Focusing on the individual
This week's mailbag targets some specific players
As I sifted through this week's questions to the Patriots mailbag, it brought me back to a speaking appearance made by head coach Bill Belichick at Salem State College earlier this year.
After addressing the appreciative crowd, Belichick talked about leadership and teamwork.
"I know many of you have heard this before -- 'there is no I in team.' And that is certainly true," Belichick said. "But as it relates to a job or a team, there is an 'I' in win. And what that 'I' stands for is individual performance."
Belichick's point was that the Patriots stress the "team" concept as much as anyone, but not to be overlooked is what makes the "team" concept go -- every individual part doing his job, and beating the player across from him.
It seems like this week's mailbag is focused on that individual performance, targeting some specific players and how they can help the Patriots in 2008.
Let's get to the questions ...
How much playing time do you see Brandon Meriweather getting this year? Will we see a variety of nickel and dime packages that feature some of the Pats recently acquired DBs?
A: A lot, Michael. I think Meriweather is going to have a good year. I watched him move around the field during recent minicamps and I think he appears to be a lot more comfortable, specifically at safety. I know there is a long way to go, but between the standard year-1 to year-2 jump that talented players often make -- and Meriweather's continued work on improving his hands -- I think it adds up to a promising forecast. I wouldn't be surprised if he's part of the base defense, giving James Sanders a run for his spot alongside Rodney Harrison, or if the three players simply rotate and split time evenly. As to the second part of the question, I do think we'll see a variety of nickel and dime packages, specifically those tailored to the opposition's strengths and weaknesses.
Not much has been said about Richard Seymour recently. His 2007 season was certainly disappointing. Do you think he can ever be a premier defensive end again?
Tony, Arlington, Va.
A: Yes I do, Tony. Here is what Seymour said at the team's golf tournament last week that benefited the team's charitable foundation: "This is really the first year in the last two that I've been able to hit the ground running, so to speak. That doesn't say what you'll do during the season, but I'm definitely five times better than I was the last two seasons. I'm definitely excited to get this season going." I also noticed a difference in his physical make-up at minicamp. There seemed to be a spring in his step. I'm thinking this is going to be a big year for Seymour.
What is your outlook on Chad Jackson this season?
A: Kyle, my outlook on Jackson would be that he is going to have a great opportunity to show what he can do, essentially given every chance to prove he was worth that high second-round selection. I am not convinced it is going to come together for him, but it's clear he's an impressive physical talent. I've watched the rapport that Tom Brady has developed with Randy Moss and Wes Welker in a short period of time -- even Jabar Gaffney -- and I don't see it right now with Jackson. That's what training camp is for, which is why Jackson will be one of the top stories to follow in camp.
Mike, with Jerod Mayo, Victor Hobson, Tank Williams, and a more experienced Brandon Meriweather, among others, it seems as though the Pats linebackers and DBs will be a little faster and produce more hard hits this year. Is it too early to tell, or can you predict whether this will help the defense more against the run, or those passes underneath to TEs or RBs out of the backfield that seemed to hurt NE last year? Thanks.
Bevan, Santa Monica, Calif.
A: It should help, Bevan. I think that is a good point. The other part of this is the flexibility that it provides, which in theory will allow the Patriots to match up better with specific opponents. Take the Colts as an example. We know they essentially play offense with either 2 WR/2 TE or with 3 WR/1 TE. The key is tight end Dallas Clark and his ability to play on the line as a traditional tight end, or flexed out as a receiver. Because of his diverse skills, Clark creates a lot of matchup problems for teams. So how do you counter a player like Clark? With equally versatile defensive players, such as Rodney Harrison, Tank Williams, and Brandon Meriweather. Those guys can be safeties, linebackers, or even slot corners in some instances. So when I look at the parts that the Patriots have on defense, I see a lot of options. In turn, that should help against the run and on underneath passes to tight ends and running backs.
I am a very optimistic Patriots fan and believe the loss of Asante Samuel will not hurt the Patriots as much as other may speculate. Fernando Bryant should fit the system perfect and may actually man cover better then Samuel, and also play the run better then Samuel. The only knock is Bryant may be injury prone. I understand Bryant likely won't produce the turnovers Samuel caused either, but will take less risks then Samuel. What do think?
Greg, Bealeton, Va.
A: I think the other factor I'd mention, Greg, is my feeling that the Patriots are going to be better up front this year, which in turn, will help the secondary. I'd also point out that I think new secondary coach Dom Capers is going to help. But I still think you lose Samuel and you take a hit. He was one of the premier defensive playmakers over the last two years. So I think it's a hit, for sure, but I tend to agree with you that the Patriots will get sufficient enough production from the players on the roster and have a solid season.
