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Tuesday, August 20, 2013
What to do with Tebow, Gronk

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

Roster cuts are coming, and that's where this week's Patriots mailbag leads off.

All NFL teams must trim rosters from 90 to 75 by Aug. 27. The final cut from 75 to 53 is Aug. 31.

With this in mind, two topics kept popping up this week.

Rob Gronkowski's status. Will Gronkowski land on the 53-man roster or will the Patriots place him on the reserve/physically unable to perform list? If he goes on the PUP list, he wouldn't count against the roster but he'd be out for at least the first six weeks of the season.

Tim Tebow's status. After a clunker of a performance on Friday against the Buccaneers, Tebow's hold on a roster spot is shaky. If we are judging solely on on-field performance, does Tebow deserve a spot on the team? The anti-Tebow crowd is out in full force, and it has some strong evidence to support its case.

As we consider these topics, the Patriots are preparing for Thursday's preseason game against the Lions at Ford Field. It marks the second time in three years that the team's third preseason game -- often used as the "dress rehearsal" for the regular season -- is against the Lions in Detroit.

The Patriots' offense is using it as a good opportunity to work in a noisy environment; we've heard loud music pumping through the speakers at practice this week.

The other day, when I was asked in a television interview what the team wants to see happen in this game, my first reaction was "no injuries." It seems that every time you turn on a preseason game, another key player is going down. It reminds us of the importance of building quality depth.

Given that the Patriots have had two good weeks of joint practices with the Eagles and Buccaneers and are positioning themselves for the regular-season opener, I wonder if it will impact Bill Belichick's plans to play his top players into the second half on Thursday. Maybe there is a feeling that the players have received most of the work they need and the third preseason game isn't as important as it used to be.

Let's get to the questions.

Rob Gronkowski
Remember, if Gronk is placed on the PUP list, the Pats won't have him until Week 6 even if he's ready earlier. It's something to consider.

Q. Hey Mike, I think the Patriots should shut down Gronk and put him on the PUP list until Week 6. No point of rushing him back. If you take look at the schedule, there are not that many hard games, and plus the offense has been playing well. Let him rest more and get stronger by working out and getting his body back in shape. -- Mark (NJ)

A. Mark, I feel quite certain that the Patriots won't rush Gronkowski onto the field. They will take a long-range view and lean toward the cautious side. Yet if he's passed all his tests and there is nothing more he can do to prove he's ready, why not have him practicing (and possibly playing) if he's ready before Week 6? As quarterback Tom Brady recently said, the only way to become a better football player is to practice football. It's hard to say, "Even though he's healthy, let's hold him out until Week 10 and bring him back then and we'll have him when we really need him." Gronkowski's value to the team is at a level that if Week 3, 4, 5 or 6 are possibilities for his return to practice, it makes sense to hold a roster spot for him from this viewpoint.

Q. Mike, in Gronk's absence, do you think the Pats will keep all four TEs, using Michael Hoomanawanui as the FB? Is Tim Tebow eligible for the practice squad? -- Greg (Exeter, N.H.)

A. Greg, I don't see four tight ends on the roster, in part because if there are five running backs, the tight end spot projects are an area to trim, from this viewpoint. I think Jake Ballard and rookie Zach Sudfeld are the top two after Gronkowski, and then it's Daniel Fells and Hoomanawanui battling for a third spot (if Gronkowski starts on the reserve/physically unable to perform list).

Q. Hi Mike! You have written that Zach Sudfeld is more of a move tight end. I am wondering how a Sudfeld-Gronk combination might compare with last season's Aaron Hernandez-Gronk combination. Obviously Sudfeld doesn't have the speed or elusiveness that Hernandez had, but at this point do you think he will be a better blocker? And might he have better hands? Imagine the red zone matchup problems that Sudfeld (6-foot-7) and Gronk (6-foot-6) would create if they were on the field together. -- Alex (Oxford, England)

A. Alex, I think you've highlighted the biggest difference between Sudfeld and Hernandez by pointing out elusiveness. When Hernandez had the ball in his hands after the catch, he was tough to handle. Sudfeld's skill set is different -- not as elusive, but a bigger catch radius that can come in handy in tight spaces. In the red zone, a combination of Sudfeld, Gronkowski, Aaron Dobson (6-foot-3) and Danny Amendola (5-foot-11) could be very tough to handle. The other thing I'd point out is that it appears Sudfeld will be the top choice to play in the two-minute offense in Gronkowski's old role. So while he's more of a "move" tight end, his size makes him a nice fit in that specific package.

