An early read on Pats roster

The Patriots mailbag is back after a two-week vacation, and we're revved up for another season of coverage. Mailbags will publish every Tuesday on ESPNBoston.com throughout the rest of the season, and there will be an online chat every Thursday through 2014.

To fill the void over the past two weeks, I shared some thoughts each day on our Patriots blog as part of the "checking the locks" series. This was a way to analyze the roster, position by position, and get a feel for how many spots are truly up for grabs.

Here is the summary of the series, and extended analysis can be found by clicking on each position.

Running back
Wide receiver
Tight end/fullback
Offensive line
Defensive tackle
Defensive end

I think this is a solid roster, and the thing that stands out the most is that the defense has the potential to be better, assuming good health. The area in which I see great possible strides is on third down, where the Patriots ranked 26th out of 32 teams last year.

This is one of the most intriguing questions about the 2014 season -- can the Patriots put together a similar type of defense that we saw in their Super Bowl championship years?

Let's get to the questions, which were overflowing:

Q. Hi Mike, welcome back from vacation. With training camp looming, are there any specific things that you'll be on the lookout for (or hoping to see)? And do you expect there will be much difference this year as compared with training camps of years past (i.e., as there are a number of new assistants, etc.)? -- Gora (New York)

A. Thanks, Gora. Looking forward to another year of Patriots coverage on ESPNBoston.com. The first thing I'll be looking for at training camp is the status of some of the injured players. For example, is receiver Aaron Dobson (left foot surgery in March) on the field? How does Vince Wilfork (torn Achilles, Sept. 29) respond to his first full-contact session? Are veteran defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (torn ACL) and defensive end Will Smith (torn ACL) moving well? What is tight end Rob Gronkowski's status? So much of this game is tied to health, so that is usually where I start things off. As for training camp on the whole, I'd be surprised if it looks considerably different from what we've seen in the past. I'm going to be watching that defense closely.

Q. Hi Mike, excited for this season, but I'm still slightly concerned about the running back position. As of now it looks like it will be a running approach more geared toward passing backs -- Shane Vereen, James White -- with some Stevan Ridley running thrown in. Do you think they go ahead with current personnel, or do you think they will still try to find a larger, more physical back? -- Jake (Portland, Maine)

A. Jake, I'm not expecting any running back additions at this point. Ridley, when he holds onto the ball, is a physical runner. I think Brandon Bolden can be a physical runner at times, and we'll see if younger backs Stephen Houston or Jonas Gray can push for a roster spot. Also, while they might not be as big in stature, "passing backs" Vereen and White have shown they can run with physicality. Vereen's 15-yard run around the left side in the season opener at Buffalo last year, which set up the game-winning field goal, was one example that comes to mind. You see Vereen with the body lean and dragging safety Jim Leonhard at the end of the run off the left side.

Q. My question is about cornerbacks, especially once Brandon Browner returns from his suspension. During the past two years, Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington were a solid combination. Substitute Darrelle Revis for Talib, combined with two safeties, and you have one potent nickel. Will Browner or any of the other CBs knock Arrington out of the slot spot? With Browner's physicality, is there any chance of seeing a nickel with four corners? -- Jim C. (Centennial, Colorado)

A. Jim, while the corners could move around depending on how the offense aligns, the projection is that Revis and Browner would be on the outside, with Arrington the leading candidate for the slot. Because Devin McCourty is a "cornerback playing safety," in a sense, the nickel will always be four cornerbacks. But that doesn't really answer your question, and I think the thing to look at is past Patriots-Texans games when the team is going against a Gary Kubiak-coordinated offense. In those game-plans, the Patriots played a "base" defense with four cornerbacks. What that did was keep them stout in the box against the run when facing a challenging zone-blocking scheme, while adding more of a coverage element on the back end. So yes, we've seen packages with four cornerbacks in the past, and we can probably expect to see them again depending on the specific game-plan of the week.

Q. Hello Mike. I wonder if there is any chance of WR Andre Johnson being traded to the Patriots. Everything indicates that he wants a chance to play in a Super Bowl, and the Patriots would have a Pro Bowl WR who would, in my view, be the perfect weapon for Brady to lead the Patriots to another ring. -- Fernando P. (Jaragua do Sul, Brazil)

A. Fernando, this has been a hot topic, and my take has been that the Texans would have to be blown away to be inclined to deal Johnson. To me, blown away means getting a first-round draft choice and then an additional second-round pick who perhaps could become a first-rounder. The reason I say that is the Texans don't want to trade Johnson -- point blank. In the first year of Bill O'Brien's regime, they don't want to set a precedent that if a player skips out of work and creates a media-based distraction, the player ultimately gets what he wants out of it. They also feel they are a better team with Johnson. Because of that dynamic, an interested party would have to make them an offer they can't refuse. So I'll turn the question back to mailbag readers: Would you trade a first-rounder and a conditional second-rounder to Houston for Johnson? I don't think the Patriots would do that, but I'm guessing that many readers would advise them to do so.

Q. If Aaron Dobson is not ready for training camp, who do you see as the alternative wide deep threat? -- Mike H. (Canton, Ohio)

A. Mike, I'd expect to see Kenbrell Thompkins lining up in the spot where Dobson would normally be. That's the way it looked in spring camps.

