Mailbag: Optimism turns to pessimism?

After two weeks of optimism regarding the New England Patriots, e-mailers were more critical this week after the team's surprising 36-35 loss to the St. Louis Rams.

So one question is what this all means for the team: Should expectations be adjusted?

Other topics in the mailbag include:

1. Injured players and their status, such as receiver Julian Edelman and outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham.

2. Getting excited about rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski.

3. Looking ahead to the 2011 draft and what the Patriots might do with their top picks.

4. Stephen Gostkowski's contract extension as it relates to Logan Mankins.

Q: Hi Mike, I know preseason is just, well, preseason. But that game against the mighty St. Louis Rams was a debacle for this rebuilt defense. It was the sort of pitiful performance that would hurt the confidence of any unit. So I'll put you on the spot: Did that game change your mind about this team and this season? Tell us, how many games will the Pats win this year? -- ProfMark (Champaign, Ill.)

A: My opinion has not changed about the Patriots based on the loss to the Rams, mainly because it's dangerous to read too much into one preseason game. I think the 2008 Lions are a good example; they were 4-0 in the preseason, 0-16 in the regular season. When the schedule came out, I picked the Patriots to go 11-5. I'm sticking with that. My general thoughts are that I think the offense will be very potent, while the defense still remains a question mark.

Q: Mike, I know the preseason is a time for experimentation and growth, but both the Jets and Dolphins have been struggling. The Jets starting offense has looked pathetic for the most part, and the Dolphins seem to be a well-rounded mess. Is the gap in the AFC East a little wider than the media has claimed? -- Jason (Denver)

A: Jason, I still see it as a three-team cluster at this point in the AFC East, and the health of each team over the course of the year could wind up being the biggest difference. I wouldn't sleep on the Jets or Dolphins. I think they will both be .500 or better and in the playoff hunt as the season hits the homestretch.

Q: Hi Mike, I'm a little concerned about our d-line and our outside linebacker situation. I have a hard time believing that we can generate a consistent pass rush. If a QB has time in the pocket, you make a Sam Bradford look like a Pro Bowler. And do you think we are stout enough against the run with guys like Mike Wright, Gerard Warren, Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess in there? We better hope that Ron Brace and Jermaine Cunningham step it up when they are healthy. Your thoughts? -- Tobias (Germany)

A: Tobias, I didn't think the rush was a huge issue against the Rams. Bradford was getting rid of the ball quickly, and I counted several other times when he was forced to throw quicker than he wanted to because of the pressure. But over time, I still have the same questions you do in this area, mainly because I have my doubts that Derrick Burgess can be a major difference-maker at one of the outside linebacker spots. As for the run defense, I also have questions if the current personnel can hold up over time. So I think it's a fair analysis.

Q: What is Julian Edelman's injury? Prognosis on being ready for the opener? What is happening with Laurence Maroney? Is he gone? -- Otis (Boston)

A: Otis, I don't know the exact injury to Edelman. He spoke with reporters after the Patriots' preseason game in Atlanta on Aug. 19, and that was the last time he was spotted on the field. Since he hasn't practiced the last week-plus, it's hard to project if he'll be ready for the opener. As for Maroney, I think he will be on the roster, maybe as the No. 3 or 4 option.

Q: What is the most likely order of touches for Patriots running backs this year? Bill Belichick has stated that Laurence Maroney will continue to have a role in the offense, but will there be room for him alongside Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Kevin Faulk? Who's the odd man out? -- Jamie Dickerson (Melrose, Mass.)

A: Jamie, if all five players make the roster -- and I still see Green-Ellis on the bubble -- I'd only expect four to be active on game day. I think Maroney would be one of the four. I think Fred Taylor gets the ball Week 1, with Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk the top backups, followed by Maroney.

Q: Mike, one of the big questions right now seems to be whether Maroney will make the roster or not. If we are to take Bill Belichick at his word, Maroney will be on the team. However, it's pretty tough to ignore the fact that he's had very limited carries during the past three preseason games. What's your sense for the situation? -- Neil (South Boston)

A: Neil, my sense is that it's a combination of two things: 1. Maroney slipping down the depth chart behind Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris; 2. getting BenJarvus Green-Ellis extended work to see if it yields any interest from a running back-needy team (Denver?), or simply to further evaluate him and his place on the roster.

Q: Mike, James Sanders status on the roster has been questioned this preseason, but with the youth and inexperience in the secondary, coupled with a poor showing vs. the Rams, can we really afford to cut a veteran like Sanders? -- David (Norwalk, Conn.)

A: David, I'd say the team has to keep Sanders, especially given that safety Brandon McGowan was held out of practice Monday with an undisclosed injury. Without knowing the severity of what is keeping McGowan out, it's difficult to be definitive, but I'd lean toward keeping Sanders.

