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Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Fullback role back in focus

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

Now 15 days into free agency, the Patriots have signed 12 players from other teams while re-signing six of their own. That averages out to slightly more than one transaction per day.

It's been busy, for sure, and the latest area of focus is an unexpected one -- fullback. A position that is often overlooked, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels looks like he wants to integrate it back into the mix. Over the last week, the Patriots have agreed to terms with two players at the position -- Spencer Larsen (Broncos) and Tony Fiammetta (Cowboys).

That's where we lead things off today, while later touching on receivers, offensive line concerns and more:

Q. Mike, I am curious about the recent fullback agreements by the Patriots. Late last season, they signed Lousaka Polite, which I thought an emergency measure. At that time, there was no third tight end on the roster. Now there is a third tight end (Daniel Fells) and yet they've agreed with two fullbacks. Your thoughts? -- MarkJ (Japan)

Spencer Larsen
The Pats have put a surprise emphasis on fullbacks, recently signing Spenser Larson (above) and Tony Fiammetta.

A. MarkJ, my first thought is that perhaps there are going to be some tweaks to the Patriots' running game, with the idea that coordinator Josh McDaniels tries some different things in that area. If you have a fullback who can contribute on special teams, and you know will be on the 46-man game-day roster, maybe that position can make a comeback of sorts within the offense. I still think this will be an offense that leans toward the pass, but maybe they can develop a little more of a power mentality at times by having a dedicated fullback on the field more often.

Q. Hi Mike, I like the thought of having a fullback on the roster as the fourth running back, as long as he can play on a couple special-teams units and at least be some kind of a threat in the passing game. The offense can't put itself in the position where every time the fullback is in the game, they're running. If they can make the fullback a 20-30-percent playing-time position, and run half of those times, I think the running game as a whole could become a lot more effective. -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)

A. Good stuff, Tim. The first thing that came to mind was when Heath Evans was with the Patriots. In Evans' final season, 2008, he was playing at around a 20-percent playing-time clip and did a number of different things. The fullback position has been in danger of extinction, disappearing from many offenses, so it's been a bit unexpected to see the Patriots pay such attention to it this offseason.

Q. Hey Mike, how do you see the RB situation shaking out? I can't see Danny Woodhead being an every-down back and Stevan Ridley is fumble prone. -- Shaver (Boston)

A. I look at the running-back spot as one where it's time to see what the kids can do. I think it's harsh to say Ridley is fumble-prone. While he did have the two fumbles late in the year, that was the first we saw of those ball-security issues. I also think it's easy to forget about speedy Shane Vereen, a second-round pick last year, who could be a big part of the mix if healthy. The running-back snaps broke down this way last year:

BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- 34 percent
Danny Woodhead -- 33 percent
Stevan Ridley -- 14 percent
Kevin Faulk -- 6.5 percent
Shane Vereen -- 1.9 percent

So I look at it this way: There is a 40 percent chunk to account for in 2012. I think we will see Ridley and Vereen combine to fill that 40 percent as it will be a good reflection (or a bad one, depending on how it turns out) on the Patriots' drafting. Woodhead, the top passing back, also has a chance to see some more time.

Q. Mike, with all of the contract restructuring by the players to make cap room, I still feel a solid CB should still be in the Patriots' plans. With the word of the Eagles possibly putting Asante Samuels on the market, would the Patriots possibly reach out and try to get him back? -- Eric G. (Hudson, N.H.)

A. Eric, I think one huge factor would have to fall into place for that to happen. Samuel is scheduled to earn $9.9 million this season and I can't imagine the Patriots being willing to absorb that number, so I'd assume there would have to be a restructure for the possibility to be pursued. If Samuel showed a willingness to do that, the scenario makes sense. Who knows? Maybe the Eagles can't find a trade partner, don't want to pay the big bucks, and decide to release him. If that ever happened, one would think the Patriots would be interested.

Q. Mike, what is the hold-up on Luis Castillo? He was in for a visit nearly two weeks ago and still no signing. Is it safe to assume the Pats are done signing players in free agency? -- Matt (Oklahoma City)

A. Matt, my read on Castillo is that none of the teams known to be in the mix (Chargers, Chiefs, Patriots) has offered him the type of contract that would make him want to sign it at this time. So it's more of a waiting situation. I wouldn't assume the Patriots are done signing players in free agency. While some of the initial free-agent visits have subsided, I think there are still some moves ahead (e.g. when Andre Carter returns to health, he'd be a candidate to return).

