Camp's 'revolving door'
Training camp enters its eighth day and the Patriots have had 12 practices. If there is one defining theme of this camp, I'd say it's been "revolving door." Taking attendance of the players at each practice has been a chore, because of the high number of players being held back.
On Thursday morning, for example, there were 22 players on the roster who weren't present for practice. In the old days, I'd say this would hurt the Patriots. But since the team's offseason program is so extensive, training camp has become more of an extension of learning than a starting point for another season.
As always, plenty of questions being fired into the mailbag. Deion Branch, Rodney Harrison and the Martin Gramatica/Stephen Gostkowski kicking competition are a few of the prominent topics.
We'll check back in next week with another mailbag.
Don't you think the Patriots are playing hardball with Deion Branch? Given what he has done for the team to date, he has been very underpaid. I feel they need to take the initiative to re-do his contract giving him the $5-6 million per year he deserves. Otherwise, I feel he is going to play out the contract and leave for greener pastures. The Pats could have had Vinatieri and Givens signed up earlier for much less than they got on the open market. I hope we're not feeling the same way about them not signing Branch.
Brian C. Franklin
My feeling on the Branch situation hasn't changed. It takes two to get a deal done, and I thought the Patriots' first offer was a starting point to spark further talks, considering that the offer included $8 million in bonuses and would have averaged about $5 million over four years and $6 million-plus over the three-year extension. But it hasn't ignited more talks. I agree that given what Branch has done to date, he has been underpaid. And he's due for an increase, which the Patriots' obviously acknowledge by making an offer. At the same time, the fact Branch has been underpaid is the system in the NFL. I don't see 2004 second-round pick Marquise Hill, who has appeared in just nine games over the last two seasons, offering to return some of his salary despite a lack of production to date. In the end, I still think the deal will get done with Branch.
If Deion Branch does not play this year, will he still have to honor his contract next year?
Branch is a free-agent after the 2006 season, but he'll have to return this year by the 10th game to receive credit for this season, and thus qualify for free agency. However, the Patriots would have the option of placing the franchise tag on him.
Mike: Could you please explain exactly what is the "status" of Rodney Harrison? Is he running full speed and cutting? Has he hit anyone in ten months? And if he is running, are we talking 5.2 or 4.6 40's? Has anyone outside the organization seen this guy on the field? It seems to be pretty shrouded and I'm just wondering if you have any first-hand knowledge of the situation or is it a case of the press just getting a company line? At this point, I have to assume that he is nowhere close to playing.
Don Bilson, NY, NY
I thought it was telling that when some of the team's "day-to-day" players came onto the field Thursday for a walk-through portion of practice that Rodney Harrison wasn't there. Perhaps it's dangerous to read too much into that, but I interpreted that as him not as far as long physically as some other "day to day" players who were present, like center Dan Koppen, offensive lineman Nick Kaczur, defensive lineman Jarvis Green etc. I don't have an exact status to pass along. Harrison is at the stadium each day, rehabbing, and I'm told he feels great. I still wouldn't expect him on the field opening day. From the start, I felt an optimistic timeline would be a Tedy Bruschi-like situation from last year, where he could join the team after the sixth week of the season, at the earliest.
What's the story with Eugene Wilson playing corner? Does that mean Tebucky Jones is going to be getting a lot of time at safety? I've heard nothing about him in camp?
Greg, New York
Jones looks like the third or fourth option at safety right now, as Artrell Hawkins and James Sanders have taken the majority of reps with the first unit. With Hawkins out of practice on Thursday afternoon, Jones stepped in for him. To be honest, I haven't noticed Jones that much in this camp.
Who are the main contenders for punt and kick return duties? Any locks in that area, or is the battle wide open?
This is an area of the roster that doesn't get talked about a lot, but has been overhauled from 2005, with Bethel Johnson (kickoffs) and Tim Dwight (punts) now playing elsewhere. I wouldn't say there are any locks right now, but look for running backs Kevin Faulk and Laurence Maroney and defensive backs Willie Andrews and Ellis Hobbs to be the leading candidates on kickoffs. Receivers Bam Childress and Reche Caldwell have also worked there. On punt returns, I saw Faulk, Andrews, Caldwell, receiver Troy Brown and rookie free agent defensive back Vernell Brown receiving in a recent drill. I think the team would like to see Andrews emerge on punts, but knows it can count on players like Faulk and Brown if necessary.
