Searching for answers
Fans want to know what's going on with Wilfork and who will be backing up Brady when the season begins
QB or not QB ... that is one of the top questions this week.
After last year's turn of events -- in which Tom Brady suffered a season-ending injury and Matt Cassel unexpectedly stepped in -- some are wondering about the Patriots' contingency plans this year.
Are you comfortable with Kevin O'Connell as the No. 2 quarterback? Should it be Matt Gutierrez? Or should a veteran be brought in?
That's where this week's mailbag -- which also includes several contract-related questions -- leads off.
Let's get right to the questions ...
Mike, I have been looking at the Patriots' quarterback situation and although I am happy with Tom Brady's return as much as anybody, I fear what could happen should he go down. Kevin O'Connell has less experience than Cassel did and it is scary to think that we may have to turn to someone with even less experience. I mean, do you really feel comfortable with the backup situation?
Riaz, Berea, Ohio
A: Riaz, I do like the Patriots' backup situation at this time. I think O'Connell has the chance to be a solid No. 2 and effective fill-in starter. The way I see it playing out is that the team will give him extended time in the preseason to evaluate him, and if it has cause for concern, it could tap a veteran free-agent like Rex Grossman as insurance. But to this point, I see the arrow being up on O'Connell. I'd also make the argument that O'Connell, because of his college career, actually has more experience than Cassel did at this point last year. Overall, I think I'll approach the backup situation with more patience than I did last year, when I didn't think Cassel would make the team on the final cuts.
I know Tom Brady said he wanted to play 10 more years. Do you see them with the Patriots or going to a West Coast team?
A: Tom, I think Brady will be with the Patriots. He has two years left on his current deal and I'd be surprised if the sides can't hammer out an extension. While playing on the West Coast would be nice to be closer to his family, I think Brady knows he has something special here in New England with Bill Belichick and the Kraft family. I think the feeling is mutual from ownership and coaching -- they know Brady is the rare gem who deserves everything coming to him and more -- and they'll be ready to open the vault for him, probably at some point this year.
Hi Mike, while most of the talk last week was all about Tom Brady, there was some talk about Vince Wilfork and his contract. But I ask, shouldn't the priority be signing Richard Seymour long term? For Wilfork, we have a plan B, (Ron Brace) if both sides cannot agree on a contract. I don't see a "Plan B" on the roster for Seymour.
Nick, Montreal, Quebec
A: Interesting point, Nick, because in my view it's probably a one-or-the-other type of situation. I don't see both Wilfork and Seymour getting extensions. I don't think the team could go wrong either way, but I understand why Wilfork is first on the to-do list -- he's on the sixth year of his rookie deal, both sides agree that he's outperformed the pact, and the situation will probably have to be addressed in some form to placate him either with a short-term incentive or with a long-term pact. Seymour, meanwhile, is already on his second contract and was handsomely compensated in 2006, and has little reason to hold out. Those talks don't need to have as much urgency at this point. If I was calling the shots for the Patriots, I'd start with Wilfork and see where the process took me, knowing it could always lead back to Seymour.
Mike, I've been intrigued by the Vince Wilfork situation and it got me thinking about how contract negotiations typically work at the NFL level. Basically, the main question is why negotiations tend to drag on for such a long time? I've been involved in many contract negotiations through my work and those negotiations typically last several days, maybe a week or two depending on the circumstances and details. Granted, most of these scenarios aren't involving multi-million dollar payouts like NFL-ers typically receive, but why can't Wilfork and his agent sit at a table with the Patriots and hammer out a deal in a relatively short period of time? I understand that certain priorities take precedence during the offseason (draft, free agency, etc.), but it blows my mind that the Patriots season ended on Dec. 28 and we're looking at potential training camp holdouts in July.
A: Reilly, I've generally found that if two sides really want a deal to happen and are committed to the process, it doesn't take long. Each side gives a little and they meet in the middle. As for Wilfork, I'm not privy to the details of the situation, but I'll give you my best educated guess. Wilfork knows he could probably land a contract worth around $8 million-$10 million per season on the free-agent market, but the problem is that he is not on the free-agent market. He has one year left on his contract as a result of a now-costly decision to sign a six-year deal as a rookie. So the Patriots hold the leverage. From the Patriots' view, they're not going to pay top-level free-agent prices for a player who has one year left on his contract -- unless it's Tom Brady. They're going to argue that because Wilfork is going in one year early, the numbers should come down a bit. So the question, as it often is in these situations, is can a middle ground be found? If both sides are committed, I think it can. Finding that middle ground, though, often takes time. Sometimes that time, which leads to the delays you are talking about, can soften one side's stance.
