Early camp observations
Patriots second-rounders look good, offense impressive, linebacker a concern
Training camp is in full swing, and with that comes a new batch of story lines.
The main topics that e-mailers identified this week are:
- Free-agent possibilities to bolster the defense
- The surprising emergence of rookie Sebastian Vollmer
- Concern at linebacker
- Support for BenJarvus Green-Ellis
If I had to sum up my feelings through five days of training camp, I think the Patriots potential for offensive explosion is impressive. I think the tight ends, and their versatility and diversity of skills, is one of the undersold stories of camp so far. I think they will add a lot to this offense, starting with Chris Baker.
On the flip side, the depth at linebacker has to be a concern. Im curious to see how Bill Belichick and Co. address that area, because Id be surprised if there werent changes before the season.
Its early, but one final thought is that Ive got to hand it to the Patriots for their draft maneuverings.
A few months ago, I raised the point that perhaps they missed an opportunity to trade up the board -- with all their ammunition -- and land an impact player like Malcolm Jenkins (No. 14, Saints). Instead, they traded back and accumulated four second-round picks.
When I watch practices, it seems to me that theyve hit on all four second-rounders.
I am impressed with how safety Patrick Chung practices, defensive lineman Ron Brace looks NFL-ready, cornerback Darius Butler is an athlete and often around the ball, and Vollmer is a find.
Surely, its early to make a clear-cut determination. They havent even played a game.
But the early signs are solid.
When I think of what the Patriots did, while also adding more second-round picks next year and reducing their economic risk by getting out of the first round, its a reflection of a well-run organization.
Now, on to the questions . . .
Since the Patriots are interested in Kevin Carter, do you think
that means Ty Warren's injury recovery is behind schedule? Or do you think
BB is preparing to use the 4-3 more often than expected, with Carter at
defensive end simply because we might be too thin at linebacker to run a
3-4 throughout the entire season? Any surprises in training camp so far --
positive or negative?
Juan, Cicero, Ill.
A: Juan, when I heard the news about Carter being scheduled to come in for a visit, the thought that Warrens recovery is behind schedule crossed my mind. So, too, did the idea that perhaps the Patriots would be shifting to more of a 4-3 based on the personnel they have on the roster. But at this point, I dont have any concrete information to confirm either of those thoughts. As for surprises in camp, I think Sebastian Vollmer would be one. I wrote at the draft that I thought hed learn behind the scenes before emerging in 2010, but I think the early signs show that he can be the teams swing tackle.
Mike, I found it very interesting that Sebastian Vollmer is
doing quite well for a rookie in the first days of camp. That doesn't mean
we should be preparing his Hall of Fame bust just yet, but it shines a
light on how people outside of NFL organizations who scout and evaluate
talent for the draft should be looked upon as somewhat informative and
entertaining, but not considered a complete personnel expert. Coach
Belichick's comments on how rare it is to find a true "swing" tackle shows
how the Kipers, Mayocks, and McShays of the world are so far behind the
true talent evaluators on NFL teams. Vollmer was considered a "reach" by
all experts on draft day, so too by the way was Logan Mankins. Although I
love that Kiper, McShay and Mayock exist, I have learned that their
evaluations are not to be taken at face value, as each team's needs and how
they'd use and develop a player are more important than a numeric grade.
A: I think this is fair, Kevin. I think those draft analysts do great work, but like the teams themselves, they can make mistakes too. In Vollmers situation, he wasnt even invited to the combine, so it was the respected National Scouting Service, which runs the combine, that began shaping the perception of Vollmer as more of a late-round/free-agent type. I think its a credit to the Patriots scouting and coaching that they looked through their own prism and made their own determination on Vollmer. When I watch Vollmer, I see someone who moves his feet well, while playing with power and leverage.
Mike, with the recent release of Vince Redd, can you give us a
depth breakdown of both the inside and outside linebackers? I've looked at
photos and some clips from practice and it seems Bruschi looks smaller this
year. Have you noticed this? Has Paris Lenon been lining up in Bruschi's or
Mayo's when taking reps at practice? It just seems very thin at both spots.
A: Pete, Id break down the OLBs this way: Thomas, Woods, Banta-Cain, Alexander, Ninkovich, Crable (PUP). The ILBs go this way: Mayo, Bruschi, Guyton, Lenon, Alexander. I believe Ive seen Lenon at the weakside ILB spot and it looks to me like its been an adjustment for him coming to this system, as expected. Its too early to write him off, but at this point, I havent seen much that would lead me to say hes a lock for a roster spot. Id agree with the assessment of it being thin. My hunch is that there will be at least one addition at the position before the season begins.
Hi Mike, I was wondering if you could break down the position
battles at linebacker; who seems to be Vrabel's replacement? What is going
on with Springs? How does the safety play look? I know that you were going
to look at a few players like Green and McGowan -- how are they playing?
What do you think about the TE competition?