Q. The Patriots have made a number of upgrades to their offense. Even with the loss of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, I would argue that the Patriots have the best offense in the NFL going into next season. I am concerned, though, about how little they have done on the defensive side of the ball. How do you think they will try and improve their defense? -- Wesley (Boston)

A. Wesley, this was the main topic of last week's mailbag. The first thing, from this view, would be looking closer at defense this year in the draft. I also think there could be a few more free-agent signings, at the low to mid-level, to continue to add some parts there. The last part that probably shouldn't be overlooked is that another year in the system should lead to improvement with players already on the roster. Will it be enough? Fair question, as this is an issue we've been dissecting for a few years now.

Q. Despite the smoke being blown up our shorts by the sports writers, the Patriots have not addressed the pass rush or the defensive secondary, with additions and subtractions that are at best even. All of which means they still have no pass rush and they still can't cover anybody. So, how and when are they going to fix it? Is this just a case of reluctance to pay for better talent? -- Ed M. (Marlborough, Mass.)

A. Ed, I don't think it's a reluctance to pay for better talent. Consider that teams like the Packers, Giants and Ravens -- all of whom are respected from a personnel perspective -- haven't made big moves either in free agency. That serves as a reminder that free agency is not the only way to fix problems. I'd also add that just because teams spend big money in free agency doesn't mean the problem is solved. All that said, the present picture leads me to the conclusion that finding some top defensive talent in the draft does take on some added importance. The Patriots can't come away drafting just one defender in the first five rounds like the way it unfolded last year.

Chad Ochocinco
The restructuring of Chad Ochocinco's contract with the Pats has received a mixed reaction.

Q. Hi Mike, quick question regarding the restructuring of Ochocinco's contract. While it increases the likelihood of him being around next year, does it also increase the possibility of a trade? A lot of potential suitors would have been put off by the $3 million price tag, but might they be more inclined to trade for a veteran receiver who would cost just $1million for the season? -- Damian (Birr, Ireland)

A. Damian, a salary reduced from $3 million to $1 million would naturally make a player more attractive in a trade, but I'd attach a big "if" to that line of thinking -- "if" the player is performing. Based on Ochocinco's performance last year, I would be surprised if there were many teams, if any, lining up to trade for him.

Q. Since Ochocinco reduced his salary from $3 million to $1 million, does his cap charge also reduce? -- Albert V.

A. Albert, if Ochocinco makes the roster, his salary-cap charge would be $2.5 million. Under his old deal, the cap charge if he made the roster would have been $4.5 million. The one thing that doesn't change is the dead money on the salary cap if Ochocinco is cut. That would still be $3 million (spread out over two years if after June 1).

Q. Hi Mike, why did they re-sign Deion Branch and restructure Chad Ochocinco rather than cut him? Regarding Branch, he disappeared for long stretches, appeared to be unable to escape press coverage and toward the last quarter of the season it seemed defenses knew he couldn't hurt them. As for Ocho, he's 34 years old. Even when he finally learned a play (yes, one play) effectively enough to know where to line up and exactly how many yards the route called for, he invariably dropped the pass -- something he did with regularity in his last year with the Bengals. He showed nothing last year. With Donte Stallworth and Brandon Lloyd, and even assuming Anthony Gonzalez' injuries prevent him from playing, Ocho can't be anything but training camp depth/fodder, can he? -- Tman (Belmont, Mass.)

A. Tman, on Branch, I think they still view him as having value because of his knowledge of the offense and rapport with Tom Brady. The idea isn't that he plays 76 percent of the snaps again, but he does add depth at receiver (assuming he makes the team) in a sport where injuries require getting multiple players ready because you never know when you might need them. As for Ochocinco, they still might cut him when all is said and done. But for now, what is the harm in letting him compete and see where it leads? Probably the only big risk to the Patriots is that he gets hurt and they're on the hook for a $1 million salary.

Q. Hey Mike. When the final cuts come, any idea how many WRs the Pats will keep on the roster? Not many play special teams, yet they are an athletic bunch. Any chance they keep almost all, which would allow them to game-plan week to week with WRs? -- Glen (Boston)

A. Glenn if we include Matthew Slater in the mix, I think six looks like the right number of receivers who stick on the final roster. I view Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Slater as the locks, with Julian Edelman in good position to snare one of the remaining three spots. That could potentially leave just two spots for the likes of Deion Branch, Chad Ochocinco, Donte' Stallworth, Anthony Gonzalez and Co.

