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Tuesday, September 3, 2013
Second-guessing Bill's roster

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

With all the comings and goings in recent days, the 2013 New England Patriots roster remains an evolving picture. Still, the overall youth throughout the roster stands out.

All seven draft picks made the initial roster, as well as five undrafted free agents. Add in two waiver claims on undrafted players and the Patriots have a whopping 14 rookies on their initial roster.

Then consider that six 2012 draft picks are still on the roster, plus one undrafted player from last year in running back Brandon Bolden, and that's 21 players within their first two years of the league. That's almost 40 percent of the team.

So while the Patriots trend older at some positions, with quarterback Tom Brady (36), guards Logan Mankins (31) and Dan Connolly (30) and defensive tackles Vince Wilfork (31) and Tommy Kelly (32), this is a team with an overall young profile.

Let's get to the questions.

Q. Mike, do you think the Pats like to sign long-shot players from rival teams (like Miami) to pick their brains and learn what they might be doing? What plays they might be practicing. Not just the Pats, but all teams? -- Craig (Hurlburt Field, Fla.)

Dowling
The release of 2011 second-round pick Ras-I Dowling has spurred criticism of Bill Belichick's drafting and development of DBs in recent years.

A. Craig, I do think there is an aspect of this with the Patriots, and my hunch is that might be part of the reason they claimed linebacker Chris White on waivers. White was with the Bills until last week, when he was traded to the Lions for quarterback Thad Lewis. On defense, he was playing middle linebacker for the Bills, so he might be able to provide some insight to Patriots coaches on what first-year coordinator Mike Pettine is doing in Buffalo, which has some value in a season-opening week when the element of the unknown is greater than the norm. As we know, the middle linebacker is at the heart of the defensive calls and White is considered a smart player. Otherwise, he's mostly been a special-teamer. As for the other players claimed on waivers, such as former Dolphins players A.J. Francis (defensive tackle) and Chris Barker (interior offensive lineman), I think that's less a result of intelligence and more a reflection on how the teams might look for similar traits in players at those positions.

Q. After roster cutdowns, New England is down to only four DTs: Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis. The depth is not only thin, but also inexperienced. However, there's potential for the quartet to provide an interior rush that has been lacking since Mike Wright. I would like to see another addition to the defensive line, but I don't know if anyone is still available. Do you expect the Patriots to make another move before Sunday? If not, could you see this defensive line generating more consistent pressure this season? -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)

A. Alvin, the starting combination of Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly could be the Patriots' best in recent memory in terms of a 1-2 punch. Hard not to be impressed by the way Kelly (6-foot-6, 310 pounds) moves bodies in there with those "long levers" (as described by Bill Belichick). With two undrafted rookies behind them in Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis, that's obviously going to be a drop-off. I wouldn't think the team will be relying on them too much.

Q. Are you surprised Joe Vellano made the 53 over Marcus Forston? Is it his ability to penetrate and hold the point or lack of development from Forston? -- Pascal R. (New Haven, Conn.)

A. Pascal, I was a little surprised at that one. Would give the edge to Vellano for suddenness and ability to penetrate, but thought Forston was stouter in there against the run. In the end, Forston still wound up back on the practice squad, so the team still gets to work with both of them.

Q. Mike, I'm asking you to speculate here ... The timing of some of these player releases is interesting. Is there any gamesmanship involved in when the Pats decide to release a player? Or is it mostly based on other available players? Seems odd to see players like James Develin and Leon Washington released well after the cutdown deadline. -- Craig (Hurlburt Field, Fla.)

A. Craig, there is some strategy involved in terms of timing and working the waiver wire and which players are claimed/awarded. Some of it is probably also tied to the practice squad and building depth at certain positions on the overall 61-player snapshot of the team. By making some moves a day or two after the cutdown deadline, the Patriots also get a better look at the rosters/practice squads of each NFL team and thus have a better feel on if a certain player they hope passes through waivers might make it through so they can re-sign him to the practice squad. Seems to me like the strategy has short- and long-term elements to it.

Q. Hi Mike, was it really just a hamstring issue that put Adrian Wilson on IR? He certainly looked a bit slow and was tackling poorly on top of that, but it seems like he could have recovered somewhat quickly from a hamstring injury. I had high hopes for him and am back to worrying about Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory getting bowled over by bigger receivers. -- Jake (Portland, Maine)

A. Jake, I do believe it was a hamstring injury that landed Wilson on injured reserve. I am unaware of the severity of it, but as we know, a team can't release a vested veteran who is injured (a player who isn't a vested veteran can be waived/injured and then would revert to IR once clearing waivers). So it probably came down to a question of whether the team wanted to hold a spot for Wilson and wait, or just bite the bullet and place him on IR (while paying him his salary) to move on. If he was healthy, he might have been cut anyway. Like you, I thought he appeared slow at times in the preseason.

