With the start of training camp this week, two main topics seem to be on the minds of e-mailers to the Patriots mailbag:
1) After the disappointing way last season ended, which direction is the team headed?
2) Looking at the team's roster, will there be any changes or additions - specifically with well-known players such as Junior Seau and Ty Law?
For fans who might be considering a trip to training camp at Gillette Stadium this year, the camp extends from July 24 to August 14, and the times of practices can change depending on a variety of factors, including weather. So it's always a good idea to check Patriots.com for the latest information on practice times. We'll also update Boston.com with that information, and we've put together a virtual tour of what visitors to camp can expect.
Here is the initial schedule for the first few days:
Thursday: 8:30 a.m. practice; 5:30 p.m. practice
Friday: 2:30 p.m. practice
Saturday: Practice not open to the public due to a concert
Sunday: 8:45 a.m. practice; 5:30 p.m. practice
Monday: 2:30 p.m. practice
And now, on to the questions...
How does the team possibly improve on last year's season (ignoring the Super Bowl, of course)? There is bound to be a letdown, no?
A: I don't think there has to be a letdown, Christopher. At the same time, the realist looks at the recent history of Super Bowl losers - six of the last seven haven't made the playoffs the next year - and it's clear that the hangover from such a defeat can be especially strong. As for my answer to the question about how the team can improve can be summed up this way: defense, defense, defense. The more I think about the offseason moves, and some of the work that has been done in spring camps, it's been about the 'D' - with a capital D. More teams move the ball and score points in today's NFL by passing the ball - the league's rules contribute to favoring that approach over grinding it out -- so the Patriots must get better at defending it.
With the additions of free agents and rookies on defense and how other teams will have to be aggressive offensively to have a chance, do you think our 3 and outs, turnovers, and sacks will increase from 2007?
A: I do think the Patriots' defense is going to be better, Shane, although I can't say decisively that they will improve in the categories mentioned. I just see more depth, and overall quality, on that side of the ball. It's probably because they came on short-term, cheaper contracts, but I really think players like cornerback Fernando Bryant, safety Tank Williams and linebacker Victor Hobson are going to help the club - and that their signings are probably under the radar from a national perspective. As we inch closer to training camp, I would say the defense - and how it re-invents/re-shapes itself - is one of the biggest stories with this team.
During the Super Bowl years the Pats had one of the best linebacker corps in football. They were able to rotate six players without losing the effectiveness of the group. How do you see it playing out this year? With Thomas, Hobson, Bruschi, and Vrabel starting, can two or three of the kids (Mayo, Crable, Guyton, Ruud, Woods) step in and form the basis of a strong rotation to keep the veterans fresh? It seems that six or seven guys are needed over a long season to keep everyone effective. Or do you see them looking to add someone else?
Jim C., Seminole, Fla.
A: Jim, I do think at least two of the players mentioned from this group - Mayo, Crable, Guyton, Ruud, Woods - will help the team at the linebacker spot. I'd even consider adding safety Tank Williams into the picture, because I could envision him playing a linebacker-like role in a sub package, which is an important part of today's game with more teams spreading the field on offense. So when I look at the linebacker corps, I see more depth and versatility than last season.
It's now within a week to training camp and there is anxiety of a new season. Do you see New England being able to have all their picks signed and into camp by time rookies are required to be at camp the 21st and 24th or do you see there being a scenario(s) where it may come down to the final hour for all the rookies to be signed or even any possible holdouts? Also do you see any free agent acquisitions being made between now and Thursday's opening of camp?
Brandon, Warwick, R.I.
A: Brandon, my feeling is that the only holdup would be first-round pick Jerod Mayo, and it's simply because no other players around him have signed at this point. Many players/agents, and even teams, are often reluctant to do the first deal in a certain area of the first round until they know more about what the players around that pick have received. This year seems a bit slow to me in terms of first-round contract signings, and I think one other factor that has contributed to that is the uncertain future of the collective bargaining agreement and salary cap, which can impact the structure of deals. As for free-agent acquisitions, the Patriots have 79 players on the current roster as of Tuesday morning. They can go up to 80. I'd expect them to do that.
