Deep roster means tough decisions ahead
This is die-hard Patriots time.
The coaches are headed on vacation; the players are finishing up the offseason program this week, so the question is: What keeps the Patriots in the news?
This can be a good time to step back and get a better feel for some of the personnel on the roster. When doing so, it's clear that some tough decisions are going to be made at final cuts, because this is a deep, talented team.
As part of this mailbag, I sketched out some rough thoughts on a possible roster.
Tough questions to be answered included: Does BenJarvus Green-Ellis stick as a fifth running back? Does David Thomas remain as a fourth tight end? Will there be three quarterbacks on the roster? Nine offensive linemen, and if so, who are they? Is seven defensive linemen one too many? Who are the core special teams players that deserve spots? Is six receivers one too many?
A lot can change between now and the final cuts in early September, which is important to keep in mind.
Let's get right to the questions.
Hi Mike, since it's the "dead season" in the NFL and not much is going on, from what you see with the Pats and other teams around the league (on paper at this point at least), what do you expect the Pats to accomplish this year? Are they your Super Bowl favorite? AFC favorite, or something else?
Nick M., Montreal, Quebec
A: I have the Patriots as a top-seven team, Nick, right there alongside the Steelers, Giants, Eagles, Ravens, Titans and Colts. I think this could be a special year for the team. I would have no problem picking them as a Super Bowl favorite at this point. At the same time, I also realize that rankings at this time of the year are best kept in the proper context. I checked back at one opinion of 2008 June power rankings and last year's NFC champions, the Cardinals, were 17th. The Super Bowl champion Steelers were seventh.
You have mentioned on your blog and chat recently that you have been projecting the Patriots' 53-man roster. Do you plan to post that anytime soon?
A: On the blog, the question was who would be "locks" to make the roster. I thought it was a fun exercise to do at this point. While respecting the competition that has yet to unfold at training camp, let's now take it one step further and project the entire 53. In doing so, I was keeping in mind that one injury can change the entire picture, that rookies Tyrone McKenzie and Brandon Tate are projected here to be on reserve lists, and that there are always a few surprises that are difficult to project:
QB (3) -- Brady, O'Connell, Gutierrez
RB (5) -- Taylor, Morris, Faulk, Maroney, Green-Ellis
TE (3) -- Baker, Smith, Watson
WR (6) -- Moss, Welker, Galloway, Lewis, Edelman, Aiken
OL (9) -- Light, Mankins, Koppen, Neal, Kaczur, Vollmer, Ohrnberger, Hochstein, Bussey
DL (7) -- Seymour, Wilfork, Warren, Green, Wright, Smith, Brace
ILB (4) -- Mayo, Bruschi, Guyton, Lenon
OLB (4) -- Thomas, Woods, Crable, Redd
CB (5) -- Springs, Bodden, Wilhite, Wheatley, Butler
S (4) -- Sanders, Meriweather, Chung, Slater
K (1) -- Gostkowski
LS (1) -- Hodel/Ingram
P (1) -- Hanson/Malone
Mike, are we not worried about exposing Matt Gutierrez to the Chiefs and Broncos now that Belichick's proteges run those teams? I guess you would run that risk with any player you would try and place on your practice team, but I think the quarterback position would be too valuable to risk it.
A: This was a question that was asked on the Boston.com Patriots blog last week. In the end, when I put pen to paper, I couldn't pull the trigger on having just two quarterbacks on the roster. So I agree with you, Michael, it was just too risky for my liking risking Gutierrez making it through waivers to try to put him on the practice squad, given the importance of the quarterback position.
How, in your opinion, will Wilfork's salary parameters be set -- both by the Patriots and his agent? Will it be as a defensive tackle or nose tackle? I'm assuming that if it's the former with have the Haynesworth contract to consider, while I expect that NT's are within a more reasonable range.
