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Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Gronkowski making case as top TE

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

It's Gronk's world and we're all just living in it.

That is one of the themes of this week's Patriots Mailbag, as second-year tight end Rob Gronkowski continues to impress, his latest strong performance coming in Monday night's 34-3 win over the Chiefs. The Patriots haven't had a tight end like this since Ben Coates. He's fun to watch.

While Gronkowski rises, some are wondering why receiver Chad Ochocinco isn't more of a factor. Ochocinco said last week that he thought he'd have a big game against the Chiefs, but he was quiet (11 snaps, 0 targets).

Whether it's Gronkowski, Ochocinco or others such as rookie running back Shane Vereen or rookie offensive lineman Marcus Cannon, this week's mailbag is heavy on personnel chatter. Let's get right to it.

Q: Hi Mike, I am extremely impressed with Rob Gronkowski. He is getting the attention he deserves. However, I'm not sure people understand how good he truly is. Where would you rank him in the NFL compared to other TE's? Considering he can dominate as a blocker, I think he may take the top spot. Also, if the draft was reset, knowing what we know now, were would you predict he would be drafted? -- Sans Milbury (Danvers, Mass.)

Gronkowski
Rob Gronkowski is second in the NFL with 10 touchdown receptions.

A: It's a tough one for me to answer because I'm more locked in on the Patriots -- I can't imagine a better one when factoring in blocking and pass-catching -- so I defer to the national reporters who see more. Along those lines, I thought it was notable that ESPN "Monday Night Football" analyst Ron Jaworski said Gronkowski is at the top of the NFL tight end chart with Jimmy Graham (Saints) and Jermichael Finley (Packers). Here is what Jaworwski said on ESPN Boston Radio on Monday: "Rob has a chance to be something really special. When we talk about attributes, the one thing that jumps out at me besides his catch radius is his separation. Very few tight ends separate like he does coming out of the break." As for where Gronkowski would be drafted if things were re-set, I'd say anywhere between the Nos. 10-20. He was sensational on Monday night, again.

Q: Mike, what's the deal with Ocho? To say he's been a failure would be really understating things. Why is he still here? -- Paul (Dover, N.H.)

A: Paul, I don't think anyone is trying to sugarcoat it. The Patriots didn't trade for Ochocinco, sign him to a restructured contract with a $4.5 million signing bonus, and expect this type of production. It's been a disappointment. But part of the reason he's still here is that when it comes to receivers after Wes Welker and Deion Branch, he's the best option the Patriots have. He's the No. 3 option that Tom Brady feels best about. Also, Ochocinco has worked hard behind the scenes and has bought in to the Patriots' way of doing things, which contributes to the team's decision-making.

Q: With six minutes left in the game against the Chiefs and the score no longer in doubt, most of the Patriots' offensive starters were still in the game. Then starting left tackle Matt Light unfortunately gets injured. Taking into account the high risk of injury, why does Bill Belichick allow the starters to remain in the game? If No. 12 gets injured the season is over. -- Gordon (Auburn, Ala.)

A: Gordon, it was 27-3 at the time and the Patriots had the ball at their 38-yard line. I was thinking along your lines of that possibly being a good time to see backup quarterback Brian Hoyer or third-stringer Ryan Mallett. There were some other changes, with rookie Marcus Cannon coming on for Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle and Taylor Price/Julian Edelman replacing Wes Welker/Deion Branch at receiver, so there was some thought to getting some top guys out. In retrospect, it might have been smarter to pull Light in place of rookie Nate Solder, but in general, there are only so many switches you can make because only 46 players are dressed. So some top guys are always going to have to stay on the field.

Q: Hey Mike, definitely liked what I saw last night from the Pats. One interesting aspect of the game was that the Chiefs got pressure on Brady early, but New England seemingly made adjustments and blew it open by the third quarter. Since the recipe for beating the Patriots in recent years has been to pressure Brady, what did you see as the main adjustments they made here, and will these work against teams they could face in the playoffs with a strong pass rush, such as Baltimore and Pittsburgh? -- Dave (San Francisco)

A: Dave, every matchup is different, but it looked to me like the usage of Nate Solder as an extra blocker helped settle things down at the line. I'll have to go back and watch it over again, but it seemed like that extra attention up front created a little more resistance to a Chiefs rush that was getting to Brady early.

