A juggling act as season nears

There is a little bit of everything in this week's Patriots mailbag, which reflects the time on the football calendar. As Bill Belichick said on Monday, there are a lot of balls in the air -- preseason finale, roster cuts, evaluating players who might still be on the bubble and looking ahead to the season opener at Tennessee, among other things.

This preseason feels a lot like the 2011 version, when the Patriots went into Detroit and got knocked around a bit. The same thing happened, to a lesser degree, last Friday in Tampa.

It's set up a situation where Belichick's plan for the preseason finale might be altered, and that's where this week's 'bag begins.

Q. Mike, do you think the Pats might allow Brady and some of the starters to play in the final preseason game in order to give him one more chance at finding a rhythm, while minimizing his exposure to the most aggressive rushing defenders? Could be a good confidence builder while reducing the injury risk. -- Niko (Boston)

A. Niko, when the Patriots didn't play well in the third preseason game against Detroit last year, we saw Tom Brady play in the preseason finale against the Giants. So I could see it happening again. The only thing that makes me wonder if it might be slightly different is the quicker turnaround, with the game being played on the road on Wednesday. Because of that quick turnaround, my thought would be that if Brady plays, it wouldn't be too much.

Q. Mike, can't say I'm surprised by the Donte' Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney moves. When the base defense has 2 WR, 2 TE and 1 RB, they can't carry 6 WR, 5 RB and 2-3 TE. With Hernandez able to fill in in the slot WR and at RB, they need more TE depth. Gronk's injury killed them in the Super Bowl. I'm predicting 4 TE on the roster. Thoughts? -- Leon (Ottawa)

A. Leon, I think it will be three tight ends: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Daniel Fells. I am told the fourth tight end, Visanthe Shiancoe, has been battling a hamstring injury and his return doesn't seem to be coming anytime soon. I think it's going to be hard for the team to keep him when he's not healthy. As for Stallworth and Gaffney, I felt like that was the way it was heading after the third preseason game, which was reflected in our roster projections.

Q. Hey Mike, with the addition of Jeff Demps to the running back committee, is it possible that the Patriots carry five running backs into the season? If so, who (if anyone) might be a game day inactive? -- Andrew (Providence, R.I.)

A. Andrew, I do think the Patriots will keep five running backs: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, Brandon Bolden and Jeff Demps. As for the game-day inactive, a lot will depend on health. With Vereen currently hobbled, he'd be a candidate to start as an inactive until healthy.

Q. One of the guys never discussed (it seems) as a potential roster casualty is Danny Woodhead, yet, his production track has clearly been in reverse since his inaugural Patriots season. He seems to have lost a bit of burst, a little bit of allusiveness and his overall performance has become more and more pedestrian. It's also revealing to me that someone you value to run the ball can be the worst kick returner in the league but still seen as a valuable runner from the line of scrimmage? Yes, he's lovable and he has that everyman appeal but I think it's time to evaluate him more critically. Thoughts? -- Dean (Rumford, R.I.)

A. Dean, I've thought about it with Woodhead, especially after Demps arrived. In the end, the main reasons I kept Woodhead on the final roster is the combination of the injury to Vereen (hobbled off Friday night in Tampa) and Woodhead's reliability and knowledge of the offense. I also reflect back to the Super Bowl and thought he played one of his best games.

Q. Hey Mike, every time I hear about Jeff Demps, I only hear about his potential impact as a kick returner and special teams player, but given his quickness and backfield production he put up at Florida I have to imagine that Belichick won't hesitate to use him as a weapon on third downs as well. Your thoughts? -- Cobi (Bethesda, Md.)

A. Cobi, I'd agree with that, once he feels comfortable with Demps from a pass protection standpoint. We already saw a glimpse in Friday's preseason game at Tampa, when Demps ripped off a 29-yard run. During the 2011 regular season, the Patriots' longest run from scrimmage was 33 yards. That speaks to Demps' explosion. Ridley had a 29-yarder as well against the Bucs.

Q. What moves do we need to make when it comes to the offensive line to protect Tom Brady's weak side? -- Tom (Lisbon Falls, Maine)

A. Tom, I think we'll see things come into focus from an offensive line standpoint in the coming days. Seeing Brian Waters' locker intact in the locker room makes me think he's a real possibility to return. If that happens, all of a sudden you might have a line of left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Logan Mankins, center Dan Connolly, Waters and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer if all the pieces come together. That looks pretty solid to me.

Q. Mike, I am curious about the whole Brian Waters situation, and not reporting to camp. Isn't there some sort of stipulation within a player's contract regarding reporting for camps and mandatory player meetings/practices? I guess I am just confused how this sort of thing actually plays out, is he still getting paid? And at what point is it enough and his contract becomes terminated? Just seems like a sketchy situation, curious what your additional comments are regarding this subject. -- Kaden (Franklin, Mass.)

