FOXBOROUGH -- While much has been made of the Patriots' free-agent losses this offseason, one name seems to have slipped under the radar: Andre Davis.
As I watched Patriots minicamp this week, it occurred to me that the loss of Davis, who signed a free-agent deal with the Bills, probably stung the team a little more than I initially realized. Davis could have really helped this group, not to mention the special teams units as a gunner.
The Patriots are thin at receiver, a position that has undergone significant change from 2005 with David Givens, Tim Dwight, Bethel Johnson and Davis departing.
I see Deion Branch, Reche Caldwell, Chad Jackson and Troy Brown as the locks to make the club. Right now, I'd be surprised if the team's fifth receiver is on the roster.
Davis, acquired for a fifth-round pick last year from Cleveland, would have been the guy. He ended up with a one-year, $1.3 million deal in Buffalo.
This is one area to watch moving forward -- not just the holdout of Deion Branch, but also if the team addresses the depth at receiver.
On to some questions.
Everyone's been talking about the wide receiver and linebacker positions, and with good reason. But what about Vinatieri's old position? What have you seen of the battle of the G-Men - Gramatica and Gostkowski. How are they getting along? How do they compare as far as accuracy, distance and kickoff skills?
Vince Chase, Winchester, NH
First impressions: Gostkowski will win the job. Stronger leg, better on kickoffs. Add in the fact he was a fourth-round draft choice, and it's that much harder to cut him. Gostkowski had one bad miss in Wednesday's practice, where the ball fell well short of the goalposts, but rebounded on Thursday by making a kick (about 40 yards) at the end of practice that spared the team running drills.
If Branch is to hold out and not get the contract done by training camp and into pre-season, do you think he would hold out for the final year of his contract? I know he is our best WR but is he really worth that big contract like Terrell Owens or Javon Walker?
Manny, Augusta, Ga.
Don't see it getting to that point, Manny. I am of the belief that Branch will re-sign, and the phase we're in now is just part of the negotiation. One reason for this line of thinking is that I don't think the Patriots will want to risk upsetting quarterback Tom Brady by taking away his No. 1 target. I also think Branch realizes some of his success is a result of the Patriots' coaching and system. So I believe they'll meet somewhere in the middle. I do think Branch is worthy of a contract given to a No. 1 receiver. The only question I'd have is health, and that's a risk I feel the Patriots are going to have to take. He's too important to the offense, and Brady.
How are the rehabs going with Rodney Harrison, Matt Light, and Dan Koppen? Are they likely to start the season on time? On another note I would be comfortable with the Pats roster if they can somehow sign Ty Law and acquire Donnie Edwards. Is this still a possibility? If they add these two guys, it would seem likely they could get back to the big dance. What is your opinion?
Jim Curley, Seminole, Fla.
The team's recent minicamp provided more information on these rehabilitations. Harrison and Koppen didn't join team drills, while Light was fully cleared and took part in every drill. So I'd say Light is likely to start the season on time, while there is some question with Harrison and Koppen. As for acquiring Ty Law, it is still a possibility and the Patriots have let him know they'd like him back, at a certain salary figure. Law obviously hasn't received an offer to his liking at this point. Haven't heard about the Patriots' interest in Donnie Edwards, so I'd say that's less likely. My feeling is that Law could put the defense over the top.
Hi Mike, Do you really think Belichick has that much confidence in Monty Beisel, or is that just a smokescreen?
Mike Sullivan, Tampa, Fla.
Relative to the rest of the roster, I think he has legitimate confidence in Beisel. That was one of the points that stood out to me in this minicamp - Beisel took many of the snaps at linebacker along with Tedy Bruschi, Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel. I think one of the team's big questions is "Who is the fourth linebacker?" Based on three days of minicamp and the comments from players after workouts, my answer right now would be Beisel, who will be working more on the weakside this year.
What's your take on having college head coaches speak to the team during minicamp? I thought that was unusual, but was curious what any of the player's reactions might have been.
Didn't get to ask any of the players their thoughts, but based on the enthusiastic reaction after the speeches I'd say it was well received. I found it interesting that Bill Belichick would give another coach that platform in front of his team. He must have great respect for Virginia's Al Groh and Florida's Urban Meyer. From a player's perspective, it was probably nice to hear compliments from someone outside of the organization looking in.
What's up with Urban Meyer and Al Groh following around Bill? Is there a chance that they might join the staff?
