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Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Have the Pats turned corner on D?

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

This is the final week of organized team activities, which leads into the Patriots' mandatory minicamp June 11-13. From what reporters have seen in OTAs, the defense has had the upper hand.

Is that a good sign for what is to come? Or is it more a reflection of the early struggles of the offense?

That's where this week's mailbag leads off, shining a brighter spotlight on the D. While the Patriots' revamped receiving corps is a dominating storyline and is easier to watch in a no-pads practice, there are still lingering questions about the Patriots' ability to turn a more decisive corner on defense. So here we go...

Q. Mike, reading about the WR/DB matchups in practice, I wonder: Can you really get a fair assessment of the DBs when they are lining up across from Danny Amendola, Michael Jenkins, and a rookie? My thought is that regardless of who is throwing the ball, if the DBs can't shut down that group of WRs, how are they going to do against a quality QB with legit NFL-caliber WRs? In my opinion, the Pats' WR corps is a collections of 2's and 3's at best. There is no clear-cut No. 1 NFL WR on that roster. The secondary should be killing it out there. Thoughts? -- Dan (Boston)

Kevin Haslam
Kevin Haslam (left) and Elvis Fisher participate in a drill last week at the Patriots' OTA's.

A. Dan, I think there are a few layers to assess when looking at the defensive backs in practice. I agree with the thought that one has to consider the level of competition when factoring in things like pass breakups, etc, and the Patriots' receiving corps is indeed very much a work in progress. It's a process to get that passing game up to speed, and right now I sense it's a struggle. But that doesn't necessarily mean it will be a struggle when the games count, because the time to get better is at practice. For example, what we currently see from Aaron Dobson shouldn't be what we see three months from now, and if it is, that's not a good sign. As it relates to defensive backs, I think you look at more than just the end result of plays on the practice field. You want to see how well they are running, their mental aptitude to handle what's being thrown at them, their communication with each other, etc. As much as that can be judged from the media hill at practice, it looks pretty good to me.

Q. It seems like all the offseason questions involving the Patriots are about the offense and who is going catch all the passes. The offense in the past five years has not been the problem, it has been the defense. The offense still has weapons, but did they do enough on the defensive side of the ball to improve? -- Jim H. (Raleigh, N.C.)

A. Jim, I think they do and a big part of it is continuity. Returning the same defensive backfield, and adding someone like Adrian Wilson, is a "plus" situation to me. The front seven essentially returns intact as well, and there should be improvement from Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower, who I think can be more consistent difference-makers in their second seasons. If the defense isn't better, it would be a disappointment, and some hard personnel/scheme questions would have to be asked. It's all set up nicely for them right now.

Q. Hey Mike, looking at the front seven, it appears as though the coach has a lot of versatility to work with. With Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Armond Armstead, Jamie Collins, and Dont'a Hightower, the Patriots have a solid amount of players who could play either defensive end in a 4-3 alignment or outside linebacker in a 3-4. I have a strong feeling that our defense is going to be different in formation from game to game. What's your prediction for the alignment of choice this season? Do you think they'll play more 3-4 or more 4-3? -- Z. Adams (Toronto)

A. Zadams, they do have a lot of versatile parts, although I wouldn't include Armstead in the same category as Ninkovich, Jones, Collins and Hightower because he's 295 pounds. He's more of an inside-the-tackles player. As for the 3-4 vs. 4-3, I think the discussion is a bit overstated because the techniques the defenders employ will mostly be similar in either case. I don't think this is a situation where they're going to play the read-and-react 3-4 one game and then switch to an attacking, penetrating 4-3 the next week. My assumption is that they will tap the versatility and athleticism of their hybrid players to vary their looks -- make it a little more of a challenge for the opposition to identify where the additional rusher(s) might be coming from -- but that we'll see a uniform style as far as fundamentals and techniques.

Q. Hi Mike, Bill Belichick has invested heavily on the defensive side of the ball in the last two drafts and free agency. He cut some of the big "fatties" and his acquisitions have had a common thread of scheme versatility. His defensive genius has been on hold in recent years due to personnel and injuries. Do you see him unveiling some innovative schemes this year and his defense making a big jump forward? It seems to me like he has something big up his sleeve. -- John F. (Walpole)

A. John, I do think we'll see some defensive tweaks, specifically in sub packages (57 percent of the time last season). As Jerod Mayo said on SiriusXM NFL Radio, improvement is needed on third down from last season. But I'd be surprised if we see major changes from a fundamental/scheme perspective on early downs. Part of my thinking is tied to 2008 when Dom Capers was on the staff and there was the potential to have a fusion between the Steelers-type 3-4 that Capers had a background in and Belichick's 3-4, but it never happened. I think the fundamental core is in place, and while there could be alterations in certain areas, I'd be surprised if there are big changes.

