With training camp set to begin Thursday, some of the first dominoes have already fallen when it comes to the Patriots' roster.
With Boston Globe colleague Christopher L. Gasper reporting on Monday that five players are opening camp on the active/physically unable to perform list, it created an immediate talking point.
One of those players is Shawn Crable - who is one of the players vying to replace Mike Vrabel -- and that's where this week's mailbag begins.
I'm going to just take a number and get in line. But what is the deal with Shawn Crable going to the Active/PUP list? He was fully participating all offseason and in minicamps, why now all of a sudden he's now on the Active/PUP? I was under the impression he was going to compete for a major role this season on defense, now this? What does this mean for Crable and the OLB situation? Also, any news with the Stryker Sulak tryout and if he is signed how does that affect Crable and the OLB situation?
A: I have two thoughts on this Brandon. The first is that the Active/PUP list is not a huge deal because the player could come off tomorrow. It could be a failed conditioning test, or something more serious from an injury perspective. So I'd let a little time pass before making any final determination on how much this sets Crable back from a long-term perspective. On the flip side, I do think it's a less than encouraging sign. Players want to be building positive momentum entering training camp - especially those making the often-discussed crucial jump from year 1 to 2 - and this puts a speed bump in the road. As for Sulak, the interesting part to me is how this might tie in with long snapper Jake Ingram. It is unusual to me that a sixth-round pick like Ingram has not been signed at this point, and it makes me wonder if the team is thinking Sulak might be a better investment with that money. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but Ingram was drafted 198th overall, Sulak 199th. If Sulak is signed, I think it's just another layer of depth and competition at outside linebacker/nickel rusher.
Hey Mike, I feel like Shawn Crable is getting swept under the table in all the LB talk. Granted it was only preseason, but I remember being pretty impressed with him last August. He's tall with a huge wingspan, somewhat reminiscent of Willie McGinest. Why aren't more people talking about him? Is it simply because he doesn't have any NFL experience yet? Am I just being a homer here, or could he be a real presence on the field this season? Are there any lingering worries about his shin injury from last year?
A: This question was delivered before Monday's news that Crable was placed on the active/physically unable to perform list, so you had some interesting timing Stefan. I think the reason more people haven't been talking about Crable is the zero career starts. There was some buzz around him in spring practices, but until he shows he can do it on a consistent basis and stays off the injury list, I this he remains an unknown. I did have one assistant coach with another NFL team who scouted him in 2008 say "If you're counting on him, you might be in some trouble." That was a strong comment that I filed away.
Hi Mike, with training camp just around the corner, I was just curious to know what position battles are you most curious to watch? The obvious answer is OLB, but I am sure there are others that you will pay particular attention too.
Nick M., Montreal, Quebec
A: Nick, like many others, I'd start with outside linebacker. Here are five others that I will watch closely:
1) Running back - With Fred Taylor in the fold, how does it all shake out?
2) Cornerback - New names atop the depth chart, with a mix of young and old.
3) Offensive tackle - Does Sebastian Vollmer, one of the team's second-round picks, make a push for playing time?
4) Wide receiver - Joey Galloway looks like the Jabar Gaffney replacement.
5) Tight end - How does the acquisition of Chris Baker and Alex Smith affect Benjamin Watson?
Can you give me three good reasons why Wilfork is not signed? He wants to be a Patriot and he is working on a 6-year contract that even the NFL later decided was unfair. I know this is a "what can you do for me now" business, but Wilfork is not washed up. He is an elite nose tackle with at least three great years left. Everyone is talking about Ron Brace as a replacement. Why? The kid hasn't played a down yet. Wilfork is a proven player who plays a huge role in what the Patriots do on defense. I can't imagine why the Pats would play hardball with Wilfork. He's earned a new contract. Aside from trading Vrabel, Wilfork's situation is the most difficult offseason issue for me to understand.
A: Dan, without knowing the specifics of the situation, I'll list three reasons that I think could factor into Wilfork not being signed at this point: 1) The team would be offering a contract length (e.g. 6-8 years) that Wilfork deems too long to tie himself up for; 2) Wilfork's own financial wants don't match what the Patriots are willing to offer at this point; 3) The Patriots, unlike some other teams who have dished out big-money extensions, are less willing to extend themselves financially because of the uncertain labor situation. I'd just add one point to the question: When it is written that Wilfork wants to be a Patriot, I think that leaves out a key part of the issue - he wants to be a Patriot but be paid what he deems a fair contract. I don't think there is anything wrong with that, but it's an important distinction to make, because it isn't like there hasn't been an offer to consider.
Mike, the Chargers released linebacker Matt Wilhelm the other day. Do you think the Patriots would go after him?
A: Rick, Wilhelm (6-4, 245) is a bigger inside linebacker who has experience in the Chargers' style of 3-4 defense, and I had always thought he could be a player of interest for New England. At this point, however, nothing has been arranged between Wilhelm and the team. Wilhelm has 21 starts over the last two seasons and plays special teams, although he ultimately lost his starting job in San Diego. He would probably duplicate Paris Lenon at this point, but I think he's worth a look.
