Center of attention
FOXBOROUGH - The signing of center Dan Koppen to a five-year contract extension was the big news surrounding the Patriots this week.
Looking back at the 2003 draft, and specifically the fifth round, Koppen certainly beat the odds. Koppen was the 164th pick that year, selected three spots ahead of wide receiver Doug Gabriel (167th, Raiders).
That got me thinking. What if Koppen and Gabriel had flip-flopped on draft day, with Gabriel going 164th to the Patriots, and Koppen at 167 to the Raiders? Would it have been Gabriel - who is now with the Patriots after a trade - in line for the big contract extension?
This is part of the equation that Koppen alluded to in some of his remarks after signing the extension. He said he appreciated the opportunity to play in New England, where he was fortunate to learn under Dante Scarnecchia and be in one offensive system over the last five years. Had he wound up in Oakland, for example, Koppen would be playing for his third head coach in five seasons. That could have stunted his progress and not put him in position for the big pay day.
I guess my thought is that sometimes a little luck plays into things, too. Players can't control who drafts them, but you just hope you wind up somewhere where you have a chance to succeed.
The other part of the equation, which can't be overlooked, is pure talent. And Koppen obviously has that, too. Looking back on the 2003 fifth-round, only a few other players stand out: Colts defensive end Robert Mathis, Chargers punter Mike Scifres and Giants guard David Diehl.
Looking ahead, the signing of Koppen could have a trickle-down effect on tight end Daniel Graham. With Koppen not a candidate to have the franchise tag placed on him after the season, Graham would be the likely candidate should the Patriots use the tag next offseason. The 2006 franchise tag for tight ends was $3.3 million and that should increase a bit in 2007. That's not a huge figure and if the Patriots decide Graham is too valuable to let go, they could apply the franchise tag on him.
On to some questions.
Do you think Dan Koppen will be around to see the end of his contract? Does he merit this contract? Secondly, do you think (or know) any of the ex-Patriots are second guessing their decision to leave? (Branch, Givens, Vinatieri, McGinest?)
Gary A Bray, Coleraine, Minn.
A: I see no reason why Koppen wouldn't be around until the end of it, although many NFL deals are restructured in the final years because there is usually some backloaded money. I do think Koppen deserved that contract, which in my opinion was the current market rate for starting centers and includes $12.5 million payable in the first three years. I think he is on the cusp of Pro Bowl status and his average-per-year salary in the five-year extension puts him in the top five among NFL centers. As for former Patriots regretting their decision to leave, I don't think any of them do. They made the decision for financial reasons, and the financial aspect of the deals haven't changed.
Any truth to the rumor that the Pats may have any interest in Randy Moss? Also, wouldn't it at least make sense to give Ricky Proehl a look, being that he's been a thorn in our side for years while with Carolina & St. Louis (remember the Super Bowls...).
Scott Bryant, Lakeland, Fla.
A: My feeling is that even if Moss was available at Tuesday's trade deadline, it would take a lot for the Patriots to make that move. In the end, I think the team would consider it too dangerous a move. As for Ricky Proehl, I've always been a fan. But the team has a similar player in Troy Brown and, if anything, needs a receiver who can play more on the outer edges of the field, not in the slot.
We are all aware of what Belichick thinks of distractions, and what he expects from players. I can't help but wonder if it's bothering him that Doug Gabriel of all people continues to fuel the Randy Moss speculations and openly lobbies for a Moss trade with the media. That can't be sitting well in the Patriots front office. Any insights?
A: I didn't view it as Gabriel lobbying for a trade. I viewed it as Gabriel honestly answering questions asked to him by us, the media. It wasn't like he was seeking out the media, pumping up Moss. I don't see Belichick having any problem with it.
Why all the discussions regarding the field conditions? Why doesn't the league just inspect it and dictate whether or not it needs replacing? Forget about seeding it. They can lay down new turf in a day or two, and it could have been done at the start of the two-week bye period.
Paul Reppucci, Andover
A: Howard Ulman of the Associated Press had a report over the weekend that included comments from Tim Davey, who works in the NFL's game operations department. In the AP report, Davey indicated that there had been discussions between the league and the Patriots and that the league expected the field to be up to NFL standards. As for laying down the turf at the snap of the fingers, it isn't that easy, because Gillette Stadium is a multi-purpose facility and there are other events taking place there, such as Revolution soccer, and filming for the movie "The Game Plan." Weather also becomes a factor at this time of year.
The most glaring weakness is the Pats' inability to stretch the field. Are Jackson and Gabriel not capable of doing so? And with all the talk of time being needed to develop a synergy between Brady and the new guys, how does Branch catch two TDs on Sunday? Is he not new to Hasselbeck?