The Patriots obviously lost a lot last year when Sammy Morris went on IR. Having him available for the Super Bowl could have been the difference between an L and a W. He and Laurence Maroney are going to be even more important this year to keep defenses from an "all blitzes all the time" strategy. I haven't heard a peep on him this year. Is he 100 percent yet? Does he feel ready to go?
Renzo, Houston, Texas
A: Renzo, I think Morris feels good about where he is right now, but also realizes contact will be a key for him. So in that case, training camp will provide us a clearer picture on Morris. Until then, here is what he said at a recent minicamp practice: "I feel good. I think everybody here is trying to battle soreness and stuff that comes from not being used to the movements. You can't really simulate game or even practice speed now. It's hard to simulate the movements, especially being a running back, that you have to do. So it's kind of getting my body acclimated to all that soreness and trying to work through that."
Mike, looking into your crystal ball, do you see any contracts being extended this year. Is this the year Tom Brady gets 6 gazzilion dollars? Vince Wilfork? Will Rodney Harrison re-up?
A: Fair question, Greg, and truly impossible for me to answer without knowing the inner details of what the team is offering, and what each player is seeking. What I can answer is that I do think we'll see an attempt to extend a contract, presumably starting with Vince Wilfork, whose pact expires at the end of the 2009 season.
Mike, like many Patriot fans I wonder if Tom Brady is reconsidering how long he will play football. His offseason schedule included less football and the Patriots picked a QB in round three of the recent draft. Is it possible that Brady has told the team he may only play a few more years? Do you have any sense of how long Tom may play? Is it possible he will just play out his contract?
A: Anything is possible, Jack, but I tend to lean in the other direction with Brady -- and it's solely based on a feel, not from anything Brady himself has said. I think he's going to play another 7-8 years. I don't read anything into his offseason approach or the Patriots taking a quarterback in the third round as being tied to Brady's future.
Mike, is there a chance that Coach Belichick just gets sick of all the criticism and second-guessing of these people on talk radio and TV who have loads of "knowledge", speficially with "Spygate". I am thinking sooner or later he gets tired of some of the plain slander. Does he sooner or later go on the offense? My guessing he is trying to keep his thoughts on the field but sooner or later he must get tired of his legacy and reputation being thrown around with more than what he has been found guilty of. Second, with all the fan clubs sprouting around the country -- -- I'm the president down here in North Carolina -- when does New England Patriots Nation outgrow Red Sox Nation?
A: Greetings to the North Carolina fan club, Todd. I think one of the things contributing to Bill Belichick's success is clearly deciphering the difference between what is important, and what isn't important, and focusing on the things that are important. In the case of him getting tired of all the criticism, I don't see it happening because I think he files that stuff in the not-important category. So I don't think there is any going-on-offense approach in the near future. Maybe when he retires. As for Patriots fans outnumbering Red Sox fans, that's a tough one for me to answer. I do look at the daily/monthly "hit" numbers of the stories read on Boston.com and the Red Sox and Patriots are usually at the top of the list, depending on the time of year. In terms of total numbers over the course of a 12-month year, I think the Red Sox have the edge.
Do you see any new personnel on the horizon or are the Patriots going to rely on the strength of the team's coaching schemes? While on the topic of Ty Law, can't we get Randy Moss to talk with him about the intangibles of a contract? He could go back to a coaching system that suits him, with the possibility of a fourth Super Bowl ring. I don't know where Ty Law ranks on the Hall of Fame outlook, but wouldn't four rings be hard to overlook ... or has he lost too many steps to be effective as a starter (or even nickel CB)?
A: Brian, the question makes it sound like the Patriots don't have enough talent and will need to scheme to win. I look at it a bit differently. I think there is enough talent on this roster to not just win, but also sustain the inevitable injuries that occur over the course of a season. I think back to last year, when the club was taking the early steps toward a remarkable 18-1 season, and cornerback Chad Scott was lining up with the first string on the first day of training camp. As for the possibility of adding new personnel, I think we could see a running back, tight end, and even another offensive lineman. In the case of Ty Law, I don't think a talk from Randy Moss will change much. Law has firm beliefs about what he's worth and I don't see that shifting. I do think Law can be an effective starter this year, in the right scheme.
The Chargers have released Lorenzo Neal and though he may be a bit long in the tooth, the Pats have shown an interest in experienced players that can make a difference. Any possibility the Pats give Neal a look and a 1 year deal a la Junior Seau?
Joe, San Diego
A: It wouldn't surprise me, Joe. In fact, I called up Neal's representatives a few weeks back to check on this specifically and was told there was no contact at this time. But as we know, the Patriots can strike quickly and under the radar. Neal is the type of player who probably wouldn't need much time to adapt to a new team, and thus could even be an addition post-training camp if he's still available.