Q. Mike, it's always interesting to see a player who had an injury-filled college career go on to make an impact at the pro level, especially a player like Zach Sudfeld who went undrafted. The player who sticks in my mind is Curtis Martin, who, after serious knee issues limited him at Pitt, fell to the Pats in the third round in 1995. Now I'm certainly not saying Sudfeld is a Hall-of-Famer in waiting by any stretch. It's just so difficult to project what a player can and will be that makes it so interesting, especially when you see players with injury histories tracking the other way, like Ras-I Dowling. Fingers crossed that Sudfeld can keep it up and help make a positive impact this season. -- Neil (South Boston)

A. Great point, Neil. Of course, we remember that Curtis Martin had been coming off knee surgery at Pitt, which led to his slipping to the third round of the 1995 draft. In situations like those, it is quite difficult to project what a player can and will be. If we asked Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio what their realistic expectations for Sudfeld were for 2013, at the time they signed him, I think they would have told you he was probably a year away based on the information they had at the time. The timeline has been accelerated. That's a credit to Sudfeld.

Q. Mike, I know most reporters think that Tim Tebow is going to make the roster, but couldn't it be possible that BB and company are doing with him what they did with Deion Branch and Donte' Stallworth? Get the guy in, get him reps in the system, establish a relationship, release him at the cutdown, and then re-sign him only if injuries take place? His performances show that he's not as valuable as an extra DT, RB, TE, DB, or WR on the roster, so why keep him if you can cut him (he'll definitely clear waivers) and have him on speed dial? -- grandjordanian (San Diego)

A. Grand, this is entirely possible. I wouldn't rule anything out. Tebow is a lightning rod, and after his shaky performance Friday against the Buccaneers, I can see why some would view him as being in jeopardy of making the roster. If I was making a projection today, I would keep him on. But I don't feel as confident about it this week as I did last week.

Tim Tebow
The Pats could give Tebow the Deion Branch treatment: Cut him and then bring him back later in the season if they need him.

Q. Mike, I just don't see how Tebow can be worth a roster spot. Not with five good RBs (not counting James Develin), six good WRs (Matthew Slater good at special teams), and four worthy and healthy TE's (having read that Daniel Fells and Hoomanawanui had plenty of bright spots in camp). After the Bucs game, do you see Tebow on the roster? Whose spot does he take? -- Jamal (Hoover, Ala.)

A. Jamal, I can't argue with you after the Buccaneers game. That wasn't pretty and there's no sugarcoating it, even though I do think they went away from some of the option-based concepts that Tebow does best. Here is something to consider: If Alfonzo Dennard is suspended by the NFL, he won't count against the 53-man roster. Maybe with that extra spot, Tebow sticks. Specific to the question, I think a debate between Tebow and Fells/Hoomanawanui could yield strong arguments on both sides.

Q. Hi Mike, do you think there is any trickle-down effect with the recent injuries to the "mobile" quarterbacks in the AFC East and a roster spot for Tebow? It has been theorized that Tebow may earn a roster spot based on his ability to run the scout team as EJ Manuel or Geno Smith. Now that it looks like the Pats might not face either one until later in the season, could Tebow be cut after preseason to be re-signed later in the year? His performance in games has not been strong, and I would hate to see a roster spot go to someone who really doesn't bring anything to the team but a good locker room presence. -- James (Derry, N.H.)

A. James, I see that as a minor factor, if any at all. While Tebow does bring value as a scout-team quarterback and as a strong locker-room presence who helps with the all-important locker-room dynamic, I think the main factor will be whether he can help the Patriots in the event of injuries to Tom Brady and Ryan Mallett. After Friday night's game, I can understand why some question that.

