- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Here we go. The New England Patriots open the 2014 season with a road game against the Dolphins and I see it as a tough game for them because of two primary factors:
1. Miami's defensive line is very good and the Patriots have an offensive line in transition.
2. The hot, humid weather creates an additional challenge with the 1 p.m. ET kickoff.
3. So while I think the Patriots should win, I expect a close game and always have it in mind that unexpected things often happen in Week 1.
There is a lot of ground to cover this week, from roster moves to injured players returning, to last week's shocking Logan Mankins trade.
Let's get right to it.
Q. Mike, why in the world would Gronk publicize that he's going to play in the opener against the Dolphins? This gives the Fins an entire week to prep and plan for his presence. -- Tom (Boston)
A. Tom, I would hope they were going to plan for him anyway. If they didn't, that coaching staff might not be there much longer. But I did find it interesting that Rob Gronkowski himself broke the news, and I asked him why he did so. He said he didn't want the situation to linger all week. Returning from an ACL injury can be as much mental as it is physical, and I think what he did is tied to the mental approach of readying himself to take this step. Whether Bill Belichick is onboard with that approach is unclear, although it sounds like he might have preferred Gronkowski not go that route.
Q. Mike, taking into mind a number of factors including injury history, defenders going low, and his overall importance to the Patriots' offense, do you think the Patriots are going to limit and pick and choose Rob Gronkowski's usage all regular season? -- Matt (Dracut, Mass.)
A. Matt, similar to last year, I think they'll limit Gronkowski initially as they work toward a full workload with him. But by five or six games into the season, I'd be surprised if Gronkowski is not 90 percent or higher in terms of snaps played.
Q. Considering owner Robert Kraft's usual focus on having a team that New England can be proud of and will represent the brand and his name well, why in the world are they signing Don Jones? -- Jacob (Bethlehem, Pa.)
A. For those who don't know, Jones made headlines in May for a Dolphins-issued suspension on his negative tweets regarding Michael Sam's reaction to being drafted. Any time a team is bringing 63 players into the same room (53 on the roster, 10 on the practice squad), there are going to be those who have different beliefs. Still, it's about how you bring those players together, educate, and create a respectful and productive workplace. Without knowing much about the 24-year-old Jones, who is from Tuscumbia, Alabama, I don't think his actions warrant a situation where a team shouldn't sign him.
Q. Logan Mankins is a leader and pretty tough individual. I remember he played with a torn ACL in 2011. He will surely be missed in New England. However, he is 32 and three seasons removed from being one of the highest-paid guards in the NFL. Yet New England was incapable of protecting Tom Brady up the middle during that time span. In the meantime, wouldn't it better benefit New England to not only trade for a much needed TE, but also have cap space to sign an extension to someone like Devin McCourty, Darrelle Revis, or Chandler Jones? -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)
A. Alvin, I still think Mankins plays at a high level and that subtracting him from the mix makes the overall offensive line a weaker unit. But the return of Tim Wright at tight end makes them stronger in that area, so it's a re-distribution of assets on the roster both in 2014 and potentially the future with the salary-cap space. The last thing I'd say on the trade is that we shouldn't overlook the human element. Mankins was a foundation player in the locker room and when you trade a player like that, it can't help but have an impact on the emotions and feelings of some players. That's part of the trade as well.
Q. Mike, do you think the two-TE set is going to return to 2010-2012 in terms of how much time they spend in that formation? I'm not expecting as much production as those years, but I think if 87 is healthy (huge "if" at this point), two tight ends is their preferred method. I know matchups dictate all in the NFL, but do you agree that two tight ends is how they want to attack? -- Mike C. (Lowell)
A. Mike, I do expect to see more of "12 personnel" with a combination of Gronkowski and Tim Wright, but I don't think it will be exclusive. I could see games where they still use more of a three-receiver approach as the main grouping. As for the percentages, a lot will depend on each week's game plan and the health of the opposing defensive personnel. I think a safe estimate at this time would be 33 percent in that two-TE grouping, but we should always leave wiggle room based on the ever-evolving dynamics of the weekly schedule.
Q. In light of the aftermath of the Logan Mankins trade, I'm asking about an even worse future possibility. Let's assume that Jimmy Garoppolo has a great year on the practice field and he gains the confidence of Belichick and company. What could the Patriots expect to get for Tom Brady and do you think that Jimmy G is equipped to handle the intense media scrutiny that would surely follow? -- Jim C. (Centennial, Colo.)
A. Jim, I have little doubt that Garoppolo can handle the scrutiny. As for Brady, the first thought that came to mind is how Carson Palmer produced a first-round pick and a conditional second-rounder in the Cincinnati-to-Oakland swap a few years ago. Brady turns 38 next year and if I was an opposing team and felt like he had another five years or so to play, I'd quickly pay that price if the Patriots were inclined to deal him. That would probably be the baseline.
Q. Seems like we are stocking up on the D-line and in the secondary, and maybe at the expense of the linebacking corps. Is the lack of depth at off-the-line linebacker a new twist on Bill's defense? Will we see more sub sets with only two or one LBs on the field? -- Eli (Plymouth, Mass.)