Q: Hi Mike, Green-Ellis was a workhorse against the Chiefs, especially in the second half, and he deserved to score the last TD. Why the play calling sending him up the middle inside the 5-yard line when going outside had been working and did so for Vereen? -- Jake Malone (Vancouver, B.C.)

A: Jake, on that play on the final drive, it was a different look with Green-Ellis lining up in the fullback position in front of Vereen. The Patriots had tried to run Green-Ellis wider earlier in the game and the Chiefs were tough on the goal line, turning him back, so I can see what the coaches were thinking with that call. It was a changeup of sorts.

Q: Hi Mike, It seems to me, for the last five games, the Pats offense has come out flat in the first quarter/half. It seems the only adjustments they make is at halftime when presumably, Bill Belichick can get more involved. There seems to be little adjusting before the half -- no screens, no draws, no reverses, nothing but handoff on first for no gain and rely on Brady to bail them out. What do you think of offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien? -- Paul (Watertown, Mass.)

A: Paul, I think O'Brien is a good coach who has grown into the role of playcaller. I thought there were some good first-half adjustments made against the Chiefs, specifically using Nate Solder as a second tight end on the first scoring drive. That seemed to help settle the offense down. Like anyone else, O'Brien isn't perfect and he'd like to have some calls back, but overall I think he is solid.

Q: Hey Mike, is it just me or do we often see a big dip in production after players get their big payday? Right here in New England, Logan Mankins does not look nearly as good this year as he has in years past. How often do you think a big payday has a negative effect on a player's ability and how much do you think the Pats take this into account when deciding which players they will pay big money for? -- Tim (Alaska)

A: Tim, Mankins picked up two more penalties Monday night (he now has a team-high eight) and has been more up and down than we've seen in the past. I don't think there is any connection to him getting more comfortable with his contract and not working hard, but it speaks more to how challenging it is to maintain a high level of play on a year to year basis. That said, I do think there are certain players where this is a factor. I believe the Patriots had some reservations with Asante Samuel along those lines. You ask the question, "How will this big contract change the player's approach?" If you have some doubt, you don't take the plunge.

Q: Mike, do you still think the Patriots can make the Super Bowl? -- Connor (Gorham, Maine)

A: Connor, I do think the Patriots can advance to the Super Bowl. I view them like most of the other top teams -- flawed in some areas, but excellent in others (passing game led by Brady). Given their remaining schedule, I could envision a scenario where they are playing their best football when it counts. The X factor, as we know, is health. One can never project what the health of any team's roster will be at that time.

Q: Mike, over the past two weeks the Pats defense has played amazingly. They have a 1-2 combo on the edge in Andre Carter and Mark Anderson that seems like it could only get better. Do you see think this bend-don't break defense can last into the playoffs? -- Ben (UNH)

Anderson
Mark Anderson was part of a pass rush that sacked Chiefs QB Tyler Palko three times.

A: Ben, the defense doesn't necessarily do it in convincing style, but it looks like it is building some momentum coming down the homestretch. Depending on the matchup, that could take them where they want to go. I could still envision some struggles ahead, possibly in Philadelphia on Sunday, but for now you have to tip the cap to the defense for playing tough.

Q: Mike, I wonder if the Pats' defensive struggles are being overblown. Most analysts are saying the team has one of the worst defenses in the NFL but seem to all be using total yards allowed. Wouldn't points allowed be a much more appropriate metric of a defense's effectiveness? Through nine games, the Pats have allowed 200 points, which is tied with the "great" NY Jets defense and puts them right in the middle of the league. This seems to be supported by the fact that even when the offense hasn't looked great, they haven't trailed big in a game yet. Case in point, I would rather see the team give up 90 yards and but hold the offense to a FG, than give up a 50-yard drive but allow a TD. Thoughts? -- Nate (Philadelphia)

A: Nate, at the end of the day, the game is about points scored. So if forced to choose one or the other, I'd lean toward points over yards, and one thing this Patriots' defense clearly has going for itself is strong play in the red zone. I don't think one should just overlook yards, as that also is a factor to consider, and it ties in to playing good complementary football. You don't want to be giving up 80- and 90-yards drives all the time and not giving your offense time on the field to do its work. But in the end, the points are what speak loudest.

