After watching the Patriots' first eight training camp practices, I think one of the more interesting aspects is how the defensive front seven might be more of an attacking unit this year.
It's early yet, and outside linebacker Mike Vrabel (team-leading 12.5 sacks last season) hasn't even practiced, but from the looks of it the Patriots are going to be getting after it a little more this year.
When the Patriots have conducted 11 on 11 drills in training camp, and the front seven has attacked at the line of scrimmage, it's been generally impressive to watch.
In turn, the offensive line figures to be better for it, because the unit might not see such force coming at them from other NFL defenses -- whether it's Adalius Thomas off the edge, Richard Seymour from his right end spot, Vince Wilfork over the center, or Ty Warren on the left end.
If the Patriots do improve up front, it also will help the secondary, which doesn't look like as much of a question mark as it appeared to be entering camp.
Those are just a few early impressions. While the Patriots finished second in the NFL with 47 sacks last year, the feeling here is that the defense can be better than the unit on the field in 2007.
Now, on to the questions ...
Mike, with the recent signing of LaMont Jordan, how do you see the running back position looking for the start of the regular season? I can't see Bill keeping five backs on the opening day roster (Laurence Maroney, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, Jordan and Heath Evans). Does this mean a battle between Morris and Jordan for the fourth spot or do you think Jordan could replace Evans as a lead blocker on some plays since he has the build and power to run over tackles? I think Jordan makes the roster due to his receiving skills and power running style that the Patriots used to employ in past years.
Joe, Vero Beach, Fla.
A: I actually think they'll keep five running backs, Joe. The natural follow-up question is that if the Patriots keep five running backs, what position gets short-changed. I'm subbing out one tight end (keeping two, instead of three) in place of a fifth running back. I think Maroney, Morris, Faulk, Jordan and Evans will all be on the club. I don't see Jordan being able to fill Evans' role as a blocker -- offensively, or on special teams.
Don't you think the signing of LaMont Jordan from Oakland is more proof the Pats aren't sold on Maroney as their lead back? Some might argue the move was about adding depth BEHIND Maroney, but not me. I have never felt Maroney, in spite of his flashes of speed and power, is a lead back in the NFL because he refuses to hit the hole consistently without dancing a little behind the line of scrimmage. And he lacks the receiving skills to be a third down back like Kevin Faulk. I see Morris as the starter (if he's healthy), with Maroney being a change of pace type of back and a kick returner. Kevin Faulk gets the nod as a third down guy, and Jordan steps in for Morris if there is an injury setback. Your thoughts?
CJ, New Hampshire
A: I fall in the different category on Maroney, CJ, as I think he is worthy of lead-back status. I don't see the signing of Jordan as an implication on Maroney, who I felt was running the best of his NFL career toward the end of 2007. Of all the backs on the roster, I don't think anyone has the type of speed and explosion that he does.
Hey Mike, you mentioned the running game was a major emphasis of the fourth practice, and the fact there was a lot of contact. The question here is how did Sammy Morris feel about the contact he was taking, and how did it look from your view. Was he timid, or loving the pain of the game?
Jeffrey, Northridge, Calif.
A: Jeffrey, the one thing I would mention is that while there was contact, there was no tackling, and there is a bit of a difference. But I specifically asked Morris your question and here is his answer: "I haven't really second-guessed myself. I don't know if it's being naive or overconfident, but I feel good out here. I haven't second-guessed myself as far as being explosive. I haven't had to worry 'How is this going to be?' I'm not thinking about it."
What are your first impressions on the corners? Is any player standing out?
A: The cornerbacks are better than I expected, Corky. I think Fernando Bryant is the one player I'd single out. He's been consistent, and even Bill Belichick mentioned that Bryant has been getting his hands on some passes. If things continue in this direction, I don't believe corner is going to be as much of an issue as I thought it would be. The offensive line, specifically the right side, might be more of a concern.
Hey Mike, do you think there's any chance of the Patriots trading for Lito Sheppard?
A: I don't, Cody. The Eagles are looking for a second-round draft choice and I don't see the Patriots doing that at this time. I also think the team is generally pleased with what it sees at corner right now.
Mike, I know it's early but of the rookies who looks to be a surprise? Of the vets, who seems to be the most improved? And what is your take on the backup QB situation?
Ronald, West Topsham, Vt.
