Mailbag: O-line still a concern

Based on submissions to this week's Patriots mailbag, many of which were sparked after watching the preseason opener against the Saints, one of the primary concerns among followers is the state of the team's offensive line.

Watching quarterback Tom Brady get crunched, and the line struggle in pass protection, has some asking questions if the unit will come together and produce the desired results.

Some other hot topics included:

1. Waiving injured linebacker Dane Fletcher.
2. Linebacker depth chart.
3. Shortened preseason schedule.
4. Potentially keeping seven receivers.
5. Quarterback Ryan Mallett's performance.

Q: I feel the hype over how bad the O-line is doing might be a little premature. There's only been one preseason game, only one sack was recorded as far as I saw, and the line is far from finalized. What happens if we have a line of Solder, Mankins, Connolly, Waters, Vollmer all ready for week 1? That's still a possibility and even without Waters that line looks pretty good. Thoughts? -- Nathan (Melbourne, Australia)

A: Nathan, I think this is a fair thought. It's best not to read too much into preseason results. I remember writing something in 2008 that based on Matt Cassel's preseason performance, the Patriots have to hope that Tom Brady never gets hurt. Then Brady injures his knee on the 15th offensive play of the regular season and Cassel comes in, grows on the job, and the Patriots are 11-5 at the end of the season. The one thing I'd say on the line is that it's easy to overlook its importance when talking about the overall offense and all the weapons the Patriots have accumulated. But as we've seen, if the line crumbles, it can paralyze an entire offense. I felt like that's basically what happened in the preseason opener. In the end, I think they'll be OK on the interior however the chips fall, but if Sebastian Vollmer isn't ready, the tackle spot looks too thin to me.

Q: Hi, what are the odds that Sebastian Vollmer starts the season on the physically unable to perform list? He had back problems in college so this is a situation that the Patriots should not rush and let him rehab. Is this the last year of his contract? -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)

A: Ashley, I don't have a good read on Vollmer's situation, but I think we're getting closer to a breaking point. If Vollmer isn't on the field within the next week, I'd think it's leaning heavily in that direction. This is the last year of Vollmer's contract.

Q: Mike, I'm curious about why the team was signing rookie OL when we had the spate of injuries. Wouldn't it make more sense to sign someone with a few years in the league, so they'd be a little more prepared for/familiar with NFL play (especially considering they're likely training camp bodies)? Are they thinking if a rookie looks better than expected, they're eligible for the practice squad? -- Jacob (Bethlehem, Pa.)

A: Jacob, a lot of it probably comes down to health and availability. There aren't many established veterans, in good health and with the desire to play/be in training camp for minimal pay, available at that position. Robert Gallery is probably a good example. He was at the end of his career and didn't make it through camp as his body started to break down on him and his performance dipped. The Patriots are reportedly scheduled to give veteran offensive tackle Chad Clifton (Packers) a physical this week, so he's on the radar, but others such as Vernon Carey (Dolphins) and Marcus McNeill (Chargers) are reportedly ready to retire.

Q: Mike do you know of any offensive linemen on the street who have been productive players in the past. If the first preseason game the O line was poor. I thinking of a Brian Waters who signed late last year? -- Pete (Central Vermont)

A: Pete, here is a good list of available free-agents, per "The Sideline View." In May, the Patriots had Brandon Keith (formerly of the Cardinals, currently a free agent) in for a workout along with Stephon Heyer (later signed with the Jets) and Jamey Richard (signed by the Patriots and later placed on IR), so he'd be on the radar. Given Mark LeVoir's history in the system, one would think he might be on the radar. This might be a case where the team looks closely at the waiver wire at the cutdown dates, similar to 2010 when they claimed offensive tackle Steve Maneri on waivers from the Texans.

Q: Hi Mike. Given how soon Mankins is coming back from ACL surgery (6 months), don't we need to be realistic about how he will play this season, and how his presence will improve the line? It seems that the first year back from ACL surgery is almost always subpar, and the player only returns near to his former level of play in year 2 following the surgery. He's tough as nails, but his ability to be that pulling guard, or to get out on screens, or even to be mobile enough to pick up stunts might be severely limited this year. Your thoughts? -- Tman (Belmont, Mass.)