A. Kaden, players under contract are required to report and if they don't, they can be subject to fines. But in this case, it doesn't seem as if the Patriots are taking that approach, as Belichick previously said that Waters was excused for personal reasons. My main takeaway from the situation is that no matter what unfolds -- and I now think Waters will be back -- Belichick and Waters have had an open dialogue and there have been no surprises behind closed doors. It's just that Belichick doesn't care to share the information publicly.

Q. Hi Mike, did the Patriots try to trade Wes Welker this weekend? The "personal situation" explanation sounds a little fishy to me, and I'm having nightmare flashbacks to this time of the year in 2009, when we were blindsided by the trade of another guy that will be back wearing a red jacket someday (Richard Seymour). And wasn't Welker in shorts at practice once or twice last week? That doesn't really suggest "personal situation that kept him away from the practice field" to me. -- Stephen (Southborough, Mass.)

A. Stephen, I would take this one at face value. Don't think there's much to read into this. Welker was dressed in full pads for Wednesday's practice in Tampa and I don't think he would have traveled with the team if there was any other issue, or a trade possibility. The assumption from here is that he sustained some type of injury in that full-pads Wednesday practice.

Q. I am glad New England has decided to lock up Aaron Hernandez (2018) and Rob Gronkowski (2019). Does that mean anything for Wes Welker? He is franchised for $9.5 million coming off another 100-plus reception season. There's nothing that makes me think that his stats be any different in 2012. At 32, do you think a 3-year deal is feasible for New England to offer? Would $18 million mostly/fully guaranteed to excessive? -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)

A. Alvin, I think three years is feasible to offer. That's what the Patriots offered to Chad Ochocinco last year and he was 33. So I don't think it's as much about the years as it is the money. I think three years at $18 million in bonuses/guarantees would have been fair this year. How fair it will be next year will be determined by what type of season Welker has in 2012.

Q. Is there really no way the Patriots could give Wes Welker a little longer deal? -- Mark (Seattle, Wash.)

A. Mark, there was a way, but the sides didn't agree on the compensation. Per NFL rules, the Patriots and Welker now cannot finalize a new contract until after the 2012 league year. These situations are always a two-way street. The Patriots could give it to Welker when they can talk extension again in the offseason, but at what cost? And Welker could in turn offer the team a break, but at what cost to him? In the end, a one-year deal at a guaranteed $9.5 million is a top-of-the-line contract and nothing to feel bad about.

Q. Mike, will all the 2012 Patriots draftees make the final roster? Haven't seen anyone project that. Not sure what is typical. -- Norm (Boston)

A. Norm, I think they'll all be on the roster outside of the seventh-round picks Alfonzo Dennard and Jeremy Ebert. It's possible Dennard could find a way to sneak on based on his potential. This is fairly typical across the NFL.

Q. Mike, I can't believe the Patriots locked up both Gronk and Hernandez! I assumed that BB would never be able to pay both, and that one would undoubtedly have to go in a classic Belichick cap management move. I could not be more excited about Hernandez's extension. I also think that the trickle-down of Hernandez's effectiveness in the slot means that Welker is definitely gone next year. As much as I love Wes, I think this is the right move by BB. Welker is not worth the money he is asking for, especially at his age and without having the measurables of a true No. 1 WR. Thoughts? -- Nate (Foxborough, Mass.)

A. Nate, I think it's too early to close the door on a possible deal with Welker. This is one of those situations where the picture might look different in the offseason, when the sides can revisit a possible extension. I still think there is space in the next few years to make something happen.

Q. Mike, I'm a guy that loves to talk about young talent. Looking at the WR position, it is safe to say there is no such thing on this Patriots squad. Over the past years we've seen Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, Taylor Price. Julian Edelman is the only receiver to really make it and he was a QB in college (due to his defense and special teams ability). Our top receivers now (Welker -- 31, Lloyd -- 31, Branch -- 33) are all up there in age. That being said, do you see the Patriots going to free agency and trades to fill the WR position while BB is in town (maybe late round picks as well)? I'm afraid that age will catch up to the team before they know it. Happy to see the signing of Hernandez, but how does the future of the WR position look? I know about Ebert, so let me rephrase. Do you ever see the Patriots with a flashy young WR? -- Matt (Newport, R.I.)

A. Matt, this has been a blind spot of late for the Patriots under Belichick, the failure to develop young receivers. I used to think it was something that could hurt them, but with the draw of playing with Tom Brady, this club has no issues getting veteran talent to come into the system at a reasonable cost. So I think they're going to be OK. The last time the Patriots really drafted and developed a receiver was 2002 with Deion Branch (second round) and David Givens (seventh round).

