Tim Tebow's presence on the Patriots' roster has created a unique dynamic. When it comes to on-field impact this season, Tebow projects to be closer to the 1 on a scale of 1 to 10. But when it comes to intriguing storylines with the team, Tebow is closer to the other end of the spectrum.
Now three weeks into training camp, and through one preseason game, we have a better idea of how Bill Belichick views Tebow, who was 4-of-12 passing in the preseason opener but had more success running the ball.
That's where things start in this week's mailbag, before moving on to other topics.
Q. Mike, I've been a big supporter of Tebow since he came into the league a few years ago. I liked the idea that he was winning games a different way and sort of flying in the face of many of the experts that questioned him. Of course, that was when he was wearing a Broncos uniform. Now that he's a bad knee and a concussion away from being under center in New England, I'm starting to wonder. I wasn't that encouraged by seeing the special package put in for him on Friday. I love many of his intangibles and his athletic ability but he doesn't seem to have improved in his ability to read defenses at all. Is this player stuck in neutral and if so is there any hope? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A. Dean, when it comes to Tebow, I thought Bill Belichick laid it out pretty nicely during his Monday interview on sports radio WEEI. He's more of a running quarterback, different than the traditional quarterback, and if they have to turn to him they will play to his strengths. Usually when a team turns to a No. 3 quarterback, it is a tough situation because how many No. 3s can really keep their team competitive? In the case of Tebow, he has one special trait -- the ability to run -- that could give the Patriots a chance in the event of an emergency in which the No. 3 was called upon. Considering that the Patriots have kept just two quarterbacks on their roster in three of the past four years, it reminds us that the No. 3 job usually isn't much of a factor (chances are strong that we wouldn't be having this discussion if Mike Kafka was still on the roster as the No. 3). So I think when one adds up all the elements here, it starts to make some sense with Tebow; he's just so much of a lightning rod that the picture and expectations sometimes get clouded.
Q. Hi Mike, I can't for the life of me figure out why Tebow is on this team. He's a polarizing person but objectively I just don't see his value. I know you now predict he'll be on the roster but why? His fans touted his read option runs against the Eagles but that is meaningless. The Patriots are not a read option team. Of course there will be a drop off after Brady but don't you want a QB that can run this offense? All of the running backs, all of the receivers, all of the lineman and all of the coaches are used to the established offense. Are they going to revamp everything for one guy? That seems so anti-Belichick. He may be adept at the read option but when trying to read the defense for a more traditional Patriots play he was lost. He also is not a gunner or a return guy so there's no special teams value either. I can't believe they'll waste an entire roster spot because he's a "good character" guy. -- Devin (Marlborough, Mass.)
A. Devin, I think it just comes down to the No. 3 role. If we were to go through the No. 3 quarterbacks on other teams in the NFL, and ask the question "Where does Tebow rank on this list in terms of his ability to lead the team?" I think he'd be closer to the top of the list. We saw it on the first drive of the second half, which was well executed. So he does enough in the No. 3 role, from this view, to have some on-field value to the team. Add in the locker-room value and the scout-team value, and I think it's enough for him to have a spot on the club. It's a good debate and I see both sides. At the end of the day, I'd just say that we're talking about the third layer on the depth chart, which isn't a major deal.
Q. I for one am a little tired of hearing the waterfall of Tebow criticism. He's maybe a third-string quarterback. I'm far more interested in reading a Zoltan Mesko vs. Ryan Allen debate or a debate about Cory Grissom vs. Scott Vallone. You know, guys that might actually play in a game this year. -- Earl (Waltham, Mass.)
A. Earl, this reminds me of the 2005 season with Doug Flutie as the No. 3 quarterback. Because of the profile of the player involved, it generates more attention than it would otherwise relative to the impact the player will have on the on-field fortunes of the club.