What are your thoughts on the Patriots' OL getting shuffled a bit this year? Assuming Nick Kaczur is healthy and not suspended, I wonder if Ryan O'Callaghan has progressed enough to move up to starting RT with Kaczur staying inside at RG. Is Stephen Neal possibly being relegated to backup duty due to nagging injury problems? That also brings up another question as to team makeup on offense. Do you think they keep 5 or 6 WRs? If 6, the OL or RB position gets one less body. That means either 8 OLs or 4 RBs. At QB, the rookie is pushing either Matt Gutierrez or Matt Cassel as I don't see him being able to clear waivers to the practice squad. There will be some tough choices coming up unless some players go on PUP to begin season. A nice position to be in I guess, but I hate to have to try to get someone onto the PS and have a good development player grabbed by other teams. (i.e. NYJ, Kareem Brown comes to mind last season).
A: In an ideal world, Dave, I think the line would return intact from last year. I don't see Neal being relegated to second string. He's of starter quality if healthy. Some of the most impressive blocks I saw last year came when he was pulling from the right side. I think the initial shuffle we saw at minicamp -- with O'Callaghan at right tackle and Kaczur at right guard -- was done with two ideas in mind: 1) To protect against Kaczur's possible suspension, and to give O'Callaghan the work at right tackle; 2) To create more flexibility on the line if Neal experiences a setback in his rehab from a knee injury that knocked him out of Super Bowl XLII. I see six receivers on the roster, with a player like Sam Aiken technically counting against that but really more of a special teams guy. On the quarterbacks, I'm excited to watch that play out. It should be great competition. I see them all on the club, or at least yielding some value to the club in some form (e.g. trade). Overall, what I've learned is that the picture we see now in terms of the roster will look different come late July, early August, as players distinguish themselves in camp and injuries take their toll. So I generally try to avoid predictions and just focus on the competition as it unfolds. As for Kareem Brown, my hunch is that the Patriots weren't thrilled with his commitment and probably weren't as sad to see him depart as some of the club's passionate fans.
Just read your words on Pierre Woods from last week's mailbag. How long has he been with Pats and only been productive on special teams? Remember the Super Bowl where he couldn't hang on to the ball. I would be seriously considering flicking him and Alexander for the youth especially if they are impressive in training camp. Injury to Rosevelt Colvin was paramount in linebackers getting no rest in the Super Bowl. Still can't believe the Pats didn't see this coming earlier in season. The problem was accentuated when NY had the ball for so long early in game.
Kerry, Sydney, Australia
A: Woods enters his third year, Kerry, and I think he'll be on the club. Alexander should be on the team as well. It takes time for linebackers to develop and Woods has spent two years in the system and I've seen him grow as a player (not to mention his team-leading 22 special-teams tackles). I'm not sure if Alexander will ever emerge as a linebacker in a 3-4 defense, but could be part of 4-3 packages and is a solid special teams guy as well. In summary, I'm not ready to give up on either player.
With the Patriots' surge of adding offensive line depth this offseason and the recent release of LeCharles Bentley, do you see the possibility of the Patriots taking a shot on him? With his recent claim of preferring to play guard may raise the organizations interest but not to forget his severe injuries that have ended his last two seasons prematurely. Or do you feel with the 80-man roster limit and recent injury history, the Patriots may stray away from taking a low risk shot with Bentley?
Brandon, Warwick, RI
A: Reading from afar on Bentley, it seems to me like he's looking for a starting spot, Brandon. I think that's why he ultimately asked for his release from Cleveland. It looks to me like the Patriots can't offer him that -- and that's really not their approach -- so if I'm reading the situation correctly, I'd say it's a nonstarter.
One fact that's been virtually overlooked regarding the belief that Bill Parcells won't trade Jason Taylor within the division is that, back in the early '90s, a Pats starting player named Irving Fryar was traded to the Dolphins for a high draft choice. The man most responsible for making the trade: Parcells. Of course in the long run the trade was of much greater benefit to the Dolphins given that Fryar went on to have 3 or 4 excellent years with the Fish, so I don't know whether this obvious precedent is positive or negative regarding trading Taylor to the Pats. However, one reason it could interest Parcells is Taylor's much greater age than Fryar's, and the fact that he has indicated he will probably play only one more year. Do you think this precedent would have any bearing at all on the possibility of Parcells making a trade with the Pats if they should offer him more than anyone else?
Larry, Lakeland, Fla.
A: A few other e-mailers pointed this out as well, Larry. To rewind, I have maintained that Parcells wouldn't trade Taylor to the Patriots -- even if the Patriots were offering a second-round choice and other clubs a third-round pick. E-mailers have mostly disagreed with me. I was aware of the Fryar trade and it doesn't change my thinking on this one. That was a different time in the NFL. So I'm going to stick with my original thought.
Mike, is there any info/dates yet as to the Pats preseason practice schedule? I went last year and it was very enjoyable.
Michael, Manchester, NH
A: Michael, the official starting date of training camp has not yet been made public. Plan for around Friday, July 25, or Saturday, July 26, as the general neighborhood in which training camp will start.