A: Joe, I think it's nose tackle and both sides are in agreement on that. This is an interesting point to me because in any negotiation, the sides usually bring up a comparable player to make their case as for why they're bargaining for a specific contract. What makes it tricky is that there are few players like Wilfork in the NFL. As a completely detached observer and not knowing what is being discussed at the negotiating table, the two comparables I came up with are Kris Jenkins (Jets) and Tommie Harris (Bears). Jenkins, who signed a deal in February of 2008 that averages about $7 million per season, played the pure 3-4 nose spot last year. So he's similar from a scheme standpoint. Harris plays a completely different style, but I like him as a comparable because he entered the NFL as a first-round draft choice in 2004, picked seven spots ahead of Wilfork. He signed a four-year extension last year that averages about $8 million per season.
Mike, if they can't get Wilfork to sign for a reasonable contract, I think it is more likely that the Patriots will have Wilfork play this year, then franchise him next year. Then to get him in camp next year they will promise not to franchise him again (like what they did with Samuel). This way they get his best years for reasonable money and don't have to overpay him for his downside years. Don't get me wrong he is the most important player on the defense but as they said in The Godfather "It's not personal it's just business." Your thoughts?
Martin K., Boston
A: Martin, I had a recent e-mail exchange on this exact topic, with the same point being made, although I respectfully disagreed with it. From a pure black-and-white business perspective, the Patriots could do this. But I personally feel that if the Patriots do that, it would not be bargaining in good faith. My feeling is that if you can't reach a long-term contract after six years, and the player has given you six years of solid service in which he's clearly outperformed the last two years of his contract, it's time to part ways. Otherwise, you're almost holding the player hostage, especially considering that the NFL no longer allows six-year contracts for players drafted where Wilfork was selected. From the team perspective, you don't want an unhappy player in your locker room, and I think that type of situation could really turn ugly. That's why I don't think it will happen this way.
Do you think that Joey Galloway adds another dimension to the passing attack?
A: Dee, I think Galloway can still run, but my feeling is to wait and see on this one. At 37, Galloway is closer to the end of his career than the start, and it makes sense to see how his body responds to more of a physical grind. On paper, though, I think Galloway will add a speed dimension that wasn't there previously, while at the same time filling in the versatility lost when Jabar Gaffney signed with the Broncos as a free agent.
Mike, do you see Greg Lewis making an impact on the Pats offense this year? He seems to be the forgotten off-season addition, and he always has had good games against the Pats.
A: I slot Lewis as the fourth or fifth option at receiver right now, Saint. I don't see him passing Galloway for the third spot at this point, although I envision him being active on game-day, playing an important role on special teams, and adding nice depth at receiver.
Was Paris Lenon signed to add depth at inside linebacker or is he just another special teamer/Larry Izzo replacement? Did you see him work with the regular defense at OTA's? Seems like we stockpile special teamers every off-season, cut half of them in camp, then end up thin at key starting positions.
A: Gregg, I think Lenon is more than a special-teams-only player. He is expected to provide depth at inside linebacker, although there is some question as to how he will assimilate to the 3-4 scheme after playing primarily in a 4-3 throughout his career. But I envision him getting work on all four downs in training camp and the final assessment would be made at that point.
Mike, what have you seen out of Tank Williams? Do you feel he will be a contributor this year with Rodney gone or will he take a back seat to Patrick Chung among others?
A: Dan, I think Williams is a bubble guy at this point, someone who could help the Patriots in a specific package in that hybrid safety/linebacker type of role. When I put together a possible 53-man roster, he wasn't on it, but a lot can change between now and the start of the season.
Mike, the LB situation concerns me. I was very surprised this wasn't adequately addressed in the off-season. What was Bill Belichick's thinking? Don't you think this poses a major weakness in another SB run?
A: If all mailbag questions were put into categories this offseason, I think the "linebacker" topic would be the leader in the clubhouse as the top concern among e-mailers. In terms of inside linebacker, the team did draft Tyrone McKenzie in the third round, so that position was on the radar. Unfortunately, McKenzie tore his ACL in rookie minicamp. On the outside linebackers, Belichick made the point that there weren't many 6-foot-5 prospects in the draft who ran 4.6 in the 40-yard dash, and it didn't make sense to draft a player that didn't fit what they were looking for in their scheme. Second-year player Shawn Crable, who didn't appear in a game last season, is almost like a 13th draft pick in that regard. There is always the possibility for an addition before the season starts.