Q. Since the consensus among football analysts is that Tebow is not good at reading the opposing teams' defenses, why don't the Patriots put Tebow up in the press box (during preseason or even during a game) with a defensive-minded coach who can give him the perspective he needs to turn this weakness in his game into a strength? Namely, "coach him up". If both Brady and Mallett were both injured during a game (heaven help us), wouldn't Tebow be eligible to come onto the field (from the press box) and assume the role of a quarterback? -- Ray (Brookline, Mass.)
A. Ray, the first thing is that every team has to declare an active 46-man roster by 90 minutes before kickoff. So if Tebow's name is on the roster, he is eligible to play, whether he watches the game from the locker room, the sideline or the press box. The issue is that if he's needed in an emergency, he needs to be on the sideline because as we saw in 2001 with Drew Bledsoe/Tom Brady, things can change in an instant and one never knows when the backup will be needed. As for coaching him up, the Patriots are absolutely doing that. At times on the practice field, it has looked like Tebow almost has his own personal coach in Brian Daboll. At the end of the day, though, it comes down to the player actually going out and doing it and that is where the struggles have been when it comes to Tebow as a drop-back passer.
Q. Hi Mike, it is quite a relief to know that Ryan Mallett is OK. Unlike some I do not see him as being showcased for a trade this season. He is essential in case Brady is ever injured. However, his brush with injury raises the concern about what veteran QB could be put in place to replace him if need be? Would Belichick look for such a QB backup before or when the final preseason cuts are made? Meanwhile, Tebow is far from being that real second option. Your thoughts? -- Jake Malone (Vancouver, British Columbia)
A. Jake, Mallett played 25 snaps in the preseason opener and probably was going to come out of the game early in the third quarter anyway, as Belichick said. So the Patriots just played it safe by ending his night a little early. I have two thoughts on Mallett: 1) The Patriots, similar to the situation with Matt Cassel in 2008, would be fine if they had to turn to him in the event Tom Brady wasn't available; 2) I think we can tap the brakes on the "showcase Mallett for a trade" storyline based on what we've seen to this point. Tebow fits as the No. 3, unconventional as he may be.
Q. After watching Tebow Time vs. the performance of the running backs, do you think the Pats cut Tebow in favor of five running backs or would they cut Leon Washington and keep Tebow on as a good practice player? -- Johnny (Housatonic, Mass.)
A. Johnny, I think they would do both -- keep Tebow and also keep five running backs. One thing on the running backs is that the final two -- Brandon Bolden and Leon Washington -- project as key members on special teams. So their place on the roster is as much about special teams as it is running back.
Q. I really want to believe in this defense, but that first series against the Eagles has me saying, "same old, same old." Looks like they have a lot of work to do before they have any chance at "elite." -- Andy (Pittsfield, Mass.)
A. Andy, there is always that balance of not reading too much into a preseason opener, but also not overlooking things that could be issues later in the season. We saw 11 snaps from the top-unit defense on Friday and I'd agree that it looked similar to the 2012 defense -- a little unsettled early, before coming up with the big turnover. I feel like we need to see more, but this is what we know lineup wise if the season were to start today:
LDE: Rob Ninkovich
DT: Vince Wilfork
DT: Tommy Kelly
RDE: Chandler Jones
LB: Dont'a Hightower
LB: Brandon Spikes
LB: Jerod Mayo
CB: Aqib Talib
CB: Alfonzo Dennard/Kyle Arrington
S: Adrian Wilson/Steve Gregory
S: Devin McCourty
Q. Mike, is Kenbrell Thompkins filling the role the Patriots were envisioning for Emmanuel Sanders? Wasn't Sanders touted as a WR who could line up in different positions and run a bunch of different routes? That seems to be the way the Patriots were using Thompkins in his limited action on Friday. And will Thompkins be competing with more directly with Edelman or Boyce for playing time? -- Alex (Oxford, England)
A. Alex, Thompkins (6-foot-1, 195) seems like a different receiver to me than Sanders (5-11, 180). Thompkins strikes me more as a tactician who wins with good technique and polished routes; he's not as much of a quick-twitch receiver as Sanders. But while there are those differences, Thompkins still fills a role as a smart, versatile receiver with good hands who can line up in multiple spots, which is probably part of how the Patriots, for the most part, viewed Sanders. As for Thompkins competing for playing time, I think the one given with the overall receiving corps is that Danny Amendola will be on the field for most of the snaps. Then I think we'll see any combination of Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Julian Edelman in the 2-5 spots depending on the specific matchup that week. Forced to pick one, I'd say Thompkins is the No. 3.
