FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There is a long way to go in the 2014 NFL season, and so much can and will happen between now and the end of December, but it's easy to see that New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick likes his team.
What that all means, who really knows?
But as a coach, all you can really go by is how the team responds to the challenges put before itself in training camp and preseason, and hope that the results transfer to the regular season.
Belichick annually attempts to create some stressful situations, and build mental toughness, and he told the crowd at the Patriots Charitable Foundation Premiere event on Tuesday night that he has respect for the way the team has responded over the past four weeks. He used Monday's hot and humid full-pads practice as an example, saying it was one of the team's best since camp began July 24.
Belichick also shared glowing words for the on-field performance, leadership and community impact of Vince Wilfork, Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater and Jerod Mayo as they stood on stage as past/present recipients of the team's annual Ron Burton Community Service Award. He talked about how proud he was to have brought them into the Patriots program and made the point that there might not be four finer individuals in the NFL in terms of what they represent.
It was hard not to leave the event feeling that Belichick likes his team because it has shown him it is ready to work, and embrace the grind ahead.
So here we go. Let's see where it all leads.
Q. Mike, I thought all looked pretty good last Friday against the Panthers. The defense looks strong and the offense looks like it can move the ball. One issue I have to take is with the interior of our O-line. Looks like our playing strength is a little low there as we gave up some pressure up the middle a bit. Any chance we get a glimpse of Bryan Stork this year? -- Mike (Buena Park, California)
A. Fair observation, Mike, and I think some credit should also go to the Panthers for that too. They have some tough defensive tackles with Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, among others. Stork's lower leg injury, sustained during the fifth practice of training camp, shouldn't keep him out all season. I'd be surprised if that's the way it unfolds. I'd also mention that I started some tape study of the Dolphins, who the Patriots face in the regular-season opener, and their defensive tackles look tough too with Jared Odrick, Randy Starks and Earl Mitchell, among others. So I think it's a good point on the interior of the offensive line and its importance.
Q. Hi Mike, I know it's been downplayed a lot recently, but with Jimmy Garoppolo getting the start in the final preseason game, is there any chance that the Pats might be looking to move Ryan Mallett? I know you mentioned that the Pats may be looking to move players before the cutdown, and with a team like the Rams that just lost Sam Bradford for the year, could there be a possible fit there? I think opening up another spot for a skill player might serve the team better than a third quarterback. They've been fine with two quarterbacks in the past. Why not this year? -- Peter (Essex Junction, Vermont)
A. Peter, if a team was willing to part with a mid-round draft choice for Mallett, I think the Patriots would consider it. I just don't think there is a team, including the Rams, who would be willing to meet that price based on what Mallett has put on tape. As for three quarterbacks over two, I think the main benefit this year is that it would give Jimmy Garoppolo the luxury to develop behind the scenes with little pressure, similar to what they did in 2011 with Mallett (then a rookie) behind Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer. Garoppolo has seemingly passed every test this preseason, but at the same time, it was just the other day that Belichick himself was telling us not to read too much into preseason football.
Q. Why are we giving Mallett so little work in the most important game (three passes against Carolina) and then apparently very little (if anything) in the fourth? If the backup position is so important, doesn't it make sense to have him play? If the goal is to preserve him for a trade, as I read in Twitter speculation, then why give him so little work when it would have been best to showcase him? This does not make much sense to me unless BB thinks Mallett is terrible and wants to cut him but needs to see Garoppolo play more to do it. -- Jason (Los Angeles)
A. Jason, I don't think it has anything to do with preserving him for a trade, as much as it is to give Garoppolo the full-fledged experience of being the starter and dealing with everything that comes with it. Bill Belichick detailed his thinking in his weekly radio interview with WEEI. After three-and-a-half years, they obviously have a much better feel of what they have with Mallett.
Q. When trimming the roster to 53, we all can agree that there are surprises every year. Do you think the Patriots will cut Mallett and just go with Brady and Jimmy? We could use the extra spot somewhere else on the team. Also, they used a second-round pick on a QB; he should be able to handle backup duties right away. Thoughts? -- Sean (Holliston, Massachusetts)
A. Sean, I don't think it's out of the question given the quick rise of Garoppolo, but my educated guess is that they'll ultimately see more value in keeping Mallett on the roster and potentially receiving a compensatory draft pick in 2016 should he sign elsewhere after the season. As Bill Belichick has said in the past, that's one position that a team can never really have enough depth because if you don't have someone to step in, you really put the entire team at risk.
