A few leftovers from the weekly ESPNBoston.com Patriots mailbag:
From Chris (NYC): My question is about Dont'a Hightower's role going forward. Assuming that Brandon Spikes isn't back, Dont'a seems to naturally fit as a 4-3 Mike in the base (with Mayo at the Will and Collins as the Joker). But is using him as a 2-down run-stopper (when the defense is in sub 67 percent of the time) really the best use of his talents? To that end, there was talk around the draft about Dont'a potentially being able to work as a DE (maybe as sub for Ninko, or even as a long-term replacement). I also think that at 270 pounds, he could be used as a penetrating DT on obvious passing downs (the same way Chandler Jones is kicked inside on 3rd and long). I have to think that the team had bigger plans for DH this year, but were forced to use him at the Will once Mayo went down. Where are you at on Dont'a, Mike, and what do you think his future is here.
Chris, I could see Hightower playing the mike in the base defense but then expanding his role by staying on the field in sub in more of a pass-rushing role. I think that’s a good thought. I don’t think the Patriots traded up to the No. 25 spot in 2012 for a two-down run-stuffer and I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Hightower.
From Tim (Washington State): Hi Mike, one thing I must take issue with is your suggestion that the Patriots could not have foreseen how shorthanded they would be offensively this year. It was obvious to everyone that Danny Amendola had injury issues before the Patriots signed him, and lo and behold he suffered a serious injury early in the year that limited his effectiveness for the rest of the year. The knock on Rob Gronkowski coming out of college was his back injury; well in the off-season he had back problems as well as repeated forearm injury issues. And he has missed critical games in the past couple of years due to injury. So it should not come as a total shock that he did not finish the year. Long story short, some of the offense's struggles were pretty foreseeable this year. And I'm worried that they'll be setting up the same situation on the defensive side of the ball by bringing back Aqib Talib even though he always seems to miss critical games as well.
Tim, you’re right in the sense that some expressed concern about Amendola's ability to stay on the field when he was signed as a free agent over Wes Welker. But I think those same people were saying the same thing about Julian Edelman, who ended up playing all 16 games and catching 105 passes. Does that mean Edelman went from injury prone last year at this time to something altogether different? Labels are smashed and redefined every year, and other times they just stick. Gronkowski’s injury issues were also well documented in college; it also should be noted that he played in every game over his first two seasons in the NFL. Look at Welker himself -- he was particularly durable and consistent in his time with the Patriots but ran into injury problems this year. This stuff can be tough to project.
From Richard (Lancaster, Pa.): Everyone seems to be up at arms about surrounding Tom Brady with weapons, and the counter to that has been that they assumed they had Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski coming into the year. Is it then fair to counter that with asking how they could design an offense to rely so heavily on those two?
Yes, Richard, it is fair to ask that question. The key to me is consistency in the analysis. At the time of the extensions, the Patriots were widely praised for finally being proactive with contract extensions for their younger players. The picture changed quickly and in retrospect, the plan was a mistake. We all make them and that was a significant one by the team.