What's the story with Titus Adams? I remember him last year making a ton of plays in the preseason games and always being around the ball. Admittedly, it was against third-string offensive linemen, but I'd love to see him get more of a chance this year, especially over Le Kevin Smith.
A: Mark, Adams spent all of last season on the practice squad and I see him as a longer shot for a roster spot at this time. One of the interesting things about him is that he is a nose tackle and given the Vince Wilfork contract situation, that could play into his favor. Every year, there seems to be one player who surprises to earn a roster spot, and maybe Adams is that guy this year.
Mike, what happened to Ryan O'Callaghan?
A: Brad, O'Callaghan is still on the roster, and there is quite a group of players on the offensive line. I saw O'Callaghan, a 2006 fifth-round draft choice who missed last season with a shoulder injury, working at right tackle and left tackle in offseason organized team activities and minicamp. I think he's a bubble player at this point.
Mike, I'm just wondering why Bill Belichick hasn't brought Rosie Colvin in. Last year, out of desperation, he put in the call to this guy, who apparently had been working in his UPS shop, and he did a serviceable job having had no training camp, no practices, no anything. He's still in a good age bracket, has the size, and with training camp and practices could still be good on the outside. What's the problem? Is Bill Belichick that confident in the players we have?
A: Lisa, with respect to Colvin, I think the Patriots feel what they have is better than he could offer. At the same time, while the Patriots are happy to work with their younger players at outside linebacker, I do believe they would consider adding another player at that spot if the fit was right. I agree that Colvin's play last year was solid given the circumstances, although I think it was also apparent he is at the tail end of his career and doesn't have the same burst he once did.
I remember a couple years back after Drew Bledsoe retired you did a story on him not being lured back into playing. Since, then what is the latest with Bledsoe? Is he content being out of football? Any chance he'd return to the NFL in a coaching capacity or announcing gig? Also, will Drew's number be one of the very few that are retired? Are they waiting for is eventual enshrinement to the Pats HOF? Has Patriots brass ever been asked about this?
A: Drew Bledsoe is content being out of football, Ryan. He is heavily involved in a few business ventures and being a dad. He has expressed no interest in returning to the NFL in a coaching capacity or as an announcer. The New York Times had a nice piece on Bledsoe in March of 2008. As for Bledsoe's number being retired, I think the next step will be him going into the Patriots Hall of Fame, which requires a four-year wait once a player is out of the NFL (Bledsoe retired after the 2006 season). The idea is that a Hall induction would be the ultimate New England football honor. Bledsoe's No. 11 is currently being worn by rookie Julian Edelman.
Mike, now that OTA's and minicamps are over, what do the players do until training camp? Do they stay in Foxboro and continue to work with each other or do they take time off until training camp starts at the end of July?
A: Mike, the team's offseason program ends this week. Here is what linebacker Tedy Bruschi had to say about your question: "Guys are getting out of town here and there, trying to get some quality time with family and friends, and enjoy themselves a little bit while staying in shape also. It's sort of difficult this time of year because it's your last break, but you know you're about to start training camp so you still have to train. It sort of pulls you in both directions."
Mike, several times you have mentioned that a player is not eligible for the practice squad. How is it determined whether or not a player is eligible for the practice squad? Also, can a player just be placed on the practice squad or does he have to clear waivers first?
Dave, Berlin, N.H.
A: Dave, a player must first clear waivers before being placed on the practice squad. This topic came up last week and it was broken down as part of a blog entry on Boston.com.
Hi Mike, please explain the United Football League, and how they get there players. For example, what happens at the end of our camp when rosters go from 80 to 65 and then to 53? That's a lot of cuts. Can those players join the UFL?
A: The UFL has four teams (New York, Orlando, Las Vegas, San Francisco) and is planning to play a season from October to late November. Details are still a bit sketchy as to how things will work - even some of the players who were drafted last week are unsure. My sense is that once a player signs a contract with the UFL, he will play that season and could only go to the NFL after the UFL season, making him available for the NFL's stretch run. Any player can sign with the UFL. So let's say a player gets cut from an NFL team and decides to play in the UFL, he can sign when those roster reductions are made. Or he could hold out hope that an NFL team will sign him instead.