Hi Mike, are the Patriots waiting for certain NFL issues to get ironed out (such as the uncapped year I keep hearing about or the collective bargaining agreement?) before they try and re-sign say Vince Wilfork?
A: John, I think the Patriots are waiting on some players, but I don't think this applies in Wilfork's case. The sides have talked. Guard Logan Mankins, I'm assuming, is a different situation. While he would be an unrestricted free agent in a capped year, he will revert to restricted free agency status in an uncapped year (players would need six seasons to become free agents, Mankins would have five). With that type of uncertainty, I could see why the team would be waiting.
Hey Mike, I was curious to know how Patrick Chung is coming along. All the scouting reports seem to indicate he is very intelligent and can knock some heads off, but dock him for only being "adequate" in coverage. Any thoughts from what you've seen thus far?
Graham, Manchester, NH
A: Graham, I think the reports of Chung not being a cover guy don't mesh with what I've seen on the field. He looks fast and fluid enough to me to cover. I've seen him in the deep third of the field, and at times closer to the line of scrimmage. I think he can do both.
Hi Mike, I am concerned with how they plan to fill Rodney Harrison's role. I feel that it was a critical role in being able to disguise blitz packages and I feel that the two logical fits are the bigger safety in Brandon McGowan, or the hybrid safety/backer Tank Williams. I remember Tank's days in Tennessee, and I watched McGowan in Chicago, and feel that McGowan's better suited for that role because of his versatility. Any thoughts?
A: Terrance, I haven't seen enough of McGowan to be able to answer if he could be the best option. I don't think Williams would be a fit because of the speed factor and concern with him being "trapped" in the deep third of the field, as he doesn't run as well as he did in Tennessee. I think Williams is viewed more as a niche linebacker at this point in the Patriots' scheme. I wouldn't rule out Patrick Chung in that Harrison-like role.
Hey Mike, with all of the talk about corners as of late, where does Jonathan Wilhite stand? While I personally believe Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden will start, I thought Wilhite played well last year. In fact, we won every game he started in and the Pats seemed to cover better in said games. You have said that both Terrance Wheatley and Darius Butler could push for a starting job, could you see Wilhite pushing for one as well?
Al, Concord, NH
A: Al, I'm glad you mentioned Wilhite. He made an excellent play in last week's organized team activity, never giving up on a broken offensive play and intercepting rookie free agent quarterback Brian Hoyer on an attempted pass to receiver Robert Ortiz. I wouldn't rule Wilhite out. On the flip side, while I give Wilhite credit for stepping in as a starter late last year, I thought the teams they played (Seattle, Raiders, Cardinals, Bills) and the conditions in which the games were played made it a lot easier for the cornerbacks.
Hindsight being 20/20, do you think if he could do it all over again, Bill Belichick would have kept Mike Vrabel and let James Sanders walk via free agency? Or was Vrabel too much a part of the Cassel deal? Initially people talked of Vrabel's cap number (and roster bonus) in conjunction with his decline on the field as a reason for him being expendable, but now there are depth issues at LB and Patrick Chung has the look of someone who could leapfrog Sanders on the depth chart, granted it's too early to tell for sure.
A: Andy, I don't think Bill Belichick doubts the move or second-guesses himself at all. He made the point that football is a "changing game" which tells me that he wants to turn that position over to youth. Time will tell if the correct decision was made.
Hi Mike, I know when talking about losing Mike Vrabel everyone is concerned about the hole at OLB, but what about his contribution on the goal-line offense? He certainly made some key catches down there (a couple in Super Bowls). I know we have great receivers, but sometimes it's good to have a reliable player who flies under the defense's radar so to speak, for easy TDs at the goal line. Who do you see filling this role?
A: Vrabel was great at that, Jamie. As for who fills that possible goal-line role, I think it could be a "true" tight end like Alex Smith, who is a big target at 6-foot-4, 258 pounds.
I really liked Shawn Crable's interview last week. He seemed very humble, and said he was more concerned with earning a roster spot than he was the starting job. That was refreshing to hear. So often prospects come into the league and act like superstars and talk the talk before walking the walk, and Crable seems eager to prove himself. Even though I, and most Pats fans, are hoping he's the answer at OLB, he's not buying into his own hype yet. He seems like a smart player who is going to work hard for BB and contribute any way he can. How has he looked so far? Do you get the feeling that he'll overtake Pierre Woods this year?