Q. Hi Mike, do teams ever scout "on the bubble" players from other teams this time of year, or is that too much wasted effort? For instance, say a "certainly better than Marcus Cannon" tackle is released from another team, is that something that is feasible to act on, or is focus solely on the cuts at hand at this point? -- Jake (Maine)

A. Jake, that's exactly what teams do at this time of year. At each game, there are a handful of scouts and they often focus on the bubble players. At one game, I remember asking a scout what he thought of Chandler Jones and his response was, "I could tell you something to fill out your story, but I haven't been watching him because I have a pretty good idea he's not going to be available."

Q. Mike, OL is a concern but how about the safety positions? Patrick Chung is a health issue, Steve Gregory is new to the system and then two rookie backups. Rodney Harrison is not coming through that door. Thoughts? -- JoeFla (Orlando, Fla.)

A. Joe, Chung's injury status (shoulder) is a fair concern. Meanwhile, I'd say free-agent signing Steve Gregory has been a pleasant surprise in terms of stepping into a leadership role, so he looks like an upgrade over what they had last year. Then it's rookie Tavon Wilson, heady veteran James Ihedigbo and rookie Nate Ebner next on the depth chart. To this point, I'd say the group has been pretty solid in the preseason and training camp.

Q. Hi Mike, regarding the release of Gerard Warren, is there any chance that, just like last year, the Pats will bring him back after a couple of games once the contract isn't guaranteed? I know he's getting "old", but always liked his attitude, and the fact that he does take up space effectively. Thanks. -- Tman (Belmont, Mass.)

A. Good thought, Tman. I could see it. Warren was dealing with a health injury, so part of it might be tied to when he can play again. It looks to me like the Patriots are going with Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Ron Brace and Brandon Deaderick as their big guys, and Warren could return in the event of injury.

Q. My question is about Dan Koppen. Until his injury in Week 1 last year, Koppen was the long-standing starting center. It seems that the potential weak link in this year's team is the depth and experience of the O-line. Yet, I hear many pundits talk about Koppen not making the 53-man roster or serving in a backup role. I realize that he's not versatile on the line, but given it is weaker this year than in the past, it seems more likely to me that he'd make the team. Has Koppen lost a step from previous years? -- Rob (Kingston, Ontario)

A. Rob, I like the idea of keeping Koppen, but he is not a sure-fire starter. Early in camp, it seemed like he was struggling to recapture his form, but I think he's become more comfortable and has been on the field for some of the team's most successful drives this preseason. He's still not the player he once was in his prime, but I think his smarts have value. In the end, I think they'd like to turn that spot over to Dan Connolly, assuming Brian Waters is back at right guard. Then the question becomes if they deem Koppen valuable enough as a center-only backup.

Q. Alfonzo Dennard was an intriguing high-reward, low-risk draft pick, and his potential was to be weighed alongside his legal issues. Given his December trial and his limited on-field performance during camp (which has Marquise Cole gaining momentum toward the final roster), could the Patriots possibly sneak him through waivers to the practice squad, or does he remain on other radars across the league? -- Matt (Leesburg, Va.)

A. Matt, I don't think Dennard is an under-the-radar player, even though he hasn't played much this preseason. I could see another team claiming him (cornerback depth is hard to find), but don't think that is a given. I had Dennard making it over Marquice Cole on our most recent projection, but I can't keep Cole off after his recent performance. That could put the squeeze on Dennard.

Q. This may be a simplistic view of the Patriots' transition from a 3-man front to a 4-man front, but the big change really seems to be Rob Ninkovich, who goes from outside linebacker to defensive end. In reality, how big of a switch is this and what skill sets do you think Ninkovich might have that would make him a better 4-3 end then 3-4 OLB? -- Kartal (Denver, Colo.)

A. Kartal, I'd simplify it and say that Ninkovich will be playing forward more often. He won't have to drop in coverage as much, if at all. He is very quick and is a good pass-rusher. Those characteristics stand out in terms of why that move is a good fit for him.

Q. Mike, after watching a couple of these preseason games, the one thing that struck me is how I couldn't envision only two preseason games being played as the NFL has previously proposed in exchange for an 18-game season. To me, the preseason accomplishes two main things: (1) it provides the coaches with live game action to evaluate players and determine rosters and (2) it allows the players to get used to "full speed" games (albeit not regular season full speed) to shake off the cobwebs from the offseason. Although we all prefer the regular season to the preseason (and no one wants to pay full price for a preseason game), the preseason creates a better product for the regular season. Eliminating two preseason games would make it difficult to evaluate rookies and the bottom of the roster while also balancing getting live reps for the starters ahead of the regular season. Thoughts? -- Jeremy (New Jersey)

A. Jeremy, I agree with you that two games isn't enough. But I actually think four is too much. I think three would be perfect, but it's hard to imagine owners would sign off on that because it would be one less "gate" to collect.