Competition cranks up on O-line

Now that the New England Patriots' roster is taking shape, infused by nine draft picks and other undrafted signings, this week's mailbag shines a brighter spotlight on some areas of intense competition.

The offensive line, where the Patriots drafted three players, is a top area on the mind of emailers.

This reminds us of a story that Tedy Bruschi told at the annual ESPN Boston Draft Preview event in April. It was 2008 and Bruschi was watching the draft when he saw the Patriots select linebacker Jerod Mayo in the first round. He later joked that he knew his time with the team was almost up.

That's the mindset of a player on the roster, and it ties in nicely with where this week's mailbag begins -- in the trenches on the offensive line.

Q. Hey Mike, after taking three offensive linemen in the draft, who do you think makes the final roster and what is the projected starting O-line? -- Kevin (Lincoln, Neb.)

A. Kevin, let's assume that the three draft picks -- center Bryan Stork (fourth round, 105th), right tackle Cameron Fleming (fourth round, 140th) and guard Jon Halapio (sixth round, 179th) -- all make it based on their draft status. Here is how I'd break it down:

LG Logan Mankins
LT Nate Solder
RT Sebastian Vollmer
RT/G Marcus Cannon
C Bryan Stork
RT Cameron Fleming
G Jon Halapio

Strong candidates to stick but not locks
C Ryan Wendell
RG Dan Connolly
G Josh Kline
C/G Chris Barker

Long shots
C Braxston Cave
OT Jordan Devey
OT R.J. Mattes

The health of Vollmer, who is recovering from a broken ankle sustained last October, will be important to monitor. If he's not ready, it could open an extra spot. I would project nine offensive linemen on the final roster.

Q. Mike, with six starters, backup Chris Barker, three draft picks and four 2013 practice squadders (one of whom, Josh Kline, ended the year on the active roster) competing for presumably 8-9 roster spots on the O-line, there is bound to be fierce competition, and you have to figure there is a real chance that one of the Wendell/Connolly/Cannon group doesn't make the cut. Which of these three would you consider in the most danger of losing his roster spot? -- Michael (Cologne,Germany)

A. I wouldn't put Marcus Cannon in that group, Michael. I think he's an ascending player who could be headed toward a big deal in free agency next year if he keeps heading in the same direction. Because of Dan Connolly's salary ($3 million), and the Patriots' history of feeding the pipeline with younger, cheaper talent, his spot might be tenuous if everyone is healthy. I think Ryan Wendell and Connolly had a champion for them in former line coach Dante Scarnecchia, but with Scarnecchia retiring and Dave DeGuglielmo now taking over, it will be interesting to see how everything unfolds.

Q. Mike, everyone wants to see Tom Brady excel for as long as he can keep it up. Barring a major injury or catastrophic drop-off in play, could you envision any scenario in which Jimmy Garoppolo leapfrogs Brady on the depth chart before Tom retires or Garoppolo's rookie deal expires? -- Andy (Framingham)

A. Andy, it's hard to envision that scenario unfolding and I always say, 'I'm not going to be the guy who bets against Tom Brady.' At the same time, when we reflect back to 2000, I don't think many saw the Brady/Drew Bledsoe scenario unfolding the way it ultimately did. So I think you have to at least leave open the possibility while also taking into account Bill Belichick's past words about how the drop-off for many players can be steep once they hit a certain point in their careers.

Q. Another point people are missing regarding Jimmy Garoppolo: the possibility he develops, becomes Brady's successor and is affordably extended beyond his rookie contract. If not, we get another chance to use a mid-round pick and develop a replacement before panicking in 2018 for a first-round QB or high-cost free agent. The Pats are exemplary long-term planners, which is what has made them the premier franchise. -- Gary (Maine)

A. No disagreement here, Gary. A lot of factors in play here.

Q. A lot has been made about the Patriots' second-round draft pick of Jimmy Garoppolo (62nd overall). Do you think he was drafted as short-term insurance at the backup QB spot or as Tom Brady insurance for the future? Ryan Mallett has one year left on his deal and this situation looks very similar to when Mallett was drafted and Brian Hoyer was eventually let go. Garoppolo was picked only one round before Mallet was and may have just been the highest- rated prospect on the Patriots' board at their pick, and not necessarily picked with succeeding Brady in mind. I don't remember as much "heir apparent" talk with Mallett as there has been with Garoppolo (obviously Brady's age where the two were picked are factors in this). -- Jonathan (Waltham, Mass.)

A. Jonathan, one point that I think is important to note is that Mallett was taken 74th overall in 2011. Garoppolo was taken 62nd overall in 2014. Just 12 slots between them, which is not a big difference to me at all, yet the perception is much different when we say "second-round quarterback" versus "third-round quarterback." It is hard to put numbers on this, but I wrote my opinion that the Garoppolo pick is closer to 80 percent about Mallett/No. 2 role and 20 percent about Brady.