A: Rick, I never really get the sense that a Patriots rookie comes in and acts like a superstar. In fact, they all seem to say close to the same thing, almost as if a microchip was placed in their helmet, reminding them how to answer certain questions. As for Crable, he stands out from a size perspective when you watch him on the field, with noticeable length. But I think it's early yet to determine anything of substance in terms of how he's looked. We haven't seen any contact. One time I watched him going through some bags as rushers were working on club moves, and his footwork seemed to be a work in progress. But that was just one snapshot and I'd hate to create an overall perception that wasn't accurate based on that. My hunch, at this point, is that Woods is your opening-day starter at that spot.
Hey Mike, was Eric Alexander at OTAs? I think he can be a solid No. 4 or 5 inside linebacker and I'm surprised no one mentions him as depth. He wasn't even on your list of players as a choice for special teams captain. Isn't he usually one of the top special teams tacklers for the Patriots?
Boris, Gorham, Maine
A: Boris, Alexander was there and he took some regular reps on defense. I think he's fighting for a spot on the team with someone like veteran Paris Lenon, so it's no given that he makes the roster. As for Alexander on special teams, he only played in one game last year because of injury. When healthy, he has helped in that area, but I don't see him of captain-caliber at this point.
Do you feel the Patriots have enough depth at OT to explore trading Nick Kaczur, given his salary cap hit is in the $2 million range? One team that comes to mind is the Raiders, who have serious OL issues and Derrick Burgess to offer. Kaczur and a draft pick for Burgess, or do we know if they have explored any other trades with him?
Bob, Mountain View, Calif.
A: Bob, I do think the Patriots have enough depth to explore that possibility, although that probably means you're thrusting second-round draft choice Sebastian Vollmer into the starting lineup. They also have Mark LeVoir, Ryan O'Callaghan, Wesley Britt and possibly George Bussey at that spot. So I think there is some good depth that could be used as an asset. If the Raiders would consider a Kaczur-for-Burgess deal, I think that would be one that would be hard to turn down. I'm not sure I'd throw in a draft pick to sweeten the pot, though.
Hi Mike, my concern is special teams. With the loss of Lonie Paxton, Larry Izzo, Kelley Washington, and special teams coach Brad Seely, we are looking a little thin. And with the wedge rule changes, there is a need to revamp our special teams style of play. Any insight into who will step up and replace these key pieces? Or how we plan to open seams for our returners? Long snapper Nathan Hodel looks like a lock, after that ...
A: Bagoon, it's always nice to talk about the other "third" of the game that is often overlooked. I'd start by saying that I don't think Hodel is a lock. I think sixth-round pick Jake Ingram has a real chance to win that job. In the end, I agree that there have been big changes on special teams, but I think the Patriots will have the parts, and the coaching from Scott O'Brien, to be one of the NFL's more competitive units. They put a lot of time into it. I think players like Greg Lewis, Gary Guyton, and possibly Vinny Ciurciu could step in and fill some of those key roles.
Mike, is there any chance that the Pats might look at Travis LaBoy? I know that he is coming off an injury, but he is a good pass rusher with good size. I don't believe that he has signed with anyone else yet.
A: James, I can see why LaBoy showed up on the radar. For a team looking for a pass-rush boost, LaBoy would be a good addition. However, the issue is health. LaBoy underwent surgery in May and is expected to miss the season.
The Patriots have a number of players who are, on your thoughts, longer shots to make the roster. Why do they keep signing so many marginal players?
A: Mark, I think this is about maximizing opportunities. Over the course of a long season, you never know how many players you might call upon, so developing them and taking advantage of this time could pay benefits down the road. Also, you may uncover an unexpected gem. As it stands now, the Patriots have 91 players on their roster (79 under contract, 12 unsigned picks). I think we'll see some of the "marginal" players fall off as the team's draft picks start signing contracts.
Hi Mike, as an admirer of both Junior Seau and Tedy Bruschi, I am curious to know if either have stated any desire to go into coaching after retiring?
A: Jim, Seau is happier on his surfboard than in a coaching office. Bruschi previously mentioned coaching as a possibility for when his playing days are over. Here is a link from when Bruschi said that.
I was interested in your take on the passion of Patriots fans compared to what you've seen from fans of other teams.
A: Tom, I think there is a lot of passion for the Patriots. It is part of the reason I enjoy the job so much, you know you're writing for people who are invested and care. My two places that stand out most are Seattle and Green Bay. I was quite impressed with the Seattle fans last year in that Patriots' game, and how loud they were, even though their team was out of it playoffs-wise. That, to me, is true passion. Ditto for Green Bay from what I've experienced.