Hitting their stride
Pats carrying momentum into the playoffs
The playoffs are here and you can feel the intensity building. The Patriots host the Jets on Sunday at Gillette Stadium (1 p.m.).
This week's mailbag includes a mix of different topics -- from the Patriots/Jets matchup, to the season finale against the Titans, to personnel issues, to the salary cap, to a Deion Branch retrospective.
We'll get right to the questions this week.
Sunday's game provided the intensity needed to go into the playoffs. Do you think the chip on their shoulder will carry over into the Jets game?
Jeff Blanchard, Sarasota, Fla.
A: I think the Patriots have built positive momentum heading into the playoffs and are primed to make a playoff push. As quarterback Tom Brady pointed out after the game -- the Patriots haven't turned the ball over on offense in each of the last three games. That's a big part of any winning formula.
I'm looking forward to the playoffs and thinking about the playoff possibilities. Do you see the Patriots struggling against the New York Jets? I know they lost to the Jets at home, but I think the Patriots would be hungry for revenge.
A: I like the Patriots to beat the Jets on Sunday. I see the Patriots as the better team, and they've seemed to shift into a higher gear over the last three weeks.
This question is about our two defensive stars, Vince Wilfork and Rodney Harrison. I know the team is tight-lipped about injuries but what is your reading of the chances that either player will be available for the playoffs? I can't see us going deep in the playoffs without Vince or Rodney taking the field -- Wilfork for his run-stopping capabilities and Harrison for his leadership, intensity, run stopping and blitz skills. What is your take?
Ben Wakelin, Cambridge
A: I think Wilfork will be back, while Harrison I'd feel less confident about. Harrison injured his right MCL, although the severity of the injury is not known. As for whether the team can win without them, I think it obviously becomes harder, but I think it can. Mike Wright (nose tackle) and James Sanders (safety) have played well in their place.
Do you think any fines will come down from the NFL after the Patriots vs. Titans game? In particular, the fighting that went on between both teams.
Patrick Bowles, Baghdad, Iraq
A: I don't believe we'll see any fines for fighting, because there were no ejections. I thought the possible fine could have been on Bobby Wade's block on Rodney Harrison, but the play was deemed legal by the NFL on Monday.
I see that Chad Jackson contributed 94 total yards to the win -- 6 rushing, 23 receiving and 65 on punt returns. Do you think he will be taking punts in the playoff games ahead?
A: Even though Kevin Faulk has had an excellent year as the team's primary punt returner, I think Jackson will get more chances in the playoffs. His 39-yard return in the fourth quarter was one of the underrated plays of Sunday's game. He only has three punt returns on the season, so if I had to project how things will unfold, I think Jackson will be integrated into the mix in specific situations, such as those where the return is between the 20-yard lines. I think they'll stick with Faulk or Troy Brown for those inside-the-20 returns.
I see that you rated Asante Samuel's performance in the "up" category. I realize that he made 2 interceptions (one was a gift) and had one impressive deflection, but I think he has gotten sloppy at times -- too often going for the interception and missing, and too often making weak attempts at tackling running backs. I attended the games in Miami and Jacksonville and watched the Tennessee game on TV and I found his performance quite frustrating. Do I expect too much from our No. 1 DB? I'm concerned that his ex-coach will exploit him in the game vs. the Jets next week. Are you?
Myron J. Wolfe, Toronto
A: I think this is a fair commentary. I judged Samuel's performance as "up" because I thought he came up with a big interception when the team really needed it, in the fourth quarter. But earlier in the game, he did miss a tackle and was in coverage on a long pass play. I also factored in his 10 interceptions on the season -- which ranks second in team history for a single season -- but if I had it to do over again, I probably would have taken him off the "up" list for this game. As for concern that the Jets will exploit him, that wouldn't be at the top of my list, although the Laveranues Coles/Jerricho Cotchery combo is a dangerous one.
With Rodney Harrison banged up and Eugene Wilson already on the IR (not to mention Randall Gay, Tebucky Jones, Mel Mitchell -- and Don Davis in a pinch), who'd be next in line if either Artrell Hawkins or James Sanders got hurt? Chad Scott seems the likely candidate; any insight on his health? And in those scenarios, does Ray Mickens become the nickel back and Troy Brown the dime?
JB, Washington, DC
A: I think you nailed it in terms of the top backup. I believe Scott would be the first choice. As for Scott's health, my hunch is that he'll be suited up and ready to go on Sunday. I also wouldn't forget about Rashad Baker at safety after Scott. I think Baker would likely be in the dime before we saw Troy Brown. As for Mickens, he has played some nickel back since signing with the team, so he's an option, but I don't know how he fits into this specific game-plan.
