In the early years of Robert Kraft's ownership tenure, the Patriots would sometimes have an announcement (e.g. contract extension for a player) at the start of training camp that served as a momentum-builder.
The opening of camp often represented renewed hope, because it was a clean slate. The prior year's disappointment has faded. It's a fresh start.
But for the 2013 Patriots, this week's opening of camp is different from any other in franchise history because there is still an element of retrospection when it comes to Aaron Hernandez's murder charge and how it reflects negatively on the franchise. It's the topic that figures to dominate Bill Belichick's opening news conference of training camp, which will be held Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET.
In most years, Belichick's first news conference is on the first day of practice. But this year, it is two days before the team first takes the field, which seems to reflect the team's desire to address the situation and move on as quickly as possible.
That dynamic is where this week's Patriots mailbag begins, as it won't be long before football officially returns.
Q. Under the circumstances re: Aaron Hernandez, I believe the Pats have to have an in-depth press conference with Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick before camp opens up so that the situation can be put aside. Your thoughts? -- Mike S. (Salem, Mass.)
A. Mike, I think your goals are aligned with the team's in terms of wanting to put the Hernandez situation aside. That probably explains why Bill Belichick is holding a Wednesday news conference (2 p.m. ET), which is a day before veterans are scheduled to report for camp. I am sure he will address the situation in some form, but my guess is that his remarks will be restricted because of legal ramifications. As for Kraft, I'm not sure what else he could say at this point; I feel like that aspect has been accounted for.
Q. Hey Mike I was hoping you could let me know what three of the first practices should be padded. If you are unsure, do you know what they have done for past years? I would like to go either Saturday or Sunday but I want to see a full-pads practice. Last time I went they were only in helmets and it was more of a walk/jog-through. -- Branden (Nashua, N.H.)
A. Branden, there is no on-field work allowed on the first day of camp (Thursday is when veteran players are scheduled to report), and no contact is permitted on the second (Friday) and third days (Saturday). So it looks like Sunday is your best chance for a full-pads practice. Judy Battista of the New York Times wrote on some of these changes last year.
Q. Hey Mike. How early would you recommend arriving to training camp? (I know it starts a 9 a.m. this year.) Also do fans generally get a chance to meet some players/get autographs? -- Alay P. (Princeton, N.J.)
A. Alay, on the early days of camp, we usually see fans lined up at the gate in advance of the first practice. So depending on your flexibility, it never hurts to get an early start. There are bleachers on which to sit -- those can fill up fast -- and others prefer the hillside. As for the autographs, the Patriots have traditionally assigned a position group to sign after each practice. I'd come with low expectations on receiving an autograph, though. Given that crowds can be heavy, it's nearly impossible for everyone to leave happy.
Q. Hi Mike, could New England take a chance on Laurent Robinson not just for potential, but also as a power/blocking move? The Jets' receiving corps is weak, and the Ravens' got thinner with Jacoby Jones going on NFI. Also, the buzz about preseason seems to be "X" WR. What about Z? Does the team not rely on Z much because of their use of the slot and different TE types? I thought that Josh Boyce, while flexible, has Z receiver capability. -- Matthew (New Hampshire)
A. Matthew, Robinson is scheduled to work out for the Patriots on Tuesday (July 23). If he had not sustained multiple concussions last year with the Jaguars, it's hard to imagine he would be available right now. The Jets had him in for a workout Monday, and the Lions also have plans to take a closer look. When I look at the receiving corps, the battle at "X" is highlighted by veteran Michael Jenkins vs. rookie Aaron Dobson. Then it's Julian Edelman, Josh Boyce, Kenbrell Thompkins, Kamar Aiken and Lavelle Hawkins in a pretty wide-open competition for the other outside spot in the three-receiver set. Danny Amendola is the lock as the slot option and also should stay on the field in most two-receiver sets.
Q. Mike, want to extend well wishes to Mike Rodak. I appreciate that the other writers on the Patriots blog have taken the same football-first approach as you over the years. Best of luck to him. Onto football, I'm a little surprised even with the roster bonus due that Donald Jones was let go this week. I think it's a position in training camp that needs some work of course and we need to see someone emerge. We've been over the options, but do you think there's any possibility of bringing in another body (Brandon Lloyd, Deion Branch, someone else) before camp begins? I just think they need as many warm bodies as possible to see if a connection with Brady presents itself. -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A. Thanks Dean. I'm sure Mike will appreciate those thoughts as he is off to bigger and better things (but will stay within the family; his job will be announced when all the I's are dotted and T's are crossed). On the Jones cut, it's often a mix on these types of situations -- the combination of Jones' performance in spring drills, the team's financial situation, the emergence of young receivers and the desire to give them repetitions/opportunities all added up to lead to the decision to let him go. I don't think this is the type of decision that will come back to haunt them.
