must be sick of it, too. -- Tom (Apex, N.C.)

A. Tom, it's a natural comparison given the situation and I thought Sunday it was used as the highest compliment when discussing Amendola's gutsy performance. We know what Welker did here from 2007 to 2012 and most everyone has great respect for it. This is Amendola's time now. If he can't play Thursday, then they will rely heavier on Julian Edelman and Josh Boyce in that role.

Q. Hi, Mike, I recently read an article by Cold, Hard Football Facts, basically saying we won't miss Welker if we see some defense this year. Years past, when the Patriots won Super Bowls, it wasn't with high-powered offenses, but with hard-hitting defenses. In looking at their stats, it seemed hard to disagree. Just curious where you weigh in on this? -- Leslie (Lincolnville, Maine)

A. Leslie, I understand the point. I have wondered about the Patriots' defense since around the 2007 season, which is around the time the NFL's rules changed in favor of offenses. I feel like Bill Belichick has mostly adjusted offensively to account for the new rules (e.g. trading for receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker), but wonder if the same adjustments have been made defensively. And personnel-wise, the struggles in the secondary are well-documented. Third-down defense, in particular, has been a struggle in several recent years. Curious to see if they can turn a more decisive corner in 2013 and I thought the opener was a pretty good start for them.

Q. Mike, you can't possibly think it is wise to have $10 million under the cap for planning purposes. The plan is to win NOW, while Brady is still at it. How can you insist fans "don't understand" when they make valid criticism of how the team spends THEIR money on talent? Don't you think Ed Reed would be a better fit than Adrian Wilson? Welker a better fit than Amendola? I don't care about next year or the year after. With this Pats team and this QB, fans want urgency to win NOW. -- Dan (West Roxbury, Mass.)

A. Dan, I obviously didn't do a very good job of explaining my viewpoint if the takeaway was that I don't think fans understand the salary cap. That certainly isn't what I meant. There are two issues that seem to be at the heart of this. The first is the perception that the Patriots are cheap, which is well off the mark when looking at their cash spending (annually among the top tier in the NFL in recent years). The second is unused salary cap space and what it actually means. I'll focus on the second part here because it's clear that it's not about IF they are using cap space, it's about HOW they are using it to build the most competitive team. If we want to criticize how they use their cap space, that's fair game and I feel like I've been pretty clear on that. Adrian Wilson was a failed signing. Would Ed Reed be better? Quite possibly, but let's see how things turn out with him in Houston, where he hasn't been fully healthy and didn't play in the season opener. Would Welker be better than Amendola in 2013 and beyond? Quite possibly, but can we at least give it a chance to see how it turns out? The Patriots aren't perfect on personnel decisions; no one is saying that. But who are we comparing them to here?

Q. Mike, could the $7.5 million cap hit the Patriots will take next year be affecting some of these roster decisions? I believe teams can carry over any extra cap space they have from one year to the next. I think the Zoltan Mesko release was one of these decisions. He wasn't that much better than Ryan Allen to justify the $900K difference in salary. It's probably why there are so many undrafted free agents at the bottom of the roster. Only a couple will really contribute much this year. -- Paul (Attleboro, Mass.)

A. Paul, I don't know the answer, but my guess is that the $7.5 million in dead salary-cap space next year from Aaron Hernandez has little to do with the high total of undrafted rookies on the roster. In the case of Allen, receiver Thompkins and tight end Sudfeld, I don't think there is any question they earned spots on the roster based on their preseason performance. I had the Patriots keeping two punters at the final cut-down day because of it; Allen was too much of an asset based on what we saw. The other three undrafted players are more development types to me -- center/guard Chris Barker (Nevada) and defensive tackles Joe Vellano (Maryland) and A.J. Francis (Maryland, waived on Saturday, returning to practice quad). Part of the reason they stick is that the Patriots haven't drafted players at those positions the past two years. Also, Armstead's unexpected surgery led to a greater need than anticipated at defensive tackle.

Q. Looking at history, it seems like the years the Pats are strongest, other teams pick up their castaways as fast as possible. However, this year, short of Mesko, not too many are landing on other rosters. Meanwhile, the Pats claimed more players off waivers on cut-down day than I can remember in recent years. Is this a foreshadowing that the depth is not there? And that the Pats are not as good as their rep? -- Doug (Chapel Hill, N.C.)

A. Doug, that was interesting to me as well. I made the same point in 2010 when they traded for veteran linebacker Tracy White, among other moves at the cut-down deadline, and was proven incorrect. So it can be dangerous to read into things like that, but I have wondered the same thing.

Q. Can you post the starting lineups from the first game last year and the first game this year -- especially the defense? I'm thinking there has been more change in the secondary than most believe. -- Grant (Yukon)

A. Grant, here is the comparison:

2013 defense
DE: Rob Ninkovich
DT: Vince Wilfork
DT: Tommy Kelly
DE: Chandler Jones
LB: Jerod Mayo
LB: Brandon Spikes
CB: Aqib Talib
CB: Kyle Arrington
CB: Alfonzo Dennard
S: Steve Gregory
S: Devin McCourty

2012 defense
DE: Rob Ninkovich
DT: Vince Wilfork
DT: Kyle Love
DE: Chandler Jones
LB: Jerod Mayo
LB: Brandon Spikes
LB: Dont'a Hightower
CB: Devin McCourty
CB: Kyle Arrington
S: Patrick Chung
S: Steve Gregory

