1. Can the defense sustain its early momentum?
2. Should there be concern with some players who have yet to practice?
3. Will the offense pick up the pace?
We've learned a lot about the Patriots through nine practices, but the picture is still evolving. Let's get right to it.
Q: Hi Mike, regarding the NFL position that this year will be more strict in [enforcing] the defensive holding penalty, I think this will affect the play of Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis in a negative way because jamming WRs at the line is a centerpiece of both DBs. Thoughts? -- Memo A. (Mexico)
A: Memo, I don't think it will have a huge impact on Revis as much as Browner. Some folks in Seattle have pointed out that Browner was benched at one point last year and was known to clutch and grab beyond the allowed 5-yard zone at times because he doesn't move as fluidly as a smaller corner. So I think it's definitely something to keep on the radar to see how it affects his style of play. I read with interest how officials threw quite a few penalty flags in Falcons-Titans joint practices.
Q: Hi Mike, curious if you think this defense compares to the 2003 or 2004 defense from what you've seen in training camp so far. -- Jon (Bolton, Mass.)
A: Jon, I do think this defense has the potential to be one of the best in Bill Belichick's 15 years as coach. But one thing I've also heard Belichick say over the years is that you can't really judge a team, or in this case an individual unit, until they get into some pressure-packed situations and see how they respond. The teams and units that have been the best have come through in those situations.
Q: Mike, I was wondering if you've got a feeling of the timeline for Aaron Dobson and Dominique Easley to come off PUP? I'd hate to see two young guys that could make an impact fall behind. -- Kyle (Illinois)
A: Kyle, I would have thought Dobson would have been back at this point, so it surprises me a bit. If he's not back by the week of the third preseason game, that's when I'd start to look at the situation a bit differently. This is not ideal, but I believe he can make up the time and still get adjusted to the timing of the passing game to be ready to make a difference when it counts. On Easley, the position he plays is a bit different and I think it's a little easier to come in and make a more immediate impact. It's not like being a linebacker with a lot of checks in coverage.
Q: Hi Mike, do you have any sense of what or how serious the injury to Bryan Stork is? Are we looking at a broken ankle or torn ligaments? Any idea of how long he will miss? -- Richard (Lancaster, Penn.)
A: Richard, I can just go by what I saw and that was Stork walking off the field under his own power and heading to the locker room during the fifth training camp practice with a member of the athletic training staff. If he had a broken ankle or a torn ligament, I think that would be tough to do. He obviously won't be back this week because he didn't make the trip to Richmond. So let's just focus on what we know -- by the end of this week, the team will have had 11 training camp practices and one preseason game, and Stork will have participated in 4.5 of the practices and no game. If the absence extends much longer than that, I think it's going to be tough for him to win a starting job. The train moves fast in training camp.
Q: Mike, as I look around the rest of the AFC East, I see three teams that all boast a lot of talent on the defensive line. Given the question marks about the interior of the Pats' offensive line, it doesn't bode well for our run game and keeping Brady upright. Beginning Week 1 at Miami, do you see the Pats game planning to try to minimize the opponent's rush, and if so how? Brady in the shotgun? More screen passes? -- Jeff C (Arlington, Mass.)
A: Jeff, I've been watching the offensive line as closely as possible through training camp, and that's why I think Stork's absence can't be overlooked. It seems to me that Ryan Wendell (center) and Dan Connolly (right guard) have been the team's most consistent players in that competition on the interior, followed by Josh Kline. If that's the way it ultimately unfolds, it means that it's the same line as last year and you have to bank on some improvement. As for what the Patriots might be doing game-planning wise, they could get the ball out quickly, which is often an effective tactic. But I'd also point out that the offense scored plenty of points with that group, so it's not as if they can't get the job done. To me, it's more about getting it done in the critical situations.