Q. Some have analogized the upcoming season to 2006 where TB12 had flotsam and jetsom at WR (apart from Troy Brown), and still came oh so close to getting to the SB; but, I don't think the analogy assuages Pats fans' concerns. The Pats lost that year because one of those mediocre to bad WRs dropped at least one pass, which if caught, meant a TD (hello, Reche Caldwell). In other words, ultimately, the Pats lost that year precisely because their WR situation was so bad. What I fear is another year where exactly the same thing happens. That is, we will look back and realize that the mediocrity/inexperience at WR will prove to be the Pats' Achilles' heel. Your thoughts? -- Tman (Belmont, Mass.)
A. It's a valid concern, Tman, although I'll nitpick a bit about the 2006 thoughts. Yes, that dropped pass hurt them in the AFC Championship Game, but are we just going to overlook the defensive performance in the late first half/second half of that game? Football is a team game, and if the defense steps up on one of those drives with a stop, are we having the same discussion? As for this year's receiving corps, there are a lot of questions. There is no doubt about that. The defending champion Ravens have similar questions. If we look around the NFL, we could pick out every team and find at least one position where that is also the case. No team has all the answers right now, and that's why they go through the process of training camp to try to figure them out. Specific to the Patriots receivers, there is some potential with young talent at the position. They don't have to carry the load, but if they can contribute what Deion Branch did in 2002 (totaling 43 receptions for 489 yards), that would be a help to the team. Let's see what they can do before we bury this group before the first day of practice.
Q. History shows that with rare exception (Randy Moss, Anquan Boldin, a few others), rookie WRs contribute very little. I know you're high on Kenbrell Thompkins based on his work without pads, but is there really any reason for us fans to think one of the UDFAs is going to be the next Marques Colston? I realize no one could have expected Aaron Hernandez not to be here, but I'm just baffled why you'd surround a Hall of Fame QB in his last few years with this group of pass catchers. You can argue this is like 2006, but A) I still remember the drops in that season's last game, which probably cost the team a Super Bowl as surely as Asante Samuel's and Wes Welkers' did against the Giants; and B) I think those wideouts were probably better than these ones, as sad as that is to say. -- Jacob (Bethlehem, Penn.)
A. Jacob, if a team is relying on an undrafted free agent, it is shaky ground on which to be standing. I agree that there are a lot of questions with this receiving corps, and I had a similar thought to you in this regard: When Bill Belichick looks back on this part of his coaching tenure, I wonder if he will have some second thoughts on not placing a higher value on the receiver spot. I wrote that in the weekly Sunday "quick hit" thoughts this week. A big-play receiver can be a difference-maker even if he doesn't catch double-digit passes, in part because of the respect the defense has to give him.
Q. Mike, you mentioned in your chat that Kenbrell Thompkins is moving up the depth chart at WR. How is it that Thompkins has escaped post-Hernandez scrutiny? His ESPN draft profile reads: "Made some poor decisions in his early years and was arrested seven times in between ages 15-17 with charges that included armed robbery, possession of cocaine and intent to sell." -- Jack S. (New York, N.Y.)
A. Jack, Thompkins had a tough upbringing, and that wasn't a secret to any of the teams that scouted him, or in this case, the team that signed him. In the end, it comes down to a team deciding whether the issues are behind the player. The Patriots are obviously comfortable with Thompkins, and I spoke with another scout who felt that that wasn't a concern at this point. Does that mean there won't be problems? There is no guarantee. But Thompkins is going to be 25 years old and the arrests happened 8-10 years ago, and there hasn't been anything like it since. Where does a team draw the line? Surely, we can all list plenty of examples of players who have thrived when given a chance. These aren't black and white situations; each one has to be viewed individually.
Q. So, the Pats just signed a defensive tackle who was kicked off the Duke football team (John Drew) for discharging a gun on campus as a freshman. Can you please walk us through the risk/reward analysis on this one? -- Karl (Charlotte, N.C.)
A. Karl, the Patriots ended up backing away from signing Drew to a contract at the last moment. Drew was in town for his second workout with the club, and his representatives had a contract in hand ready to execute. But the deal wasn't finalized and this could have been a consequence of second thoughts about Drew's past. In light of everything that has unfolded with Aaron Hernandez, it would make some sense if ownership had some concerns and nixed the pact, although I'm not certain of the specifics of this situation.
Q. I know people keep questioning the depth at WR, so is it just me, or am I the only one who thinks the Patriots are actually playing with a 54-man roster? Lest we forget the clutch, on-call, veteran Deion Branch. I feel like Belichick is giving these young guys a shot, but if they don't pan out, or there's an injury, we immediately save grace by re-signing Deion. -- Will C. (Worcester, Mass.)
