The homicide investigation involving tight end Aaron Hernandez was easily the most dominant topic of this week's Patriots mailbag.
Before we get to that, a few programming notes:
Depending on what unfolds with Hernandez, the plan is to step away for a few weeks. We'll still have Field Yates and Mike Rodak reporting on the team on the ESPNBoston.com Patriots blog and in other areas on the site.
Our weekly Thursday chats will pick back up again in a few weeks, as well.
The Patriots announced that players will report for training camp on Thursday, July 25, and the first practice open to the public is Friday, July 26, at 9 a.m. ET.
Let's get to some questions.
Q. Mike, is "character" really anything the Patriots pay any attention to? Have they ever? I go back to six drafts ago when they took Brandon Meriweather in the first round. All the tut-tutting about "wake-up calls" just seems so hypocritical when the media has been so complicit in the Pats' myth-building over the years. Thoughts? -- Peter (Houston)
A. Peter, I think the Patriots have focused on character, specifically when it comes to players in which they invest long-term extensions. That's part of what surprised me so much about Hernandez being involved, at some level, with this homicide investigation because the Patriots had just extended his contract and paid him big bucks last August. When that happens, from my view, it's the Patriots endorsing not just the player but the person. They don't just give away the big money in Foxborough to anyone. As for my take on "character," the faster we understand that there are never going to be 53 Boy Scouts in any locker room, the closer we'll get to a more accurate picture. I've always thought the "Patriots Way" -- which is a media-driven phrase more than anything -- was about a strong locker-room culture with top-level leadership that allows others with a clean slate to fit in and reach their potential. The Patriots have always taken risks on players, going back to the early years of Bill Belichick's tenure. This is nothing new. In this case, however, it's the most severe example of when the risk is magnified in a negative way.
Q. Hey Mike, if Aaron Hernandez is not charged with the homicide, do you expect the Patriots to release him anyway? -- Ramin (San Marcos, Texas)
A. Ramin, I think we need all the information about Hernandez's involvement before we can answer that. At the least, it appears he's guilty of drawing negative attention to himself, the Patriots and the NFL; that, in and of itself, could lead to some action from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. I don't know this for certain, but I would imagine the Patriots feel a bit betrayed by Hernandez after they made a big financial commitment to him just 10 months ago. If that's the case, it wouldn't surprise me if ties are cut.
Q. Mike, since the news broke about Aaron Hernandez's possible involvement in the murder of his friend we have heard two other stories (there could be more) involving him and guns in the last few months. Were the Patriots not aware of these recent events? Why are they only being published now? They take "risks" signing low-character guys ahead of time but take a guy like Wes Welker to the wall and then lose him. Doesn't make any sense. Can you help me understand their philosophy? -- Stacey (Providence, R.I.)
A. Stacey, it's my belief that the Patriots have been aware of everything, but last August they made the determination that they were comfortable with Hernandez on and off the field by signing him to that extension. It looks like it's something they could come to regret. Specific to Welker, I think age was a big factor. Welker is going to be 32 and Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski were in their early 20s and the team was locking them up for their prime years, which was a sound strategy and was lauded by many (including ESPNBoston.com). But one thing that can never be overlooked is that you still have to invest in the right people, and the jury is still out on Hernandez in that regard. He's put himself in a tough spot right now.
Q. Mike, Let's be honest, things don't look good for Hernandez. If things continue to go downhill, what are the chances that the Pats can recover some, or all, of the bonus money paid out to Hernandez for violating the player conduct policy, which might soften the cap hit if he's cut? -- Tom (Miami)
A. Tom, a club can recover bonus money and avoid a cap hit if a player violates one of the league's personal conduct policies or defaults on contract language.
Q. In retrospect, with the stories about overlooked and unpublicized issues with Hernandez coming out, certain moves by the team might be less strange than first appeared. I'm thinking of the emphasis on character in the draft (the "over-drafted" Rutgers guys), maybe even the Tim Tebow signing. Obviously the Pats didn't expect this. But do you think they've been trying to build a critical mass of solid character guys -- throw in Adrian Wilson and Leon Washington maybe, and cutting Brandon Lloyd -- to get a critical mass in the locker room? Frankly, Mike, I'm still trying to get my head around how the Pats could have given 81 that kind of extension. Did he fool the Patriots or did his talent make them fool themselves? -- DJ (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
A. DJ, I think it's always a mix. I remember thinking at the draft that maybe it was trending in a different direction with their picks and previous free-agent signings, but then they traded for LeGarrette Blount, who has had his share of "issues," if you will. So it comes back to that idea that you hope the core is strong enough to help some of the others who, if they fall in line, could produce big results. Specific to the Hernandez extension, there is always going to be some form of blind spot that teams operate with when it comes to players. The Patriots obviously thought they had dotted all I's and crossed all T's, but in retrospect maybe there was a breakdown somewhere along the way.
Q. Mike, Bill Belichick, as he always says, can only coach the players that show up on the field. There could be some interesting changes to both offense and defense this season. Maybe a stronger commitment to a running game with experienced backs and linemen plus much bigger receivers for downfield blocking. On defense, quicker, faster linemen to penetrate up-field on pass rush with better quality corners on coverage. Tom Brady stays healthy with a good run game and the pass rush becomes legitimate. Thoughts? -- JoeFla (Orlando, Fla.)