Chandler Jones
Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones should show big improvement in their second seasons.
Q. Mike, so the latest news on Gronk's injury is that he could miss the start of the regular season. Let's assume that he doesn't start the regular season and that he is out until at least late September. I think Gronk is the second-best offensive player on the team, as well as Brady's go-to guy now with Wes Welker gone, but despite his importance to the Patriots, in my opinion it might not be a bad thing if this happens. The reason why I say this is because if you look at the Patriots schedule, their first three games are against Buffalo, New York, and Tampa, and none of those teams pose a serious threat to New England even with the absence of Gronk. The first real scare on New England's schedule is Atlanta in week 4, in which we would absolutely need a healthy Gronk if we are going to win that game. Therefore, not starting the regular season on time gives Gronk more time to heal so he can be ready for week 4. What are your thoughts on this? -- Darren (College Park, Md.)

A. Darren, my feeling on Rob Gronkowski is that there should be no urgency to rush him. A conservative approach makes the most sense, while thinking big picture. And while I'd agree that the Patriots would still be favored to beat the Bills and Jets without Gronkowski, I also don't take for granted that there could be some early struggles for the passing offense with all the change at receiver and even at tight end. Also, that Buccaneers game could be tougher than advertised. I could see the Buccaneers' defense presenting some issues for the Patriots.

Q. Hey Mike. I find it interesting to hear all the talk of what a disappointment it was not seeing Brandon Spikes at VOLUNTARY organized team activities. While I understand the superficial reaction to this, I think looking a little deeper suggests this act bodes well for Pats fans this season. I see a player motivated by the thought of a big payday fearing he may get injured before he ever gets to play a snap this season (I think at least two prominent players can attest to this reality). If Spikes sees this season as his best chance at a big payday, watch out!! You have a very talented player coming into a season with a calculated plan to show every team in the league he deserves to be paid like a superstar player. Whatever precautions Spikes takes to ensure a monster 2013 season I support, and I look forward to seeing him on the field Sept 8th. -- Ed (Los Angeles)

A. Ed, this would be the best-case scenario for the Patriots. We've seen situations where a player is motivated by the potential big contract and produces big in his final season under the old deal (e.g. Asante Samuel) and others where it hasn't worked out (e.g. Albert Haynesworth). That can be tough to predict. The one point I'd add, and I think it's an important one in this case, is that 89 of the 90 players on the roster decided to show up for these voluntary workouts. So if we're treating all players fairly, what makes Aqib Talib's situation that much different than Spikes' situation? Or Rob Ninkovich? Or Ryan Wendell? They are all entering the final year of their contracts, in hopes of the same big payday, yet they showed up. I think it looks bad for Spikes that he's the one player who didn't show, and if I was advising him, I would have urged him to attend in part because of this. At the same time, I respect Spikes' right to make the decision he feels is best, and as you noted, these are voluntary workouts so Spikes hasn't done anything wrong by the letter of the law. I do wonder, however, if this will have any impact on the Patriots' desire/willingness to sign him beyond 2013 because I could envision a scenario where the decision-makers are reluctant to commit to a player who could be perceived as not fully committed to the team.

Q. Last Thursday, one of your chatters mentioned that he views the absence of Brandon Spikes from VOLUNTARY OTAs as a bigger story than many are making it out to be. Expanding on that, do you think that the end of Spikes' stay here in NE could be closer than we think? I assume it would depend on how Dane Fletcher, Mike Rivera, Jamie Collins, and others look to the coaching staff, but could you envision Belichick trading away Spikes to some LB-needy team? If that were to happen during, say, training camp, what do you think would be a fair return to expect for a 2-plus down, good (not great), 25-year-old who's under contract for just one more season? -- Todd (Dorchester)

A. Todd, I think the Patriots are a better team with Spikes than the late-round draft choice they might be able to get in return for him. I don't see a club giving up much more than that at this point, in part because of the limitations Spikes has shown in the passing game, and also because it could be a one-year rental. For the Patriots, I think the first step is seeing what type of condition Spikes is in when he reports to mandatory minicamp next week. If he isn't in good condition, that would be a troubling sign, but I don't expect that to be the case. Then I think it's a case where the year plays itself out and the sides reassess after the season.

Brandon Spikes
Brandon Spikes' decision not to attend voluntary OTA's (he was the only player absent) couldn't have gone over well with Bill Belichick.

