The Patriots hold their mandatory three-day minicamp this week, and then it's a clean break until the start of training camp in late July. This week's mailbag doesn't have one theme that stands out more than any other, like last week when it was a defense-oriented discussion.
So let's call it a Patriots potpourri as we touch on a variety of topics.
Q. Hey Mike, which is more concerning to you: The fact that Aaron Dobson is still recovering and missing time to get on the same page with Tom Brady and the rest of the offense, or the uncertainty of the D-line? There are so many more moving parts to the D-line picture, but that makes me even more worried. With Dominique Easley unsigned, Armond Armstead not practicing, and seemingly a bunch of role players on the line, I'm just wondering how many spots are going to be reserved for the D-line? And will we ever see Armstead?!? -- Casey (Plymouth, Mass.)
A. Casey, I'd lean toward the defensive line. While you'd obviously like Aaron Dobson on the field, he wasn't expected to be a part of spring camps after undergoing surgery on a stress fracture in his left foot in late February. Much like last year, when he didn't overwhelm in spring camps (in part because of physical conditioning), Dobson will have to make up some ground in training camp. I think he can make it up. As for the defensive line, there are a lot of players, but a lot of health-related question marks. That's why the Patriots made a strong offer to free-agent defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who ultimately agreed with the Seahawks.
Q. Is former Chiefs CB Brandon Flowers on the Patriots' radar at all? I think he's probably too expensive for New England in an already talented and crowded secondary. What price would the Patriots pay to sign Flowers? Even if he is affordable, would he fit the Patriots scheme? -- Justin (Brookings, S.D.)
A. Justin, I think Flowers can help any team, but I don't see the glaring need to extend the few million I'd project it would take to sign him. Cornerback might be one of the Patriots' deepest positions in 2014 with a top of the depth chart of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington (slot), Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan.
Q. Mike, whenever Browner comes up, you mention that the Seahawks didn't try to re-sign him as serious red flag. The Seahawks had to re-sign two other studs in the secondary to huge deals, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, combined with the fact Browner was suspended. While these are good reasons for the Seahawks not to re-sign Browner, they are not reasons to think he isn't a big, bad mauling CB that's going to keep WRs out of the end zone and get the Pats some coverage sacks. Just wondering if you had some other reasons to have low(er than others) expectations for Browner this season? -- Kyle (Boston)
A. Kyle, those are fair points. I think Browner will help the Patriots but I am probably tempering the expectations a bit more than others. In regards to the Seahawks, I don't think Browner's deal was one they couldn't absorb if they wanted to retain him. For example, they just signed free-agent veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams to a contract with a similar value in 2014. So that is part of my thinking, it's sort of the reverse of the Dominique Easley situation. Some have pointed to the Seahawks' potential interest in Easley at the end of the first round as a sign that the Patriots made a solid pick at No. 29. With Browner, who turns 30 on Aug. 2, I'm just a bit curious about why the Seahawks were content to walk away when the economics were far from overwhelming. Coupled with the suspension aspect and how that will be a challenge to overcome, those are the main reasons my expectations for Browner might be a bit lower than others.
Q. Hey Mike, what do you think of Duron Harmon's performance as of now? Do you think he has the edge to start at safety, or do you think Logan Ryan will overtake him? -- Carlos (Puerto Rico)
A. Carlos, Harmon played more than I would have expected last season (427 defensive snaps, 36.9 percent), and there were some nice things to build upon. He's a smart player who earned some trust from his teammates, so I'd start there. His tackling was a bit inconsistent, but I thought he showed enough range to make plays down the field and to the sideline, and physicality to help in the running game. Where it builds from that point remains a bit of a wild card.
Q. Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly are two of the highest paid guards in the NFL. Only the Saints have more cap space locked into their starting guards this year. This high investment, the draft focus on the OL, and the declining play of Connolly, and to a lesser extent Mankins, leads me to believe one or both will be cut this year. After watching the team practices the last two weeks, do you feel comfortable the OL can hold up without one or both of them? -- Gary (Maine)
A. Gary, it's not a cop-out, but we can't really tell in a non-pads offseason camp environment that is more assignment-based than physical for offensive linemen. They are working on specific techniques (e.g. hand placement) and mental aspects of the game. When I saw Connolly at center a bit last Thursday, it made me wonder if he could be a challenger for that role this year. He played well there in 2011, but when factoring in economics, the $3 million base salary is significant this year. Mankins was getting some veteran consideration as his reps were managed closely. It's a fair topic, but we're really going to have to wait to see what it looks like when the pads come on.
Q. Mike, Any feeling where Joel Kline Is in the rotation? -- Ron (New York City)
A. Ron, Kline has been rotating in behind Mankins at left guard and also taking a few reps at center as part of building some versatility. He drew praise from center Ryan Wendell earlier in the offseason.
Q. Mike, I have to take issue with the notion that adding another significant tight end depends upon the health of Rob Gronkowski. That thinking hasn't worked out very well the last two years when an injured Gronk all but ended both of those seasons. In my mind, adding another TE threat (or WR threat) is an absolute must if we hope to challenge for a Super Bowl. We can't let another season end as the last two did, with an impotent offense when it counted most. -- John (Hudson, Mass.)