A: Kim, Id say that Pierre Woods has stepped away from the pack as Vrabels replacement at this point. Overall, I think the linebacker crop is a bit light right now and would be the top area to address from a roster perspective. Springs has been on and off the field, but when hes practicing, you can see why hes been in the league 13 years. The safety play has been good it looks to me like Brandon Meriweather is ready to take the next step. With Green, I see a player with an extra bounce in his step, although McGowan has not stood out to me (he doesnt run particularly well and seems a bit stiff as a tackler). At tight end, Baker is the best of the bunch.
Mike, you mentioned that with the release of Vince Redd, the
Patriots might be considering trade possibilities at the OLB position. Do
you have any sense for what team could be a potential trade partner and
what the Pats might be willing to give up in return (i.e. would we likely
trade a draft pick or is there an area on the roster with enough depth that
someone on the current roster could be traded away)?
A: Rob, I think it starts with the Raiders and Derrick Burgess. While I dont think Burgess would come in and start at outside linebacker, hed be a nice complement to Pierre Woods and provide another option at the position. Soon-to-be ESPN reporter Adam Schefter tweeted that the Raiders are looking for third- and fourth-round draft choices. I think the Patriots would pull the trigger tomorrow if it was just a fourth. Other than the Raiders and Burgess, I dont see many clear-cut possibilities at this point, especially with more teams running a variation of the 3-4 and in search of more juice in the pass rush. If the Patriots decide that Burgess is the guy they have to have, they could get creative and trade a player on the roster, which leads to our next question . . .
Mike, with Ben Watson not practicing (and, in my opinion, being
a bit inconsistent over the last two years), is there any chance that the
Pats might consider trading him and keeping Chris Baker, Dave Thomas and
Alex Smith as the team's tight ends? Would the Raiders consider a package
deal of Watson for Derrick Burgess and maybe a low draft
A: Peter, I think the Patriots would consider trading Watson if it meant Burgess was part of a return package. I dont think that type of trade would result in another draft pick coming back to them, though. As for the Raiders, they have Zach Miller, Tony Stewart, John Paul Foschi, Darrell Strong and Brandon Myers at tight end, and I think a Miller/Watson combination would make them better. Turning this back to the Patriots, I could see them keeping four tight ends coming out camp, as Thomas has caught my eye a few times with his strong play to this point.
Mike, from what you've seen, has Brady been participating in all
the workouts or are there some drills he's been kept out of? Also, I was
looking at the Pats' 50th anniversary and all-decade teams on their website
and think they're very well constructed. Who decided on them?
A: Brady has participated in all the workouts and drills, Jason. My feeling on Brady is that he is still getting comfortable with the knee. This might be over-analyzing and nitpicking, but Ive noticed a few times where the pressure was coming and I thought he looked down instead of keeping his eyes down the field. That seems normal to me, and what one would expect for someone coming back from a serious knee injury. Overall, though, Brady looks like the same special quarterback hes always been. He is one of the reasons I enjoy watching practice seeing his leadership, the way he conducts himself, and the way he plays the game and approaches his craft is a treat. As for the 50th anniversary team, it was decided by a Hall of Fame committee that included players, media members, Patriots employees, etc.
Hey Mike, the Patriots often have an undrafted rookie free agent
making the team out of training camp. Four of them (Gay, Wright, Woods and
Guyton) have gone on to play important roles on the defense. I imagine that
with more draft picks then usual, this might be the year that the streak
ends. Has the play of any rookie FA stood out to you thus far? Could one of
them make a surprise push to earn a roster spot?
A: Dave, I do think this is the year that the streak ends. I dont see a rookie free agent making this club, unless an unexpected injury occurs and it alters the equation. Ryan Wendell (offensive line) and Tyson DeVree (tight end) are former rookie free agents who have had a year in the system who are potential sleeper types, but I still think they would be on the outside looking in if the season started today.
With the exit of Heath Evans to the New Orleans Saints, who
projects to be the lead fullback for the Patriots? The Patriots really
don't use the position that much other then blocking, that being said, Russ
Hochstein filled in very nicely the past two seasons as a pure power
Craig D., Melrose
A: Craig, I think well see the tight ends back there at times this year, but as you point out the Patriots arent a big two-back team. They can use Hochstein in short-yardage situations, and then mix and match with the tight ends. I think David Thomas is having a nice camp and we could see him in that role. Another e-mailer asked if Thomass penalty against the Colts might cost him, but I think he has a clean slate and looks like hes making the most of it.
Mike, when we acquire a new rookie or free-agent veteran, you
always hear people talk about how he "already sounds like a Patriot," in
terms of how he speaks to reporters. Do the Patriots have an established
system in place to get their players ready for press conferences, or is it
something learned from Pats veterans in the locker room?
Hans G., Los Angeles
A: Hans, I believe youre talking about what one reader calls the Beli-chip a fictional device that winds up in the helmet of players and helps them answer questions. I think the Patriots do have a system in place to get their players ready for interviews, and it starts with Bill Belichick reminding them what is acceptable and what isnt and following through on it after the fact.
Mike, do you think that Belichick will take into account which
long snapper Stephen Gostkowski and Chris Hanson like better when making
his decision on which one to keep?
