On minicamp, Ballard and more

The Patriots have concluded their offseason organized team activities and mandatory minicamp, so now what?

Emailers to the Patriots mailbag have plenty of questions, and a lot of ground is covered this week -- defense, offense, claiming Jake Ballard, other personnel thoughts and more.

Let's get right to it.

Q. Hey Mike, do you think that this year our defense will be drastically better (granted that everyone is healthy) to where we can compete in a game without having to have Tom Brady throw 500 yards? Or do you think it will take a few years until the defense reaches an "above par" status? -- Marko M. (Indiana)

A. Marko, I do think the defense will be better this year. One specific area that I would project improvement is on third down, where the club ranked 32nd out of 32 teams two years ago and 28th last season. The infusion of more athleticism, with a focus on the sub defense, should help. I also think we'll see better play from the secondary, which looks like it has more depth.

Q. Hey Mike, I'm really excited for the Patriots' offense this year. I don't think Brady has ever had this many weapons to throw to. Even his record-breaking 50-TD season, it was mainly Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Now he has Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Rob Gronkowski,
Aaron Hernandez, and sprinkle in a little bit of Jabar Gaffney and Danny Woodhead and I think this crew can break all kinds of records. Brady has a chance to break the yards and TD records and the offense has a chance to break the points record. Am I just too excited or is this offense that dangerous? How do you think it compares with '07? -- Andrew (Lowell, Mass.)

A. Andrew, the first thought I had was that it would be dangerous to overlook the offensive line. That group still needs to come together to help make it happen, and there are some questions to be answered. As we saw in Super Bowl XLII, when the line crumbles, it doesn't matter how many dynamic skill-position players are there. As for a comparison with 2007, I think this offense could be more dynamic because it has more diversity in weaponry if all the projected parts come together and stay healthy. Yet while there might be more depth in terms of pass-catchers, I don't see a player at the talent level of a Randy Moss from that 2007 campaign.

Q. Why all this fuss about the Patriots taking Jake Ballard off the waiver wire? If the Red Sox put Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford on waivers to free up space on their 40-man roster, wouldn't they be to blame if someone claimed them? Would it be reasonable to expect every team to pass on them because they're injured and "belong" to the Red Sox? -- Jerry (Cape Cod)

A. It's fair, Jerry. From this perspective, I haven't heard too much of a fuss based on the Patriots' claiming Ballard. Instead, it seems to me that more are pointing toward the Giants and saying, "If you didn't want to lose the player, you shouldn't have put him on waivers." The Patriots were within their rights to make the move, and it looks like a mistake by the Giants. At the same time, I think it's important to point out that Ballard isn't a top player at his position. He's still limited (e.g., foot speed) and is coming off major knee surgery that could affect how well he runs, so there's no guarantee he'll even emerge here.

Q. What were the Giants trying to do by waiving Jake Ballard? Lower cap cost? Roster spot? Lower salary? Renegotiate and extend contract? I understand that the Pats can put him on IR/PUP. Why couldn't the Giants do the same? -- Bill (Sudbury)

A. Bill, the Giants were looking for another spot on their 90-man roster to sign defensive lineman Rocky Bernard. So they waived Ballard, with the hope he would clear waivers and land back on their physically unable to perform list. For a player to land on that PUP list at this time, he would have to clear waivers. So the Patriots, with Ballard, will keep him on the 90-man roster until it gets to the point that he won't have to clear waivers. That was something the Giants weren't willing to do.

Q, Mike, now that Gronk is signed, do you see them doing the same with Hernandez and moving forward with a TE dynamic duo? Also, do you see Hernandez as a possible Welker replacement in 2013? -- TJ (Melbourne, Fla.)

A. TJ, these things are always hard to project, in part because there are different things that are important to different players. Some like that immediate security and give up a little something down the line to gain it. Others are more content to roll the dice for a bigger payday down the line. Hernandez is still signed through 2013 and if I had to guess, the Patriots might be more inclined to wait a little bit on Hernandez, as he's still growing into a professional. On the Welker/Hernandez link, I don't see them as apples to apples. I think Hernandez can do some of that slot stuff, but he has different strengths than Welker.

Q. Mike, I would love to see Marcus Cannon make it to starting tackle. From what you saw last year, does he have the speed to deal with a top edge rusher, or might the future see him moving inside? -- Joe (Waimea, Hawaii)

A. Joe, in the short term, I think Cannon will be more of a factor at tackle than guard. He obviously has some good things going for him (e.g., size, athleticism), but I don't think we saw enough last season to definitively say he is on the cusp of being a starting-caliber player. I think this training camp and preseason should be a good barometer of where things stand with Cannon.

Q. Hey Mike, one guy I'm not hearing a lot about this offseason is Danny Woodhead. A year or two ago he was one of the Patriots' most popular and productive players. But this year it seems he's fallen behind the scenes. If Shane Vereen can stay healthy and will have a more productive role, I imagine he'll fill Woodhead's shoes. I wouldn't be surprised if Woodhead is cut when cutting down to the 53-man roster. Thoughts? -- Ryan (United Kingdom)

A. Ryan, I'd be a little surprised at that one. Woodhead was slowed by an ankle injury for a good part of last season. He was feeling better by the end of the season, and I thought it showed in the Super Bowl, when he was one of the Patriots' best players that day. I think they will need four running backs and view Woodhead as being safe.