A: We often hear players talk about how the second year removed from surgery is a big difference from the first. In this case, it's probably a situation where 75-90 percent of Mankins' best is probably better than their next option. So while Mankins' play maybe won't match the high level we've seen from him in the past, it should still be at a pretty high level when "grading" on the overall offensive guard curve.

Q: The offensive line is starting to look more like I expected it to with Logan Mankins practicing. But what about Brian Waters' situation? Preseason is underway, and at what point does his absence start to raise a serious red flag about his readiness for the season? I can't remember any other player that Belichick has been so lenient with about attending camp, and this seems to be a serious departure from the way things work in Foxboro. -- Arthur (Worcester, Mass.)

A: Arthur, perhaps there will be some clarity on Waters' situation in the next week or so, because we're getting close to the point where preparations for the Sept. 9 season opener will shift into a higher gear. I wouldn't be surprised if that goes in either direction. Like you, I felt like the Waters situation put Belichick in a challenging spot. In one respect, we hear about the importance of camp, and building a foundation, and how this is the time that players can build camaraderie. Yet when one player is given an excused absence, it sort of mixes that message a bit -- why should one player be above the team? One thing I'd say is that it's possible we don't have all the facts, making it hard to judge. Perhaps Waters is dealing with a personal situation. Perhaps it's a contractual thing, which we've seen before with other players.

Q: Hey Mike, with the depth at o-line in question, who do you think will be the Week 1 starters if Vollmer isn't healthy and Brian Waters retires? -- Dante (Minneapolis)

A: Dante, based on the present picture, I think we'd see a starting line of left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Logan Mankins, center Ryan Wendell, right guard Dan Connolly and right tackle Marcus Cannon. Veteran Dan Koppen could give Wendell a run for the starting center spot, while Cannon could potentially be pushed by a free-agent pickup.

Q: Hi Mike, I keep hearing about how Cannon looks more suited for the role of guard. Why do you think he hasn't been tried at that position and should Waters not return and Vollmer come back strong do you think we could end up seeing him there. It seems like if Connolly moved back to center, Cannon would have the potential to help at the guard position. -- Tom Mangin (Medford, Oregon)

A: Tom, I asked Belichick about that on Monday and he pretty decisively put Cannon at the tackle spot. From my amateur scouting viewpoint, it's looked like he's struggled there in camp and in the preseason opener. While I wouldn't alter my opinion, I think we can ask the question, who has a better feel for Cannon -- 38-year NFL coaching veteran Bill Belichick or an ESPNBoston.com writer who hasn't worked a sideline? I'd go with Belichick, so let's see how it plays out. Here was Belichick's direct quote on Cannon: "He's big, he's strong, he's in good condition [and] he's got the feet to be able to play out there in space. It's the position he played in college; he has a long history of playing there."

Q: I know the Patriots are looking into Plaxico Burress, but I really am doubting he would fit in the Patriots system. What do you think? -- Neil Pavao (Gainesville, Georgia)

A: Neil, my thoughts were similar in 2007 when the Patriots traded for Randy Moss. I was surprised at that time, but it worked out. Burress could offer some size in the red zone -- he's a different type of target than they currently have -- but overall my sense is that the team has a good competition at the top of the receiver depth chart right now and that Burress would be more of an emergency-type option in the event of injury.

Q: Hi Mike, Looking at the make-up of the final 53 man roster, isn't there the case that the Pats might start with 7 WR's? I can't believe that there will be a FB, as none have seemed to make a big enough impact in camp. Also it seems plausible that there are only 2 TE's to start, with 1-2 starting on PUP (Fells & Shiancoe). -- Marc (London, UK)

A: Marc, they've done it before, so it's not out of the realm of possibility. One thing to consider is that Visanthe Shiancoe is not eligible for PUP, because he practiced. With Deion Branch returning to full participation in practice the last two days, and looking good in the process, there could be some tough decisions to make at this position. One reason I have leaned against seven is the limited special teams contributions of the 3-4-5 group of Branch, Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth. If Stallworth becomes a primary kickoff returner, that could alter the picture.