A: My feeling is that Jackson and Gabriel will ultimately be capable of doing so, but since they haven't on a consistent basis with the Patriots, it remains a work in progress. As for the synergy, I don't think Deion Branch's two touchdowns on Sunday make it a moot point. Gabriel himself has already caught two touchdown passes. So I still believe there is something to developing synergy and immersing oneself into a team's offensive system. At the same time, let's not overlook talent and I don't think anyone is arguing that Branch isn't a superior player than any receiver currently on the Patriots' roster.
When Chad Jackson gets healthy, what type of impact do you think he will create for the Pats' passing attack?
Ken Deiss, Virginia Beach, Va.
A: As we move into the next phase of the NFL season, I'd expect Jackson's role in the offense to expand by the week. I think he's the fastest receiver on the roster, and the team needs that type of presence on the outer edges of the field. As long as his hamstring is healthy, Jackson should see more opportunities. He flashed glimpses of the type of impact he could have in the Jets' game.
While I don't think Ben Watson is having a bad year, I wouldn't exactly say he is having a great year either. I've heard for the past three years how this guy is a freak of nature that should be able to dominate his position with his physical abilities. The fact is that he's been sporadic at best. He's averaging 3 catches per game and no TDs. That is a far cry from dominating anything. Why isn't this guy more productive? Is he having problems getting open? I might seem tough on this guy, but he's been built up around here like he was the second coming of Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates. He's not even close in my opinion.
Henry Swift, Malden
A: I would agree that Watson isn't in the same category as Gonzalez or Gates. I'd also say Watson did get built up this offseason and I'm not sure it was all justifiable. I think part of the challenge has been that opponents are focusing on him a bit more, realizing that he is one of the Patriots' more dangerous weapons. At the same time, opponents surely do the same to Gonzalez and Gates and they still make plays. So I'd sum it up by saying I think Watson is a solid player, but not at that elite level right now.
As the season shapes up, I see the Patriots handling most teams in the league. I predicted a 14-2 record (especially with the weak schedule). However I'm concerned that, unlike in the past, the Patriots are not flexible enough to win late in the postseason because teams with good run defenses can shut them down (i.e. San Diego, Denver, Chicago). I think the former approach where the team was more predicated on passing than rushing (2 rings without a major running game) was the more effective approach. Relying too heavily on a power running game will take us far but will be stopped (see Pittsburgh '01, '04). In January, the best teams, other than Indianapolis & Cincinnati, will shut down the run and make us one-dimensional. Which leads me to think that the three tight end set and power running game approach is flawed. Your thoughts and/or predictions?
Tim Scott, Philadelphia, Penn.
A: I said 11-5 at the start of the season and I'm going to stick with that. I'm a believer that the teams with the best chance to win it all are those who can run the ball and stop the run when it counts, so I think the Patriots have a strong foundation to make a championship run. I think the team's passing offense will improve, but would agree that if it doesn't, this team is unlikely to win a championship.
Please compare and contrast year-to-date stats for Doug Gabriel vs. Deion Branch; Reche Caldwell vs. David Givens; and Stephen Gostowski vs Adam Vinatieri.
Bob Girard, Buzzards Bay
A: Gabriel has 12 catches for 129 yards and two touchdowns in four games, while Branch has 11 catches for 156 yards and two touchdowns in three games. Caldwell has 10 receptions for 118 yards (no touchdowns) in five games, while Givens has eight receptions for 104 yards (no touchdowns) in four games. Gostkowski is 5 of 8 on field goals (his kickoffs have been excellent) while Vinatieri is 7 of 7 on field goals (his role on kickoffs has been limited due to injury).
What happened to Nick Kaczur? Is this still a nagging shoulder injury? Is he going to go on IR?
A: Kaczur, a third-round pick in 2005, has been on the injury report with a shoulder injury. He played against the Bengals on Oct. 1 in a reserve role, and I saw him hobble off the field, so he might be battling two different ailments. I don't see him heading to injured reserve, because he provides the most security should left tackle Matt Light suffer an injury.
What is the story with Marquise Hill? Is he hurt or just a bust?
Mike Francour, Danbury, Conn.
A: Hill isn't hurt. A second-round pick in 2004, he has appeared in just nine career games. I view him as insurance on the defensive line should something happen to starters Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork and Richard Seymour, but my feeling is that he's probably best suited for a 4-3 defense, not a 3-4. I'd say it's disappointing that he hasn't done more at this point.
What's the story with Garrett Mills? There was a lot of head-scratching about why he was picked in the fourth round of the draft (after picking another tight end in David Thomas), and after he showed some brilliance in the preseason, it seems odd that he hasn't played once all season.
Samer Ismail, Danbury, Conn.
A: Mills is in a numbers crunch, as he's behind three tight ends in Daniel Graham, Benjamin Watson and David Thomas. His best chance of seeing the field was against Miami, when the Patriots were without Graham, but he was still inactive. At this point, Mills looks like a prospect who is likely to help the team more in 2007 than 2006.