2013 offense
LT: Nate Solder
LG: Logan Mankins
C: Ryan Wendell
RG: Dan Connolly
RT: Sebastian Vollmer
TE: Michael Hoomanawanui
QB: Tom Brady
WR: Kenbrell Thompkins
WR: Danny Amendola
FB: James Develin
RB: Stevan Ridley

2012 offense
LT: Nate Solder
LG: Logan Mankins
C: Ryan Wendell
RG: Dan Connolly
RT: Sebastian Vollmer
TE: Rob Gronkowski
TE: Aaron Hernandez
QB: Tom Brady
WR: Brandon Lloyd
WR: Wes Welker
RB: Stevan Ridley

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Q. Hi Mike, probably one of the few non-game related questions this week. What is the advantage (or point) of adding and releasing guys just a day or two apart? I'm thinking about Matthew Mulligan and James Develin in particular. I understand adding guys as the season progresses and injuries occur. What I don't understand is how someone like Develin makes the initial 53, is cut a couple of days later, and added again a couple of days after that? There's been a few guys like this. While you may not know the specifics of the roster moves this past week, I'm just curious about your take on how this churn every day is beneficial. What's the reasoning there? -- Devin (Marlborough, Mass.)

A. Good question, Devin. At the point those moves were made, it seems fair to say that the majority of game-planning and preparation for the season-opener was complete. The Patriots probably had a good feeling for how things looked with their 2-back package with Develin and had some pretty good assurance that he'd pass through waivers and still be available to them. So I look at the two-day stint with Mulligan as sort of an extended tryout, a chance to take a closer look at a player who could help later in the year (bringing him back after Week 1 means his entire salary wouldn't be guaranteed), and also to get a sneak peak at whether a two-TE package with Mulligan might be an upgrade over a 2-back package with Develin. I wouldn't be surprised if we see Mulligan back at some point.

Q. Mike, do you see other teams doing the sign-and-release thing as much as the Pats seem to do with end-of-the-roster players? Are other clubs signing a guy like Matthew Mulligan on Tuesday and then waiving him on Thursday? -- Matt (Arlington, Va.)

A. Matt, the Patriots make more moves than most teams from a waiver-wire perspective. Part of this is also tied to practice-squad planning. By showing players like Braxston Cave, Chris Barker and A.J. Francis that they are willing to keep them on the 53-man roster by claiming them on waivers, at least for a few days, is a commitment their original team wasn't willing to make. So when those players are waived by the Patriots a week or so later, it seems as if the Patriots are banking on that commitment giving them an advantage in the competitive situation when anyone can sign them to the practice squad.

Q. Hey, Mike, I am curious about your thoughts about the defensive backfield. People (including you) seem to be forgetting the difference Aqib Talib made last year. Before they got him midyear, it was the same old story where defenses were throwing all over them. Additionally, Alfonzo Dennard emerged as a strong second CB, and it allowed Kyle Arrington to play effectively in the slot. If they have those three intact, I think they can cover just long enough to give the front seven enough time that we will see more disruption getting to the QB. I guess I am just frustrated by the "same old lousy secondary" when they were pretty good when all the pieces were there. -- Jimmy (London)

A. Jimmy, Talib was a difference-maker for the Patriots after being acquired in November and when considering the improvement that the unit hopes to make this year, having him on the club from day one is absolutely a step forward. The secondary, and defense on the whole, is starting from a higher point in 2013 than last year. Let's see if it produces more decisive results.

Q. Hey, Mike, a bit of a different question: What type of relationship have you been able to foster with Bill and some of the players? Is it strictly business? You must connect with some of these guys on a personal level. Would you mind taking the moment to touch on that side of the business? -- Shaun (Sharon, Mass.)

A. Shaun, I think it's best when it's "respectful" strictly business. I've covered Belichick, in different roles and with different responsibilities, for 14 years. You can't do that without some type of connection made. Likewise with Brady over that same time. But I think both sides realize there is a line we don't cross. I think Belichick once put it best when he said that we have conflicting agendas -- his is to win games, ours is to report on the team, and sometimes that means things come out that don't help him. That creates a natural tension at times. It can go up and down. But I always fall back on this: If you're fair and you work hard, and are accountable for what you do, there shouldn't be much for many to criticize. No one's perfect.

Q. If the Hernandez story had played out a couple of months earlier, how do you think that could have affected the Welker contract? You think that in this scenario, the Patriots would have signed Welker to a new contract? To think they could have Welker and Amendola playing together, alongside with Gronk and Thompkins, what a great offense! -- Ariel (Tel-Aviv, Israel)

A. Ariel, I think the Welker contract with the Patriots probably would have gotten done if the Hernandez murder charge happened before March. But if that happened, I don't think the Patriots would have pursued Amendola. It was one or the other for them. As it turned out, they had a chance to match Denver's offer for Welker -- and create an Amendola/Welker 1-2 punch -- and decided not to because I believe they felt it would have been too many resources devoted on the inside part of the field. Also, the thought was to take the money that would have gone to Welker and focus on the defense a bit.

Q. Mike, watching the Ravens vs. Broncos opening game, I noticed when the Ravens were coming out of the tunnel, the ref was patting down a few random players as they came out (appeared to be random). What was that about? Are the ref's TSA agents? -- Peter (Richmond, Va.)

A. Peter, if they were going the TSA route, maybe they could install some X-ray machines at the end of the tunnel to the field. What you saw was a random check by officials for illegal substances on jerseys. An offensive lineman or defensive lineman could gain an illegal advantage by having a slippery substance on his jersey, so the officials keep an eye out for that.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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