Q: Hi Mike, why in the world would the Patriots waive Dane Fletcher instead of putting him on injured reserve? By all accounts, he's a valuable asset when healthy, and with roster limits at 90 right now, it seems a little risky. Do they need the roster spot that badly? Plenty of people criticized the Giants for exposing Jake Ballard to waivers and then losing him to the Pats. Now the Pats are doing the same thing on a player with the same injury. Wouldn't it be a kicker if the ILB-needy Giants got back at the Pats and grabbed Fletcher? -- Darryl (Woodstock, VT)

A: Darryl, I had the same question. It seems like a very un-Patriot-like move, in terms of exposing an asset to the waiver wire. As Bill Belichick has said in the past, when you put a player on waivers, you prepare for the fact that you might lose him. Even if the Patriots needed a roster spot, I could think of several other players who would be more expendable to create that room. So, like you, I'm surprised at this one. Let's see if Fletcher clears through waivers.

Q: Was looking forward to seeing Dane Fletcher with this group of LB's. It's really unfortunate, but it's a part of football. That being said, does this spell more playing time for Bobby Carpenter? I know he hasn't lived up to the caliber we thought he would, but with such a competitive LB corps, I see him filling in nicely. Thoughts and how he compares to Fletcher (special teams attributes aside). Also could you rank the LB position before the Fletcher injury? -- Matt (Newport, R.I.)

A: Matt, I do think this means Bobby Carpenter steps into a top reserve role at linebacker, mainly as a coverage-type linebacker. Bill Belichick has talked about his smarts and experience, and we've also seen him show up on special teams. Another player I wouldn't overlook is second-year linebacker Jeff Tarpinian in that coverage-type nickel linebacker role. In terms of a ranking, this is how I'd break down the linebackers:

Starters: Jerod Mayo (weakside), Brandon Spikes (middle), Dont'a Hightower (strongside)
Backups: Bobby Carpenter (weakside), Hightower (middle), Rob Ninkovich (strongside)
Sub: Mayo, Hightower, Carpenter, Tarpinian
Special teams: Niko Koutouvides, Tracy White
Others: Mike Rivera (potential middle/strong option), Aaron Lavarias

Q: With the injury to Fletcher, it got me wondering, is there a set number of spots for each position? With Fletchers injury looking to be season ending, is he replaced with another LB or does his injury open up a spot for Branch and Stallworth to both make the team. If not, is there any position on the team, if hit by an injury could open up a spot for a different position? Feel as if LB is the deepest stocked on the team. -- Matt (Newport, R.I.)

A: Matt, specific to Fletcher, I don't necessarily think it has to be a linebacker-for-linebacker exchange on the roster. It could wind up being the case, but I had the thought that it could help someone like fullback Spencer Larsen because of the special teams consideration. Just something to keep in mind. Also, there is some built-in flexibility on the roster with players like Rob Ninkovich, who is a defensive end with versatility to factor into the linebacker mix as well.

Q: Hey Mike, when a player is released, goes unclaimed, and reverts back to your injured reserve list, does his salary count against the cap? I'm speaking specifically about Dane Fletcher, I know his contract isn't big and the Patriots will have to pay it no matter what, but I'm wondering if it counts against the Patriots $120.6 million cap. Thanks! -- Ramin (San Marcos, TX)

A: Ramin, my understanding is that the player still counts against the salary cap. If he didn't, it could create a dynamic where teams "stash" players on injured reserve.

Q: Hi Mike, I've got to admit I dropped the ball on Mike Rivera. I remembered the name from last year, but never took the time to figure out who he was. He's obviously done some good things in practice, and I was surprised Thursday to see how much he played in the first half and that he was on two of the top special teams units. Was the injury to Dane Fletcher his big break? -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)

A: Tim, I do think the injury to Fletcher switched some things around and gave Rivera an early look that he might not have received otherwise. He is a first-year linebacker from Kansas who is a little bit bigger at 6-2, 255, and spent last year on the practice squad. With the Patriots going with a bigger linebacker group this year, his physical makeup fits with the scheme shake-up, but he's probably still a longer shot to earn a roster spot.