Joe Vellano
Joe Vellano is one of five undrafted free agents to make the Patriots' 53-man roster.

Q. I am disappointed in the lack of coverage by you on the release of CB Ras-I Dowling, selected as the first pick in the second round in 2011! There has been plenty of data showing that Belichick is below average in identifying and developing DBs over the past five years despite the reputation of being a defensive specialist. Last year's second-round pick Tavon Wilson already looks like another bust and is well down the depth chart. The Pats were the only team that gave him a high grade and rightly received criticism for the pick at the time in my opinion. How long does it take the media to stop giving Belichick the benefit of the doubt when it comes to drafting DBs? -- Ian (Bangkok)

A. Ian, just in case it was missed, here was my take on the release of Dowling. No need to sugarcoat it, Belichick's drafting record with defensive backs isn't good and it's puzzling why there has been such a struggle in that area. His winning percentage is still pretty good, though. And just to be fair, the Eagles released their first-round pick from 2011 over the last few days, so it's a reminder that everyone is making mistakes. 

Q. Mike, just imagine what Bill Belichick could have done had 50 percent of his second-round picks produced. The question is not about Belichick's coaching, it's about his ability as a general manager. And his record over the last several years has been dreadful. Why can't you separate the two roles, coach and GM, and judge them accordingly? Just because Coach Belichick can win with average players shouldn't excuse GM Belichick for giving him average players to coach. -- Dan (Boston)

A. Dan, I think dreadful is too strong a word. Dreadful is trading up to the No. 5 spot in the 2009 first round to select quarterback Mark Sanchez (Jets). Dreadful is taking linebacker Rolando McClain eighth overall in 2010 (Raiders). Dreadful is taking offensive tackle Jason Smith No. 2 overall in 2009 (Rams). Dreadful is selecting linebacker Aaron Curry No. 4 overall in the 2009 draft (Seahawks). I could go on, but here's what I'd say about Belichick's draft record: He doesn't miss too often on the first-rounders that often make up the core of a team, but the second and third rounds have been trouble spots for him. I don't think that's dreadful. That probably puts him in the same category as most of his competitors, and then when considering what he's done with some later-round picks and undrafted players, he's still doing well.

Q. Mike, obviously very disappointing that Ras-I Dowling didn't work out, especially considering that the Patriots pretty much just wasted a second-round draft pick in 2011. My concern is the depth at the position. Aqib Talib is a lock at the No. 1 corner spot. Kyle Arrington is a good slot corner but can't cover outside receivers, and the Alfonzo Dennard situation is completely up in the air at the moment. How is rookie Logan Ryan coming along? Do you think he can come in this year and be an asset for the Patriots' defense? Also are there any valuable free agents out there worth looking at? -- Pete (San Antonio, Texas)

A. Pete, Ryan had a solid preseason and received a lot of playing time. In the perfect Patriots world, they would be able to ease him into the mix, but there might not be that type of luxury this year. He reminds me of Arrington in terms of his style play -- he can play inside and outside and is a strong run-force corner. He might not be the fastest corner, but he is competitive; a good technique player with notable ball skills. As for possible free agents, I'll just toss a name out there that could be of interest in an emergency type situation -- former Bills cornerback Terrence McGee. The veteran has some kickoff return experience as well.

Q. Bold prediction: Arrington leads league in INTs again. I don't know when Dennard's going to be back on the field, and No. 25 is going to get a lot of balls thrown his way as the No. 2. Secondary is looking shaky already. Do you see any room for improvement from last year with essentially the same starting players? -- Emil (Takoma Park, Md.)

A. Emil, it's almost hard to believe that the secondary is essentially the same unit as last year, with two additions -- Logan Ryan (third round, 83rd overall) at No. 3-4 cornerback and Duron Harmon (third round, 90th overall) at No. 3-4 safety. Arrington is one of the Patriots' more consistent players in terms of approach and work ethic. They are banking on a full year of Talib being the difference, as his acquisition midyear in 2012 changed things for them. So I can see the potential for the unit being better -- and we know how important a good pass rush can be to help the cause -- but I would have thought they would have hoped to do a little more personnel-wise in this area to build more quality depth.

