A depth charge
FOXBOROUGH Depth is a big concern among several e-mailers who checked in with the Patriots mailbag this week.
Much of the discussion focuses on the inside linebacker spot. Fans are curious if there are any free-agent possibilities to help fill the void. Other fans are curious about a possible trade for Chargers inside linebacker Donnie Edwards, and at this point, nothing is imminent.
As has been the case recently, there are also a few questions about holdout receiver Deion Branch.
From this point on, were going to make Tuesday the day for our weekly Patriots mailbag. On to the questions.
The Pats are thin at linebacker, defensive back and wide receiver. They are playing games with Branch. They are still way under the salary cap. So why doesn't the supposedly best management team in football acquire the talent it needs? They have the dough to spend.
Hal Sletzinger, Medford
A: There is no use spending the money if it's not spent wisely, and it's not like there is All-Pro talent available at this point. I think the team views its current cap space as an asset, allowing it flexibility to do different things within the calendar year. There is no urgency to use it now, although it's a guarantee that the space won't be there by the end of the season. Richard Seymour's $6.6 million option bonus could potentially be turned into a roster bonus and eat up some of that space. An extension for Deion Branch would also take up some space. And that's not to mention the possibility of other extensions for players such as center Dan Koppen, tight end Daniel Graham and cornerback Asante Samuel, all of whom are in the final years of their contracts. You also want to leave some space for emergency use during the season.
I think there are a lot of question marks with the 2006 Pats. I'm not sold on Ben Watson yet. At this point, I like Daniel Graham better, and I've got a really good feeling about the rookie TE David Thomas. I think he will end up being a stud. The young guys at safety like James Sanders and Guss Scott need to step up right now. Can Randall Gay stay on the field and play corner? Will Rodney Harrison make it back? Will there be enough depth at linebacker? Who knows what will happen at WR? Can either Johnathan Sullivan or Marquise Hill contribute on the line? I worry that the Pats sat on their hands this offseason when should have been more active building depth.
Ron Freeman, Buellton, CA
A: On the plus side of the ledger, I especially like the depth the Patriots have at defensive line, offensive line, tight end and running back. On the flip side, I'd say the team is especially thin at inside linebacker, outside linebacker and receiver. Overall, my in-a-nutshell feeling on the Patriots' recent player acquisitions is that they prioritized and decided that quarterback Tom Brady and defensive lineman Richard Seymour were the key players to retain. They paid elite prices for those players, and in doing so, hit the bulls-eye. Yet in aiming for that bulls-eye, they couldn't possibly throw darts at every other area on the board and thus lost some key players (McGinest, Givens etc.). So now the team has to develop the depth around those two cornerstones with some younger or unproven players.
How's inside linebacker Freddie Roach doing?
A: Roach, a rookie free agent out of Alabama, has seen his practice time increase in recent days due to Tedy Bruschi's wrist injury. He made one noticeable play in the Laurence Maroney out of the end zone. Otherwise, I haven't noticed him much, a first stretch of camp, a goal-line pop on a running play that kept though I expect to see a lot of him in Friday's preseason opener at Atlanta.
How surprised were you to see Rodney Harrison back on the practice field after the injury he sustained? At 33 and the point he's at in his career that is a very bad injury to come back from. And is there any word on Deion Branch?
Anthony Powell, Boynton Beach, Florida
A: I was quite surprised about Harrison. In last week's mailbag, I wrote that I didn't expect Harrison back until the seventh game of the season, sort of like Tedy Bruschi's situation last year. As for the Branch situation, I'm not aware if anything has changed from late last week, when the sides still weren't talking.
If it gets to the point where Deion Branch is still holding out and the season is about to start, would the Pats consider trading him for a high draft pick? This could also be used as leverage for the Pats. If the Pats would only get a second or third round pick for him, they can use that in negotiations with Branch that he is not one of the top receivers in the league, so he shouldn't be paid like them. I think he is still one of the most important pieces to the Super Bowl puzzle, but if he won't start the season and Caldwell continues to improve, I would rather get something for him instead of letting him walk. I know some team out there would pay him.
Dan Sullivan, Andover
A: It's an interesting scenario, Dan, but I just don't see it playing it out this way. The main reason is that it sets a bad precedent for the team's management that if a player holds out and doesn't get what he wants financially, he ultimately gets a ticket out of town. Knowing this Patriots regime from covering the team the last few years, my feeling is that they'll put their head down and go with the players they have, while continuing to try to work toward a deal with Branch. In the end, my belief is that the team really wants to keep Branch, and is willing to pay to a certain point. The problem, of course, is that as of late last week the talks hadn't reached a level where that certain point had been identified.
Two questions: (1) I was up Gillette Stadium right before training camp and noticed the practice fields are only 90 yards long. Why? (2) I've been following the Deion Branch saga and based on what has been written it all sounds like children arguing on both sides. Deion's side doesn't like the Pats offer so they're not talking. The Pats don't like Deion not being in camp so they aren't budging. If the Pats want Deion and Deion wants to be a Patriot, why not get over the mind games and just sit down and hash it out?
