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The last mailbag was posted before the Patriots' Monday night showdown with the Jets, and so much has happened since then. New England drubbed its rival that night and followed that win with an impressive performance in the wind and snow in Chicago, and its five-game win streak has solidified the Patriots as a Super Bowl favorite. Conversely, New York suffered an embarrassing home loss to the Dolphins and now face a must-win game in Pittsburgh -- where it has never won -- to keep the Jets' division and wild-card hopes alive.
There was one topic on several e-mailer's minds over the last week or so: Logan Mankins and his future with the Pats. His fellow linemate Stephen Neal was on one man's mind, and there's a clarification on the Deion Branch trade as well.
Shalise, understanding business is business, what do you think the chances are that the Patriots will come to terms with Logan Mankins once the season comes to an end? It's clearly evident that the Pats have a certain edginess about them when he's here.
Michael Carriere, Medford
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the superb play of the offense has come when Logan Mankins returned to the line up. Is there any chance negotiations will be reopened and he remains a Patriot?
Steve Barsalou, Honolulu
Do you know if the Patriots plan to sign Logan Mankins? To not sign him seems like such a foolish act, particularly in light of the need to protect their franchise -- Tom Brady.
Logan has proven himself to be one of the five best offensive linemen in the NFL over the past five seasons. He's durable, too. I don't believe he's missed a game due to injury.
Finding a replacement for Logan who is as good or better will be a difficult if not impossible task. I just hope that the Patriots' organization has the good sense to sign him. We need him.
Mike Browne, Carver
Several questions about No. 70 this week, and I can’t say I blame you. It is hard to give tangible evidence of the impact that Mankins has had since he returned – as Michael said, the offensive line in particular appears to have a edge it didn’t have in the first seven weeks of the season.
And by the statistics we have available, there isn’t tangible evidence that Mankins has made a big difference. Consider: in the first seven games of the season, New England averaged 112.7 rushing yards per game, and 4.2 yards per carry; in the six games with Mankins, those numbers go down slightly, at 112.0 yards per game and 4.1 YPC. The line is averaging fewer sacks, having given up 12 in the first seven games of the season (1.7 sacks per) and only six in six games with Mankins. According to Pro Football Focus’ guard rankings (not including last week’s games), Mankins is 19th, but he has played significantly fewer snaps than the players in front of him, and the rankings are derived from cumulative grades.
That said, Mankins deserves an extension. He has never missed a game – or even a practice – when he’s been under contract with the Patriots. Tom Brady trusts him, and has publicly stumped for him when Brady’s contract was a topic of discussion. But there is no update on if the two sides have been talking about getting a deal done.
What is the health status of our best sacker, Mike Wright? Is he progressing from his concussion? Will he return soon?
Unfortunately, Jack, I don’t have a concrete answer to give you on this one. Wright has not been spotted on the field or in the locker room since he was hurt against the Colts. Coach Bill Belichick was asked about Wright’s status and what he’s been going through last week, and Belichick shed no light on the situation, saying Wright is going through whatever the trainers put him through and he isn’t a trainer. The Patriots do conduct baseline tests on all of their players, and under the new NFL rule, players must be evaluated by an independent neurologist before they’re allowed to practice again. Concussions are different for everyone – a hit that might knock one player out for a couple of games maybe takes another out of just a couple of practices – but they are incredibly serious. Regardless of how you feel about soccer, New England Revolution star Taylor Twellman was recently forced to retire because of lingering post-concussion issues (his doctor told him he could have as close to a normal life as possible or he could continue playing), and Marc Savard rushed his return to the Bruins in the playoffs and found himself dealing with nausea and extreme fatigue. It was long past time that the NFL started treating them as such, and I trust that Wright will come back only when he’s ready.
Could you explain the way the 4th round 2011 Deion Branch draft pick works for New England? Do they have to give Seattle the Denver pick they got as part of the Maroney trade or their own 4th round pick?
Rob, “Middle East Pats fan”
Rob, the agreement the Patriots and Seahawks came to was that Seattle would get whichever of the two picks was higher – at this point, with Denver at 3-10 and New England at 11-2 -- it will be the Broncos’ pick.
Do you think that the Patriots will draft a running back in 2011 or keep the foursome that is in place?
Johnny R., Naples, Fla.
As you know, Johnny, the Pats have six running backs on the roster currently: Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and Thomas Clayton, and of that group, four (Taylor, Faulk, Morris, Green-Ellis) are in the final year of their respective contracts. So there will be changes coming. Right now, it is hard to know what they will be. At this point, Taylor is unlikely to be back, at least not at his currently salary, as he just hasn’t been able to consistently contribute due to injury. Faulk’s situation is incredibly difficult, as he signed a one-year deal before this season and will be 35 years old and coming off ACL surgery next June; he would very likely call it a career if the Pats don’t bring him back, as New England is home for his children and he would not uproot them. Morris is a question mark: he is effective in the fullback/short yardage role he’s had this year, so perhaps a veteran minimum deal would keep him here.
Green-Ellis will be a restricted free agent after this season. It isn’t clear right now if those tags will remain even if a CBA isn’t struck before the end of the current NFL year which ends March 5, but the Pats could tender Green-Ellis. Woodhead signed an extension that has him here at least through 2012, and Clayton, like most street free agents, received a deal through the 2011 season when he came back, but he has yet to see the field.
As for the draft, you could certainly see the Patriots taking a running back. Personally I wouldn’t take one in the first round (unless convinced that it was a truly special guy like Barry Sanders) because with a good run-blocking offensive line, like New England has, a back with average talent can be effective.
Brian Hoyer is the backup....how good is he and will the Patriots use him once they have home-field advantage guaranteed for the playoffs?
Gill Mills, Watford, England
Hoyer is a solid backup, Gill. We really haven’t seen him in a true game situation this year, but the coaching staff thinks highly of him and he prepares well every week. It is possible that he could get some extended playing time in the regular-season finale against the Dolphins if the Pats have locked up home field. Hoyer played a bunch of snaps in last year’s finale in Houston, and called that experience very valuable for him in terms of his development.
Now that Stephen Neal has been placed on IR again this year because of his shoulder injury, do you think his career is done? Also, didn't he just sign a two year deal?
Ron Russian, Milford
We may have seen the last of Neal, Ron. He did consider retiring before this season before returning and agreeing to a two-year deal with the Patriots (you’re right on that point). Neal has struggled with his shoulders for years; now 34, he may make the decision that he just doesn’t want to endure another surgery and rehab or another year of pain or discomfort to play another season. We haven’t had the chance to talk with him since he was placed on injured reserve, so I don’t know his feelings right now.
If it is the end of his career, however, Neal deserves a tip of the cap for a most unlikely career, as he made a rather remarkable leap from top amateur wrestler to starting offensive lineman who is an exceptional run blocker.