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Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Latest blow is a biggie

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston,com

No Big Vince. Big problem.

That is the main theme to this week's Patriots mailbag. Where do the Patriots go from here?

Let's get right into it.

Q. Hey Mike, good NFL weekend just gone -- really enjoyed staying up late for the game on Sunday night and am really encouraged by the team with the progress the last few weeks. The obvious concern is at defensive tackle, as other than Brady at quarterback, it seems that position was thinnest on the depth chart, and there is a big dropoff from big Vince. Can you see Bill Belichick looking to make a trade or bring in a veteran free agent to cover the loss, as now even more we need depth at the position, given the amount of playing time Vince had been seeing in the last few years. -- Adrian (London)

A. Adrian, my hunch is that the team will stand pat and promote internally from the practice squad with either Marcus Forston or A.J. Francis. But if a good trade presents itself, like when the club shipped a fourth-round pick to Chicago for burly nose tackle Ted Washington in 2003, I think they absolutely would do that. The issue, and Bill Belichick points this out from time to time, is that those types of players are valuable assets and usually aren't available in a trade.

Q. Vince's shoes aren't going to be replaced but I'd hate to see our tackle play fall off a cliff. Don't you think it is more prudent for the Patriots to be bold and make an in-season trade of a draft pick or picks for a solid, starting-caliber defensive tackle? I think that's their best option because promoting from the practice squad seems to me to be more of the same (i.e. Joe Vellano and Chris Jones) who are players that can contribute but more in a reserve role and not as front-line starters, and the free agents that are out there are out of work for a reason. -- George Scullane (Houston)

A. George, this one is pretty straightforward to me: If they can acquire an upgrade at a reasonable price, it's a no-brainer. I just have doubts that combination is available to them. Teams aren't giving away defensive tackles and there is a reason those players are usually high draft choices. Big, athletic defensive tackles are generally hard to find. Some have suggested Browns nose tackle Phil Taylor, but I just don't know why Cleveland would entertain that for anything less than a first-round pick and I don't think that's a reasonable price for the Patriots.

Q. Mike, a lot can happen between now and next year's draft, but it would seem right now that drafting two DTs in the draft like they did with WRs this year could be in order. Do you agree? -- David (North Attleboro)

Joe Vellano
Undrafted free agent Joe Vellano is one of the defensive tackles who stepped in for Wilfork on Sunday, but he's not considered a front-line starter.

A. Yes, David, and that's an area that we've been talking about for a year or so now. The Patriots haven't drafted a big defensive tackle for three years in a row, which has contributed to the current situation they find themselves from a depth standpoint. In one respect, they have a sixth-round pick in Chris Jones currently on the roster as the Texans took him in the sixth round this year. But for whatever reason, things just haven't aligned for them at that position and that could loom large as the team moves forward without Vince Wilfork.

Q. Hey Mike, you had to throw Richard Seymour out there as a possible Wilfork replacement option and now I can't stop thinking about it. Why the long shot? -- Jake (Maine)

A. Jake, the Patriots and Seymour didn't end on good terms. Not a lot of good feelings on either side. A big-time contract could always sway things -- and part of the reason Seymour never signed with the Falcons this year was because the sides had a big gap financially -- but I don't see it happening. I just don't think the Patriots would view his presence as a positive. That's part of the reason they traded him in the first place.

Q. Mike, obviously the loss of Wilfork is big for the Pats, but I'm trying to find a positive and the only thing I can think of is maybe the scheme up front will alter slightly due to the personnel change. I'm thinking the Pats might be more aggressive with their D line, which would boost their pass rush. Granted, the run D will suffer without big Vince, but do you see the possibility of the Pats changing their approach slightly since they could be 100 pounds lighter along the D line? -- Eric (Andover, Mass.)

A. Eric, I don't think the fundamentals of the defense will change, but there will obviously be some tweaks. There really is no silver lining here. Any way we slice it, the loss of Wilfork is huge. But we've seen the Patriots overcome these things in the past, and one given is that we know this coaching staff will maximize what it has. This is one of the best coaching staffs in the NFL.

Q. Hey Mike, the loss of Wilfork is an unfortunate blow to a defense that is already thin at the defensive tackle position. Do you think his injury could partly be due to his increased workload over the last couple of years? It seems like a player of his size should not play as many snaps as he does. -- Joe (Vermont)

SportsNation

How should the Patriots replace Vince Wilfork?