A: All of the draft choices have caught my eye at one point or another, Ronald. But since your question asked which rookie has been a surprise, I'm going to pick fifth-rounder Matthew Slater. He catches the ball better than I expected at receiver. Couple that with his ability to stand out from the crowd on special teams, and I think there is a place on this team for him. In terms of a veteran who might be the most improved, I'd pick fourth-year offensive lineman Wesley Britt, who has hung in there while working with the first unit while facing a tough challenge from the defense. As for the backup QB spot, I think the games will tell the story. Right now, I'd give Matt Cassel the edge over Matt Gutierrez but the games could easily change that.
I noticed during one of Bill Belichick's press conferences that he mentioned seeing rookie Jerod Mayo mixing in with the guys during his first day of NFL camp and it brings me to my first question: Has Mayo been getting any time with the first team LBs so far and do you see him being a legit contender for defensive rookie of the year as he claims may be one of his personal goals for the upcoming 2008-09 season?
A: Worthy, I know it's early, but I have to say that I've been impressed with Mayo. I envision him getting the bulk of his playing time in a sub package initially, but possibly seeing his role expand as he becomes more familiar with the system. I have not seen him working with the first-unit defense at this point. Based on my feeling that the Patriots are going to play a lot of different packages, I don't know that I'd put Mayo in the mix for defensive rookie of the year consideration.
Hi Reiss! I have a question that others have probably wondered about as well -- where in the world is Wes Welker? I don't see his name mentioned at all on your observations and I am just curious if his eating habit (shakes and burgers) made him gain too much weight and he is dieting/strengthening? Or is there some family issue/injury with him?
A: Welker opened training camp on the physically unable to perform list with an undisclosed injury, Alex. I don't think it's anything serious and I'd put him in the same category as Randy Moss last year, when Moss sat out most of training camp resting his hamstring. Moss probably could have practiced, but what was the point? Resting him with the 16-game regular season in mind was the smart decision.
A lot has been asked about the players' attitude after the Super Bowl. How about fans during the training camp? How has the attendance been and their mood?
A: Mike, it's an interesting question because I sense it from a lot of people I've spoken with -- being a fan of the Patriots was draining in 2007. I don't think it's been easy for some people to dive back in after Super Bowl XLII. However, the crowds remain really solid at training camp practices -- I'd estimate about 5,000 per practice. One of our staff writers at the Globe who was at a recent practice -- and hadn't been for years -- was amazed at the scene and how the fans cheered at times during practice.
Mike, I notice Tom Brady didn't win an offseason award for the first time ever. Did you hear any comments from Belichick about this? Is this a sign that he's lost his drive?
A: Brady mentioned that he didn't compete for it, which I took to mean that he wasn't around for much of the offseason program. Brady explained that there were different things he had to tend to at this time of his life, and I respect that. When you go at it as hard as these guys do during the season, sometimes less can be more, and staying away can actually be more beneficial than to keep grinding. Speaking of Brady, Belichick said every player has to do different things to prepare themselves, and that Brady has done that. I think anyone that watches a training camp practice and sees the way Brady competes and performs would acknowledge it's not much of an issue.
Chris Gasper of the Boston Globe mentioned in his video blog that Tom Brady did not win the coveted parking spot for offseason attendance. Can you tell us who did win the coveted parking spots?
A: Dave, the offseason award winners were: Tedy Bruschi, Jabar Gaffney, Stephen Gostkowski, Logan Mankins, Sammy Morris, James Sanders, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren.
Hi Mike. My question was about the linebackers. I think the use of Tank Williams on the inside on what seems (at this time) to be a full-time spot should hopefully help out the pass D in the middle. But I worry about how it will work out in the run D. We do not seem to have a true MIKE LBer. Who do you see filling this role? (Victor Hobson was my first thought). Also, I read that Pierre Woods was filling in for Mike Vrabel. I was wondering how Woods was holding up with the first unit? Do you think he will be part of the main rotation in the regular season.
A: Eric, I don't think Tank Williams will be a full-time inside linebacker in the team's base defense. He will probably be there in a package that will be called upon because it's the best matchup against a specific opponent. I'd say the top pure inside linebackers are Tedy Bruschi, Jerod Mayo and Victor Hobson and all three will be prepared to play the MIKE linebacker spot. Adalius Thomas would be another option if that was the best matchup. As for Woods, he has hung in there, and at one point stood out with a nice interception. I don't know if he'll be in the regular defensive rotation, but I could envision him playing more on defense than he did last year.
Could Chad Jackson be a washout? What's your impression of Brandon Meriweather and Mike Richardson so far?