Q: Hey Mike, I'm curious about the progress of the offense. Training camp has been full of well-deserved buzz about an improved defense, but I'm wondering if you could share some thoughts about how the offense has looked. At this point in camp, I understand that defense is often ahead of the offense, but I feel like many of the updates have been about the defense picking off Brady, passes broken up, multiple drops, etc. Thoughts on the offense and how it looks compared to past years? -- Steve (Providence, R.I.)
A: Steve, I'd say Monday was a big shift in this area. After feeling like the defense mostly had the upper hand through eight training camp practices, the offense really took it to Washington on Monday. I think what sometimes happens is that we can take for granted the precision and excellence of the Patriots' up-tempo approach because we see it on a daily basis, so the bar is raised high and what might look like a struggle in New England would be viewed favorably if it unfolded that way in other NFL cities. At times, it didn't look like the Redskins knew what hit them Monday; very impressive from Brady and the offense.
Q: With the lack of offensive firepower at the wide receiver position should the Patriots have taken Dez Bryant or Cordarrelle Patterson with one of the first-round picks that they traded away over the years? All the best receivers in the NFL, Megatron, Julio Jones, Fitzgerald, A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas, were drafted in the first round. No one in the press has held them accountable for trading away the chance at game-changing receivers. The second round doesn't cut it. -- Jeffrey (Waynesville, N.C.)
A: I don't know, Jeffrey. If I could have some of these wide receivers who were drafted in the second and third rounds in recent years -- Greg Jennings (2006), Sidney Rice (2007), James Jones (2007), Jordy Nelson (2008), DeSean Jackson (2008), Mike Wallace (2009), Golden Tate (2010), Emmanuel Sanders (2010), Eric Decker (2010), Torrey Smith (2011), Randall Cobb (2011), Alshon Jeffery (2012), T.Y. Hilton (2012) and Keenan Allen (2013) -- we could field a pretty good team. I think it's less about when they're picked and more about who the team is picking. They've struggled to draft and develop at that position.
Q: Mike, how does Vince Wilfork look so far in camp? Should we expect a big year out of him after everything that unfolded in the offseason? This defense could be that much better with a ticked-off Wilfork in the middle of the D-line. -- Christine Ferg (Boston )
A: Christine, I've been impressed with Wilfork, who says his Achilles is an afterthought while also acknowledging that he shed weight in hopes of lessening the wear and tear on the injury. It is noticeable and a credit to him. I think he's motivated to have a big year, and also to keep playing beyond 2014.
Q: If Darrelle Revis has the kind of year we all want him to have this year, how much do you think BB would be willing to give him in an extension? The type of contract extension he is going to command will likely end up being one of those contracts where the player is overpaid due to age toward the end of it, or becomes a cap casualty. If Tom Brady wants to play into his 40s, we'll need that Revis money to surround him with weapons. At the same time, Revis has bet on himself enough with his last couple of deals, and I doubt he or his agent is going to sign a deal without significant financial security this time around. I'm not sure BB would be willing to take that kind of risk and my confidence that we will be able to re-sign him dwindles the more I think about it. -- Dan (Ohio)
A: Dan, I think Belichick would make Revis the highest-paid cornerback in the game on an average-per-year basis, similar to the deal Revis had previously signed in Tampa that gave the team an out each year in case the picture changed. Where I think the team might hesitate is an over-the-top total in bonuses and guarantees that doesn't protect the team.
Q: Hey Mike, looking at your roster projections, I see there are six linebackers. I know there has been emphasis on LB being thin depth-wise, but do you think the Patriots could be looking to sign a linebacker to bolster the position. I've peeked in on other teams' roster projections done by their respective writers and they have 8-9 LBs at average. Rob Ninkovich could play some LB but do you see any way LB depth can be improved/bolstered? Or am I overthinking this? -- Roger (Worcester, Mass.)
A: Roger, that's not a position of great depth on the free-agent market and I think your point on Ninkovich and even Chandler Jones as end-of-the-line players who can fill a linebacker-type role adds some different context to the overall numbers. The Patriots do a lot of things in terms of altering their front and being multiple, and those "jokers" are one of the reasons they can be so creative at times.