Q. I understand bringing in vets to create competition at WR but what if Brandon Lloyd gets hurt? Who can step up to be a deep threat? Insert Branch or Ocho and you're right back where we started. Maybe Stallworth can, but I trust him as much as Ocho or Gonzalez. Barely. The Pats still need to draft a young WR this year. They need to add someone as insurance to this season and to groom beyond 2012. We don't want to be stuck with Ocho and Branch as your outside deep threats. -- Eric (Weymouth, Mass.)

A. Eric, when you look at the projected receiver depth chart, the ages at the top speak to the need to develop a receiver. So we are in agreement that there is still a need there for the Patriots in the draft. This has been a trouble spot for the team in recent years, but this looks like a good crop of receivers to choose from in the draft. Josh McDaniels looks like he might have gotten it right with receiver Demaryius Thomas in Denver (1st round, 2010), so maybe his presence helps the Patriots if they look in that direction in the draft.

Q. Mike, in 2010, the Patriots passed on 29-year-old Donte Stallworth (signed for $900K with Baltimore) and opted for Torry Holt ($1.7 million), who ended up on IR (soon enough, his career was over). The money couldn't have been the reason they passed. If he wasn't right then, why would they decide he's right for the team now? -- Mike (Bedford, N.H.)

A. Mike, this is a good question. My thought is that the team thought it had better depth at receiver going into that 2009 season and was looking for a different type of target in free agency. I think building more receiver depth has been a top priority this offseason.

Q. Mike, do you think that Bill Belichick uses the PUP list as a way to carry more receivers? Just pretend that Gonzalez and Branch have some phantom injury and that will allow Ocho and Lloyd six weeks of games to prove themselves (especially Ocho). Also, what if Wes holds out? Who takes his place? Thoughts? -- Bryan (Memphis, Tenn.)

A. Bryan, while Bill Belichick has annually used the PUP list, a team can't do so if the player doesn't have a legitimate injury or truly isn't physically ready to perform. Last year, the Patriots had four players on PUP or the non-football injury list (running back Kevin Faulk, offensive lineman Marcus Cannon and defensive linemen Brandon Deaderick and Ron Brace), and once they were ready, it was almost like picking up four new players at the trade deadline. Teams that can be patient with players can find PUP is a way to add even more depth. As for Welker, I'd think Julian Edelman would be the next player at the position.

Q. Hi Mike, what other right-thinking team, with such a challenged defense and so many personnel changes, would let go of a 10-sack, pressure-QB player like Mark Anderson? Even worse, he ends up with a rising divisional rival. Your thoughts? -- Jake M. (Vancouver, BC)

A. Jake, Anderson received a very generous contract from the Bills (4 years, $27.5 million, $6 million signing bonus). While it hurts to lose Anderson, I file this one in the category of smart decision-making for the Patriots. A team can't pay everyone at high levels and be a deep team, so tough decisions must be made at times. Anderson was a nice player and performed well for them in a part-time role (47 percent of the snaps), but I felt like the economics of retaining him would have hurt the Patriots in other areas.

Q. Mike, normally you are spot on with your analysis. However, when you write "$3 million per year for Green-Ellis seems reasonable," you are dead wrong. If BJGE was the featured running back, sure, that pay would be fine. However, for a guy that is part of a running-back-by-committee, that would probably only get 10-12 carries per game, that had 0 runs last season that were more than 20 years, and is in an offense that is centered on the pass, no, he isn't worth $3 million. Then consider Danny Woodhead is making $550,000 and ask: "Is BJGE over 5 times the player that Danny Woodhead is?" Don't get me wrong, I am very happy for Green-Eliis that he could get that pay, and that he will be the featured back somewhere. However, for what the Patriots use him for, there's no justification for paying him $3 million per year. -- Jim

A. Jim, I respect your opinion and the first point is especially valid. My only counter would be that based on some of their mid-level signings in free agency, which came in at around the $3-million-per-year mark, I thought the case could be made that Green-Ellis fit in that category as well. I likened it to safety James Sanders last year. He was expensive at $2.7 million, and the Patriots cut him, but they didn't have the answers at safety all season and that decision to slice depth because of economics was debatable. As for the second part, I think you can always play that game. We could do it right now with Daniel Fells ($1 million base salary) compared with Rob Gronkowski ($540,000). Is Fells almost two times the player that Gronkowski is? No, but that's sometimes the way salaries work depending on where the player is at that point of his career.