Q. Hi Mike, I'm surprised that you view Jon Halapio as a lock. Sixth-rounders are cut by Bill Belichick maybe 50 percent of the time, and I certainly wouldn't consider Jemea Thomas (picked later that round) as a roster lock at this point. Is there any particular reason that makes you think Halapio is a lock? -- Matt (California)

A. Matt, I'd have to look closer at the statistics, but 50 percent cut rate for sixth-rounders seems a bit high to me. My opinion on Halapio is tied to both the player himself and what I believe to be a commitment by the staff to develop some young blockers with the future in mind. Because the team hadn't drafted an offensive lineman in 2012 or 2013, it created a bit of a void in the talent pipeline. I think they are high on Halapio and will have dedicated spots on the 53-man roster for their three drafted offensive linemen. As always, let's revisit in early September and hold each other accountable.

Q. Mike, as your "locks" series suggests, only two tight ends are considered locks, but I would think going in with only two would be crazy. What happened to D.J. Williams? Do you see another tight end earning the right to stick around as well? As has been pointed out numerous times this offseason, it is perhaps the thinnest roster position we have. -- Jim (Connecticut)

A. Jim, Williams has a great opportunity to emerge as a third option, and I'm interested to see if he can seize it. This is his third team after stops in Green Bay and Jacksonville, and if it doesn't work here for him, it probably won't happen anywhere. He missed spring camps with a strained calf but should be ready for the start of training camp. If not Williams, I could see the Patriots entering the season with two tight ends, using James Develin a bit in the role, as well as an offensive lineman in power packages.

Q. Mike, your "checking the locks" was a nice series, and I now have a better idea of the state of the Patriots' roster. I agree with you that Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly shouldn't be assumed to be on the 53-man roster. However, in predicting their fates, one thing that I am keeping in my mind is recovery of Mike Pouncey in Miami. Miami has a couple of players on the roster that can play center, but losing the starter has a huge impact on their offense. Wendell or Connolly might not be their likes, but they have some starting experience in the AFC East and could draw some interest from Miami once they are released. What's your take? -- MarkJ (Japan)

A. Mark, that's a scenario to consider should it ultimately unfold that Wendell and Connolly are in a struggle to make the roster. I'm not sure it would alter the team's thinking, however, because you'd be guaranteeing a full-season salary to the player by keeping him on the roster just to keep him away from a season-opening opponent. I'm not sure the short-term hit trumps the long-term mindset in that hypothetical situation.

Q. When you did your analysis on Patriots RB Locks for the final roster, you didn't mention fullback James Develin. Any reason for leaving him out? -- Roel T. (Somerville, Massachusetts)

A. Roel, I ended up placing Develin in the tight end/fullback category because of the linkage between the two positions, and also since we saw Develin getting some work there in spring camps.

Q. Mike, you've mentioned the possibility of an imposing, physical safety to complement the coverage guys back there now. But is everybody forgetting about Patrick Chung? Yes, he has clear deficiencies in coverage, but he was always a player who was aggressive against ball carriers, threw his body around, and had his share of big hits. Could there be an expanded role for him in games or situations where the team needs a more physical strong safety? With Devin McCourty's range back there, and with the improvement of the CB position, it seems like some of Chung's weaknesses could be mitigated and he might be more productive than he was previously. -- Mark Z. (Philadelphia)

A. Mark, it could turn out that way with Chung, but I don't see his place on the 53-man roster as a lock at this point. Perhaps an injury or two alters the picture, and if so, one area we'd want to watch is if Chung can take more efficient angles when tackling. I also don't see why second-year safety Duron Harmon (6-foot-1, 205/210 pounds) can't be a physical presence of sorts; he has some size for the position.

Q. Where do you peg Jamie Collins' potential? I'm not saying he will, but I think he has the potential to be an elite SLB in the league. He seems to have the work ethic and desire to be one. -- Luke (Maine)

A. Luke, I can't argue with your assessment. Collins' performance against the Colts last season in the playoffs was a snapshot of what he could become -- that was remarkable. At the same time, I'm more in the "pump the brakes" category of building him up until we see that on more of a consistent basis. He still has to prove it and I think sometimes things can move a little fast in the media in terms of anointing the "next big thing."

Q. Hey Mike, I was watching "Bill Belichick: A Football Life" on the 2009 season, and for some reason I remembered that was the first season you were writing for ESPN Boston. It's weird to think it has been a whole five years. With that being said, is there a special moment that sticks out from your time with ESPN? -- Erik (Boston)

A. Thanks for remembering, Erik. Hard to believe it's been five seasons, going into our sixth on ESPNBoston.com. We all mark time in different ways, and 2009 was a year of significant change with the move to ESPNBoston and also the birth of our first child. So I start there, think about that first interview on "SportsCenter" to promote ESPNBoston.com from the Gillette Stadium sideline, and then probably would say the highlights are less about team-specific moments and more about working with very good people and being on this journey together.

Q. Hi Mike, it's definitely a slow period right now for the NFL, so I thought I would ask a less-serious question. The NFL has attempted to make the sport a 365-day media cycle, and this is a rare break between the draft and training camp. Does the nonstop media attention to the NFL make it harder for you to take summer breaks? Can you ever really disconnect? -- Alex (Wakefield, Massachusetts)

A. This is the time to do it, Alex. Once we hit the start of training camp July 24, it's like Bill Belichick says, you get on that treadmill and it never really stops. But one of the things that I feel very fortunate about is that when you like what you do, it doesn't really feel like work. I'm excited for another season of coverage and look forward to more mailbags the rest of the year.