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Discuss (Total votes: 16,952)

A. Joe, I don't think it was about past workload. More than anything, it's a physical game and these things happen, even to those who play limited snaps. But for those interested in the workload, here is the breakdown:
2009: 51.8 percent
2010: 69.8 percent
2011: 86.8 percent
2012: 81.3 percent

Q. Hi Mike, I think everyone needs to pump the breaks on the Aqib Talib extension a bit. I'm ecstatic with the way he has played this season, but let's remember he chose a one-year contract to show teams he is worth the big bucks next year. With his past, I'd be worried that handing him a big contract would cost them down the line (injuries, off-field issues, dip in performance without the incentive, etc.). I'm not saying they shouldn't look at extending him or bringing him back, just that it shouldn't be as automatic as everyone seems to be suggesting. Just wanted to know your thoughts. -- Clay (New Zealand)

A. Clay, that's the wild-card in this scenario for the Patriots. There is a projection involved and the question is this: Will the player and his approach change after earning some financial security? They've had him for 11 months and perhaps they've seen enough to know the answer. Maybe, after getting burned by going in early with Aaron Hernandez's extension and even with former cornerback Leigh Bodden, they want a little more time. If that's the case, I wouldn't blame them. But from what we've seen, it's been all positive with Talib.

Q. Mike, hindsight is 20/20, but clearly the Pats should have put Gronk on the PUP. They could have had another player on their roster and not wasted it on Gronk's spot. Also, I fully support Gronk's position. If he is not ready, then don't play. Of course, the team is going to pressure him, but that is life in the NFL. I am glad that he is standing up for his health. Ultimately, there is nothing more important than that. I like the fact he listens to his family and not just the Pats' front office and coaching staff. Only his parents are going to put his interests first. Certainly not the Patriots. Where do you stand on this? -- Paul O. (Kenosha, Wisc.)

A. Paul, my viewpoint on Gronkowski is that it was a smart decision to keep him on the active roster. First and foremost, if Gronkowski plays Oct. 6 in Cincinnati, or Oct. 13 against the Saints, then I think it will have been well worth it. And I believe he has a chance to play. But even if he doesn't, there is great value in having him at practice. If Gronkowski was placed on the PUP list, he wouldn't have been eligible to practice. As for Gronkowski making the decision, I have no problem with it. In the end, the player has to be comfortable with the situation and I think Bill Belichick feels the same way.

Aaron Dobson
When it comes to establishing an outside threat, can the Pats count on Aaron Dobson?

Q. Mike, if the Pats continue to win without a high-powered offense (which will come around), will we see Gronk stay on the bench to ensure full recovery? Also, do you think there is a possibility that they will sign a veteran outside receiver? -- Adam C.

A. Adam, I think Gronkowski has had a full recovery and at this point it's just his comfort level in playing again. As for signing a veteran outside receiver, I don't expect that to happen. With Danny Amendola potentially returning on Sunday, the unit gets a boost.

Q. Hi Mike, Do you know if Gronk has been lifting weights yet? I know he can't wait to start building that muscle back he lost, I think it would be a good indication of how healed up he really is. -- Jon (Greensboro, N.C.)

A. Yes, Jon, it's my understanding that Gronkowski has been lifting weights. The hard part in all this for Gronkowski is going to be getting up to game speed when he ultimately plays, because as Tom Brady says, there's really nothing a player can do to prepare himself for a game. So I don't think this is about lifting weights as much as it is Gronkowski's comfort level as they ultimately ease him into the mix. I don't expect him to play 100 percent of the snaps in his debut.

Q. Hi Mike. This isn't meant to be sarcastic, and I haven't stayed in a Holiday Express Inn, but how in the name of Mass General does a groin muscle alleged to have been torn clean from the bone, all by itself reattach itself such that Amendola, in his words, is able to return at "100 percent"? -- Tman (Belmont, Mass.)

A. Tman, as I understand it, because it tore away from the bone, Amendola can't do any more damage to it. So it's just a matter of a personal situation and when he gets to a level of comfort to go out and play. If they performed a surgery on it, the procedure apparently would be to do the same thing -- snip it clean instead of re-attaching it.

Q. A common fear among Patriots fans seems to be how will the Patriots beat Denver. Is it just me, or does Denver resemble every Patriots team from 2007 to 2012 (with the exception of 2008)? The Broncos don't run and they have lousy pass defense. Sure, they have injuries and force teams to pass because of their high-powered offense, but haven't we as Patriot fans learned by now that it is much tougher to win a Super Bowl without pass defense and a running game? It just seems to me that they've modeled a successful team after the Patriots, but that's a team that never won the Super Bowl, which is why this year excites me: Good D and a well-balanced run game. -- Cory M. (New London, Conn.)