Q. Hello, Mike, do you see a trade for a defensive tackle? There's no doubt about Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, but in order for the defense be strong for 60 minutes, they need another good player in there. -- Liuz Medeiros (Curitiba, Brazil)

A. Liuz, I think you're right. That looks like one of the areas on the roster where the quality depth is thinner than desired. It seems like a safe bet that the personnel staff is keeping a close eye on defensive tackles around the NFL as possibilities to sign if their teams let them go.

Q. There has been very little updates on the Armond Armstead situation. At first they were saying nothing and now all that's out there is that he is on the non-football injury list due to surgery for an infection. What have you heard? When is he expected back and what kind of surgery for what infection? I was very excited when we got this guy and now there is nothing from him. -- Sean C. (Holliston, Mass.)

A. Sean, Armstead has been spending time around the team, but my sense is that the club isn't expecting him to be part of the mix at this time. Whether that changes in the future, I'm not sure. Given his past medical issues relating to his heart, I would imagine they are exercising extreme caution in this case and proceeding as if he won't be a contributor.

Q. I can't take it anymore! We have to do something about this kicking situation. I have literally no confidence in Stephen Gostkowski anymore. It's really scary when you can't trust your kicker. -- Ramin (San Marcos, Texas)

A. Ramin, Bill Belichick gave Gostkowski support on Saturday, saying, "I have confidence that he is one of the best kickers in the NFL." The results have been uneven in preseason games, but I think it's also important to point out that the misses are from 44, 50 and 53 yards. Those aren't chip shots. Furthermore, if you are serious about replacing him, then the question becomes, "With whom?" It's not like a surefire answer is available.

Q. When discussing position battles at training camp, fans still bring up the size of a player's contract and how much can be saved for the Patriots. The punting competition between Ryan Allen and Zoltan Mesko is one such example. The Patriots have done a great job managing the cap and are roughly $9 million dollars under. With being that much under, haven't the Patriots earned the right to pick the player that is best for the team and loosen the concerns about the cap for this year? How much more can the Patriots spend on a veteran this year that might get cut at the final cuts and still take care of the concerns about the cost of Hernandez situation next year? Is that a concern at all this year? -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)

A. David, contracts shouldn't, and won't, be the driving force behind any decision the Patriots make. They aren't tight against the cap and thus the finances won't force their hand. When the contracts are brought up from this perspective, it's in the context of value. For example, if Daniel Fells ($1.25 million) and Michael Hoomanawanui ($1.3 million) project to be the Nos. 3 or 4 or 5 tight ends -- yet are on the books for pretty good money -- the team might feel it has a similar player at half the cost based on the role. So if you feel you have a similar option and can save some money, then you do it. In the case of Mesko ($1.3 million) versus Allen ($405,000) at punter, I think Mesko has jumped to the lead over the past week. Looks to me like Allen has tapered off a bit.

Q. Hey Mike, don't you think this preseason Tom Brady should be practicing and focusing on the downfield game with his new WRs? Over the past two games, as well as a few times last year (AFC championship is the first that comes to mind), it seems he's really only looking underneath for TEs and slot guys. It feels like all opposing teams need to do is take that away and single cover the outside guys cause he's not even looking there. Shouldn't BB and JMac be driving home the point of stretching the field, especially now when it's time to practice it? Early reports seemed like they were working hard on it with Aaron Dobson and KT, but this last game, although they looked good, seemed like a throwback to the old ways. -- Tye (Kahului, Hawaii)

A. Tye, they certainly have been working on the downfield passing game, even though we didn't see many long strikes against the Buccaneers on Friday night. I know it's not a long bomb, but the Tom Brady-to-Danny Amendola 26-yard touchdown catch was a good example to me of how they are still putting stress on the back end of the defense. We should see more of this when Aaron Dobson is in the game, as his time with Tom Brady was limited (two snaps) on Friday.

Stephen Gostkowski
Some think Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski should be replaced. But who else is out there?