Don't think they'll be joining the staff any time soon. To me, it was another reminder about the role of relationships in football. When NFL teams are scouting players, they need to get the straight scoop and Belichick obviously feels he gets it from Meyer and Groh. He also respects their ideas, innovation and teaching of Xs and Os. In turn, Belichick allows those coaches to watch the Patriots practice, take notes, and apply some of what the Patriots do with their programs.
What are your thoughts on Ashley Lelie? Would he be a good fit for the Patriots? There seems to be a bunch of question marks at receiver, and from what I have read, the Broncos may be looking to deal Lelie. He may make a good No. 2 receiver. Denver is in the market for a tight end, which seems to be one of the Pats' strongest areas from which to deal from.
Mark Zagame, Cartersville, Ga.
I don't think Lelie is a fit here. First and foremost, I don't believe the Patriots can trade for a player who wants to be a No. 1 receiver and has his contract expiring after 2006 when they haven't yet resolved Deion Branch's situation. In some ways, that would violate the Patriots' team-building philosophy. So I never read much into the rumors of Lelie coming to the Patriots, especially when they involved Daniel Graham. I'm not sure Patriots followers realize how much the staff appreciates Graham - he's reflective of the type of player they want to build their team around: tough, physical, versatile, doesn't make off-field waves. More than anything, they're probably figuring out ways to keep Graham -- his contract expires after 2006 and he'll cost some significant coin to keep - than deal him.
The Sporting News recently gave the Patriots' offseason a grade of "F". I mean, the only questionable move was Adam Vinatieri and that's beginning to look like Adam wanting to kick in a dome to end his career. I don't see Givens and McGinest as irreplaceable. What's the big deal? Do you have to sign a flashy free agent just to please the national pundits?
I'll respectfully disagree on a few points here. In retrospect, I think the Patriots wish they could rewind the clock on the cases of Givens and Vinatieri. Specifically with Givens, the team could have projected that he would be a free agent one year before Deion Branch, and could have worked toward a contract extension a few years ago. I remember there were initial talks after 2003 - when Givens had 34 catches - but talks didn't result in a new deal. This is one of those cases where a projection must be made on a player before he fully develops, and that's difficult. In my mind, that's probably the hardest part of the personnel job - when do you lock up a player? It's obviously easier to make that call now after watching Givens blossom the last two seasons. As for Vinatieri, my feeling is that the loss is a crusher. Something broke down along the way. I'd put him in the Givens category - would have made an extension a priority a few years back, assuming he wanted to stay here (and I wonder about that). Overall, don't think the Patriots deserved the "F" - they had what looks like a nice draft, re-signed Stephen Neal and also extended the contracts of Mike Vrabel, Corey Dillon and Jarvis Green before they would have become free agents in 2006. And that's not to mention the biggest move of all, re-signing Richard Seymour. They do deserve some credit for that in my opinion.
Anything you can put out there about the lesser-followed rookies (4th round and lower) and how they looked would be much appreciated.
Chris W., Marathon, Bronx, N.Y.
Here is a quick snapshot:
Tight end/fullback Garrett Mills played more off the line and looks like he'll be moved around a lot; kicker Stephen Gostkowski shows a strong leg; offensive lineman Ryan O'Callaghan worked solely at right tackle and got some nice reps with Nick Kaczur and Brandon Gorin not on the field; offensive lineman Dan Stevenson worked mostly at right guard; nose tackle Le Kevin Smith looks like he'll be a developmental project for 2007 because of the depth ahead of him; cornerback Willie Andrews showed some promise as both a punt and kick returner. None of the rookie free agents stood out, although cornerback Vernell Brown almost had an interception on a nice break on the ball in passing drills.
With the addition of Johnathan Sullivan to an already crowded defensive line, and the lack of linebacker depth, any chance we head back to a 4-3 defensive scheme?
Dan Lynch, Longmeadow
They worked in quite a few 4-3 alignments at minicamp, but the base defense will remain a 3-4. That is a staple of the Bill Belichick defensive system - having the flexibility to be a "multiple" defense.
When do first-round picks begin to sign their contracts and are they in continuous negotiations? If so, do you see any problems with the Patriots signing their picks?
Kevin Pickett, Rochdale.
That process usually starts in early July, although it varies from team to team. One hitch this year could delay some signings across the league. Each team has a rookie pool that they can spend on draft picks, which is established by the NFL. That rookie pool increased five percent from last year. But since the minimum rookie salaries have increased about 17 percent from last year, some agents and team executives are worried about the pace of signings. Still, I don't forsee any Benjamin Watson-like holdouts, circa 2004, for the Patriots at this time.
