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Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Mailbag: Sorting out the unknowns

By Mike Reiss

If this week's mailbag reflects what is on the minds of Patriots fans, the top topics would be broken down this way:

1. Wes Welker's recovery and if he's being rushed back too soon.

2. Tom Brady and his contract status.

3. Logan Mankins and his contract status.

4. Potential defensive changes.

Also, picking up something from last week, one e-mailer was looking for copies of games from the team's undefeated 2007 regular season. A few e-mailers wrote in this week and said they had copies, so I'll see if we can make a connection.

Q. Do you agree with the notion that Wes Welker should not participate or have limited participation in training camp so that other receivers can spend more time developing with Tom Brady? Even if he is cleared medically? -- LouLou80 (Lexington, Mass.)

A. Lou, I wouldn't keep Welker off the field for that reason. I still think you can have Welker on the field and evaluate the other receivers. So if Bill Belichick thinks having Welker on the field makes the Patriots better for the regular-season opener and the 16-game regular season, I think you put him out there. If I was making the call, I'd wait a few weeks, but it would be hard to tell Welker that knowing how hard he's worked.

Wes Welker
Is Wes Welker being rushed back too fast? Some fans are worried about it.

Q. Hey Mike, I am not buying the hype on Wes Welker's recovery just yet. He may be cleared to go all out in training camp, but we have seen many examples of a torn ACL and the time it takes to recover from it. Do you expect that Wes will be "good as new" in September, or do you think it will actually take a year or more to fully recover from this and be able to make the cuts that he needs to catch 100-plus passes each year? -- Dave B. (San Francisco)

A. Dave, I spoke with former Patriots fullback Heath Evans about his rehab from ACL surgery and he relayed a conversation he had with Rodney Harrison about Harrison's rehab. One of the things Harrison said was that it takes a few games to get back to speed after knee surgery, and it isn't until the fourth, fifth or maybe sixth game that you stop thinking about the knee. So if we are to use that as a guide, and project that Welker will clear all hurdles, I think Welker can be the Welker of old in the middle of the season.

Q. Hey Mike. My coworker and I had a discussion about when a player cannot be eligible for the physically unable to perform list. We both thought that if Welker participates in training camp, the team loses the ability to put him on the list to start the season. We then thought that Belichick would have him on the 53-man roster, but Welker could be held off the 45 man game-day roster until the team deemed him well enough to play. This way he still can practice and prep without falling behind. Can you help clarify this for us? -- Grant (Columbus, Ohio)

A. Grant, that is correct. Once you practice in training camp, the physically unable to perform (PUP) list is no longer an option. It's one reason why football doesn't have a disabled list; instead, you have the active/inactive list on game day. The one thing I'd say is that if Welker practices in training camp, that's a strong indication that he has a good chance to be ready for the season opener.

Q. Mike, assuming Tom Brady gets an expensive, fair-market-value deal going forward, how will that deal, coupled with [Vince] Wilfork's deal, affect the Patriots in terms of signing free agents, draft picks, and their own players whose contracts are up over the next few years? With two first-rounders next year (one a potential top-10 pick), and potential long-term needs at receiver, RB, and OLB, it seems like they might need to shell out a lot of money over the next few years. -- Kyle (Cranston, R.I.)

A. Kyle, I think the Patriots will be OK in this regard, although one can't say for certain because no one knows what rules will be in place. One thought that might be worthy of consideration is that whatever situation the Patriots are in, the Colts will be in, too.

Q. Mike, I read a rumor questioning Tom Brady's dedication to the game and it asked if he was too "LA" now? I figure, you of all people, with close ties to the organization, would either be able to eliminate or justify this report. Do you think anything revolving around a post like this spells trouble for a contract negotiation? -- Joe (Florence, Mass.)

A. Joe, I think the idea that Brady is less dedicated to football is off the mark. He's as dedicated as ever, in my view. The only difference is that over the past few years he has spent most of the offseason in California because of family considerations.

Tully Banta-Cain
The Patriots will need Tully Banta-Cain to be a consistent sack threat on defense.