Hey Mike, this has been discussed plenty of times during the offseason, and it kind of fell off my radar for awhile, but do you have any indication of the Pats' possible interest in Derrick Burgess? I know that they like the guys they already have at OLB, but I think a great pass rusher like Burgess would fill a big hole.
A: Zack, I think they'd like Burgess, but it seems to me that the Raiders aren't inclined to deal him for what the Patriots are willing to offer. The Patriots entertained the idea of Jason Taylor, had trade talks on Burgess, and are bringing in rookie pass rusher Stryker Sulak for a workout Tuesday, July 28. All those moves are indications to me that the team's decision-makers are seeking more help at outside linebacker/nickel rusher.
Mike, I believe you'd previously mentioned that Jarvis Green, Nick Kaczur, and Benjamin Watson would have trade value and might not be simply cut if they were in danger of not making the club for whatever reason. What could the Pats expect to get for each? With six linemen drafted and two TE's acquired, BB might be forced to part with one or more of these vets in the coming weeks, assuming some of the rookies step up.
A: Because all three players enter the final year of their contract, I think that lowers what would be traded in return. A team is going to want to know it has the player locked up long-term when it factors in trade compensation. So I'd start at a fourth-round draft choice for each player. It's a little different, but I'm thinking of a player like Ted Washington, whom the Patriots acquired for a fourth-rounder in 2003.
Hi Mike, one thing that still concerns me that I haven't seen much talk about is the QB2 spot. We all hope and pray that Brady comes back as THE Brady of old, but you never know. And now that Cassel is gone, do you think the Pats will make a move to bring on a veteran backup. I'm not sure I'd want to see O'Connell or Gutierrez under center. What do you think about the Pats taking a chance on Vick, or someone like Brian Griese? There's not a whole lot of choice for experienced QB2's out there as far as I can tell, but in my mind is still a need for this Pats team.
Vaibhav K., Dallas, Texas
A: If the right veteran was available, I think it would be a worthy investment Vaibhav. It's my feeling that Vick isn't the answer, but Griese would be closer to a possible target. Griese has a career completion percentage of 62.7, which is pretty sharp. Tom Brady, for example, is at 63 percent. Bill Belichick always talks about accuracy and decision-making as the two key elements for quarterbacks and Griese strikes me as the type of veteran who checks out pretty well in those areas. I think the process would be to assess Kevin O'Connell (2008 third-round pick) in training camp/preseason and make a determination if a veteran is needed at that point.
Before I get to my question, I would note that I've been a huge supporter of Stephen Gostkowski from Day 1, and I think he's a great kicker. My question is, what do you think happens with him at the end of the season? While he is a great kicker, how much is that position really worth? I know kickers make a big difference in tight games with not only making the big field goals, but also field position, but how big is the gap between SG and "average" NFL kickers?
A: Rick, Gostkowski falls into that "uncertain" category because of the unpredictable labor situation. If there is a salary cap, Gostkowski is a free agent. If there is no salary cap, Gostkowski is a restricted free agent and the Patriots retain some rights to him. We'll know more come March, so I think it's a wait and see type of situation. If Gostkowski becomes a free agent, I think he gets a top of the line contract - about $3 million per season, with a signing bonus in the range of $4.5 to $5 million. Because of the work he does in the field-position game - his strong leg helps set the team up with good field position on kickoffs -- I think it's worth it.
I was extremely happy when the Patriots picked Brandon Meriweather because it was the first & only time that they took who I wanted -- and I've been watching since the year they could have had Junior Seau. Is it too soon to be disappointed in him? I was expecting him to be an impact player.
Martha, Martha's Vinyard
A: I think it's still early, Martha, but this is the year it should come together if it is going to happen in a big way for Meriweather (24th overall, 2007). On our Boston.com Patriots blog, we asked a similar question and of almost 3,500 responses, 64 percent felt Meriweather was satisfactory while 36 percent rated him disappointing.
Mike, any thoughts on what the base defensive formation will look like? It seems like there is greater depth on the DL and in the secondary relative to the linebackers. Do you think they morph from the 3-4 base to other formations to get some of the younger DB's and DL's on the field?
Sean, New York City
A: I still think the base they'll work out of is the 3-4 - that's important because it sets the framework for the type of players they scout and the qualities they look for -- but they'll morph into different looks from that. As Rodney Harrison said in a Boston Globe interview on Monday: "They could be 3-4, 4-3, or something else. They have a lot of players and Bill Belichick knows how to use them." I think that's a trademark of a Belichick Patriots defense - versatility to do different things.
Mike, how much does Tedy Bruschi have left? He's obviously done it all during his career
I love the guy, and hope he keeps it up, but a 2-down guy with diminished special team ability might be a liability. I would not ink him in as Day 1 starter like everyone else seems to have done. He might not even be on the team. In Bill I trust, but as we all have seen, key veterans seem to move on sooner than later in Foxborough. Do you have any thoughts on this, or have you heard anything from opposing scouts?