Is it make-or-break for Klecko at linebacker this summer, even though the experiment didn't succeed in previous years?
Pete Clark, England
I'd say that's accurate. What was interesting is that Klecko was working more at outside linebacker than inside linebacker. That's a tough spot for someone who is 5-foot-11, going up against tight ends and big, rangy offensive tackles. I'd say he's a longshot at that position.
My feeling is that Bill Belichick did not address the loss of McGinest and the age/injury history of Bruschi and Colvin by drafting a talented linebacker high in the draft. Beisel, Claridge and this year's draft/free agent group seem like solid backups that eventually could turn into productive players. Ahmad Brooks is available in the supplemental draft. I'm a Virginia grad and have followed Brooks for a couple of years. He would be a great fit in the Pats system given his versatility, size and speed. Do you think there's any chance Bill B. & Co. will move away from their value philosophy and give up a supplemental first/second round pick for Brooks? If not, who do you think will take McGinest's spot? And if you say Beisel on the inside with Vrabel on the outside, it may be a very long season against the run.
Don't think the Patriots would give up a first- or second-round pick for Brooks in the supplemental draft. Assuming Brooks checks out in the character department (he's reportedly had some off-field troubles), I think the highest they'd go is the fourth round. My guess for the starters at linebacker on opening day are Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel on the outside, and Tedy Bruschi and Monty Beisel inside. This is one of the more competitive areas on the roster, and I think you're right, the team isn't as deep as it would like to be.
What is the story with Marquise Hill? Is he going to get some significant playing time this year and is he developing the way Belichick and Pioli are expecting him to. When will he break through. This is his third year, is it a make or break year for him?
Hill was one of the youngest players in the 2004 draft and he turns 24 in August. So I think it's too early to write him off. Right now, he projects as the team's fifth or sixth lineman, there to provide depth should there be an injury in front of him. I'm not sure it's a make or break year, but any player wants to keep his career moving forward and Hill appeared to be in neutral last year. He apparently has done some nice work in the weight room and will be working more at left end this year (Ty Warren's spot) than right end (Richard Seymour's spot).
Do you think Ben Watson will be thrown to more this season? He can plow people over and has great speed. Also, do you think we will see him in the backfield on third-and-short or near the goal line? He could be a triple threat, as a blocker, running the ball or sliding out for a short pass.
Erik Draheim, Charlotte, N.C.
As long as he stays healthy, and if the team's recent minicamp is any indication, Watson should have a big year. He seemed to be a primary target for quarterback Tom Brady in passing drills as the chemistry between the two continues to develop. As for Watson in the backfield on third-and-short near the goal-line, I wouldn't expect too much of that. When the team goes to three tight ends in that spot, the tight ends are usually on the line to create more of a power formation. Speaking of formations, here is one recent article, from NFL.com, that caught my eye. Thought it was pretty interesting:
Mike - I noticed Alex Bannister was released by Seattle and I recalled he was on your radar last off-season before re-signing with Seattle. I would think he might have value as a 5th receiver/special teams player, securing 2 roster spots by himself. What are your thoughts on Bannister now that he's available again?
Here were Bill Belichick's comments on Bannister from 2004: "I think they have in Alex Bannister probably as good of a player as I have ever coached against on special teams. This guy is really an exceptional player. Wherever he is on the field, whether he is rushing kicks, whether he is covering them, he is a big time player." Injuries, specifically his clavicle, have hindered Bannister of late. It wouldn't surprise me if the Patriots give him a physical to see if he's cleared, and if so, then sign him.
When do you think we will see player grades for offensive linemen. For example, one year I read that Matt Light was rated 21st among tackles. Who rates players like this? How did Kaczur rate? Mankins? We read they had good years. Is that just writer/coach speak? How did these players 'grade out'?
Gary Lannquist, Palm beach, Fla.
Usually those ratings of where a player ranks in the NFL are put together by writers, not teams/scouts. The reason is because certain players fit better in certain systems. For example, a player like center Dan Koppen might receive a top grade from the Patriots, but a lower grade from a team like the Saints, whose system generally favors heavier offensive linemen. As for how players grade out, coaches keep those stats regarding how the linemen execute their blocks. Those are seldom shared with the media.