Q. Mike, I believe that one aspect of the Brady negotiation that is under-analyzed is his new commitment to the NFLPA. In a sense both [Bob] Kraft and Brady are negotiating not only as owner and QB, but as leaders of the owners and players, respectively. In your opinion, are either or both looking beyond this contract to what they see as the "greater good" for their respective sides? -- Bob H. (New York)

A. Bob, I do think that is a factor on both sides. Another point that I think is overlooked is that Brady has never reached the end of his deal; instead twice extending his pact with two years remaining before he would have reached unrestricted free agency. Usually when you extend that early, you aren't getting the type of money an unrestricted free agent would get; you give a little of that up in exchange for the immediate security. Since Brady is close to reaching the end of his deal, it only makes sense that he would be looking to cash in with a deal that would reflect what he could get on the open market.

Q. Mike, if nothing changes with the CBA, are teams still going to be allowed to franchise-tag players after this upcoming season? If not, that changes my view on the absolute urgency to [get] Brady's contract done before the season. -- John H. (South Boston)

A. John, there is no guarantee that the franchise tag will still be an option for teams. As I see it, that is part of the risk that the teams would be taking by not extending players entering the last year of their contracts.

Q. Mike, with all the talk about Tom Brady being in the last year of his current contract and scheduled to be paid $6.5 million and that being low for a quarterback of his caliber, I haven't seen anything on whether or not his current contract was front-loaded. If his total contract (including any bonus) was divided by the number of years the contract ran, what would his yearly average salary have been? -- Bert (Norwood, Mass.)

A. Bert, Brady's extension in 2005 was heavily front-loaded. I believe more than $30 million came in the first two years. His overall average is $10 million per year from that contract.

Q. Hey Mike, so now that the Tom Brady contract talks (thankfully) have taken a turn for the better, any ideas on length/money? I'm interested to know if it's going to be like the Elvis Dumervil and D'Brickashaw Ferguson deals with the real money coming in 2011. -- Arjuna (Derry, N.H.)

A. Arjuna, I think the Patriots would move on a deal like that right now, but I believe Brady would resist it. If they reach a middle ground, I bet it would be significant payment in 2010 but not necessarily a blockbuster signing bonus.

Q. Mike, Logan Mankins initially made a fairly loud protest but has apparently been silent ever since. It was subsequently revealed the Patriots had offered $7 million per year (over 6-7 years). I am wondering why the silence. I've heard it said that the best way to get traded is to sign a tender and be difficult in camp. If Mankins really wanted out, why did he not do this? This leads me to think that one of two things is happening: 1) The silence is because the parties are talking, even if an agreement is not forthcoming; or 2) The Patriots are standing firm on the reduction in the tender that Mankins refused to sign. In the latter case, Mankins would probably perceive the reduced tender as a risk not worth taking. He would then hope for a re-negotiated labor agreement that makes him a free agent in 2011. I'd like to see some reading of the tea leaves here. -- Justin (Portsmouth, N.H.)

A. Justin, I think this is pretty straightforward. There is silence because Mankins made his point and has nothing else to say. Neither do the Patriots; they feel they made a solid offer and it's a case where the sides agree to disagree. I don't think the sides have spoken since Mankins' remarks

Q. Have the Pats used their franchise tag for this year? If they haven't, why don't they use it on Mankins? -- George (Franklin, Mass.)

A. George, the deadline for teams to use the franchise tag has passed. Teams can no longer use it in 2010.

Q. Hi Mike. Injuries are a big key. There seemed to be no disasters at the OTA's. Last season, Randy Moss seemed to be playing hurt. Did he have any procedures? How did the guys recovering from last season's injuries look? -- JoeFla (Orlando, Fla.)

A. Joe, I think this is an overlooked storyline, as the Patriots are as healthy as I can remember in recent years. Moss did not undergo surgery this offseason. All the recovering players looked solid to me in spring camps.

Patrick Chung
Patrick Chung could become one of the playmakers the Patriots lacked last season.

Q. Hi Mike, last year we saw a number of games where the defense could not close out games in the third and fourth quarters. After further reviewing the game tapes, do you have a better idea of why we lost the defensive edge? Was it a matter of the personnel getting sloppy or tired? Was it a shift in the defensive calls by the coaches or not being able to adjust to the changes that the opposing offenses made? More importantly, what do the Pats have to do this season to ensure that they don't suffer the same fate this season? -- David D. (Norton, Mass.)