Kevin Leary, Middletown, DE
A: On the practice field, it is simply due to space. As you probably noticed, there is a hill on one side and you need enough space behind the end zone for the safety of the players. As for the Patriots-Branch negotiations, you hit on a point that can often be overlooked: it always takes two to get it done. Sometimes, the team can be the aggressor and be stymied by the demands of the player's side. Other times, the player's side can be the aggressor and be stymied by a lack of interest from the team. Those deals that get done are usually because both sides concedes a bit. I think that can happen with the Patriots and Branch, because I believe the Patriots want Branch and are willing to pay to a certain point, and I think Branch is willing to stay here if the price is right. But the sides need to start talking again to get the process moving in that direction, which means one side will need to take the first step.
Reiss, I am a longtime Patriots fan, now living in South Florida. It baffles me that the Pats picked two tight ends that seem to be at best fringe players. The national publications are saying that neither Mills nor Thomas has the physical skills necessary to compete in the NFL. The Pats are thin at linebacker and in the defensive backfield. There were a few still good players on the board at the time of the drafting of these two players that I feel were not needed. The Boston reporters in some columns are also saying these two guys don't look that great. I feel the Pats don't have enough this year to win it all, and this draft from the third round on will not be a good one, because of the two tight ends drafted so high.
A: Hey Jeff, I have been to the team's first 14 practices of training camp and I would say that third-rounder David Thomas has been the offensive ironman of the club. He's participated in every practice, taking advantage of the absence of some of the other tight ends. His hands have been solid, although the blocking part of the game has been a challenge to him. Fourth-rounder Garrett Mills hasn't practiced yet. I agree that the Patriots are thin at linebacker, but I can't say with certainty that there was a linebacker who would have helped them more than either Thomas or Mills. Both players should be weapons that the offense can utilize - Thomas as more of an on-the-line tight end and Mills in more of a Larry Centers-type role in which he's used a lot in motion.
Injuries and retirement destroyed the inside linebacker position for the Patriots early in the year last year. Nothing of substance was done during the draft this year to fix that. Now injuries have affected the projected starters again. Can Barry Gardner really do the job inside?
A: I don't think the Patriots will play a full 16-game schedule with Gardner as a starting inside linebacker. If they do, I'd say they are in a shaky situation. As for rookies who would project to inside linebackers in the Patriots' system, there were three (Demeco Ryans, D'Quell Jackson and Rocky McIntosh) selected between the Patriots' first- and second-round picks, so the question is "Would you rather have Laurence Maroney or one of those players?" There were five inside linebackers (Thomas Howard, Abdul Hodge, Anthony Schlegel, Jon Alston and Clint Ingram) selected between the team's second-round pick and third-rounder. So the question is "Would you rather have Chad Jackson or one of those players?" Then there were three inside linebackers (James Anderson, Freddie Keiaho, Gerris Wilkinson) selected between the team's third- and fourth-round picks. So the question is "Would you rather have tight end David Thomas or one of those players?" And there were two inside linebackers (Leon Williams, Stephen Tulloch) selected between the team's fourth-round picks, so the question is "Would you rather have one of those players or tight end Garrett Mills?" At this point, I find it hard to fault the team's decision making in each case. I think Hodge would have been the best fit, but the Patriots didn't have the picks to select him. They obviously felt that Jackson was a greater need and traded an additional pick to select him.
The Bills just released Jeff Posey, an eight-year veteran at linebacker. Might there be interest here with Tedy Bruschi hurt? We sure could use some experience to either step in and start or for when somebody goes down. Any thoughts?
Jim C., Seminole, FL
A: Posey's agent, Tony Agnone, said on Monday afternoon that he hadn't heard from the Patriots. Another emailer, Jay from Bedford, NH., asked about Posey as well. At this point, Posey will likely be playing for a veteran minimum salary. I wouldn't expect any type of bidding war for his services.
The Patriots are already facing a large number of injuries - a problem that has dogged them the past two seasons. Is there any discussion in the NFL of implementing a disabled-list system similar to Major League Baseball, where a player can transition from the active roster to an injury roster, and then return a specific number of weeks later? The all-or-nothing injured reserve system doesn't address the majority of injuries in the NFL.
Steve Haggett, Winchester
A: I'm not aware of any discussion, although I remember speaking with a few NFL folks who talked about the old days when teams could do this. The problem, it later turned out, was that teams were stashing players on injured reserve when they weren't really injured. So while I think a change toward a disabled-list system in baseball could help teams in some ways, it also opens up another set of issues.
What's the deal with Ryan Claridge being released? With the lack of depth at linebacker, and all of the talk last year that he might end up being a sleeper of a draft pick, I was surprised to see him released. Was he a problem child, or did he just not have the talent to compete?
S. Repucci, Andover
A: Claridge wasn't a "problem child". In the end, I think he lacked the skills to play here. His situation looks like a missed player evaluation by the scouting staff.
Can you give us die hard fans a breakdown on the financial aspects of the players during the training camp and pre-season time? Thanks.
Donald Christy, Ayer
A: We've had this question in a prior mailbag. Players don't earn their salaries until the regular season starts. According to the league's old collective bargaining agreement, in 2006, rookies would make $775 per week and veterans would make $1,100 per week. That commences with the first day of training camp up to one week prior to the first regular-season game. Veterans would earn $200 additionally in weeks in which their teams played preseason games. I'm not sure if those numbers have increased with the new collective bargaining agreement.