Hits, misses and knowing your role

This week's Patriots mailbag looks back at some of the big developments of the last week, including tight end Rob Gronkowski's contract extension and Chad Ochocinco's release.

It also looks ahead, as the team holds its mandatory minicamp from June 12-14. So expect a burst of news before we enter the quiet period on the NFL calendar.
Here we go:

Q. Mike, it seems like the Pats finally got a contract (Gronkowski) right. It seems like for years that Bill Belichick would just let the rookies play out their contracts and let them walk in free agency or go into a franchise tag tug of war. Why doesn't he extend the young stud core players early like this more often? I know you cannot keep all your players, but why drag franchise "core" guys like Vince Wilfork and Logan Mankins through the mud? Also, I feel with the schedule and the offseason acquisitions, this team is stacked and should at least be able to get a first-round bye again, barring injury. Is this a case of BB knowing Tom Brady's window is closing and trying to "stack the team" and win as many Super Bowls as they can? -- Dan (Wakefield, Mass.)

A. Dan, the Gronkowski contract isn't the first that the Patriots have extended early. Matt Light, Dan Koppen, Richard Seymour, Jarvis Green, Ty Warren and Jerod Mayo are a few others that come to mind. I think it's convenient to look at this and say, "Maybe the Patriots have learned from some of the other situations that didn't work out," but I don't think that's what this was about. This was a case where Gronkowski initiated the extension talks and was "reasonable" in his demands. If Aaron Hernandez did the same thing tomorrow, he'd probably be signing the same deal. But not every player wants the same thing. Some want to be the top paid. Others want more immediate security and are willing to give up future potential earnings (like Gronkowski). Sometimes the team doesn't want to deal that early. Other times it does. So in the end, it's a situation where all the factors have to come together.

The Patriots generally won't pay top-of-the-market prices until they absolutely have to, and sometimes the approach has worked, other times it hasn't. They're not perfect. I think it's fair to say the Wilfork and Mankins situations didn't have to be that hard, and I felt Wilfork's case, in particular, hurt the locker room dynamic in 2009.

As for the 2012 team being stacked, I agree. This should be fun. I don't think it has as much to do about Brady as it does Belichick carrying out his plan to keep the team competitive on a year-to-year basis.

Q. Hi Mike! Been away from the mailbag for a while due to job transition, moving, a 2-week road trip and watching the Celtics make their final run. It's hard for me to get too into football this time of year anyway, but (with the exception of the o-line) it seems like we're set for another solid Super Bowl run. Watching the Celtics and what was a tremendous five-year span with the Big Four with the one championship, it brought home what some of the readers have said about getting it done now while Brady is still in top form. I agree but think that if you look at the C's, you could argue they should have won more than one ring, but they were right there all five years with a chance to strike, and were an injury or two away. If we can keep putting quality teams out there with Brady and be "right there" every year, why mortgage the future? A lot boils down to luck and inches, right? Go Thunder. -- GrandJordanian (San Diego, Calif.)

A. Good to have you back, GrandJordanian, and nice to meet you in the Gillette Stadium parking lot a month or so ago. I'll start by throwing a penalty flag on you. Did I read it correctly that you can't get into football this time of year? Go take a lap around the field, please. Now that we have that squared away (LOL) and an understanding that it's always football season, let's carry on. Great point by you. The consistent success obviously means a lot to Belichick, and as we've seen, once you get into the playoffs, it's just about who gets hot and who is healthy at that point. The Patriots always seem to be in the hunt. That is the type of thing that can be easy to take for granted now, but I think we'll be looking back on it someday and say, "Remember when it was a given to make the playoffs?" Almost like what it means to win an AFC East title. Those used to be big. These days, the Patriots have made it almost routine. It won't always be like this.

Q. Hi Mike, about Chad Ochocinco's release, I can't help but feel like the Patriots really took advantage of him on this one. Ochocinco seemed like he did absolutely everything to assimilate himself into this team and the Patriots wouldn't meet him half way. I don't buy this whole "not figuring out the playbook" stuff, either. I mean, Ochocinco is a good player and a vet to boot. I don't see how, with an entire season, he couldn't get it down when WRs came onto the team and were playing in games within a couple of days? Something doesn't add up there. I don't believe he didn't have the knowledge to play games, I think the team wasn't using him to his potential. I feel like the more should have been done to work him into the offense, it can't all be down to a WR knowing a playbook. I think the Patriots really didn't utilize a good player properly and it was no one's fault but their own. Thoughts? -- Mark (United Kingdom)

A. Mark, I respect the opinion, although I view the situation differently. The Patriots paid a lot of money to Ochocinco in 2011 -- nearly $6 million -- and didn't get much for the investment. So I find it hard to fault the team on this one. I did think Ochocinco had trouble with this offense and all its on-the-fly adjustments. He's not the only one who has struggled with it. I do give him credit for adopting a team-first approach and slashing his salary this year in an attempt to make it work, but the fit just wasn't there. Just a miscalculation by the Patriots. We all make them.