I see Jabar Gaffney as having some real potential when reviewing his numbers at Houston, and then remembering Houston's dismal offense. What do you think of him? Also, I would think with a bye week, this should give him some extra time to learn the offense which has some similarities to Houston's, but what I want to see is, will this guy stay behind to study and work while the others go off for 4 days? I want to know his commitment.
Steve Haldeman, Westminster, VT
A: Gaffney said he did stay behind to learn the team's offense over the bye week and Bill Belichick said the bye week was the best time to try to integrate a new player into the mix. I think Gaffney is as good of a trading deadline type of acquisition - given the relatively cheap price - that the Patriots could find. I expect him to help the team, assuming he can pick up the offense.
With Patrick Pass ready to come off the PUP list, do you think the Pats will keep both he and Heath Evans? Do you think Pass will be converted into a "big" receiver if he isn't waived? I always considered Pass an underutilized RB and receiver as well as an underrated blocker especially on blitz pick-ups and blocks on the LB's for the RBs. And he's been a leading special teams player on both the defensive and offensive side of the ball. Evans has played well and is no slouch either.
Otis Hill, Boston
A: I definitely think the Patriots will keep Evans. He's been a valuable member of the team's 45-man game-day roster, able to perform a variety of roles (running back, fullback, tight end, special teams coverage etc.). As for Pass, I was a little surprised that Bill Belichick said on Monday the team wouldn't start the clock on his return this week. Pass can start practicing with the team this week, and can be activated within a three-week window of when he starts practicing. I think Pass will remain a running back.
With a week to go before the trade deadline, would the Pats take a look at their old pal David Patten? Seems like he's out of the 'Skins plans (healthy scratch last week).
Chris Till, New York, NY
A: I believe the Patriots would consider Patten, but I don't think the Redskins are making him available.
With all the cap space and depth issues in the secondary, I was a little disappointed that the Pats didn't make a run at signing Ahmad Carroll. Can you provide any insight on this?
Tony, New Milford, Conn.
A: I don't have any information specific to Carroll, but I think the Patriots are happy with their top defensive backs. So any player they would sign - whether it was Carroll (Jaguars) or someone like Troy Vincent (Bills) - would have to be a standout on special teams. I don't think either Carroll or Vincent fits that bill, which makes someone like safety James Sanders - who is excellent on special teams - more valuable to the Patriots.
Many times we hear/read about why one player is ahead of another because of special teams play. How can a Pats fan know who are the special teams starters and their back-ups for kickoffs and punts? Is there a stat kept on who enters the game for each kicking play?
Dave Almeida, Acton
A: There is no specific stat kept on who enters the game for each kicking play, although the league does keep "participation" stats to chart players that appear in at least one play. As for the special teams players, as an example, here is a list of players who were on kickoff coverage in the Patriots' 20-10 win over the Dolphins: Chidi Iwuoma, Chad Scott, Eric Alexander, James Sanders, Mike Wright, Larry Izzo, Don Davis, Tully Banta-Cain, Hank Poteat, Antwain Spann and Stephen Gostkowski. A player like Sanders is one good example of someone who has great special teams value, because he's on almost every coverage unit.
There are 7 teams giving up an average of less than 15 points a game. Is that an unusually high number?
Matt Kayhoe, Keene, NH
A: After Week 6 action, the Patriots are tied for sixth in the NFL for fewest points allowed (14.8). I would have expected there to be less than seven teams allowing less than 15 points per game. I believe there have already been six shutouts this season, and I think there were six all of last season.
What are the chances of the Bears vs. Patriots game on Sunday November 26th, being moved to the night time slot?
James T. Hall, Lebanon, NH
A: That will mark the third week of the NFL's new flex scheduling policy, where the league - with 12 days advance notice - can switch attractive games to the Sunday prime-time spot. If the Bears and Patriots continue on their current pace, I would assume that Fox - which has the right to that game - would elect to "protect" the broadcast. Fox and CBS, which are the rights holders to Sunday afternoon games, can "protect" five games over the seven-week flexible schedule.
I am sure you probably answered this question previously but what ended up being the difference between what the Chiefs offered Ty Law and what the Patriots ended up offering him? I understand with Ty it comes down to money but it seems so ridiculous to see him following Herm Edwards around the NFL. This guy is not a good coach and his stay in Kansas City will be a short one. Please tell me it was a considerable difference in money so I don't feel as bad watching Law waste his talent following a loser.
A: From what I understand, the Patriots made a two-year offer that could have been worth up to $11 million if all incentives were reached. The Chiefs' deal was a five-year, $31.5 million package that included $8 million in guarantees -- $5 million in 2006 and another $3 million in 2007. The guaranteed/bonus money was the big difference, as Law was going to get that money no matter what. I'm not sure what type of bonus/guaranteed money he would have received in New England, but I'm certain it was less than $8 million.