A. Cory, we know how the games change as we get deeper into the season, and it's harder to rely on a high-powered offense to keep producing results. That was something Tedy Bruschi pointed out last week. This was his thought: "I remember as a player watching Peyton Manning play in September and thinking to myself, "Wait until we get you in New England in the winter time." The efficiency of the Broncos' offense, and every offense, will always be higher in September. I think the Broncos' defense might rise up to the challenge, but like you said, it's a unit that hasn't really been tested because the offense has been so far ahead.

Q. Mike, do you think the Pats have any interest in Josh Gordon or Kenny Britt? What about Davone Bess; do you think Cleveland would part with him? I know the young guns looked "better" against Tampa, but there is still a long way to go. They still have not established an outside threat and that is something that they still need to do. Thoughts? -- Regis (Braintree)

A. Regis, I'd be surprised if the Patriots are in the mix for Gordon, in part because of the suspension issue. I feel the same way about Britt, although I hedge my thoughts slightly because he played at Rutgers. And we know how much Bill Belichick seems to like those Rutgers guys. As for establishing an outside threat, I think we have to give Aaron Dobson a little more time. Between Dobson and Kenbrell Thompson, they've gotten behind the defense at times in recent weeks. Some positive things there.

Q. Hi Mike, what are your thoughts so far on the progress of Josh Boyce? I know he was injured in training camp and that may have slowed his progress. He has been targeted only a couple of times and played a handful of snaps. Coming out of the draft, he seemed to be a player able to stretch defenses downfield. Any chance he will make an impact in the coming weeks? -- Simon (UK)

A. Simon, we saw more of him in the Tampa game because the Patriots called on more four-receiver sets, but it seems pretty clear that there is a gap at this time between fellow rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson to Boyce. I could see a few specialized plays for Boyce to tap his speed, but I don't think he'll be taking snaps away from Dobson or Thompkins at this point. Maybe he could help as a kickoff returner, but it seems the Patriots might be reluctant to use him there, perhaps because of potential ball-security issues with a rookie. Sunday night in Atlanta represented his most significant contributions.

Q. One decent game against TB has calmed the "drop the rookies, why did we saddle Tom with no receivers" crowd, but why not hedge that the pups won't be great or terrible every week and bring in a vet receiver from a going-nowhere team? Vincent Jackson would fit under the cap, would potentially maximize one of the remaining good years with Brady, and could be a vet influence on the young pups. A third-round pick, while expensive, would be a good return for TB as VJ isn't getting any younger either, but could be a Super Bowl difference maker. Thoughts? -- Doug (Chapel Hill, NC)

A. Doug, if Tampa would trade Jackson for a third-round pick, I think that's a slam dunk. Just don't think they would do that. That would be a steal.

Zach Sudfeld
Zach Sudfeld appears to be struggling to keep up, but that could change in the coming weeks.

Q. Hi Mike, before the Falcons game you wrote "Wouldn't be surprised to see even less of Zach Sudfeld going forward." Is that because of a dropoff of performance on Sudfeld's part, or him being slowed by injury? I can't believe that Michael Hoomanawanui is better in the passing game or has as much upside. I think Sudfeld will emerge as he gets over the hamstring injury. Hard to be on top of your game when you can't run at 100 percent. -- Lonster (SoCal)

A. Lonster, it looks to me like Sudfeld just needs a little more time. He obviously has some good things going for him -- size, runs well, good hands. It just looks to me like the game is being played at one speed and there's a little bit of a struggle to keep up. Maybe that changes in the weeks to come, but that's what I see right now.

Q. Who is on the practice squad? It seems like there are more players from other teams than those who spent time with the Patriots in training camp. -- Bruce R. (Swampscott, Mass.)

A. That's a good observation, Bruce. After the Patriots promoted safety Kanorris Davis from the practice squad on Saturday and then released him Monday, the following seven players remain:
CB Justin Green (Rutgers)
LB Ja'Gared Davis (Southern Methodist)
OT Jordan Devey (Memphis)
G Josh Kline (Kent State)
C Braxston Cave (Notre Dame)
DT A.J. Francis (Maryland)
DL Marcus Forston (Miami)

Of the group, Green, Kline and Forston were with the team in training camp. The Patriots obviously felt the players from other teams were upgrades from what they had in camp at positions of need. Look for Kanorris Davis to return to the practice squad if he clears waivers.

Q. Mike, what is the current status of TJ Moe? When is he expected to start practicing? -- Steve (Sudbury)

A. Steve, Moe remains on the injured reserve list, which means he is out for the year. The undrafted rookie free agent from Missouri will look to emerge in 2014.