Q. Hi Mike, is it possible that Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels decided to reintegrate fullbacks into the offensive system after noticing a market inefficiency at that position? Specifically, were the Spencer Larsen and Tony Fiammetta acquisitions considerably cheaper and easier to make because the position is being devalued by other teams? -- Paddy (Gwangju, South Korea)

A. Paddy, I asked Bill Belichick about the fullbacks on the final day of mandatory minicamp, and his answer made me think this wasn't about any market inefficiency. It was, first and foremost, made with special teams in mind. It sounds like those players will have to contribute in that area before they have a chance to break through at fullback. Belichick's remarks were highlighted in this blog entry.

Q. Who is working out at the first-team guard spots in the minicamps? Is Dan Connolly strictly working out at center? -- Blake (Washington, D.C.)

A. Blake, we saw a combination of Robert Gallery, Ryan Wendell and Connolly in the mix at the top guard spots. Logan Mankins looks like he's making good progress and Brian Waters is still under contract. So no shortage of options there.

Q. Mike, what do you think about the Pats picking up Daniel Graham for vet minimum now that he's been released by the Titans? -- Rick (Connecticut)

A. Rick, I think Graham would be a solid addition if he was interested. He was one of my favorite players to watch over the years because of his devastating blocking. I'm just not sure Graham himself would entertain the thought if there was interest.

Q. Mike, any news on the Patriots' scouting staff after losing some of their scouts (Jason Licht to Arizona and Kyle O'Brien to Kansas City)? -- John (Connecticut)

A. John, the Patriots haven't officially announced anything, but my sense is that we'll see a promotion of Bob Quinn from assistant director of pro personnel to the director's position (previously held by Licht). Quinn enters his 13th season in the Patriots' personnel department, and he's worked on both the college and pro side. He grew up in Norwood, Mass., and is a graduate of Norwood High School. As for the national scout position previously held by O'Brien, I think we'll ultimately see another promotion from within.

Q. Hey Mike, I'm left with a bit of a head-scratcher here. By scratching the final day of their three-day minicamp last week, did the Patriots just gain themselves another day of practice later this summer? Or is that day completely lost? I just don't see BB losing a day under his own accord. -- Casey (Plymouth, Mass.)

A. Casey, the Patriots don't pick up another day of practice later. I think the key thing to keep in mind is that the mandatory minicamp was an extension of the prior three weeks of organized team activities, and the Patriots got a lot of good work in over that time. This isn't that rare. Bill Parcells, for example, wouldn't always use all his offseason practice days.

Q. Hey Mike, do you agree that Bill Belichick's decision to cancel the final mandatory minicamp practice was for the better of the team? Did you feel there were any aspects of the game the staff and players haven't focused on enough? I am glad that there aren't any chances for further injuries. Do you suspect he might also sporadically cancel full-contact practices as well, perhaps to reduce injuries/wear and tear? -- Roberto (Stoneham, Mass.)

A. Roberto, coaches are limited in how many full-contact, full-pads practices they can have regardless, so we can expect a smaller number in that category. As for Belichick, I think he's earned the trust in terms of having his finger on the pulse of the team. Hard to argue with that.

Q. Mike, the sudden cancellation of the minicamp has been explained as a reward for the players. Could it also be about a shot at NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith for monitoring his practices? -- JoeFla (Orlando, Fla.)

I'd be surprised if that was the case, JoeFla. The visit seemed cordial and within the spirit of the collective bargaining agreement. I don't think Bill Belichick would let his personal feelings about the visit trump what he felt was best for the team.

Q. In your Thursday chat you wrote, " … No. 3 receiver (Chad Ochocinco) really hurt the Patriots last season …" Didn't the Pats finish 13-3 (could have been easily 15-1) and come within a play or two of winning the Super Bowl? Thus, HOW did Ocho "really hurt" anything? -- Ghost of Last Season (Foxborough)

A. What I was trying to say there, and I could have articulated it better, is that there were a few games in which the Patriots were without one of their top tight ends and needed the third receiver to emerge (Buffalo in Week 3 and Super Bowl XLVI come to mind). When I considered what they invested in Ochocinco, and then I thought about those games, that's where the thought was sparked.

Q. Mike, Bill Belichick had a lot of praise for Jermaine Cunningham. Am I mistaken, didn't Bill have high praise for Taylor Price's offseason and he was cut shortly after that? -- Joe (Quincy, Mass.)

A. Joe, I do remember Bill Parcells pointing toward Price as a player he thought could be on the rise, as part of an ESPN special, but don't remember anything specific from Belichick. But there have been other times when Belichick had high praise and the player was later let go.

Q. Mike, I'm thinking of planning a trip to watch a few days of training camp. Do you know when the camp days are and which days are open to public? -- Paul (New Brunswick)

A. Paul, the Patriots haven't yet released the official start date of camp. Expect it to be in late July, probably around the 26th. All practices are open to the public unless they are moved inside. We'll keep you posted when the team makes that information available.

Q. Mike, as excited as I am about the additions to the Patriots defense, it's only fair to wonder if the secondary is where it needs to be. Besides Patrick Chung, I have questions on many of the guys back there and I was wondering if you could update us on how Devin McCourty has been thus far? To me, his resurgence is a huge key for the defense. I'm also wondering if you see Sterling Moore continuing to have a key role as he did in the postseason run? -- Jake (Dover, Mass.)

A. Jake, I've seen McCourty play exclusively at left cornerback, which is notable given some of the offseason chatter about him moving to safety. I think he looks like he's moving well, and I think it's realistic to think he will improve this year. Better safety play behind him should help as well. Moore showed solid ball skills last year, and I see him competing for a fourth/fifth spot at the position.