Do you think the Patriots will be as aggressive this year on offense as they were last season? There is speculation that because NE went undefeated up to the Super Bowl loss, that Belichick might reel it in a bit and possibly run the ball more, rather than be as explosive in the passing game late in games. There was controversy last year that the Patriots were running the score up; do you think they will stick with that philosophy of "no mercy," or do you think they will change their offensive focus this year? Thanks for your feedback and your analysis.
Alex, Eugene, Ore.
A: Alex, I don't see a major shift in philosophy for the Patriots' offense. I think in today's NFL, teams move the ball and score points by throwing the ball - the rules seem to favor the offense, so why not take advantage of them if you can? I think it would be a counter-productive, and a lack of utilization of some impressive talent, to suddenly become a grind-it-out team. Surely, there will be times when the Patriots must run the ball - last year's Oct. 1 game at Cincinnati, when Sammy Morris settled down a shaky pass offense with some hard-charging second-quarter runs, comes to mind. But on the whole, I still think this is a passing team, and I'd expect them to let it rip once again.
Regarding Ty Law, it appears that the Pats, Jets, and Browns are the front runners for his services, given his ties to the coaching staffs at all three teams. Law has a history of going to the highest bidder -- and avoiding all the "voluntary" off season conditioning sessions. What do you hear? Where is he likely to wind up his career? He'd sure do a lot to make up for the loss of Samuel.
JC, Wilton, Conn.
A: JC, at this point, there is nothing doing between the Patriots and Law, according to a source close to that situation. That can always change over time, but at this point, nothing is on the horizon.
Any news on Junior Seau? Will he be back?
A: Grace, I'd put Junior Seau in the same category as Ty Law. There is nothing happening with him at this time, and nothing is on the horizon, according to a source close to that situation. I don't expect to see him at the start of training camp. On a television appearance Sunday night, I said that I had a hunch that Seau would be re-signed. If I could rewind the tape and do it again, I would have answered the question this way: "Nothing is imminent, but it's always a possibility should things change in the future."
Mike, you seem to think that Shawn Crable will only be effective in passing situaions. It sounds like you see him as a coverage LB. Why is this? In college he had an incredible amount of tackles for losses and a pretty good number of sacks. The scouting reports say he has a nose for the ball and is good at shedding blockers. He also has very good size and speed. Taking all this into account, wouldn't he be great in running situations as well as passing situations?
Evan, Tolland, Conn.
A: Evan, I think this question comes in after I've mentioned a couple of times that I think Crable's initial fit is probably in sub packages. My thought process is that he was an outside linebacker in Michigan's 4-3 defense, meaning he was mostly playing off the line. In the Patriots' 3-4 alignment, an off-the-line role would translate to one of the inside positions, and I think he's too long (6-5, 243) to play in there. So that would mean he would have to be at outside linebacker in the 3-4, and a key part of playing that spot is being able to anchor down against tight ends and tackles. I just think, initially at least, it's a tall task to ask a rookie who is still developing physically to play that role. So that's why my projection for Crable is in sub packages/passing situations, where he could both rush the passer and cover down the field.
Mike, I was wondering how you feel about our WR corps this year. I know that we have some strong players but I was a little disappointed that we didn't draft a WR this season or get one through free agency that can take some heat off of Randy Moss. Someone that can make a team pay for double or triple teaming Moss. It seemed like at the end of last year teams started playing us better and it seemed like teams were content with letting Welker catch 10 passes a game as long as they held Moss in check. I like Gaffney and I know Chad Jackson has tons of talent, which we haven't really seen yet, but are those two guys really the best option. I like Kelley Washington, too, but he couldn't break in the rotation last year. Your thoughts?