Q. Mike, it's no surprise the Pats cut Ocho. Belichick personally coached him at the Pro Bowl a few years ago and I know that is only a Pro Bowl, but it certainly gave Bill ample time to poke and prod inside the mind of Ocho. I never saw the wisdom of the trade, nor the amount of money we invested in the transaction. I've got nothing against the guy, but I regret all those wasted reps he took at the expense of developing a younger wideout who can contribute to the Pats long term. And here we are once again with a stable full of 30-something WRs. We need to find a way to get younger at this critical position. -- Don (Atlanta)

A. Don, I think Belichick would be the first to admit that it didn't work out. You hit some, you miss some. The part that interests me is the need to get younger at receiver. I used to think the same way, but I'm not sure it's as important as I once thought. Sure, you always want to develop young talent, but there is no need to get younger just to get younger. They seem like they've stocked it up pretty good this year. Receiver is one of the positions that seems most solidified, with future opportunities to keep stocking because the chance to play with Brady figures to entice many.

Q. With all the recent talk about the effectiveness of the 2-TE sets, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that New England gave Gronkowski an extension until 2019. Now they have time to extend Hernandez because he still has two years left on his deal. As far as Wes Welker goes, I actually think this deal gives hope that the Patriots can still give him a reasonable extension. Could a 3-year deal with $15 million guaranteed work for both sides? It's not a slap in the face, plus it's a deal preferably for someone of his skill set, like Anquan Boldin as opposed to Larry Fitzgerald. -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)

A. Alvin, I just don't see that being enticing enough for Welker to sign. He's already making $9.5 million guaranteed this year, so I don't believe he'd find there was value in adding two more years and only guaranteeing another $5.5 million. Seems to me that would be undervaluing him. But if we were to compromise and say a two-year, $18 million contract that was fully guaranteed, I could see that possibly getting it done. In the end, it comes down to what's most important to the player. It's my belief that Welker isn't looking to break the bank but just wants to feel he's being treated fairly.

Q. In reading the breakdown of contracts, one thing stood out to me. The value of Brandon Lloyd's contract is similar to that of defensive end Jonathan Fanene's -- 3 years and $12 million. Whereas Lloyd has been very hyped, nothing much has been written or said about Fanene. So my question is, given his contract, is Fanene a pivotal player on D in 2012? -- Klaus (Copenhagen, Denmark)

A. Klaus, Fanene should be a pivotal part of the defensive line, playing in the 60-65 percent range of snaps. He was most effective as a rotational player with the Bengals, so I don't think we should expect to see him duplicate the ironman effort of Wilfork last year (86 percent playing time). Scouts view him as a high-effort player, who is most effective shooting gaps and penetrating, but is also tough enough to play the run. He should help the Patriots.

Q. Hello Mike, I was always impressed by Jabar Gaffney at receiver. The problem is that the open field position will be taken up by Gronk, Hernandez, Welker and Lloyd. What do you think Gaffney's role will be this season? -- Josh (Massachusetts)

A. Josh, a big part of Gaffney's value is his understanding of the offense and ability to line up at all the different receiver spots. In that sense, he's at the opposite end of the spectrum from Ochocinco, who struggled to master just one spot. So I could see Gaffney playing a number of roles depending on the game plan and the overall health of the roster. Another thing to keep in mind is that in such a physical game, you'll have your inevitable injuries. You hope to have Gronkowski, Hernandez, Welker and Lloyd together for all 16 regular-season games, but that's not realistic. So the more depth and talented players you have, the better.

Q. Hi Mike, in one of your articles about Jeremy Ebert and Taylor Price, you mentioned, "Ebert fell into a different category because he was still enrolled at Northwestern and had finished all of his class requirements (e.g. he may have arranged to take his tests early)." Could you elaborate further? I thought Taylor entered the NFL after his senior year and graduation? -- Gary (Cambridge, Mass.)

A. Gary, the school Price attended, Ohio, had a quarters system and had yet to graduate. Price had not completed all his class requirements, so unlike Ebert, he couldn't break away before graduation to join the Patriots.