Q. Hats off to Jimmy Garoppolo. Considering some players (Chad Johnson) couldn't pick up the system, I'm extremely impressed Jimmy has picked it up the way he has, with the poise and maturity of a veteran. Great use of a second-round draft pick. The only hang-up against the pick is Jimmy G. will leave us for another team before he overtakes Brady. -- Tyler (Bangor, Maine)
A. Tyler, as noted in our weekly Patriots chat, I'm even more bullish about the Garoppolo pick after seeing him on and off the field, and I liked it when they made it in May. Great pick. I think the value of a strong No. 2 quarterback is often overlooked. That is a very, very, very important position on the team.
Q. Mike, I would hate to see Stevan Ridley cut or traded. I know there is a premium to holding onto the ball, but at the same time, he's a top running back in the entire league and I really feel that he is held to a different standard than others. His turnover ratio is not crazy bad and he brings a lot to the table, never gets in trouble and never says the wrong thing. That needs to be said. -- Ken (Long Island, New York)
A. Ken, I think Ridley is a good running back and has value that belongs on a 53-man roster in the NFL. At the same time, I would share my opinion that the Patriots have good depth at the position and also my sense that perhaps the public perception of Ridley is not necessarily completely aligned with the internal perception in New England. My opinion is that it's not just one thing (e.g. fumbles) that contributes to that; it's the whole mosaic that comes with every player and what teams value in players at the position. Let's see how it turns out; there are always a lot of moving parts at this time of year.
Q. Mike, do you think the release of Tommy Kelly says more about Dominique Easley being ready to go Week 1 than it does about Kelly's recovery or his ability? Obviously it makes more sense to go with your first rounder versus a veteran at Kelly's age. -- Scott (Washington, D.C.)
A. Scott, that might have been a factor, but I don't think it was the main factor with Kelly. Overall, my view is that it's just a tough combination for a player to overcome -- 33 years old, coming off a torn ACL, having reduced his contract in the offseason, and a bunch of other young linemen on the roster. They're going to mix and match combinations up front and I think we'll see a different look from the vanilla 3-4 alignment we've mostly seen in the preseason, putting players like Easley, Vince Wilfork and others in the best position to succeed.
Q. The Patriots should have kept Tommy Kelly for this year and let the younger guys grow for another. We shouldn't have sacrificed our second best defensive lineman -- who was cheap -- for ones that will be better in 1-2 years. Your thoughts, Mike? -- Tyler (Bangor, Maine)
A. Tyler, I think that's a little generous to put Kelly in the No. 2 spot. My main thought is that what we've seen in the preseason isn't fully going to resemble what we see in the regular season scheme wise and I think they have some solid pieces to build with and do different things when factoring in Wilfork, Easley, Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones, etc. I'm most interested to see how they piece it all together and I don't think we'll be looking back and saying, "Geez, they blew it with Kelly."
Q. Mike, after watching Chandler Jones dominate the Panthers, what are the chances he is converted to a full time outside linebacker? -- Andrew (New York, New York)
A. Andrew, the way I'd look at it is that Jones is going to be an end-of-the-line player, whether it's outside linebacker in a 3-4 alignment or defensive end in a 4-3 alignment. In many ways, those responsibilities are the same, it's just a matter of whether Jones starts with his hand in the dirt or if he's in a two-point stance. We'll probably see him do a little bit of everything, and the last thing about his performance Friday is that it came against left tackle Byron Bell, who isn't in the upper echelon at the position. That's some important context to at least add to the discussion.
Q. Hi Mike, can you help clarify the process for a player to clear waivers to make it to the practice squad? Does the claiming team need to put that player on the 53-man roster, or can they claim them for their practice squad? Once the player clears waivers, and the team wants them, do they get first dibs on putting them on their practice squad, or is it essentially a "free agent" situation where the player could theoretically choose between different teams? -- Evan (Lowell, Massachusetts)
A. Evan, if a team claims a player that the Patriots waive, that team must place the player on the 53-man roster. If a player clears waivers, he is then free to sign with any team's practice squad.