Q: Mike, have you heard of any complaints from BB or the Pats about the fact that they have to play 4 games in a 20 day span? It seems to me that with the new CBA rules limiting the amount of full pad practices, as well as the NFL's re-commitment to player safety, playing that many games in that short a time period runs counter to safety and is really quite hypocritical. Am I being too picky here? Seems to me we're always hearing about players' needs to "recover" from the physicality of the game. -- Tom (Boston)

A: Tom, I don't think you're being too picky. I see the schedule as a contradiction to the league's player safety message. Bill Belichick touched on it during his appearance on sports radio WEEI on Monday and said, "It's not an ideal schedule and it's certainly not the way you'd want to do it. ... I think the big thing is to go out there and play, and give the players a chance to recover so they can go and play again, and then give them a chance to recover so they can go play again. Playing that many games, in that short a period of time, is obviously not the ideal way to do it. There is nothing more important than the health of our team, and you want to recognize that and do everything we can to keep as many guys practicing and healthy as we possibly can. I'd say that will probably be the No. 1 priority relative to those games, and then evaluate the guys that are playing and see how they do."

Q: I asked this same question a few weeks ago but think it may have been too early because you didn't answer but now I'll ask again after a preseason game is officially under our belts. What's the impact that you see the replacement refs having on the games and the health of our ELITE quarterbacks during the regular season if they're still in place? I'm REALLY concerned about the NON-calls more than the ticky tack calls. Your thoughts? -- Benjamin (Grand Rapids, Michigan)

A: Benjamin, it's hard for me to believe the league would go into the 2012 season with these replacement referees. While the regular referees made their share of mistakes, too, it just doesn't seem right to me. I share in your concern, more so from the standpoint of the game not being regulated by people qualified to do so.

Q: Who do you consider likely candidates to start the regular season on the PUP list? -- Tom (Bangor/Maine)

A: Tom, I think the likely candidates are defensive lineman Myron Pryor and tight ends Daniel Fells and Jake Ballard. Also, you have rookie offensive tackle Markus Zusevics on the non-football injury list.

Q: Mike, It seems like it would be beneficial for the Pats to bring in Kevin Faulk and Andre Carter for training camp, not only to evaluate what they could bring to the team but also to act as mentors for the younger players as both are hard working no-nonsense individuals. Thoughts? Also whats the status with Daniel Fells? -- Nick (Hull, Mass.)

A: Nick, I think both positions are in good shape right now, so I'm not sure I see the pressing need there. I'd focus more on the offensive line as a potential area to address with one of the freed-up roster spots, specifically at tackle. Faulk and Carter are both great mentor types, but at the same time, I feel like the team has several players who can serve that role.

Q: How difficult is it going to be to evaluate Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett in the preseason if they don't get much protection from the offensive line? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)

A: David, I think most backup quarterbacks have to be prepared to move in these preseason games. That's not exclusive to just the Patriots. From listening to Belichick over the years, the evaluation of quarterbacks is multi-layered -- it's not just the result of the play, but the overall management of the offense. Can they get the team in and out of the huddle? How do they react to the different situations that come up? How do they react to pressure? I think there are still a lot of ways to evaluate quarterbacks even in a preseason situation where the protection might not always be great.

Q: First thought on Ryan Mallett: pretty bad, but got better the quicker he got the ball out of his hands. His best drive came at the end of the 2nd quarter, when he was letting it go after a couple step drops on screens and a couple short out routes. When he stood in the pocket scanning for more than a few seconds, he got anxious. Thoughts? -- Tyler (Peterborough, NH)

A: Tyler, that was my read as well. I thought his best play came in that two-minute drive at the end of the first half when he had to move his feet a bit, keep a play alive, and then deliver a nice short throw that hit the receiver in stride. Overall, a performance that probably led to more questions than answers, so we look forward to Monday's game against the Eagles to see if he looks better.

Q: Mike, I'm curious, are there rules governing how many players are active for preseason games? -- Galen (Portland, Oregon)

A: Galen, a team can dress all 90 players for a preseason game if the players are healthy and ready to play. There is no limit.

Q: Mike, given the depth that the Patriots have had the past few years, they have become very good at acquiring mid- to late-round draft picks for players that they likely would have otherwise cut. While injuries can certainly alter the terrain, at what positions do you believe the Pats have surplus NFL caliber players, and what do you think the league-wide market for these positions is? -- John (Manchester, NH)

A: John, I'd say receiver and defensive line would be the two positions where there could be a player who has some value to another club in terms of potentially picking up a late-round draft choice. But I think we've seen in the last year or so, more and more teams seem to be holding off on giving up those draft picks and are instead more content to wait through the waiver process to pick up a player.