Mike, Pflugerville, Texas
A: Mike, my feeling is that the wide receiving corps is quite strong. I think the league's other 31 teams would covet a combination of Moss and Welker at the top of the depth chart, as both players create opportunities for the other. So I guess the question is the third, fourth, fifth and possibly sixth options. I think Gaffney is a solid 3/4 type of guy - he is a tactician who can line up at multiple spots. Jackson is a bit of a wild card, but my feeling is that's the way it is in today's NFL: you have to at least give the young guys a chance. A lot of it, I believe, is also perception. I like to use someone such as New Orleans' Marques Colston as an example of this. When he was drafted in the seventh round a few years ago, he looked like a long shot to even make the roster - and I'm sure Saints fans had some concern about the receiver spot entering that season. But after Colston tore things up in his first year, he's now he's considered a top-tier receiver, and that's how fast perceptions can change. Right now, the perception of Jackson is a bit of an unknown - it could go either way. On the final part of the question, I do believe Washington can contribute as a receiver, and that his special-teams-only type of role from 2007 was more of a result of the players in front of him.
Mike, what is the status with Kyle Brady? Do you think there's any chance the Pat's will resign him? He played a large number of snaps last season and seemed to be effective. With a year under his belt and the team not making any significant TE signings, seems like there might be chance he's back. Probably the best indicator is if the Patriots gave his number to a new player yet (like Colvin).
John Tchorz, Carlsbad, Calif.
A: I don't think Brady will be back, John. As you note, his jersey number is now being donned by free-agent signing Sam Aiken, who is expected to boost the special teams units. I charted Brady playing 48 percent of the offensive snaps last year, but his play-time numbers seemed to dwindle as the year went on. He also had an ailing shoulder that was of concern to the Patriots.
Hey Mike, with QBs being in short supply, I was hoping you can dig a bit further into trade options for the Pats when they set their final roster for the '08 season. With Cassel becoming a FA at season's end and with three years of back-up experience, one would think he is the top candidate to go and fetch a 2nd/3rd round pick, minimum. BB and Pioli must have this in mind when O'Connell became available in the 3rd round. What do you think?
Dave Almeida, Acton
A: Dave, when it comes to drafting O'Connell, I do think the Patriots had Cassel's contract in mind -- although I think at this point a 2nd/3rd round choice would be way too generous. Cassel is going to have to show Matt Hasselbeck-like skills in the preseason - I'm thinking back to when Hasselbeck was traded from Green Bay to Seattle - for a team to pony up that compensation. The Patriots did keep four quarterbacks in 2000, the first year of the Bill Belichick era, so it's not out of the question that all four stick. In the end, this situation highlights the type of competition that teams are always trying to create. You let it play out and often times the situation works itself out on its own - either through a trade, injury or something else.
Ellis Hobbs (similar to Rajon Rondo with the Celtics this year) seems to be overly criticized for not being perfect, while I happen to see the big picture and respect his consistent great play on the corner. The few times I see him get beat deep he's normally playing the under coverage with the safety late with help over top. I'd hate to see the one play from the Super Bowl define his career, he's an All Pro in my book. How do you rate his performance overall and do you see him as a top corner in the league?
Lowry, Granite Bay, Calif.
A: Lowry, I'd probably put Hobbs somewhere in the middle between the detractors who say he had a miserable year in 2007 - as one Scouts Inc., scribe did last week - and the thoughts shared in your email. I don't think he's a top corner in the league at this point, but he's certainly a player teams can win with. I think you bring up an excellent point about how a cornerback can often be the closest player in coverage, and thus it creates the perception that he is at fault when that is not the case. I think a perfect example is the Eli Manning-to-Plaxico Burress 52-yard pass on the second play of the season finale. Hobbs was in coverage, but there should have been safety help on the play.