Do you know if any of the players on the PUP were placed there for failing the conditioning run?
James Keddy, Kennebunk, Maine
Defensive lineman Johnathan Sullivan failed the conditioning run. The rest of the players on the physically unable to perform list are cornerback Randall Gay, running back/fullback Patrick Pass, safety Rodney Harrison, offensive lineman Nick Kaczur, center Dan Koppen and defensive lineman Richard Seymour, and all of those players are rehabilitating a physical setback.
I'm trying to be optimistic about the upcoming year but the numbers are just not adding up. The Patriots have way too much cap money for me to believe that they are putting the best team possible on the field. I know a chunk of that money will go to Branch assuming a deal gets done shortly but the offseason decisions to let quality players walk combined with the lack of bringing in any big names is concerning. The Pats have won so many close games in the past three years yet they are gambling on one kicker who hasn't played in the NFL in over a year and another kicker who hasn't kicked a single NFL field goal. The defensive backfield is questionable at best with no veteran leadership. I like Samuel and I expect him to be even better this year but he hardly strikes fear into any wide receiver in the league. I'm willing to see how this wide receiver crew for the Pats turns out but unless Branch returns quickly this unit is extremely thin. I keep hearing how Jackson could be a steal but to me if they are expecting a lot from a rookie they are kidding themselves. I have no problem with trading Bethel Johnson for Jonathan Sullivan. Like any other Patriots fan, I really have no right questioning Belichick and Co. when it comes to putting a competitive team on the field. But I'm going to anyway. I just see too many questions marks this year and yet a pile of cap money that is just collecting interest.
KC, New Jersey
All valid points, KC, and there is no reason why you can't question Belichick and Co. They aren't perfect, and they acknowledge that. I thought the Vinatieri decision was a mistake, going back a year or two. I would have locked him up long-term, assuming there was a two-way dialogue and he was truly interested in staying here. In retrospect, the team could have also been more proactive to lock up David Givens a few years ago, and I'm sure that's one decision they'd like to have back after seeing him blossom. In turn, I don't necessarily think the lack of a big-name free agent signing this offseason is that bad of a thing. Big names don't always get it done. The defensive backfield might be better than you think, and if Wilson stays at corner, I think that solidifies that spot. I also believe James Sanders, a second-year safety, is ready to emerge. All in all, I think the team has taken some hits this offseason and the potentially tenuous situation at inside linebacker should have any Patriots fan concerned. But this team is still a contender.
I just checked out Gostkowski´s stats last year in Memphis, where he connected on 23 of 24 field goal attempts as well as connecting on all of his extra point attempts. He also had a long field goal from 53 yards out and once connected on four field goals in a game. He had over 100 points for the season in what is a much shorter season than the 16 games in the NFL. OK, game pressure may be harder in the NFL, but the kid has been dealing with pressure for four years of college and probably the same pressure in high school. So why is everyone so worried? It seems to me that the Patriots made a solid pick that could give them another 10 years of fantastic kicking.
Jeffrey Delannoy, Osnabrück, Germany
Gostkowski has a powerful leg, but until you've kicked in the NFL, there is an element of the unknown that is difficult for anyone to project. That's why the Patriots also have veteran Martin Gramatica in camp to compete for the job. If the team knew that Gostkowski was going to give it a solid 10 years of fantastic kicking, it wouldn't currently be staging the open competition. Gostkowski has the potential and powerful leg and Gramatica the been-there, done-that.
Hi Mike, do you think the Patriots will give Gramatica a fair chance to win the job? Let's say Gramatica proves himself to be a better kicker than Gostkowski, then what? Is it even possible for a team to carry two placekickers? If not, the Patriots can't cut Gostkowski. It would be a waste of a fourth-round choice. So the Patriots are essentially forced to hand the job to Gostkowski. What are your thoughts? Also, what do you think was a bigger factor in Vinatieri's departure: the Patriots not offering him enough money or Vinatieri wanting to finish his career kicking indoors?