A. Joe, ideally, the Patriots will be strong enough across the board to alter their attack on a weekly basis as a game-plan offense. That's when they feel they are at their best. So if that means pounding the ball on the ground against an undersized Bills defense -- as we saw last year in a 200-plus-yard rushing effort -- they'll do it. If it means spreading the field and playing more out of the shotgun -- like they did in 2006 against the No. 1-ranked Vikings run defense -- they'll do that, too. Obviously, an offense wants to have something it can hang its hat on in critical moments, and if that becomes the running game in 2013, it would be an interesting change of pace. I have some doubts it will be that extreme, but, like you, I had the thought that perhaps it could trend in that direction.
Q. Focusing on the football side of AH's problem; How does the loss of AH affect the offensive strategy of the Pats? Even if he is able to play while legal issues swirl, professional sports in general, and football in particular, requires a focus and discipline that could sideline AH. No one currently on the roster has his complete skill set. What offensive changes might we see? -- Dave (Elmira, N.Y.)
A. Dave, they need to see how the receivers come along. If it turns out they have some difference-makers there, maybe they become a three-receiver attack. If Rob Gronkowski is ready for the season opener and they sign someone like Dallas Clark, maybe the offense keeps that two-tight end form. It ties into the question above about how the Patriots like to be a "game-plan" offense, but I think you've hit on a good point: Without Hernandez, the Patriots obviously lose that chess piece that fits in a variety of ways and helps dictate favorable matchups.
Q. Hi Mike, is there any reason for offensive optimism given that over the last three years the Pats have transformed their offense into a TE-centric system, and now likely will not have Gronk for the first six games and will probably never again have another TE with a totally unique skill set in Hernandez (one who can line up at TE, offset, out wide, and in the backfield). Perhaps if the Pats had a skilled WR corps they would be able to somewhat compensate; however, an opening-day starting WR corps of Amendola, Julian Edelman and Michael Jenkins does not appear to meet that criteria. Your thoughts? -- Tman (Belmont, Mass.)
A. Tman, this wasn't the way it was drawn up by the coaches, there's no doubt about it. But I still wouldn't count out the resiliency of this coaching staff and front office. It might not look great now -- and the spring camps showed some clear struggles -- but there's still a long way to go. I think they'll find a way to move the ball and score points. I also like the idea of signing someone like veteran tight end Dallas Clark. I think he could help them.
Q. Mike, a lot of hand wringing going on about the re-vamped receving corp plus the potential loss of both Gronkowski and Hernandez at the tight end position, at least to start the season. I look at the receivers and I see proven guys like Amendola, Edelman and Jenkins plus the two rookies that we haven't seen in a full training camp yet. Tight end, again, is still well-stocked with veterans like Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui plus the rookie Zach Sudfeld and we all know Gronk should return by week 7. Add to this a solid group of pass-catching running backs and I think the Pats' offense is still loaded for 2013. Can't remember their names but I hear the quarterback and head coach are pretty good, too. The point is we are only in June and there are a number of major players who have yet to take the field in full camp, let alone an actual game. Put Gronk on the PUP and let him heal and let the Hernandez situation play out. The offense will be fine regardless. Thoughts? -- Gregg (Scottsdale, Ariz.)
A. Gregg, I understand the concerns, but I'm closer to adopting your line of thinking. I just don't think it's good business to bet against Brady. I also think this coaching staff and front office is resourceful. The entire offensive line is back. They still have some good things going for them.
Q. Mike, am I having a really bad nightmare? The events over this offseason have been surreal to say the least. Welker to Denver, Gronk having surgeries, and now Hernandez with the police. It all feels just so surreal! Toward the end of last season, I felt as though this was a team we can start to improve upon, but somehow we've managed to get worse. So far, our two starting tight ends don't look as though they're physically or mentally able to start week one! Maybe it's just me, but I'm really hoping rookie free-agent tight end Zach Sudfeld is everything as advertised in OTA's. Is there a light at the end of this dark tunnel? Are there any positives we can take away from this offseason? Amendola? Defense? -- Mike (Nottingham, UK)
A. Ryan, Amendola looks like the real deal. And as you mentioned, not much changed with the defense, which should be a positive for the team. You still have Tom Brady. The Patriots will still be one of the better teams in the NFL, but I'd agree that it's been a more turbulent offseason than the norm.
Q. Mike, I can't believe what is happening to the Patriots right now with the TE situation. The lack of Hernandez (who I think will be ultimately released) and Gronk (injured) will have a grave effect on Amendola's health and durability. If we have to rely on him like we could with Welker, we will lose him by week 6 to injury. Your thoughts? -- Ed M. (San Antonio)
A. Ed, I expect Amendola to play a lot, and he could catch 100 passes if he stays healthy. Even if Gronkowski and Hernandez were on the field, I'd still anticipate seeing Amendola with big play-time stats. He's their best receiver and I figure they'll want him on the field as much as possible.
Q. Mike, just wanted to follow up on the Austin Collie visit. Any word on a possible contract for him? He was a fantastic player at BYU and his first three seasons at Indy showed tons of promise. I think he would be a great fit in NE, given the uncertainty at the WR position. -- Shannon S. (Salt Lake City, Utah)
A. Shannon, Collie also visited the 49ers and has yet to sign a contract. Perhaps it's revisited as we get closer to camp. Like you, I think he could help, but the injury concerns are real.