Q: Mike, I had hopes for Taylor Price when the Pats grabbed him in the third round. Now, with Sam Aiken ahead of him on the depth chart and with him also having no apparent role on special teams it looks as though he will have trouble even being active on game days. Do you see him getting any playing time this season? -- Enjoythegames (Cleveland)

A: Initially, I see Price as a healthy inactive. I think his playing time would be contingent on the health of the five receivers ahead of him -- Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Brandon Tate, Julian Edelman and Aiken. Another e-mailer asked if Price might clear waivers and make it to the practice squad, but I think he'd be snatched up quickly if the Patriots ever rolled the dice on that.

Q: Mike, I am giddy about Rob Gronkowski. Are you with me or should I be thinking like Belichick and "not put his bust in Canton yet"? -- Pat (Worcester, Mass.)

A: Pat, I don't know how someone following the Patriots couldn't be excited about Gronkowski. He is 6-foot-6, 265 pounds but runs like a receiver and blocks like an offensive lineman. It's a rare mix. He also hasn't missed a practice since the spring, which is extremely important for a rookie in his situation.

Q: Mike, as I sit here trying to contain my giddiness over the TEs on this team, I had a flashback from my childhood when Gronkowski dragged the middle linebacker five yards into the end zone. It reminded me of Bob Windsor catching a pass from Jim Plunkett in 1974 in Minnesota and dragging the defender in a similar way (although Windsor twisted into the end zone). Anyway, Windsor shredded his knee and was done for the season. Ever since, I have been very wary of such "dragging" plays. My question therefore, is there any any indication from him or the team that "Gronk" sustained any type of injury from that play? -- Tman (Belmont, Mass.)

A: There was no indication of any injury for Gronkowski on the play, Tman, but I appreciate your recall from the mid-1970s. Great historical perspective.

Q: What's going on with Jermaine Cunningham? All I hear is that he's not playing, that's it. Is he injured? Is he going to be this year's Shawn Crable? -- Kevin (Lowell, Mass.)

A: Kevin, I think Cunningham is getting closer to a return as we've seen him on the sidelines at practice. That usually means the player is not that far away. I saw him get tangled up with a Saints player during a joint practice Aug. 11 and trainers were looking at his lower leg/ankle. I'd give him some more time before putting him in the Crable category.

Q: Mike, with Tyrone McKenzie not playing at all on top special teams units this week, his roster spot could be in jeopardy. Could he be eligible for the practice squad if he doesn't make the team? -- Niko (Los Angeles)

A: Niko, McKenzie is eligible for the practice squad. I see him on the roster bubble at this time.

Q: New turf issue? Lot of players seem to be going down, not from contact, but from getting "caught" by new surface. Will this become a home field disadvantage? At least three players last night seemed to come up limping (Avery didn't exactly jump back up) as a direct result of their foot "sticking" in place. Please monitor as you see more of the action than we do. -- JBTurk (Boston)

A: I asked a player and this was the response I received on the new turf: "It seems the same to me. Maybe the bits just need to settle more." I still think it's worthy of monitoring, as Bill Belichick made the point Monday that it is a bit softer than last year's turf.

Q: Mike, while Ron Brace is showing some ability on the field, I notice that he is the last guy on the field to get out of his three-point stance on every down. Is this bad conditioning? Or, is he just not getting the snap counts? For all the bad press that the D got vs. St. Louis, I really feel that Tully Banta-Cain looked OK. He was in on tackles, contained well and was constantly in the backfield. He wasn't dominant, but just off an injury, wouldn't you agree that he (and Burgess, who also looked decent for his second game) will calm a lot of people's anxiety about the Pats pass rush if they get into solid regular season form in the next two weeks? -- Elliot Kramer (Jerusalem)

A: Elliot, I'd agree on Banta-Cain. He looked like the team's best pass-rusher against the Rams. I had initially put him in the "down" category because of his two penalties, but after watching the game over again, he was generating some good heat off the defensive right side. I didn't see the same pass rush from Burgess.

Q: Mike, one of biggest issues with the Patriots not signing Logan Mankins is how it will affect the draft. Not only do they lose a good player but now they have to spend a top pick on an unproven lineman instead of pass rushers or RB. Is there any type of positive to come out of losing him such as additional money to tap into a free agent next year? The whole thing seems counterproductive. -- Rob (Dorchester)

A: Rob, I don't see too many positives in this one. Maybe the one thing you could say is that since the team is working within a budget, it frees up those funds to invest in someone else.

Q: Any update on the Logan Mankins holdout? Is it more likely a deal will get done, a holdout continues, or a trade happens? -- Kevin Hartmann (Lincoln, Neb.)

A: Kevin, I don't think the sides are even talking right now. It seems to me like the sides are holding their ground for now.

Mike, does the extension given to Stephen Gostkowski (which I am very happy about) send a bad message to Logan Mankins? I understand the importance of Gostkowski, but do you think Mankins sees it as a slap in the face? -- Tim Greenwood (Chardon, Ohio)

A: I don't think so, Tim, mainly because we're talking about two different financial stratospheres. I see Gostkowski and Mankins completely unrelated. I do think Mankins is upset, but I don't think the Gostkowski deal has much to do with it.