A question about the receivers and the salary cap. What percent of the salary cap have the Patriots employed for wide receivers and tight ends over the Bill Belichick/Scott Pioli era? Has it been the same each year, or does it vary from year to year? How has this year compared to others?
Tim Curran, Wethersfield, Conn.
A: I don't have all that information for the past seven years. As of mid-November, the cap hits looked like this for the team's top receivers at that time: Troy Brown ($1.1 million), Reche Caldwell ($906,160), Doug Gabriel ($800,000), Chad Jackson ($727,500) and Jabar Gaffney ($412,941 due to split contract). I'm assuming that's a very low percentage of cap space for that position compared to other teams. As of mid-November, the cap hits for the tight ends looked like this: Daniel Graham ($1.56 million), Benjamin Watson ($1.44 million), David Thomas ($435,187) and Garrett Mills ($390,625). All the tight ends are in their rookie deals, which keeps the numbers down a bit, but I'm assuming those numbers are in the mid-range compared to other teams. All told, the cap this year is $102 million, so those positions aren't accounting for a significant amount of cap space.
Will the $3.5 million of salary cap space that wasn't used this year vanish at season's end? Could the Patriots have given the money away this year as a bonus to certain players? Could they have done anything with that money other then let it vanish into thin air?
William Quinn, Yosemite Park
A: Teams can't carry salary cap space over to a new year. The Patriots could have used some of that space to give bonuses to players and extend their contracts, although that space wouldn't have been enough to consummate deals with cornerback Asante Samuel or tight end Daniel Graham, who are likely to command more. I don't know the ins and outs of the cap, but I think the Patriots felt it best to wait right now, because there are some luxury-tax-like intricacies that could affect them in future years if their spending reached certain levels this year. The team had a few big spending years prior to this year -- with the Tom Brady and Richard Seymour deals pushing those figures up.
I have been a huge Pats fan since 1970 and was a season ticket holder with my dad at the opening of Schaefer Stadium. My question is this: Is too much being made of the Deion Branch situation? The Seahawks gave him big dough and they got a 50-catch, 680-yard receiver (13 games). Don't you think they overpaid? Especially in light of the fact they seem to prefer to throw to Darrell Jackson, D.J. Hackett, Nate Burleson, Jeremy Stevens, etc., all of whom are significantly larger targets. Reche Caldwell has had at least as good a season at a significantly lesser price. I know you're going to tell me he would have produced more with Brady in New England, but he wouldn't play for the contract he signed.
Walter Waitt, Chicago
A: Although Caldwell has better stats than Branch at this point, I don't think you can say Caldwell is the better player. I also don't think there is any question that the Patriots would have been a better team with Branch. So while Caldwell has had a nice year -- and has exceeded the expectations of many -- I just don't see the connection here. As for whether Seattle overpaid, I do think it was a lot to give up when factoring in a first-round pick as part of the trade. As for the salary itself, that will probably look like a fair-market deal moving forward, as salaries around the league escalate with the cap continuing to increase.
Hola Mike, I know I'm looking way ahead, but the upcoming NFL draft looks strong. Fans were criticizing the Branch deal to Seattle, but how good does it look now with the Seahawks struggling and the fact that Branch has been dropping a lot of passes lately. I know the Pats would love to have Branch this season, but down the road, the deal could be one to the Patriots liking. What do you think?
Doc, Scottsdale, Ariz.
A: When the trade was made, I think I said the Patriots made the best out of a bad situation for themselves. I think the best-case scenario for the team was keeping Branch, and I still believe that. But since the sides couldn't come to an agreement, the team did well to secure a first-round pick for him.
Is it just me or is Heath Evans turning into a very good fullback/lead blocker for Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon? It's really been amazing to see his progress this year and he is rarely mentioned in this or any other Pats forum. Time to give credit where credit is due -- some of his "sledgehammer" blocks against the Titans were simply incredible ... all over the field in fact. I thought it was deja-vu Sunday on Maroney's fourth-quarter TD -- with Heath leading the way (seems like this is happening every week now). Any insight on how Belichick & Co. feel about his progress to date?
Peter Mihan, Southport, Conn.
A: I thought it was interesting that Evans actually played the most snaps of any running back on Sunday, which was probably a result of him lining up as a third-down back with Kevin Faulk out. Belichick mentioned Evans' name in the postgame press conference, unprompted, which told me that he thought he did a great job. I agree on Evans. He's been very strong in the second half of the year, to the point that I was somewhat surprised the team and Evans haven't hammered out a contract extension. I think he's the type of guy to keep around, valuable in a variety of roles -- runner, fullback, special teams. Evans' contract expires after the season.