Q. Hey Mike, a lot has been said regarding Spikes' absence from OTAs. Frankly, it seems like a lot of conjecture at this point and I doubt we'll ever know why he's not attending. What is your best guess as to why he's not attending? And outside of a family event such as a birth of a child, death in the family, etc., can you envision any reason why Spikes would miss OTAs that would be condoned by Bill Belichick? I'm throwing mud on the wall here, but for instance could he be working with some sort of specialist to increase his speed or something of that ilk? Appreciate your thoughts. -- Shaun (Sharon, Mass.)

A. Shaun, I don't think this is part of a big secret or anything, as Spikes has simply decided that the best thing for his career is to work out on his own (with a trainer in Florida). Part of it could be tied to limiting exposure to injury, which as we've seen with 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree, is part of the risk of attending OTAs. While Spikes might be working on certain things physically, one thing that can't be duplicated is the camaraderie, chemistry and communication that comes with 89 of the 90 players on the roster working together. That's why I think the decision wouldn't be looked at favorably by Bill Belichick, unless there were extenuating circumstances.

Q. With many teams going lighter and faster on "D" for better pass coverage, don't you think it would be just like Belichick to bring back some smash-mouth offense? Nate Solder's filling out, Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer had healthy offseasons, we got a thumper TE (Jake Ballard), we got a thumper RB (LeGarrette Blount). Run over Cameron Wake (Miami), Mark Anderson (Buffalo), Von Miller (Denver), etc., wear them out, then pass. Keep our "D" fresh. What do you think? -- Kevin (Barnstable)

A. Kevin, I do like a power running game, and I could envision a scenario in which that helps account for some potential early struggles in the passing game with a new corps of receivers. But in the end, my feeling is that the passing game will still define what this offense is based around. The ideal scenario would be to get the lead and then wear the opponents down with the power running game and pressure on defense. One additional note: Sebastian Vollmer had a knee surgery this offseason and is still working his way back to 100 percent.

Q. Hi Mike, here's an observation: When I looked over the contract length matrix, I noticed the Pats have no RBs signed past 2014. While many say that contract years come in the year the contract expires, I believe, since players and teams often like to establish security, that the year prior is equally important and thus a contract year, as that is when players lobby for extensions and teams consider them. Taking this logic as fact, and Mike, why wouldn't you? This means all of the Pats' RBs are in a contract year. This group improved significantly last year, and I foresee an even bigger contribution from them this season, particularly if the outside receiving game is improved. Thoughts? -- Matt J. (Milwaukee)

A. Matt, my one question with the running back group is if the Patriots are going to regret Danny Woodhead landing in San Diego with the Chargers. I thought he brought a lot to the mix, starting with his dependability and clutch play. I expect we'll see a more dynamic Shane Vereen in 2013, and Stevan Ridley has established himself as a solid back from this viewpoint. I think they should be good, but I'm still surprised a gamer like Woodhead departed.

Q. Hi Mike, does the fact that Brian Daboll has been focusing on the offensive line mean the Patriots are planning for Dante Scarnecchia's retirement? -- Alex (New York)

A. Alex, Scarnecchia is in his 44th coaching season, 32nd in the NFL and 30th with the Patriots. So it goes without saying that he's obviously closer to the end of his career than the start. The idea of having Daboll working with Scarnecchia in recent practices seems like a smart idea in case Scarnecchia is thinking along the lines that 2013 could be his last season.

Q. Hi Mike, do you think the recent change to the date of the draft, from April to May, is a prelude to an 18-game season? It seems as though the Commish and the owners just won't let go of this idea and I think it would be the beginning of the end for the NFL. What are your thoughts? -- enjoythegame (Cleveland, Ohio)

A. I think an 18-game season would be a mistake, but like you, it seems like something at least a portion of the league's owners would like to implement. I didn't necessarily connect the move of the draft to an 18-game season; my thought on the draft moving was more money-related to having the draft during a ratings sweeps period.

Q. Hi Mike, other than the Broncos, do you see any other team that has a chance to win the AFC crown? Baltimore lost many of its key pieces, Pittsburgh is not what it used to be, and Houston is no match for the Patriots as shown by their humiliating losses to the Pats in the regular season and the playoffs. -- Joe (Calcutta, India)

A. Joe, I do think the Broncos, Steelers and Ravens are strong contenders for the AFC title. To a lesser degree, I wouldn't overlook the Colts, Texans and Bengals, either. I'd be surprised if any of the other clubs are representing the AFC in the Super Bowl.