A. John, I agree on the tight end side of things. I don't think adding another tight end is contingent on Gronkowski's health as much as it is the health of a few players they've recently taken a closer look at -- Dustin Keller and Jermichael Finley. At receiver, I'm more interested om seeing whether the young guys can take that leap and then address it if it doesn't happen. The only thought that would change things is if the Texans were willing to trade Andre Johnson for reasonable compensation.
Q. Mike, with the uncertainty of the NFL draft, and the questions still lingering about the Pats WRs, would the Pats ever consider trading a first-round pick for Andre Johnson? He's 32, with three years left on his contract. It's not like they'd find a WR in next year's first round that would be any more productive than Johnson. I'd love to see how good he'll look with Brady throwing to him. -- Jeff (Jupiter, Fla.)
A. Jeff, if Johnson was willing to halve the dollars in the remaining three years of his contract it would be a starting point. But without that, I don't see the Patriots trading a first and paying Johnson the $10 million base salary he's due this year, the $10.5 million in 2015 and the $11 million in 2016.
Q. Hey Mike, I think it's great that Tom Brady's working with Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman at practice, but what about the other WRs? Obviously Dobson's not available, but wouldn't Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins benefit from some similar attention? Being younger, you'd think they'd actually benefit more than vets like Amendola and Edelman. -- Jacob (Bethlehem, Pa.)
A. Jacob, that situation when Brady went to the other practice field with Amendola and Edelman came when the team was working on kickoff coverage on the other practice field. Because Brady, Amendola and Edelman aren't part of that special-teams work, it's a way to maximize their time during practice. Brady is still spending time with Thompkins and Boyce, but just not during special teams sessions when Thompkins and Boyce are needed to work in that area.
Q. Hi Mike, one thing that bothered me last year was what seemed like a total abandonment of the screen game that was so dangerous for us back in the days of Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk and Troy Brown. With the struggles the WRs were having last year, it amazed me that McDaniels didn't call more screen plays. Do you think with the addition of James White at RB, along with Shane Vereen healthy and Edelman's emergence, that we'll see more of the screen game?
A. Jeff, I do think the screen has a greater chance of being part of the team's attack in 2014, with the possibility of playing Vereen and White together in the offensive backfield. Part of that is tied to the defense you're facing -- I don't think you want to call a screen just for the sake of calling a screen if a defense is set up to defend it well. But I agree with the overall point -- they can get more out of the screen game than they did in 2013. Having Vereen healthy for 16 games could be the spark needed to turn to the screen game more often.
Q. Mike, watching the NBA finals last year and this year I couldn't help make comparisons to the Spurs and Patriots. Multiple championships in the early years of a Hall of Fame coach and player duo, being considered the model franchise of their sport, dominant regular seasons, early playoff losses, late playoff loses, and being heartbreakingly close to the championship. Sound familiar? In the end they stayed the course kept the core together and prevailed. Do you see a similar a happy ending for the Brady and Belichick? -- Jason (Mantua, Utah)
A. Jason, I think they're going to get another Super Bowl championship before they both retire. The first thing is to be in position and of course, every team needs a little bit of luck along the way. I see them as an annual contender, and that's why I don't think anyone can close the door on another Super Bowl title.
Q. Belichick seems really smart. He remembers players, plays, facts about football like a computer. But he is so brainy how does he reach and motivate players who cannot be reached with pure mental brilliance all the time? -- Steve (Jerusalem)
A. Steve, it's rare to find a coach that can reach every player the same way. I think Belichick's consistency helps, and in reading some great tributes to Pro Football Hall of Famer Chuck Noll over the last few days, some similarities between the two as teachers can probably be drawn. Every player wants to get better, and my feeling is that the vast majority of them can buy in to what Belichick is selling based on his track record.
Q. Hi Mike, With this being the last time the Patriots are together as a team before training camp starts in late July, how important is it to you that Dominique Easley is not yet signed? He is the last defensive player of the first and second rounds that has not signed. We see the deals for Dee Ford and Aaron Donald, who play similar positions. I would like to have everyone signed before the team parts ways for the summer. Big deal or no big deal on this issue and if he is not signed, can he and will he still take part in the mandatory minicamp Tuesday? -- Jay (Revere, Mass.)
A. Jay, Easley can participate in the minicamp without a signed contract if he is medically cleared to do so. I don't view it as a concern that he is not yet signed, even as all but seven first-round picks have inked deals. The sides should be able to work it out. These deals aren't that hard to consummate.
Q. When you look at this year's team, what is your biggest area of concern? -- Christian (Beijing, China)
A. Christian, the tight end spot looks a bit light right now, but overall I see the club as well positioned to compete for a championship. So, as it always is, injuries will be the main concern. We know they'll be there for every team in some form.
Q. Mike, a lot of talk recently on our defense and WRs but I'm curious what you think about the big picture this year. I can't remember being this excited for a Patriots season since 2007. I think this roster is completely loaded. We have good depth at key positions, and Brady is still throwing the rock. I'm feeling a 13-win year and a return to the AFC Championship game, where we dismantle the Broncos and then take down the NFC champs for BB's fourth Super Bowl ring. If healthy, how good is this team from your perspective? -- Cody Stieritz (Fort Collins, Colo.)
A. Cody, I think you nailed it with the "if healthy" context. To me, the win total doesn't mean as much as long as they get into the playoffs and have relatively good health across the board when it counts. It's such a long season in that respect, and the picture changes week to week. Right now, I believe they are well positioned to have the success to which you refer. But there's such a long way to go.