Q. Hey Mike, lots of chatter regarding the Jimmy Garoppolo pick. It is my understanding that if Blake Bortles was there at No. 29 that the Patriots would have drafted him. That tells me that the Garoppolo pick is more about Brady than Mallett. In my heart of hearts I believe that the coaching staff feels like the end is near for Brady. I don't see it and I know that you don't either, but I think the coaching staff is expecting some sort of steep regression in his game within the next few years. -- Ramin (San Marcos, Texas)

A. I don't think Bortles was their guy, Ramin. I would have been shocked if they picked him at No. 29. As for the point about possible regression in Brady's game, I wouldn't necessarily say the coaching staff is expecting it, but that doesn't mean they aren't preparing for it. I believe those are two different schools of thought. And if a team didn't prepare for it, I'd argue that would be a reckless style of team-building.

Q. Hey Mike. I wanted to comment on all the Garoppolo chatter. I fully understand your point on having a good insurance package, but your after-the-draft comments sort of contradict your pre-draft comments, don't they? I mean, before the draft you and Field Yates wrote a piece saying there was no reason to take a QB early and draft Brady's successor, yet that's essentially what they did and now you guys agree with it. I know number wise it was almost the same pick as where they took Mallett, but that has to be taken into context. They picked four other players before picking Mallett (Solder, Dowling, Vereen, Ridley). People accepted that more because of the number of picks they had. The reason it doesn't sit well now is he was truly their second pick in the draft. Just seems like that is a hefty amount to spend on an insurance package when you could have got similar or arguably better value later in the draft. -- Matt (NYC)

A. Matt, my feeling before the draft was that they wouldn't use their top pick (No. 29) on a quarterback, but that we would almost certainly see them draft a quarterback somewhere with the No. 2 role in mind. In doing so, you get a chance to see if the No. 2 has the potential to become a No. 1 over time. I felt like I was pretty consistent with that, and that's the way I believe it unfolded (here is an instant reaction to Johnny Manziel's visit to confirm that). As for the Mallett to Garoppolo comparison, a draft slot is a draft slot. Whether Mallett was the fifth player taken in 2011 or the second, that shouldn't change the value of the slot itself if your scouting deems the player worthy of the pick.

Q. Mike, I found it interesting when reading your quick-hit thoughts Sunday that BenJarvus Green-Ellis' contract is up after this year when we have three RBs rolling off of their rookie contracts. If the economics were to work out, do you think it's feasible that he could come back after this year seeing as though it's unlikely that all three RBs would be back, or is the door closed there? It seems as though the 'Firm left on good terms. Thanks. -- Tom (Miami)

A. Tom, if the Patriots still think Green-Ellis has something to offer on the field, there is no reason to think it wouldn't happen. Green-Ellis was one of the true pros to come through the locker room and he absolutely left on good terms as I understand it. Both sides understood what unfolded with him was a business transaction and Green-Ellis has always said how it wouldn't have been possible without the Patriots developing him as a player and pro.

Q. Mike, it's only May, so we won't hold you to this, but what three undrafted free agents have a real shot at making the Patriots? -- Bob (Alexandria, Va.)

A. Bob, this is tough to answer without seeing them on the practice field, but I'll play along with long snapper Tyler Ott (Harvard), running back Stephen Houston (Indiana) and linebacker Cameron Gordon (Michigan). One scout told me that Ott was viewed as one of the best snappers in the draft and could have been worthy of a late-round pick in his view. Houston is a bigger running back with some solid production, and Gordon has some traits that could be appealing to the team at a position where a player wasn't drafted by the club.

Q. I was just wondering why there aren't any posts on rookie camp and how they are doing in their first introduction into the new plays and executing them. -- Jerry J. (Maryland)

A. Jerry, the way it has been explained to reporters is that because of the late draft, there is no traditional rookie camp for media members to view, even though the players are there working. Furthermore, it has been explained to us that there is no official rule that practices must be open to media members. Every team does it a little differently, and as we know, Bill Belichick is more on the "closed" side in terms of access. That can be contrasted to a team like Jacksonville, which not only opened its practices to reporters, but also to fans, and they had record attendance. There are different ways to do it.

Q. Mike, the Patriots have drafted in the past years athletic defensive players with high selections -- Jamie Collins, Dominique Easley, Chandler Jones, etc. Do you think this reflects more of an acknowledgement that it's a different game now because it's played in space? And did the Pats come late to the party? -- Dave (Elmira, N.Y.)

A. Dave, this general point stands out to me this year more than any other. The Patriots have consistently been in their sub packages 65-70 percent of the time, which calls on different types of players at some spots. Easley, in particular, is a shining example of this. Five years ago, I don't think Bill Belichick would have seen a penetrating "undersized" 6-foot-1 7/8, 288-pound defensive tackle like Easley as a system fit or worth the value of a first-round pick at No. 29. He obviously does now and I do think it's an acknowledgement of how the game has shifted.