A: I do think he will solicit their opinion, Shane, but that would only be part of the decision-making process. At this point, it looks to me like Nathan Hodel has edged ahead. A big part in assessing the snappers is timing. On punts, the goal is to complete the snap-to-punt process in 2.1 seconds, so the snap should be delivered in .75 seconds or less. On field goals, its 1.35. Accuracy of the snap is important too. If the season started today, I think its Hodel.
Mike, do you think Laurence Maroney would do any better if he
was the sole starting-caliber RB on the roster? Maybe that would make him
feel like he has to step up and produce rather than always being able to
fall back on the other RBs. I ask because I remember him producing after
Sammy Morris went down in 2007.
A: I think with some backs, the idea that they are consistently fed the ball makes them stronger. Perhaps thats the case with Maroney, but my feeling is that his situation is more health-related than anything. He just needs to make it through a season injury-free. To this point, I think the Patriots running back situation and the depth they have -- is going to aid him more than hurt him. Its sort of like a boxer who mixes a hook, uppercut and jab the Patriots have backs who have are all explosive in different ways, and they hit you with their own style. Maroney looks like hes running hard through five days of training camp. I think hell also be a difference-maker on kickoff returns.
Mike, assuming we only keep 4 running backs, my top 2 picks are
Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. BJGE ran hard last year, is young and
injury-free. I'd give Maroney another year and also look to him as a Faulk
replacement. I see Taylor and Morris battling for the 4th spot. I'm very
concerned with Taylor's age and past injuries. I don't think picking up
older running back has worked out for the team. Dillon gave us one good
year and took it easy once he signed the new contract. Your
A: Patrick, I think the running backs tie in with the tight ends. If the Patriots keep four tight ends, which is possible based on their versatility and what they add to the offense in terms of flexibility, I think they only keep four backs. And right now, I think that Green-Ellis would be the odd back out in that scenario. But these things have a way of working themselves out, whether its because of an injury or something else. Lets see how it plays out in the preseason, because I think youve hit on something if they dont keep five backs, what does that mean for Green-Ellis?
Mike, am I the only one who thinks we'd be silly to let
BenJarvus Green-Ellis go by only keeping four backs? He's young, tough, and
came off the bench last year and did great - he could be a force for us for
years to come. But he keeps being "on the bubble" in projections. Am I
over-reacting to his performance last year?
A: I dont think you are alone, Leigh, and its a good topic that reflects the strong 1-5 depth the Patriots have at running back. I still put Green-Ellis on the bubble as I dont see him as explosive as the other backs. His special teams value will probably be a big factor in whether he earns a roster spot because if youre the fifth back, there needs to be some added value elsewhere.
Terrence Wheatley (2dd round) was drafted ahead of Jonathan
Wilhite (4th round) last year, yet it was Wilhite filling in for Springs at
the first practice rather than Wheatley. What's your take on
A: Walter, I think its a reflection that draft status means little to the Patriots. Its about production and Wilhite has obviously made more of it to this point. However, Wilhite has missed a string of practices since that point, and I will be interested to see how that affects his place on the depth chart when he returns.
Hi Mike, if the NFL goes into an uncapped year next year, how
much do you think Bob Kraft would open his wallet to sign players? Can he
then pay players what they/he wants to? What are the rules if
A: Brian, I dont see the Patriots approach changing in an uncapped year. I think theyll still search for that often-discussed value, although perhaps in the case of one or two players, we might see the team extend more than they would normally have. The general perception is that in an uncapped year, teams will open the vault and spend, spend, spend, but I dont think that is accurate. In terms of the rules, there are quite a few, such as teams getting the use of another tag on players, or players needing six seasons for unrestricted free agency. I think it would be an unfortunate change for the game if it came to that.
Hey Mike, did the workout with Stryker Sulak take place as
scheduled last Tuesday? Any feedback you can share?
A: Yes, that workout took place, Lex, and it looks to me like the team decided on Rob Ninkovich instead.
When a released player is picked up by another team (like
Antwain Spann getting picked up by the Bills), is that player expected to
give the new team information about his old team's playbook? It seems like
a player desperate for a job might be willing to give up information to
keep his new employers happy.
A: Ben, I dont think so in this case because its so early in the camp process. If that Spann-to-Bills move happened at the end of camp, I think the Bills coaches might ask Anything we should be aware of that would be out of the norm? But the truth is that a player like Spann would only be talking through a very specific viewpoint, and I think the value of that information would be minimal.
Just curious, what do players eat between practices? Do the Pats
feed the players or do they send out for pizza? How much do the linemen
eat? What drinks are served? Is all of this a Pats trade
Gary, Boone, N.C.
A: When a question like this is asked, I always think of Rodney Harrison, because he once explained to me that the Patriots treat the players really well in this regard. He would often praise Robert Kraft for his commitment in doing so having three meals a day at the stadium through the teams catering staff. In terms of how much the linemen eat, Im not sure on that one. But I do know that the menu is varied and the Patriots try to accommodate different players tastes because every locker room has players from diverse backgrounds.