A. David, I think it's multiple factors, but if I had to boil it down I'd say a lack of playmakers coming up with big plays in the critical situations. That's why I look at this defense and see players like cornerback Darius Butler and safety Patrick Chung as being key to integrate into the mix. They also have to find a way to get more consistent pressure out of the standard four-man rush, which is a challenge for many teams in the NFL.

Q. Hey Mike, writing in about the pessimism surrounding the Patriots this offseason regarding defense. From what I saw (and I think you've agreed and many others have, also), the secondary didn't look that bad, but the pass rush was just horrible. I was looking through the stats of when the Pats were considered an elite group during the Super Bowl years, and I saw that there may have been only two times that the Pats had guys registering 10-plus sacks, but they had a bunch of guys in the 6-8 range every year. Given that maybe Tully Banta-Cain can keep an 8-count, and Derrick Burgess can live up to his billing this year and get up to 6-8, I think the Pats defense could actually come back to be a formidable defense, given that some others tag along. It seemed to me that the defense was actually very solid (4th in fewest points per game allowed), but didn't come up with any big plays (sacks, strip sacks, game-changing INT's) when they needed them. I think they can be decent this year if some other guys can get after the QB when they need them to. Your thoughts? -- Chris (Fort Meade, Md.)

A. I'd go along with that Chris, with one twist. I wouldn't solely look at sacks. I think hurries can be just as important. So overall, the idea is that this defense needs to get back to being more disruptive than it has been, and I see the potential in that area. Sometimes getting a quarterback to throw the ball away is just as effective as a sack.

Q. Is it a better sign for the Patriots if Devin McCourty or Darius Butler emerges as the starter? -- Jarrod (Mansfield)

A. Jarrod, I don't think you could go wrong either way. It's always a bit risky to rely on a rookie at that spot, but the Miami Dolphins did it last year and they had success. Both will play a significant role this year, in my opinion.

Q. Looking at last year's standings, the Pats and the Vikings were the only teams in the NFL with a perfect home record. But the Pats were tied with Jacksonville and Cleveland for the worst road record in the AFC. Are you as confident as I am that trend will not continue in 2010? In four of those six losses on the road, we were winning in the fourth quarter. Those types of things don't translate year to year. -- Bob (Hackensack, N.J.)

A. Bob, I think it was Tedy Bruschi who made the point that the poor road record reflected a team that didn't have enough players who believed in each other. The point was that on the road, all you have is yourself and you have to band together. The Patriots were in those games late, but didn't have enough players rise up in the critical situations.

Q. Mike, I've been watching film on the Patriots last year, and something really struck me from the Jets game in November. Everyone is high on the Jets this year, but we scored 31 points on the league's "No. 1 defense" that day. It was a blowout minus the special-teams punt block. LaDainian Tomlinson is not Thomas Jones, and I don't really see the Jets as 17 points better this year. The Jets scored only one offensive touchdown all game. Welker and Brady picked apart the blitz defense of the Jets. I see the screws falling off for the Jets early on. The Jets are an overconfident team that will start to question their head coach. I certainly think they've closed the gap, but Miami concerns me more. Chad Henne picked apart our defense last year, and now he has Brandon Marshall. I see the division as 1. New England, 2. Miami, 3. Jets, 4. Bills. Any thoughts? -- Ross (Washington, D.C.)

A. Ross, I remember that game in November and it was a decisive knockdown. That was the Leigh Bodden three-interception game when Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez did not look ready for primetime. I see what you are saying, and think there is some validity to the idea that perception of the Jets might not be the reality. But I do think it's dangerous to lock in on one game and make that call. I think it's better to look at the entire body of work. Like you, I have some doubts about the Jets.

Q. Hey Mike, the Patriots kept eight linebackers last year, and if the number is the same this year, how will it all shake out? They kept three inside linebackers last year, and, barring injury, [Jerod] Mayo, [Gary] Guyton, [Brandon] Spikes and [Tyrone] McKenzie would seemingly be locks. Then at outside linebacker you have Tully Banta-Cain, Derrick Burgess and Jermaine Cunningham. So that would leave one spot between Shawn Crable, Pierre Woods, Eric Alexander and Rob Ninkovich. They also have some serious competitions at DL, CB and safety this year, so I don't see them taking fewer guys at those positions than last year. So what gives? Where will the roster spots come from? Which ILB's and OLB's do you see making the team? -- Rick (Pelham, N.H.)