I have seen a few places the rumor of Belichick leaving the Pats for the Giants at the end of the year. Is there anything to this?
Adam Wolf, Portland, Maine
A: I'd be surprised if that was the case. I think Belichick realizes he has a very good situation in New England -- namely a good working relationship with the owner and a future Hall of Famer at quarterback. I just don't see the motivation to leave. From my dealings with Belichick, I think he values consistency and the idea that you're judged by your body of work over a long period of time. I don't think his body of work is completed yet in New England. I'd put Scott Pioli, the team's vice president of player personnel, in the same category.
From a Left Coast Pats fan. As I continue to read the contributions that Vinny Testaverde is making to this year's cause, it sounds like this guy would make a great quarterback coach. Do the Patriots currently have someone in that role and if not wouldn't that sound like a good fit possibly for next year?
Mike K., Los Angeles
A: Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels also serves as the team's quarterback coach. As for Testaverde, I haven't asked him if that would be something he'd be interested in, although my sense is that it's not for him. Earlier this year, he spoke about how he sometimes drives home to New York on Monday afternoon -- to spend time with his family -- before returning for work on Wednesday morning. Hearing that made me think Testaverde wouldn't be up for the long hours and grind of coaching.
I agree with you that people have been pretty rough on Chad Jackson and hopefully he'll come into his own next year. However, history shows that high draft pick rookies at skill positions like WR and RB that are busts in Year 1 have a much harder time of turning things around than lineman and linebackers that grow into their positions in Years 2 and up. The Pats need a play-making LB in 2007 much more than another WR. I can't see Belichick and Pioli picking a WR in the first round again.
Brian Alves, Mundelein, Ill.
A: I'd like to see that history in depth to know if that's truly the case. I thought of Chiefs running back Larry Johnson (first round) off the top of my head as one player who took some time to develop, and now he's one of the best players in the NFL at his position. I also thought of receiver Javon Walker, a first-round pick in 2002, who had 22 catches his first year. I didn't take the research much further, but those two stood out right away. I still think Jackson -- a high second-rounder who the team considered taking in the first round -- has a chance to be an impact player. I think we saw some of that on Sunday, when he had some productive plays, mainly on punt returns, and then as a receiver late in the game. I agree with you that the Patriots would be unlikely to pick a wide receiver in the first round this year.
Could you refresh my memory on what the Patriots have coming this year in terms of draft picks and who might be available in some of those positions?
Gary Bray, Coleraine, Minn.
A: The Patriots have two first-round picks (their own, plus Seattle's), and I believe an extra seventh-round pick (from Arizona, for Brandon Gorin). The team likely will also be granted some compensatory draft choices after the season is over, which are given to teams who lose more compensatory free agents than they sign. As for who is available at various positions of need, I look forward to getting into that after the season.
What do you think of the Todd Sauerbrun signing and do you think it will pay dividends in the playoffs? I think this is a very nice pick-up by the Pats.
John Drouin, Litchfield, NH
A: I'm still up in the air on this one. While Sauerbrun has an ultra-powerful leg, I'm not sure how efficient he is at directional punting, which was a Josh Miller staple. I thought that hurt the Patriots in Sunday's win, when dangerous returner Pacman Jones could have been better contained with a directional punt at the end of the first half. I'm also curious to see if Sauerbrun takes on holding responsibilities, which I think would benefit the Patriots because that would give kicker Stephen Gostkowski someone to work with regularly through practice. When a quarterback is the holder, there is often less time to work together.
A lot was said about Tom Brady's run for a first down against the Jaguars and he was injured on the play. Why was there no penalty called or any league review? Is spearing or leading with the helmet legal now?
Paul Victor, Winston-Salem, NC
A: The NFL reviewed the play and deemed it to be a legal hit. A link for the story from the Boston Globe can be found here.
Mike, I've always wondered, when you attend press conferences, are you given a copy of the remarks Belichick and/or Brady make either beforehand or after? Or do you just tape record everything and transcribe it later?
A: It's actually both. Many reporters tape the press conferences. Later in the day, the team's media relations staff submits a transcript to those members of the press covering the team. There are times when transcripts aren't available, mostly at road games.
How is the draft order determined? At which spots in the first round is New England likely to be drafting at? I projected 21 and 28 a while ago when I was trying to figure it out. I'm hoping they draft Patrick Willis and LaRon Landry.
Russ, Olympia, Wash.
A: The draft order is out, although it could change because the Super Bowl winner picks 32nd and the Super Bowl loser 31st. The Patriots are currently slotted at 22 (from Seattle) and 28.