Q: Hey Mike, everyone is talking about the defense, defense, defense and I know it will be a strong one, just how strong remains to be seen. I am still concerned about the linebacker position. If one of the big three go down (Mayo, Hightower, Collins) how bad off are we going to be? I know we picked up Andersen and Fleming with some experience. I mean, Beauharnais and White are there too but they seem more special teams players. Do any of the rookie linebackers look like they make the team or do you think they wait until the end of preseason and pick up a veteran that gets cut from another team? Your thoughts? -- Regis (Braintree, Mass.)
A: Regis, I'm not sure there are any surefire upgrades at the position to be expected in free agency. I'm also interested in seeing more from Beauharnais, because he could potentially be more of a special teamer as we see him leading the defensive huddle at times in practice. The depth seems like a little bit of a question mark right now, but it's possible the answers could still be on the roster.
Q: Mike, you haven't had much to say about Jimmy Garoppolo, but everything I have heard has been pretty bad. Has he been as poor as advertised and what was the point of that pick? The semi-annual waste of a top-100 pick on a QB (O'Connell #94, Mallett #74, Garoppolo #62) is mind-boggling. Why didn't they just pay Hoyer or some other proven backup? The Patriots' thinking here is lost on me. Thanks for the feedback. -- Stephen (Framingham, Mass.)
A: Stephen, Garoppolo has struggled. Most rookie quarterbacks do. There are two factors for the Patriots when they invest a high draft choice at the position -- economics and insurance. There's only so much you can pay each position because of the salary cap, and the market value for a top backup quarterback is around $4 million per season. It's hard to pay that when you have Brady already accounting for a significant total of the cap. So the best combination of economics and insurance is often in the draft, and we've heard Belichick share his opinion on how if you don't have that position layered accordingly, you put the whole team at risk.
Q: Hey Mike, I saw your roster projections and I'm curious about something. You say Josh Boyce isn't a surefire lock and that's understandable. My question is, if Boyce lands on the practice squad, who benefits from that? -- Scott (Quincy, Mass.)
A: I don't think it would be another receiver, Scott. It could be a third tight end or another defensive back or special-teamer.
Q: Who has the best chance of winning the kick returner role? Do you see this year being an improvement over last year? -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)
A: Ashley, Boyce has been taking a lot of reps there, as has rookie running back James White. They look like the top two candidates right now.
Q: Hey Mike, not that I'm expecting anything great from him, but there has not been a single mention of undrafted tight end Asa Watson so far in your notes this preseason. Any reason for that? Is he just clearly not going to make the team? Or not even practicing at all? -- Matt (New York)
A: Matt, Watson has been practicing and I don't see him on the final 53-man roster. If he sticks, it would be the practice squad. He seems to work hard and have a fairly good grasp on what to do, but I just don't see any off-the-charts traits or skills that would warrant him sticking on the final roster.
Q: Hey Mike, what have your opinions been on the TE position outside of Rob Gronkowski? Do you feel like there is sufficient depth there in terms of pass-catching if (perish the thought) Gronk gets hurt again? -- Eamonn Quinn (Istanbul, Turkey)
A: D.J. Williams and Justin Jones are the top candidates, Eamonn, and each has some good things going for them. Williams runs well and played in two games for the team last year, while also factoring into the special-teams mix. Jones is 6-foot-8 and the size is appealing, especially in the red zone. I don't think they're going to build the offense around the position, but those players could fill roles as long as they aren't relied on too heavily early.
Q: Mike, we will be at the joint practices Wednesday. Any tips on best viewing locations? Have the Pats been signing autographs? -- Brian (Virginia)
A: Brian, it seemed like the folks who got there early Monday went straight to the sideline so they could as close as possible. I saw some Patriots players sign autographs, but I'm not sure if it was full participation. Enjoy the practices.