Q: What is the status of Shane Vereen? -- Rick (Newark, Del.)

A: Rick, Vereen was active on Monday night for just the fourth time this season and got some good playing time at the end of the game (10 snaps on the final drive). He also showed up on three special teams units, which was a season high for him. To me, this is a promising development for Vereen possibly seeing more time in the future. As a young player, the first way to get on the field is to contribute on special teams, so I thought Monday night was a big step for Vereen. He finished with eight carries for 39 yards on that final drive and showed flashes of why the Patriots were so high on him coming out of Cal.

Q: Hi Mike, BB mentioned that Marcus Cannon can play any spot on the line without specifically mentioning center (LT, LG, RG, RT). Do you think he can play center and can he do it at a higher level than Dan Connolly at this point of the season? To me, Connolly is the only soft spot on the line. -- Frederic (Quebec)

A: Frederic, I think that's a tough projection for Cannon. As we saw Monday night, Cannon played right tackle. To move him further inside to center, where he'd be in a position to make line calls, seems like a lot to ask of him at this stage.

Q: Mike, has Taylor Price become Chad Jackson? Is he a bust or is BB still holding out hope for him to surface? -- Ben (Munster, Ind.)

A: Ben, we're starting to see Price get integrated into the mix a little more, but it still looks a ways off to me. I'm not expecting big contributions this season, which would set up a situation where next year's camp would be especially important for him.

Q: Hi Mike, regarding Ross Ventrone, it's become comical with the amount of transactions he's been put through. Does he need to do anything each time? Sign a contract? Clean out/fill up his locker? Meet with the coaches? -- Matt (Boston)

A: Matt, I wrote about Ventrone last Friday and it's become procedural because he pretty much knows he's going to be back. He's not cleaning out his locker each time. A new contract is required each time, and that's about it. In terms of meeting with coaches, Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio keep open lines of communication with him regarding what's happening.

Q: With the safety position so thin, why no mention of Brandon McGowan? -- Stephen (Lexington, Mass.)

A: Stephen, when McGowan was with the Patriots in training camp, I watched him closely and felt he had slowed down. I didn't think he was running well. He would have been limited on special teams and a liability in the deep third of the field. I understood the team's thinking that it was time to move on.

Q: I'll be the first to call it here: Packers, 19-0. Your thoughts? -- Frankie S. (Singapore)

A: Frankie, I think the Packers are explosive enough to do it, but I envision them getting their first loss either Thanksgiving at Detroit or the following week at the Giants. Those are two tough games. If they clear the hurdles there, I could see them pulling it off.

Q: I have not heard one sportscaster or commentator mention anything about what the Colts are doing. It seems pretty obvious that they are doing just enough to lose every game and then go after Andrew Luck in the draft. Peyton Manning is a great quarterback, but they have a lot of other talent there as well. They should have won at least 2-3 games by now. I know it is hard for you to agree and take a stand on this issue in print, so if you just want to respond by email, that's OK. I am interested in your true opinion. -- Barry (Chandler, Ariz.)

A: Barry, I haven't seen enough of the Colts to have a strong opinion about them trying to lose. I look at it more from a Patriots perspective and what I wrote is that the '11 Colts have given me a greater appreciation for what the '08 Patriots did without Brady.

Q: Mike, I noticed something odd with the schedule. In 2008, when Patriots last played AFC West, they had home games vs. Chiefs and Broncos, and road games vs. Raiders and Chargers. This year one would expect those situations to reverse resulting in road games at Chiefs and Broncos and home games vs. Raiders and Chargers. But that is not the case with road games vs. Raiders and Broncos and home games vs. Chargers and Chiefs. What gives? -- Sands (Herndon, Va.)

A: Sands, the NFL's tweaked its schedule rotation, in part to avoid what happened to the Patriots in 2008, when they had four games on the West Coast. Nice catch.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.