Q: When the Patriots went 16-0 and made a run for the title they were mainly a passing game, as seen by Randy Moss's 23 TD and Brady throwing for 50. Do you think the team will still rely mainly on gaining yardage from passing, or do you think they are slowly gaining a running game, as seen by the 2 rushing TDs in the second preseason game? -- Sydney (Washington, D.C.)

A: Sydney, the Patriots pride themselves on adjusting their plan on a week to week basis to exploit where they feel the opposition is weakest. I still think they will do their biggest damage through the air, but I see them more equipped to ground-and-pound when called upon.

Q: Now that we have seen a few preseason games, what do you think about the value of the Raiders first pick next year? Where do you expect it to be and where do you think the Pats would like it to be? It seems like, barring CBA changes, the first pick has become a toxic asset that no one wants and no one can get rid of. Do you think they'd rather have something around 10 that they can move or use to draft someone that they can sign at a semi-reasonable price? -- Chris Hickey (Houston)

A: Chris, I could see the Raiders winning eight games this season, assuming some of their key players stay healthy. As for where the Patriots would like it, I think they are banking on a rookie wage scale being implemented and will be hoping it is as close to the top of the draft as possible.

Q: Mike -- I agree with your sentiment (that you've stuck to for a while) that BB will be looking for a DE in next year's draft. With the Raiders pick in mind, and looking at Mel Kiper's early predictions, 5 of the top 17 players are DE's. The Pats are always unpredictable in the draft but I agree finding a stud there is a must to further the overhaul of this defense. -- Brian (Mansfield, Mass.)

A: Brian, I think either a defensive end or outside linebacker would be on the radar with that first-round pick.

Q: Mike, two years later, the team is still searching for an answer at OLB. Remind me, why did we trade Mike Vrabel? One of BB's most puzzling moves. -- Larry (Isle of Palms, S.C.)

A: Larry, this remains an unknown to me. If I had to guess, I think the Patriots saw a decline in his pass-rushing skills and maybe undervalued his potential contributions as a first- and second-down-type player.

Q: With this being Moss' "last year" and there being basically five slot receivers left on this team, do you see any one of these receivers stepping out to be a No. 1 WR next year, or does the hunt begin shortly after Moss leaves for a free agent/available WR? Also, when are they going to sign Mankins? Brady needs the help badly. On Brady, is Bill Belichick waiting for Manning to get first? -- Matt (Cranston, R.I.)

A: Matt, it's too early to tell on the No.1 receiver, but they'll obviously look closely at the development of Brandon Tate and Taylor Price to get a better feel on if they might be able to rise up. I think Tate is more than a slot receiver. On Mankins, nothing appears imminent, with neither side budging as I understand it. And on Brady, I don't think there is any validity to the idea that the Patriots would be waiting for the Manning deal.

Q: Mike, does DL Darryl Richard still have a chance on the Patriots? I was expecting him to make some impact this year. Last year while on the practice squad, he declined to go elsewhere and the team rewarded him a pay raise. I understand he's practice squad eligible, but looking at his playtime in the preseason games, I'm not sure he'll end up there. -- MarkJ (Japan)

A: MarkJ, I don't expect Richard to make the 53-man roster. With him battling a foot injury, he could find himself released before potentially returning on the practice squad when healthy.

Q: Hi Mike, do you feel the instincts of the linebackers and defensive backs are lacking? To me, Tedy Bruschi was one of the best instinctive players the team has ever had. Have you notice this too? -- Kevin (San Bernardino, Calif.)

A: Kevin, I think it's going to be hard for most players to match up to Bruschi when it comes to instincts. As for the current group, I have seen some solid instincts from the inside linebackers and defensive backs at times this preseason. That gives me reason to think it will show up during the regular season as well.

Q: Mike, I believe the Pats faced two third-and-short situations defensively against the Rams, during which they stayed in the 3-4. The 4-3 would appear to provide more heft against an up-the-middle plunge … Shouldn't the 4-3 typically be the better choice in those circumstances? -- Jason Harris (Evergreen, Colo.)

A: Jason, maybe on the goal line it would be smarter to go with heavier personnel, but if the Patriots are "fitting" the way they should in the running game -- in terms of how they fill gaps -- I think the 3-4 is generally their best choice.

Q: Mike, as the regular season approaches, can you send out another request to your readership for sports bars to watch the Patriots outside of New England? Selfishly, I'm looking for Portland, Oregon. -- ASB (Portland, Ore.)

A: Hoping we can come through for you

Q: Mike, nice job by the student assistant Mike Rodak in his analysis of the TV film. Any chance he can stay around for the season? I, for one, would love to see a similar analysis of some of the action from each game throughout the season. -- Walter (Shrewsbury, Mass.)

A: Walter, thank you for sharing your thoughts on Mike's high-quality work. He will be around during the season providing similar analysis.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.