Marcus Cannon
Can a healthy Marcus Cannon help the Pats' offensive line next season?

Q. Do you think that the Patriots will re-sign Andre Carter? -- Sulaiman (Toronto)

A. I do think Carter will be back, assuming he returns to full health. There has been mutual interest in his return, according to his agent, Carl Poston.

Q. Haven't heard much on Dan Koppen. Is he fully recovered, and do Pats have interest in bringing him back? -- Brett (Southborough, Mass.)

A. Brett, the Patriots did talk to Koppen before free agency, but the sides weren't close at the time. Maybe they revisit again, as it doesn't seem an aggressive market has generated for Koppen with other clubs.

Q. Can you talk a little bit about Dan Connolly and what role you think he was signed for? I still haven't seen the numbers on his contract. Did he receive starter money? -- Mike (Boston)

A. Mike, here is the breakdown on Connolly's pact:

Signing bonus: $3.25 million 2012 salary: $1.2 million 2013 salary: $2.25 million 2014 salary: $3 million

When I see those numbers, it makes me think he'll be starting, likely at center.

Q. Hi Mike, should I be worried about the O-line? No Dan Koppen, probably no Matt Light, possibly no Brian Waters, an injured Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer, who is in the last year of his contract and coming off a season plagued with injury. Is there work to be done? -- Marc (London)

A. I think you are right on it, Marc. The line has to be a concern at this time. We've seen games where the line doesn't hold up and it paralyzes the entire offense, so I'd agree that there is work to be done. The good news for the Patriots is there is still time to get it done, and they have one of the league's more highly regarded coaches in Dante Scarnecchia putting things together there.

Q. Mike, given that there may be significant issues with the offensive line, what role do you think Marcus Cannon can play? Is he healthy enough to be a full-time player? -- JoeFla (Orlando, Fla.)

A. Joe, I think Cannon is healthy enough to be a full-time player. The question is more if he's good enough. He received some good experience in the second half of the 2011 season and shows promise for the future. I think this is a big offseason for him to take those steps toward being a possible full-time option.

Q. Mike, if Matt Light and Brian Waters both return, who do you see starting at guard and tackle? Do they do three-man rotations? Just use Nate Solder/Sebastian Vollmer /Robert Gallery/Marcus Cannon for depth? Does a high draft pick have a chance at starting anywhere on the line? -- Kyle (Cranston, R.I.)

A. Kyle, I think a key here is the health of Sebastian Vollmer. Even if all three tackles are back, which I think is unlikely (Light is strongly considering retirement), Vollmer's back injury has to be watched closely. Overall, I could envision some type of rotation between the top three if the competition in training camp dictates that all should be playing. We've seen that before and usually those situations work themselves out (e.g. injury). Same with the guard spot, where Logan Mankins' availability for the start of training camp (recovering from ACL surgery) is no guarantee.

Q. My question is in regards to the 3-4 defense. If the team is spending 65 percent of its time in a sub-defense with a 4-man front, why wouldn't they want to use the base 4-3 so they don't have to carry two kinds of D-line personnel? Why go 3-4 at all? Is the run-stopping value of the 3-4 that valuable on early downs that it's worth the extra overhead? I know Belichick doesn't look at it that way, and would never give an answer, but I'm just curious what you think his thinking is on this. -- Chris (Houston, Texas)

A. Chris, this was part of the reason Belichick went with the 4-3 as the base last year. With no offseason to teach the 3-4, he didn't think they could pull it off. I do believe Belichick prefers the 3-4 because of the flexibility it provides. It's also less predictable where the fourth rusher is coming from. In the end, I think Belichick likes a defense that is multiple so they're not locked in to one way of doing things.

Q. Hey Mike, what is behind the Brady restructuring? They don't need to get under the cap. With Light likely retiring they would also get a significant chunk of cap room. They haven't pulled the trigger on a non- backup since, and I can't imagine they created additional cap space without a specific plan. What are they waiting on? -- JB (Boston)

A. JB, the Patriots aren't about to share their plan, but my feeling is Robert Kraft provided a few hints during his chat with reporters at the NFL annual meeting. "I think what you'll see over the next five to six years is a smoother growth in the salary cap. It won't be the kind of jump that you saw in '06, and so I think it will require that people manage the resources they have as intelligently as they can," Kraft said. When I heard that, it made me think the Patriots could be more proactive with contract discussions with some of their young players they'll want to retain, such as tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.