Q. Hi Mike, it appears that Aaron Hernandez may have invalidated his $40 million Patriots contract based on his latest indictment for a murder that took place before he signed. What does this mean for possible salary cap relief? Could NE get the the NFL to waive his entire remaining salary cap charge that existed after his release? Would he need to be convicted or just charged? I know it's early, but any insight would be appreciated. -- Tom M. (Medford, Ore.)

A. Tom, my understanding is that the indictment itself wouldn't be enough to spark any movement with potential salary-cap relief. That would still need to go through the courts with a definitive ruling. So I still think this is one that will take some time, but it's a step in the direction for the Patriots to possibly be able to recoup some cap space.

Q. Mike, everyone keeps mentioning Dustin Keller after his free-agent visit earlier this year. However, I read today that Jermichael Finley is still unsigned after neck surgery. When healthy, Finley was one of the top TEs in the NFL. Would the Pats have any interest in him? Or is the neck surgery too big a risk? -- Peter (Essex Junction, Vt.)

A. Peter, perhaps the Patriots would look in Finley's direction, but Keller seems more likely to me because there is more familiarity with him -- both as an opponent and with a member of the coaching staff (Brian Daboll) having worked with him (Jets, 2008). I think it's fair to say both come with a similar level of risk based on the injury history.

Q. Mike, what do you think the odds are that Nick Caserio remains with the team for the long term (let's say the next five years)? After watching the inside the draft room video on the team's website, I came away very impressed by his command of the room and authoritative personality. I also remember you mentioning how much more confidence he seemed to have with the media during his pre-draft press conference. With his likely successor, Jon Robinson, headed to the Bucs, I feel that it is imperative that we keep Caserio around and possibly even give him the "GM" title, as he is without a doubt one of rising front-office stars around the league. What are your thoughts on the likelihood of this happening? -- Jack (Westwood Village)

A. Jack, I think Caserio gained a lot of confidence going through the interview with the Dolphins this offseason, and I would expect him to continue to interview in the years to come. I don't think a "GM" title would necessarily stop him from doing so, because in the end this is still primarily Bill Belichick's show. If another team steps up with a lucrative offer that gives him a chance to be that type of person in their organization, I think he'll continue to consider it.

Q. Hi Mike, do you really believe that Danny Amendola is still on trade market? Julian Edelman has never had two good years in a row and Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins are still young players whose career projection could go either way. -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)

A. David, I was never able to confirm that Amendola was on the trade market in the first place, but it wouldn't have surprised me if that was the case. I think he'll play for the Patriots this season. The opinion is based on him having more value to the team than what they could possibly get in return (both on the field and cap-wise), and also the belief that he is a good player who just needs to stay healthy (similar to Edelman at this time last year).

Q. Mike, whatever happened to Armond Armstead? He was supposed to be a big help to the defensive line, got sick, and never was active all last year. This year he is not even being mentioned at all, so is he coming back or not, and if so, what potential does he have? -- James S. (Centreville, Va.)

A. James, Armstead is still on the roster and factors into the defensive line mix. At one point last year, Bill Belichick referred to him as a top-three defensive tackle for the team, which gives a little bit of a feel on how he was viewed by the coaching staff before his unexpected infection led to him being placed on injured reserve for 2013. I was told recently that he was healthy and projected to be part of the mix in 2014.

Q. Hi Mike, I have to say that I am flabbergasted at the number of signings and then quick releases that have taken place over the last few years, most recently with rookie tight end Tyler Beck. I often wonder what actually goes into a decision to sign a player only to release him a day or two later and wonder whether that plays into a player's mind when it comes to signing with the organization. It can't be good for the Patriots to get a reputation of not at least giving a player a chance to prove himself. -- Patrick (Dublin, N.H.)

A. Patrick, there are usually a few reasons those situations unfold. One is that the player might be struggling to keep up mentally with the workload. It could be conditioning-based, or perhaps even to send a message to others that jobs are on the line every day. We often don't know the full story on this end of things. I don't think those things have much impact, if at all, on anything with the team's reputation.

Q. Mike, is the coaching staff for 2014-15 season set? Do you expect that Josh McDaniels as QB coach will coach up Jimmy Garoppolo while serving as the offensive coordinator? -- MarkJ (Japan)

A. MarkJ, the expectation is that the staff is set and that McDaniels will continue working with the quarterbacks.

Q. Do you think the Pats will make an adjustment to their Hall of Fame policy and allow a person like Bill Parcells, who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an automatic entry for the Pats HOF? It make sense if someone has already made the NFL HOF to get an automatic entry into the Pats HOF assuming they meet the Pats' criteria for nomination. In Parcells case, he may have to wait a long time to get in. -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)

A. Ashley, I don't think we'll see that change because a candidate's resume for the Pro Football Hall of Fame would include their entire career, whereas the Patriots Hall of Fame judges them solely on what they did here. So using Parcells as an example, his Pro Football Hall of Fame resume includes the Giants (1979, 1981-1990), Patriots (1980, 1993-1996), Jets (1997-1999) and Cowboys (2003-2006), as well as his time as a Dolphins executive (2008-2010). Here in New England, the focus is solely on those five years (1980, 1993-1996).