Q. Is the waivers to practice squad an irrevocable waiver? Can a team pull a player back from waivers and keep him on the roster if claimed? - Stu (Middleborough, Massachusetts)
A. Good question, Stu. There are no revocable waivers in football.
Q. Lots to like from Friday night. To me, the most telling play was the response of the team to Stephen Gostkowski's 60-yard field goal. To see the apparently genuine response from the team's leadership players indicates a strong sense of "team" and positive chemistry from this group. This doesn't guarantee success, but an obvious lack of chemistry can certainly foreshadow problems during a long season. What is your sense of the focus, camaraderie and shared vision with this group compared with recent seasons? - Drew (Worcester, Massachusetts)
A. Drew, that stood out to me as well, and I thought it reflected well on Gostkowski and how he's earned the respect of his teammates, which isn't always the easiest thing to do when you're the kicker because you're often isolated from the team. I'd say the overall chemistry of the team seems good, but that's always evolving and we'll find out a little more when some adversity hits.
Q. Other than his increased playing time, is there something special you're seeing from Jordan Devey that merits attention? - Carlos (Puerto Rico)
A. Carlos, Devey's size (6-foot-6 and 317 pounds) gives them a little bit more bulk in there, so that's the first thing. He can hold his ground against the interior rush. It hasn't always been perfect, but between the size and his smarts, there is a little bit of a foundation there to work with. His position flexibility helps too. Let's see how it turns out with his roster status; I think that one could go either way.
Q. Hey Mike, a lot has been discussed this offseason with the defense. I have not heard much about new addition Dominique Easley, other than the fact he has started participating recently. It can be hard to judge, but do you expect him to be on the field by week 1? How much do you take from this preseason performance of the D line in your assessment of its ceiling? - Nikhil M. (Albany, New York)
A. Easley looks like he has a chance to be ready for Week 1, Nikhil. If not, it wouldn't be too far after that. As an interior rusher, he has some explosion that stands out from time to time. If he's healthy, I think he helps the team. I keep thinking back to the AFC Championship Game and Peyton Manning having so much time, in part because of the lack of pressure up the middle. Easley could change that.
Q. Hi Mike, with the cutting of James Anderson, I'm concerned about the backup to Jamie Collins, in terms of coverage LB, as RBs and TEs have consistently hurt the Pats the past few years on passing plays. Is Darius Fleming that guy? Is James Morris? Or is a backup coverage LB a luxury, and for practical purposes the presence of Collins is simply enough? - Tman (Belmont, Massachusetts)
A. Tman, I'd lean toward the last thing you said in this case. When constructing a roster, a 31-year-old coverage linebacker with limited special-teams contributions is a luxury that is tough to have when trying to put the 53-piece puzzle together, or even the 63-piece puzzle when including practice squad. They'll have Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins as their top off-the-line linebackers. Dont'a Hightower, Rob Ninkovich and Darius Fleming are also options in the event of emergency.
Q. Kiko Alonso, NaVorro Bowman, Sean Lee, Sean Weatherspoon, Daryl Washington and Jon Beason are all out for the season. Meanwhile, James Anderson was a productive linebacker for the Bears last year. Was there absolutely no market to trade James Anderson rather than release him? - Josh T. (Fort Lauderdale, Florida)
A. Josh, one has to assume the Patriots did their due diligence in that area. Oftentimes, when a team calls in a situation like that, the team on the other end of the line rightfully assumes that it has all the leverage.
Q. Hi Mike, in thinking about some of the personnel the Patriots have employed at tight end in the red zone, do you think they would consider using Jamie Collins as the second tight, a la Mike Vrabel? He would give them another big, athletic target. - Paul C. (Santa Clarita, California)
A. Paul, I think that's a sound thought and one I wouldn't dismiss. Good thinking.
Q. Hi Mike, in all of your years covering the Pats, have you ever picked up any tension or other vibe in the locker room as the "cut deadline" gets closer? The competition for roster spots has to be intense and I'm wondering if you've noticed any palpable signs of nervousness, panic or otherwise among the players. - Tom (Boston)
A. Absolutely, Tom. I could feel a little bit of it on Monday when we were in there. Not a fun time for many players.