A. Eli, I wouldn't read too much into that. The way I look at what the Patriots are doing with their roster is acquiring assets based on a marketplace that became flooded with players. It's almost like the "do you draft for need or best player available debate" -- I don't think the Patriots necessarily needed two more defensive linemen, but they are viewed as quality players by the club and this was the one time they were available and the team could dictate the terms of bringing them aboard. I expect a few more changes in the coming days before we have a final look at the opening-day roster.
Q. Mike, it looks like the roster is as much a work in progress as any season in recent memory. What interests me about the D is it has very reliable veterans across the board and intriguing young players backing them up. One such player is Darius Fleming. Could you comment on his progress? -- ECF (D.C.)
A. ECF, Fleming is a story of perseverance after tearing the ACL in both knees his first two years in the NFL with the 49ers (2012, 2013). While he is closer to the end of the 53-man roster, I see his value in being able to back up multiple spots -- on the line and off the line -- and contribute on special teams. For more on Fleming, I liked this piece by Tom E. Curran of Comcast SportsNet from a few weeks ago.
Q. Hi Mike, can you offer any insight into the release of Danny Aiken, particularly because there is no true alternative on the roster? I read Rob Ninkovich can long snap, but what if he gets injured being a defensive starter? It seems long snapper is a position taken for granted until a mistake costs the Patriots a game. -- Gordon (Auburn, Ill.)
A. Yes, Gordon, the snapper is the type of position where no one pays much attention to it until there is a mistake. With Aiken, I think the Patriots would like to see some more consistency. He could still be back if he doesn't sign elsewhere, and I'd expect the Patriots to make some type of move at the position before the season opener. If not, it's most likely Ninkovich.
Q. Mike, Jon Halapio, Jemea Thomas and Jeremy Gallon were drafted but didn't make the practice squad. Surprised at this? -- Dave (Elmira, N.Y.)
A. Dave, I'd say less surprised than maybe I would have been in the past. I personally overrated draft status this year in my roster projections, and I now think the difference between a draft pick and undrafted player is minimal compared with where it might have been in years past. Look at Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted in 2013) vs. Josh Boyce (fourth round, 2013) this year as an example. A big part of it is how the players progress once here. For every draft miss on a player like Halapio, you have a developed undrafted player like Jordan Devey. For every draft miss on a player like Thomas (Day 1 injury at training camp a factor), you have an undrafted player like Malcolm Butler.
Q. Please tell me the sense of trading down to get extra picks if the players don't even make the team. It would make more sense to go the other way -- bundle extra picks to move up in the first three rounds where these players should make the team. -- Jim I. (Spencer, Mass.)
A. Jim, this is part of what makes the draft an "inexact science." I assume you are referring to trading the third-round pick (93rd, Brandon Linder) to Jacksonville for a fourth-rounder (105th, Bryan Stork) and sixth-rounder (179th, Jon Halapio). In this case, the Patriots probably would have taken Stork at 93 anyway, so they played some odds that they could move down, still get their player, and pick up an extra asset in the process. It didn't work out as planned, but that's the concept.
Q. Hello, Mike. How can you possibly put a positive spin on the Ryan Mallett situation? Spend a third-round pick on a player who never saw a meaningful snap and exchange it a few years later for a sixth- or seventh-round pick? Sounds like outstanding general manager and apologist work. Speaking of QB selections, I recall a chat of yours where you were asked if spending a late third-round pick on AJ McCarron would be a worthwhile pick. And your response was you didn't know if McCarron would be available then but you wouldn't use anything earlier then a late third round. Then when almighty Bill says he's "layering the position" (a term you never previously used), you're all in. So the question is what "value" did the Patriots get out of the Mallett third-round draft pick? -- Rich (Peabody, Mass.)
A. Rich, you bring up two different points, so I'll answer them in sections:
1. The value the Patriots received from Mallett was having him as their low-cost insurance policy for three years at the game's most important position. That allowed them to construct their roster and help build the best team possible, from 1 to 53. Just because Tom Brady didn't get hurt doesn't lessen the value of the pick. Look around the NFL and it doesn't take much to see teams that regret their handling of the No. 2 spot (e.g., Packers in 2013). It's similar to a life insurance policy you might buy for a family -- you pay for it, hope you don't have to use it, and if you don't, it doesn't lessen the value to your family. I'm not sure why that is so hard for anyone to see.
2. On the McCarron point, which I've dug up here for accountability purposes, I think it's a case of parsing words and missing the greater point, while also not factoring in the ever-evolving picture of the NFL draft. The post was from April 4, more than a month before the draft. At that point, I would have projected the Patriots were more likely to trade back from the late second round (62nd) to take a quarterback in the mid-third-round range like they did when they selected Mallett (74th). But then you get to the draft and things change based on who has already been picked (at that position and others), and you have teams behind you (e.g., Houston at 65) who were ready to pounce on the player. So you have to react accordingly if you feel really strongly about the player. That's part of working the draft that no one can really project four weeks in advance.
Q. With all the hype surrounding James White, I expected a better showing. He averaged 2.8 yards per carry for the preseason. Is that alarming to you? -- Alex (Carter Lake, Iowa)
A. Alex, I don't think the solid work in practice that has impressed the coaching staff necessarily transferred to the game field. Alarming might be a strong word, but it shouldn't be overlooked. I still think the coaching staff is high on him.
With their recent roster surprises, questions surround the Pats' debut.