Q. Hey Mike, do you think that it is possible that the departure of Wes Welker will actually help Brady become a better QB? It seems like over the past few years, Brady had started to zone in specifically on Welker in the passing game because he was so reliable, but at the same time ignoring other receivers on the field. I think that because of this "obsession" with Welker, Brady gave all of the young receivers a very short leash because if it didn't pan out quickly, because he always had the security of Welker (of course none of the receivers went on to do great things anywhere else, but he has made mediocre receivers look good -- i.e. Reche Caldwell). I'm excited to see him get back to spreading the ball more and hitting the open man, not the man he has the most confidence in. -- Nolan (Groton, Conn.)

A. I understand the point, Nolan, but see it a little differently. There were times that Brady did seem to zone in on Welker, but I think it was just as much about the other options at receiver. When Brady had Randy Moss, Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth surrounding Welker in the receiving corps, it didn't seem that it was the "Wes Welker Show" to me. So from this view, it comes down to having a deeper, more balanced passing game. I think the Pats still could have been that this year with Welker, assuming they added all the other pieces they've added.

Q. Hey Mike, I was wondering about keeping players on the roster whose contributions are primarily on special teams, i.e Nate Ebner, Tavon Wilson, Marquice Cole, Niko Koutouvides, etc. While they all certainly contribute to that aspect of the game, just how many "special teams only" players can the Patriots keep on the roster? Obviously a standout like Matt Slater is someone any team would want, but wouldn't it be a better investment to keep players who might not be "core 4" players but who can contribute to offense and/or defense? -- Harrison B.

A. Harrison, not including the three specialists (kicker, punter, snapper), I really see just one special-teams-only player on the roster (Slater). He's like the new Larry Izzo -- so valuable in that area of the game that his spot is solidified. I think we could put Nate Ebner a few notches below in a similar category. The rest of the players I envision being on the 53-man roster still have some value as backups or situational package-specific players on either offense or defense (e.g., Tavon Wilson, Brandon Bolden).

Q. Mike, I tried to watch Jake Bequette close on Friday to see what he was doing. All I saw was him standing around piles after someone else made a tackle. Admittedly I missed a few plays as I got distracted by Tampa's third-string offense focusing on Tavon Wilson as the weakest link on the field. Have you seen anything performance-wise that suggests either of these two should make the roster? If they do make the roster, is it based upon the physical tools of Bequette and the reluctance to admit Wilson was a monumental reach and that every journalist across the country might have been smarter on that one? -- John (Huntington Beach, Calif.)

A. John, Wilson will make the roster. He's a core special-teamer and also part of the dime package in a linebacker-type role. Finances are also a factor -- it costs more to cut him than keep him and he still has some on-field value to the club. I'm less certain about Bequette. It looks to me like 2013 seventh-round pick Michael Buchanan may have already passed him on the depth chart.

Q. Mike, any news on Marcus Cannon? He hasn't practiced in a while and nothing has been said about him. I thought this might be the year he became a starter at guard. -- enjoythegames (Cleveland, Ohio)

A. Cannon had a strong start to training camp but has missed the last few weeks because of injury. He has been working his way back into practice in recent days. I'm not sure if he'll be ready for Thursday night in Detroit, but I wouldn't be surprised if we see him on the field.

Q. Granted it's preseason, but Leon Washington hasn't really shown much. With Josh Boyce being a serviceable kickoff returner, and Shane Vereen providing the hands and quickness as the "passing back," will Washington show enough special-teams value to justify the spot? I feel like BB would rather have some added depth at TE if push comes to shove. I didn't see George Winn get any reps -- is he completely out of the running? -- Craig (Hurlburt Field, Fla.)

A. Craig, I think Washington brings a solid veteran presence to the group, but that doesn't necessarily ensure a roster spot. The reason I think he will stick is because he provides insurance behind Vereen as the "passing back," and there hasn't been enough of a sample size to determine his true value as a kickoff returner. I still see quickness and speed from Washington. Add in that he's the type of player who adds to a positive locker-room dynamic, and I think it's enough for him to land one of the 53 spots at this time.