A: Jackson has been getting a lot of opportunity in camp, Jack. It's easy to see he is an impressive physical talent. I would say, however, that things don't always seem to come easy to him on the field. I don't see a trust and rapport at this time with Tom Brady. That doesn't mean it can't happen, and I wouldn't count him out just yet, but I could really see this one going either way. As for Meriweather, he looks to be moving with a lot of confidence. I also think Richardson has shown that he's a competitor. I still think he's on the roster bubble, but if I was filling out a 53-man roster prediction today, he'd be on it given that Ellis Hobbs remains on the physically unable to perform list.
All of these one-year contracts (LaMont Jordan being the latest) are starting to concern me. I realize that not all of these guys will even make the team this year, making the length of their contract irrelevant, but it seems like this team could be looking at a very high turnover next season. Do you know exactly how many players have signed one-year deals with the Pats this offseason? Of those players, how many do you see making the club this year? If any of them (Jordan, Bryant, Hobson, Tank Williams, etc.) end up playing a valuable role, do you see the Pats trying to extend that player during the season, or do you think that they would wait until the offseason and take their chances at that point?
A: Cornerbacks Fernando Bryant, Jason Webster and Lewis Sanders, safety/linebacker Tank Williams, linebacker Victor Hobson, running back LaMont Jordan and offensive tackle Oliver Ross all signed one-year deals as free agents, Joe. I wouldn't be surprised if the Patriots and one of those players reached some kind of extension before free agency begins next season, but that seems a long way away at this point.
Hi Mike, recently on NFL Total Access (NFL Network), Marshall Faulk was adamant the Patriots would suffer post Super Bowl-loss hangover. I don't get that sense from this team; they are too skilled and too disciplined. Am I just being a total homer?
A: I can see where Faulk is coming from. Six of the last seven Super Bowl losers didn't even make the playoffs the following year. Faulk also knows first-hand the sting of losing the Super Bowl and trying to come back the next year, which is something I personally can't speak to. All that being said, I've changed my tune on this one after watching the team practice. I thought this was a big storyline entering the season -- and I'm sure it will follow the Patriots -- but I don't see it any more. I buy Tedy Bruschi's line that the Patriots have buried the Super Bowl loss, just as they buried the three Super Bowl wins the following years. I remember veteran Anthony Pleasant saying something similar about his time with the club -- that what made it successful is that whether there was a win or a loss, the team looked at itself equally as critical and put the last game behind them. He explained that some NFL teams win, and because of the result, they sweep their problems under the rug. The Patriots are hard on themselves regardless and I don't expect their approach to change. So mark me down as an official flip-flopper on this topic. I thought it was big, but no longer do.
I would like your comments on an article written by Kerry Byrne of Cold Hard Football Facts -- picked up by Sports Illustrated -- where he writes about the Patriots' defense struggling in big games over the years. He cites the Super Bowl wins over the Rams, Panthers and Eagles. Also the AFC games against Steelers and Colts. Moreover he questions Belichick's messiah defensive reputation when he compares Belichick's record before Tom Brady -- 42 wins vs. 58 losses and after TB took over -- 100 wins vs. 27 losses. Can't dispute those facts can we?
A: I did not read the article, Kerry, but I did see a blog post from longtime NFL executive Mike Lombardi about it. Lombardi disagreed with the article.
I agree that a great quarterback can make a coach look very smart. In the case of Belichick, however, I think he's one of the best coaches in the game regardless. I thought the defensive game plan and performance against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI was one of the all-time greats.
What is your opinion of whether it will benefit or harm the Patriots if Brett Favre goes to the Jets?
A: Jason, I think it would help the Jets. They have Kellen Clemens and Chad Pennington, and I happen to like Pennington better. But I think if you add Favre to the mix, his ability to consistently execute more of the throws than Pennington can make him a more dangerous threat. I'm specifically thinking of the long ball to Laveranues Coles and Jericho Cotchery, two dangerous weapons.
Mike, how do compensatory picks get determined? The Patriots lost some big names (Asante Samuel, etc.) but signed a lot of people, too. Is it talent level, or numbers? Is it figured out after the season to determine impact of the player?
A: Compensatory draft choices are determined by a complicated formula M Bear, which factors in how many compensatory free agents a team signed against how many compensatory free agents that team lost. Salary and performance is also part of the equation. Thus, those are determined after the season.
Mike, would you please update the Pats training schedule. On your site it only goes to July 31. I'm interested in going Saturday. Thanks.
A: Joe, once there is an update, we will post it on Boston.com as quickly as possible. At this time, we have posted all the information that has been made available to the media.