Q. Mike, during OTAs, it is often noted that some injured players are "rehabbing on the sidelines." I've always wondered about this. If someone is injured, why would they rehab on the sidelines? Isn't the training room a better place to rehab? Perhaps the idea is that the injured players benefit from the instruction being provided on the field? -- Noodle (Arlington, Va.)

A. Noodle, rehab is probably the wrong word. These players just aren't cleared to practice yet, so they work off to the side at a slower pace. It's most likely in addition to what they'd be doing inside the facility.

Q. Did anyone see Chandler Jones or Jake Bequette at the OTAs? Never read or heard anything about them during that period. -- Al (Venice, Fla.)

A. Al, they were both there. Tough to get a real feel for the linemen in this type of no-pads, no-contact setting, other than how they move their feet.

Q. Don't know if I missed a announcement on either or not, but was wondering what the status was on Dont'a Hightower and Jake Bequette being signed. Where does that stand? -- Michael (Fall River, Mass.)

A. Michael, they remain unsigned, the last two Patriots picks yet to come to terms. I expect it to get done by the time that matters most -- the start of training camp.

Q. The move to release Markell Carter is crazy to me and, although I have no game tape or practice tape to evaluate the move, I find it hard to believe that the Pats chose to give an undrafted free agent like DE/OLB Justin Francis a roster spot over a player like him, who devoted his entire 2011 on the practice squad. That doesn't sound like much, but they invested a large sum of money to him last year, which makes this move a little more puzzling to fans. I'm just finding it hard to believe that Francis can offer more than Carter. I know this is petty squabbling about fringe roster/practice squad players but I had high hopes for Carter and I'm really disappointed. -- Eric (Weymouth, Mass.)

A. Eric, I really respect the passion. And hey, if Belichick is going to stress the importance of depth and how the 53rd player on the roster is just as important as the first, why not fire up some Markell Carter talk? I have a few thoughts on this one, and the first is that we don't always have all the information at our disposal to fully understand why the team makes decisions. We assume it's always based on X's and O's, but maybe that's not always the case. So just keeping that in the back of the mind when things don't always make sense might not be a bad thing to do. The other thought is that Carter came in at 275 pounds, and I'm not sure that was viewed as a positive.

Q. A lot of people have Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder written in as the starting tackles, but I was wondering what you think about Marcus Cannon possibly taking one of those spots. He seemed extremely capable when rotated in last season and you have to think that he will only come back even stronger this year after dealing with cancer treatments last year. In my opinion he has got to be one of the most underrated players on the Pats' roster. -- Axl (Fort Worth, Texas)

A. Axl, based on what we saw last year from Solder and in 2009-2010 from Vollmer, I think those two are more talented and would project to edge Cannon out of a top job. But as we've seen in the past, sometimes the competition in training camp dictates otherwise. I'd be surprised if it happened for non-injury reasons, but let's see what happens.

Q. Hi Mike, has there been any news as to Bo Scaife's contract details? Do you get the feeling that the Pats might be carrying four TEs next season? This would make sense with the importance placed on the position in this scheme. -- Marc (London, England)

A. Marc, the contract signed by Scaife is a one-year pact with a base salary of $700,000. Not big money and reflective of a player who is a longer shot to make the roster. I think he was brought in because of a run of injuries at the position -- Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Daniel Fells and Brad Herman have all missed practice time -- and is more of an insurance-type fallback option if any of the top three guys don't return to health as hoped.

Q. The discussion about personnel for the sub defense has been bandied about a lot this offseason. Can you please explain to a casual fan exactly what a sub defense is and why the personnel needs change when a team is in sub? -- Tyler (New Hampshire)

A. Tyler, a sub defense is when there is at least one extra defensive back in place of a player on the defensive line or at linebacker. With one extra defensive back (5 instead of 4), that's a nickel package. With two extra defensive backs (6 instead of 4), that is referred to as a dime package. When teams go to sub, they are most often getting smaller to defend the pass or plays in space. So it requires some different type of personnel -- maybe a bit faster.

Q. I haven't heard much about those undrafted free agents: Brandon Bolden, Jeremiah Warren, Matt Roark, etc. How are they doing? -- Nick (Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island)

A. Nick, I think Jeremiah Warren is getting some reps of note due to some absences/injuries on the interior of the offensive line. But overall, it's tough for me to make any definitive call on these young guys at this point. It's easier to be more decisive when we see them in full pads come training camp.