Hi Mike, my question is concerning safety Brandon Meriweather. Belichick often says a player's biggest step up in performance is usually from the 1st to 2nd year. Do you see Meriweather winning the FS job over James Sanders, whom I consider more of a SS type? My reasoning for the question is that Sanders has improved but still struggles with coverage in open space. I also hope they don't bounce Meriweather between FS and CB. He seems to be a player who needs to use his natural ability and instinct. Keeping him at one spot would help accomplish that.
Rich, Huntsville, Ala.
A: That's going to be a great competition to watch, Rich. I think Meriweather is going to push Sanders, but I wouldn't discount Sanders at all. He's really improved and has established a role for himself. So right now, I think the nod has to go to Sanders until we see what strides Meriweather has made. Regardless, Meriweather would probably be first off the sideline in a nickel, five defensive-back package - and with the way teams spread the field these days - that's basically the equivalent of a 12th starter. What's nice about Meriweather is that he can be effective playing in the slot if necessary. I also see him as the type of player who could match up with Colts tight end Dallas Clark.
Mike, given all of the uncertainties with the OL, do you think they might trade off the dedicated long snapper to pick up a good prospect when rosters are trimmed to the 53-man limit. Protecting Brady has got to be a much higher priority than an occasional, marginal punt/field goal snap. Seems like some other lineman could be a competent long snapper.
Patrick, Palmyra, Va.
A: I don't think long snapper Lonie Paxton is going anywhere, Patrick, not after the club signed him to a one-year deal with a $150,000 signing bonus this offseason. I feel that's the kind of position that is easy to take for granted, until a mistake is made. In the Patriots' case, Paxton doesn't make many, so I think he's worth the investment.
Hey Mike, I think I'll probably have this question until I hear a different answer to it, but do you think the Pats regret the Vinatieri situation? That whole thing still makes zero sense to me and if they had just taken care of business with him to begin with, we'd still have him. I kept hearing that his distance was down, etc... but I never saw it, and I don't notice Gostkowski being any stronger. I'm also curious: Are the Pats confident in Gostkowski? I still think the decision not to have him kick in the Super Bowl says a lot.
A: I've never had the chance to ask, Dave, so I'm really only going based on my own thoughts. While I personally thought they should have kept Vinatieri - and thought that before Super Bowl XLII -- I don't think they regret it. I think they stick to their disciplined team-building approach and I think the feeling with Vinatieri was that if they had too many players at their position being the highest paid, then it would deplete the "middle class" which has made the club so strong over its championship run. As for the confidence the coaches have in Gostkowski, this is going to sound hypocritical but I think they do have confidence in him, just not on that day. I'd make the comparison to a pitcher who has a bad start in baseball. That was a "bad start" for Gostkowski in Super Bowl XLII, but he was also 21 of 24 during the regular season, and had what I felt was a real solid performance in the playoffs in 2006.
What kind of advantage do you think a team like the Pats, which stays in Foxborough for training camp, has over a team like the Kansas City Chiefs, which has to travel to River Falls, Wisc., for training camp? It seems to me in this day and age the Chiefs are hurting themselves by traveling so far away from their home and staying in dorms. When the Pats have training camp do they get to go home with their families when the day is over, or do they have dorms for them set up in Foxborough.
A: I could see it working both ways, Joe. In some respects, being at home helps because you have the comforts that you've grown to appreciate and help you be efficient in your work. I'm sure the equipment guys in New England appreciate not having to transfer the team's weight room to a temporary facility. But going on the road and staying in dorms can contribute to team chemistry and bonding. If I had to choose, I'd stay at home, but I don't think it's the only way to go.
How is it determined which teams play each other in the exhibition season each year? Does the NFL set the schedule, or do the teams themselves have some control over their opponents? (It sure seems that there are some teams that appear on the Pats' exhibition schedule almost other season, but some of the other opponents seem to vary.)
A: Dan, the NFL sets the preseason schedule. I think a big part is keeping teams as close to home as possible, so the decisions are made with geographic concerns in mind.