A. Will, I think that's a good point. If things don't look good with the young receivers, a player like Branch -- who knows the system -- is always a possibility to return.
Q. Hey Mike, my question surrounds our RB committee. Do you think that because of our lack of experience at the WR position, BB is overstocking the running back position to make sure that there are always fresh legs ready to go? Stevan Ridley seems to be in great shape based off of reports, but we all know the running back gets wear and tear throughout the year. Do you expect Ridley, Shane Vereen, Leon Washington, Brandon Bolden, and LeGarrette Blount have a spot on the 53-man roster or do you think we will see a cut in camp? -- Brendan (Canton)
A. Brendan, I view Ridley, Vereen and Washington (more as a kickoff returner) as the roster locks, so then the question comes down to Bolden vs. Blount. I could see five being kept because Bolden provides fairly strong special-teams value. Often, an injury can sort things out, but the big takeaway from here is that I wouldn't rule out five running backs. If you do that, it would have to trim another area, possibly affecting someone like No. 3 quarterback Tim Tebow.
Q. Hi Mike, for obvious reasons, many are focusing on the Patriots' run game, which makes sense. I think Brandon Bolden could be a key contributor as there were times last year when he played as well if not better than Ridley. While the receivers get up to speed, the experienced running backs and offensive line will be critical. Thoughts? -- JoeFla (Orlando, Fla.)
A. Joe, my take is that the Patriots' offense has been at its best when it gets the running game going to complement the passing game. This is a "game-plan" offense that adjusts its attack to hit at the weaknesses of the opposition, and as we saw last year, it isn't afraid to turn to the running game (decisive 200-plus rushing yards vs. Denver and Buffalo). I don't see that approach changing in 2013. So while there are questions in the passing game, I don't think this suddenly becomes a run-first offense. I believe the offense will still attempt to tailor its approach on a weekly basis and will still find ways to move the ball through the air.
Q. I was a bit surprised that Bill Belichick got rid of Jeff Demps. Thought he was worth a longer look. I know he wanted to run track as well, but thought there might be some flexibility. Hope they don't look back and regret this one. -- Walter (Los Angeles)
A. Walter, it was easy to get excited about Demps' speed when the Patriots signed him last year as it almost seemed as if they had landed another draft pick. But one thing that has been pretty constant with the club is that if a player isn't "all-in," it's going to be hard for him to make it in the program. I can understand the management viewpoint that if you start making special rules for a young player like that, it runs against the team's goals and expectations and can create the wrong message for others.
Q. Mike, I'm having a hard time understanding the moves being increasingly made by BB and the Patriots organization. I separate them as I feel that BB is increasingly being given a free hand in deciding who stays and who goes, disregarding what is best for the team. The Wes Welker debacle was the tipping point for me, with BB overlooking performance/results and his need to provide the most important piece of the organization, TB, quality receiving targets. Where is the owner in all this? What is your opinion? -- Jim B. (Atlantic City, N.J.)
A. Jim, Robert Kraft hasn't traditionally been involved deeply with every football decision, although he certainly is on the high-level ones like Welker. There were some multilayered dynamics with that situation, and in the end, I think both sides might now come to the conclusion that they could have done some things differently. When two sides have aligned goals -- both wanted him to be here, both (it turned out afterward) wanted a similar price -- a deal should be able to get done.
Q. Hey Mike, I'm still hearing about the Pats needing to re-tool their two-TE offense, but didn't Gronk and Hernandez both have injuries last year? Seems like we had plenty of games and plays with one TE. Do you have the stats on that? Makes me think the playbook isn't going to be a problem. Thanks! -- Jamal (Hoover, Ala.)
A. Jamal, it was almost an even 50-50 split between plays with two or more tight ends and plays with three or more receivers. That is a good reminder that while the Patriots might have preferred a two-tight end offense, the main reason was because of the unique skills of Gronkowski and Hernandez. They won't stick to the system and just plug any two tight ends just to say, "we're a two-tight end offense."
Q. Hi Mike, have you had a chance to see Armond Armstead or know how he's progressing? I've heard that he was a very promising player and might be able to contribute a lot this year on the D line. -- Carl P. (Natick, Mass.)
A. Carl, that is a tough position to watch in spring drills, when there is no contact. I'm looking forward to seeing more from Armstead in training camp, although he is opening camp on the non-football illness list.
Q. Hey Mike, you mentioned that more teams are holding training camp in their own facilities than in the past. Why do you think that is? Does it just get the team more familiar with the facilities to help get ready for the regular season? -- Dave B. (San Francisco)
A. Dave, the Patriots used to hold their training camp at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., but began staying home for the first time in 2003. The main reason was that everything they needed was right there once Gillette Stadium was constructed, from the weight room to the meeting rooms. It used to be a major process to set everything up at Bryant. But now, the thinking is: Why leave when everything you need is at home?