A. Rick, sometimes an injury can sort that out. We're also assuming that McKenzie returns to the form he had at South Florida that made him a third-round draft choice. I agree with you that we could see a familiar name or two cut if everyone is healthy and they keep eight linebackers as they did last year. Not to cop out on the question, but I think the answer will truly be determined by the competition in training camp, and I'd rather focus on that than make a projection on which I don't have enough information to make an educated guess.

Q. Mike, there are reports coming out of Cincy that T.O. is potentially going to show up next year as a Bengal. Now, I would love to see Owens as a Patriot, for no other reason than that he is a seasoned vet who can still hack it, which gives the Pats some much-needed veteran depth at the WR position. Obviously, the Patriots don't feel the same way. What I don't understand is: Why? I know you have already beat this subject to death, but if a playoff-caliber team like the Bengals is willing to take a legit look at him and possibly bring him onto their team, what exactly do the Patriots have at receiver depth that they are feeling so confident about? -- Kristen (Memphis)

A. Kristen, I think the first factor is the locker-room dynamic. Bringing a player like Owens into the locker room is dangerous in my view. Second, I think the team wants to see what it has in youngsters Brandon Tate and Taylor Price before relying on a veteran signing like an Owens, or even Torry Holt. Part of the reason the Bengals are interested in Owens is that veteran free-agent signee Antonio Bryant has reportedly struggled there.

Q. Hi Mike, with all the questions surrounding the leadership at defense, Brady's contract, and the Mankins situation, one thing that has gone completely under the radar is the running game. I know the Pats are well-stocked at running back but are they carrying a fullback at all? To my recollection they haven't addressed the position since Heath Evans left. -- Thomas1126 (Boston)

A. No pure fullback is on the roster. They use offensive lineman Dan Connolly there in power packages, and with three tight ends projected to make the final roster, one of them could factor into the mix in a fullback-type role at times. The team was also experimenting with linebacker Thomas Williams, a possible sleeper to make the roster, at fullback in spring camps.

Q. Hi Mike, BenJarvus Green-Ellis is young, runs hard and can score, but with the three tight ends, is he going to make it? -- Corky D. (Destin, Fla.)

A. Corky, I'd put Green-Ellis on the roster bubble entering training camp. Injuries, both at running back and other positions, such as tight end and receiver, figure to affect his status. One of the things that I think is important with Green-Ellis is factoring in the future. If you think he has a chance to be a contributor as a runner in future years -- but right now he might not be as valuable as a Sammy Morris or Fred Taylor -- that creates a tough roster dilemma of balancing the present and future.

Q. Mike, I've seen that ESPNDallas, ESPNChicago, and ESPNLosAngeles all have iPhone applications. When might ESPNBoston get on that bandwagon? -- Brian (Lawton, Okla.)

A. Brian, thanks for the interest. This was also asked recently on Twitter and I have yet to come up with the answer.

Q. Mike, as a print reporter, has doing more TV and radio changed your preparation for the upcoming season any? -- Greg (Virginia)

A. Greg, the preparation is the same, but the time management is somewhat different when balancing the different aspects of writing, TV and to a lesser degree radio. One thing I'm excited about is the chance to report and tell stories about the NFL as a whole as part of ESPN's "First Take" television program. I started that this week and had items on the Patriots, Saints, Jets, Ravens, Rams and Lions. Some of it is more lighthearted stuff. So I'm devoting a little more time to that and it's a nice professional challenge. But at heart, I still consider myself a print reporter and try to bring that approach to TV and the little radio that I do.

Q. Mike, we have been thinking about attending one of the preseason games and we obviously want to pick the one that the starters will get the most playing time in. I know there is a certain logic that goes into how the coaches use the preseason. For instance, I am aware that starters almost never play in the fourth game. Can you break down how much time the starters are likely to get this preseason? -- Chris T. (North Kingstown, R.I.)

A. Chris, the top players usually play a series or two in the preseason opener, then a little longer in the second game, then usually through the first half in the third preseason game. So for this year, I'd recommend that third preseason game, against the Rams on Aug. 26.

Mike covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.