Tuan Nguyen, Boston
I'd say Gramatica has the odds stacked against him, because of exactly what you said - the Patriots probably want Gostkowski to win the job because they invested a fourth-round choice to select him. Patriots coach Bill Belichick doesn't want to keep two kickers on the roster, but would if necessary. By keeping just two quarterbacks, that could allow the team to add the extra kicker. I see Gostkowski as a lock to either make the team or find his way on a reserve list of some sort that allows the team to keep his rights. As for Vinatieri, I'd say the combination of money and kicking in a dome was the biggest factor.
Mike -- I was curious on your take on: 1) The release of Ryan Claridge; 2) Chad Brown at OLB; 3) Eugene Wilson at CB.
Name Burkie, Miami
Claridge's time here remains a bit of a mystery. In the end, it looks like it was a missed player evaluation by the scouting staff. Chad Brown has been the fourth option at outside linebacker right now, although he hurt his left hand in Thursday afternoon's practice, which could affect his future availability. While I initially felt he wouldn't stick on the roster, the lack of depth at linebacker might give him a chance to stay in a rush-specialist role. I like the idea of having Wilson at cornerback, assuming Artrell Hawkins, who is considered a bit undersized at safety, can hold up for a 16-game season.
I like what I see looking at the Pats schedule. Compared to the last couple seasons, this is a relative cakewalk. I wouldn't mind the bye a few weeks later, and the last two games on the road could be tough, but other than those concerns, I think we are looking at a couple more wins just based on ease of schedule. What do you think?
Jim Kilroy, Salisbury
Greetings up in Salisbury, Jim, where I was a big fan of Mr. Mike's fried dough back in the day. I'm a big believer that the NFL is all about the schedule -- who you play, when you play them, and how the teams match up. This appears to be a nice schedule for the Patriots, no doubt.
Opinion Do you think receiver Ricky Proehl could be a good fit for the Pats? He's certainly had New England's number in Super Bowls 36 and 38.
Paul Langelier, Orleans, Ontario
I've always been a big fan of Proehl, although I see him in the same type of role as Troy Brown. You probably wouldn't want Brown and Proehl on the field together. Also, it looks like Proehl's agent is part of the same group that represents Deion Branch, and I wonder how that might affect his chances of landing here. In theory, it shouldn't.
Opinion What do players do between double-session practice days? Do they have meetings and lift or are they free to do what they want?
John, Eliot, Maine
Players have a full schedule at Gillette Stadium, whether it's a double-session day or a single-session day. Bill Belichick explained the routine this way: "Get up. Practice. Eat. Meet. Practice. Meet. Eat. Sleep. And start all over again."
Can defensive coordinator Dean Pees get the team past Eric Mangini's approach of last season's first eight games fiasco and implement what Richard Seymour advised, that of attacking the ball? I hope that the Pats can adopt that philosophy on defense.
In looking back, a few players have spoken about how vanilla the team's defensive game plans were early last year, mainly because of new personnel and injuries on defense. The change late in the season wasn't necessarily a philosophy shift, but simply having the same players in place and being able to expand the repertoire a bit. I wouldn't expect that to change this year.
We were at the Saturday morning training camp and were wondering who the player was wearing No. 1. He was not on the roster. We were watching his drills and are wondering if he'll make the team. (We weren't impressed.)
No. 1 is receiver Keron Henry, who played at the University of Connecticut. He's a longshot to make the roster.
I enjoy your updates, it's almost like being there but with air conditioning. Any diagnosis on Raymond Ventrone? Good kid, saw him play at Villanova.
Barry Robertson, Danvers
Appreciate you checking out the updates, Barry. Ventrone had shoulder surgery after playing in NFL Europe and probably won't be on the field in training camp. He might have a chance to stick around, rehab, and vie for a spot next year (or, perhaps, later this season).
Hey Reiss, whatever happened to Rohan Davey? He seemed to be a decent backup and had a stellar year in Europe a few years back. What's the verdict on him? Is he out of the league?
Mike, Whittier, Calif.
Davey is currently with the Arizona Cardinals, vying for a backup spot behind Kurt Warner, first-round draft choice Matt Leinart (a holdout) and John Navarre.