Ryan Allen
Rookie punter Ryan Allen's impressive preseason and relatively cheap long-term contract were enough to convince the Pats to cut veteran Zoltan Mesko.

Q. No Zoltan Mesko, so who's holding for field goals? Any slight change in timing could really hurt. -- Otis (Boston)

A. Otis, they'll likely give rookie punter Ryan Allen the chance to be the primary holder. There is a benefit to having the punter be the holder, because those players can work together in practice while the offense and defense are doing their thing. If Allen doesn't work out in the role (he didn't hold at Louisiana Tech), backup quarterback Ryan Mallett would likely get the call.

Q. Hi Mike. Given Zoltan Mesko's reliability, consistency, directional punting, solid FG holding and ability to place punts within the 20-yard line (never mind his admittedly irrelevant, but nevertheless outstanding, community and charitable involvement), is saving $900,000 really worth dumping him when the Pats have no cap concerns? -- Tman (Belmont, Mass.)

A. Tman, I don't think money was the main factor, but it was obviously a consideration in the decision. To start, Ryan Allen was very impressive. I actually thought they might keep both punters initially because both had value (as we saw, Mesko landed in Pittsburgh quickly) and maybe waiting a week or two would have helped them slide Allen to the practice squad. But in terms of the money, it's not just the $900,000 difference this year. It's also the fact that Mesko's deal was up after the season, so there is going to be more money paid out next year, while Allen has a three-year deal and is essentially under the team's control for four years at cheap rookie dollars.

Q. Mike, we often hear some players are kept on roster because their contribution on special teams is highly valued. On this Patriots roster, who do you think are the top five or seven players whose contributions on special teams weigh much more than that on offense or defense? -- MarkJ (Japan)

A. MarkJ, my list would look like this: 1) Receiver Matthew Slater; 2) Safety Nate Ebner; 3) Running back Brandon Bolden; 4) Linebacker Dane Fletcher; 5) Linebacker Chris White.

Q. Hey Mike! If you would indulge me, was wondering if you would entertain the potential conspiracy theory that Tim Tebow was brought in to help Aaron Hernandez, before the charges were filed obviously. With the Rolling Stone piece indicating Tebow filled that role in Florida, it makes sense he could have done it here, and Bill helping Tebow get a second chance. With Hernandez gone, Bill kept Tebow just long enough to not make it obvious that's what was happening. Thoughts? -- James (Southbridge, Mass.)

A. James, I don't think that was the specific reason for Tebow's presence in New England, but it was a residual benefit, if you will. In the end, this was mostly about football in 2013 for Tebow with the Patriots. And the football turned out to not be good enough, in the Patriots' view.

Q. Hi Mike, one of my biggest questions/doubts I have regarding the Pats is the size and physicality of their offense. Last year I said that if they were to get by the Ravens they would get beaten up by the 49ers. What happened was they got beaten up by the Ravens. I truly believe this was because they had small players. I know they have addressed this by targeting Aaron Dobson and picking up LeGarrette Blout, both of which I think are great pickups, but I still think they are undersized. Do you agree with my concerns? -- Michael L. (Raleigh, N.C.)

A. Michael, I don't view the Patriots as undersized on offense, although they did get bigger in 2013 compared with last year. The two offensive tackles, Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, also have good size. They're going to add 270-pound tight end Matthew Mulligan, which adds some more beef. You mentioned Blount and Dobson. Overall, I don't think size is the issue, but maybe where we are in alignment is the thought that there are certain matchups -- against physical teams that can control the line of scrimmage with the standard four linemen -- that seem to give them some trouble.

Q. Mike, reading how thin the defensive line is, I was wondering whatever happened to the thought of signing John Abraham, who even at his age had a solid season last year. I know it probably was about money and years at first, but if no team has signed him, wouldn't he look good in a Patriots uniform as a situational pass rusher and defensive line help? Is there more than we know regarding Abraham? -- Steve (Miami, Fla.)

A. Steve, I think it was a combination of fit and finances with Abraham. If Abraham had said he'd come play for the minimum, it probably would have been a slam dunk. But for the money it would have taken to sign him, my sense is that there wasn't the necessary comfort level in Abraham's total package for the team to take the plunge. As we look at the present picture, the Patriots have Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Michael Buchanan and Jake Bequette as their top four ends. More thin than envisioned.