Graeme M., Los Ranchos, New Mexico
A: Graeme, I don't think many would argue that Bruschi isn't the player he once was, and that includes Bruschi himself. I do think he still provides value to the defense, starting with his smarts. This is a tough defense to master, and a lot of things run through that inside linebacker spot. Bruschi's contributions there shouldn't be overlooked. As for thoughts from opposing scouts, most say the same thing - he's not the same player physically, and a slower "mike" linebacker can make an entire defense look a little slower than it is.
Hey Mike, here's something that has been bothering me a bit: All the talk about the Patriots employing a Wildcat-type scheme with Michael Vick or Julian Edelman or whoever under center. My question is why would they ever do that? It takes Tom Brady off the field! Are the Colts planning on using the Wildcat? I doubt it. The Dolphins put it in because their offense was not good. I think people see it work a little in Miami and forget that New England has the best offense in the league (maybe in league history in 07) and we should just let Tom Brady and company do their thing. Thoughts?
A: Interesting points, Chris. My feeling is that the Wildcat is a 1-2 play type of thing, a chance to throw a change-up at the defense unexpectedly. I don't have a major issue with splitting Brady out wide, which takes him out of the play, for 1-2 snaps. Anything more, though, and it wouldn't make much sense. As for the Colts, I would be surprised if they haven't worked on a Wildcat package. I think every team in the NFL will have something installed. As for Vick, one of the reasons I don't think he'd fit in New England is that he's not a great match for the system (accuracy and decision-making aren't his forte) and if he was purely a Wildcat option, he doesn't offer much value elsewhere (e.g. special teams).
I was wondering where the Pats are going to put draft pick Julian Edelman. Will he be a Wildcat option, special teams returner, slot receiver, or anything else?
A: David, I'd say all of the above. I think Edelman's versatility will help him earn a roster spot.
Hi Mike, it seems to me that moving the first round of the draft to a Thursday night all by itself will make it tougher for the league to argue that the contract values for first-round draft picks should be reduced. I don't like the idea of paying tens of millions to an unproven rookie player, no matter the player's seeming potential, and I was in favor of efforts to restrict draftee contracts. But how do you make the argument now when the first round has taken on even more elite status by getting its own prime time night all by itself? This decision seems to go in the other direction, elevating even further the importance of being a first-round pick. For what it's worth, I don't like it.
A: You are not alone on that one, Scott, as a poll on Boston.com had more than 5,500 responses and it was about 70-30 against the change with the draft. My personal feeling is that I can't blame any business, in this economic climate, for trying to grow and create more revenue. Sometimes, I feel like the NFL might take it a bit too far (e.g. the schedule release in prime time), but I don't have strong feelings against this change. As for the point on the first round being isolated on one night - and that making it tougher to sell the idea of reduced contracts for first-round picks because they are in the spotlight more - I can see where some would make that connection. I separate the two points and look at them individually.
I'm curious on the different mechanics of the defensive line. Especially around the draft, I hear experts saying that a player is a 2-technique or 5-technique player or a gap player. Could you explain more of what that entails?
A: I'm still learning a lot of the intricacies myself, Ben, but I think I can answer in Football 101 type form. The technique is defined based on two things: 1) Where the player lines up along the line; 2) What his responsibilities are after the snap. I'll use Vince Wilfork as an example. As the Patriots' nose tackle, he often lines up head-up over the center, which is often refereed to as the zero-technique. As part of his role, he is asked to occupy the center and possibly a guard, holding them up so the players behind him (e.g. linebackers) can flow freely to the ball and make plays. Contrast that to a player like Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris, who like Wilfork was a first-round draft choice in 2004. Harris is more of a three-technique defensive tackle, lining up on the outside shoulder of the guard. He is most often not being asked to hold up blockers, but instead, to beat them by penetrating into the backfield and disrupting the offense. A quick Google search will probably be able to explain more, as I noticed quite a few helpful sites in this area by typing in "football, defensive line techniques."
Hi Mike, kind of an under-the-radar subject, but did the owners or league have any discussions regarding expanding the 53-man roster? It seems like serious injuries are becoming increasingly common as the size, speed and athleticism of the players improves. Some teams are literally taking guys off the street to fill a roster in the playoffs, not to mention the mind boggling percentage of guys playing with substantial injuries that require surgery immediately after the season because the team simply does not have enough position players available on the roster.
A: There has been some discussion, Shane, but it's all in relation to the possible expansion of the regular season to 18 games. I don't think expansion of the rosters is an option in a 16-game season.
Is Patriots training camp open to public and if so what are the date/time open to public.
The camp opens on Thursday at Gillette Stadium. The team will have two practices on each of the first seven days of camp - at 9:30 a.m. and 3:45 p.m. The schedule is always subject to change, so I recommend calling the training camp hotline (508-549-0001) or visiting Patriots.com for the latest information.