Q. Hi Mike, I'm very impressed with the rapid development of Thompkins. The detail and adjustments of his route running is like watching Deion Branch 10 years ago. One thing I don't hear enough is the attitude of a player that helps him to take his talent to near the limit and be "hungry" for more. Your thoughts? -- Memo (Mexico)
A. Memo, Thompkins deserves the praise for coming to spring camp ready to work. That's really where this all started. He was a long shot who had received just $5,000 in guaranteed money in his contract, which reflected how he was anything but a sure bet to earn a roster spot. His approach in the spring, coupled with some initial struggles from Aaron Dobson, opened a door for him and he didn't just walk through it -- he kicked the door in. Neat story. And even better for the Patriots, Dobson turned things around after a less-than-smooth beginning in the spring and has made himself more into a factor in training camp.
Q. Huge Pats fan living deep in the heart of Texans country. Great to see the rookies having great camps and generating some excitement. What concerns me is if the Pats do go with three rookie receivers on the active roster, they'll need to manage their snaps so they don't all hit the "rookie wall" at the end of the season and decline through the playoffs. Any thoughts on the potential to have half the receiving corps be rookies come end of the year? -- Chris (Houston)
A. Chris, that is an understandable concern and something to keep in mind as the year progresses. By that point in the year, the hope is that the rookies are no longer rookies and they can power through it. But for some players, the rookie wall is real. That's where having some veteran players in camp (e.g. Michael Jenkins) could potentially be a benefit down the line even if he doesn't make the initial roster. Maybe a player like that returns if the rookie wall really becomes an issue.
Q. Mike, how would you grade Year 2 jump of the sophomore class so far? -- MarkJ (Japan)
A. Mark, that's a still-developing picture, but the concerns would be second-rounder Tavon Wilson and third-rounder Jake Bequette. They haven't generated the "double growth" momentum (more physical and mental development with a full year in the program) that you hope for as a team at this point.
Q. Hey Mike, looks like it was a good first preseason game for the Pats. I have one concern though. The Pats first-string offense looked awesome during the 2 scoring drives that started the game, but could that success be more a result of having practiced against the Eagles so much, than of the Pats offense just being superior? -- Spencer (Maryland)
A. Spencer, that could have been a part of it, but overall I wouldn't read too much into the preseason results. One of the best examples in recent memory was the 2008 Detroit Lions. They went undefeated in the preseason and then had a winless, 0-16 regular season. The idea is to stay healthy in preseason and best position the team for regular-season success. Putting the final result aside, the Patriots have done so to this point.
Q. With Armond Armstead out of the lineup right now the team is a little weak at backup DT and with the Patriots being fairly deep at DE. Could you see Justin Francis making the team and contributing more at DT? -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)
A. David, I think Francis is a lock to make the team as more of a defensive end. As we've seen in practices and training camp, end Marcus Benard has taken some snaps as an interior sub rusher, so he's the player I would focus on right now. The depth behind starters Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly is thin. Marcus Forston is currently the top backup, with rookies Cory Grissom, Joe Vellano and Anthony Rashad White next on the depth chart. That would be one area I could see the team looking for help on the waiver wire.
Q. Hi, Mike. I realize it's too early to draw any conclusions, but do you think the class of 2013 has the potential to be an outstanding rookie class for the Patriots? -- Bo (Oakland, Calif.)
A. Bo, outstanding seems a bit strong. I do think they'll get some immediate contributions from rookies like Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins at receiver, with tight end Zach Sudfeld also making the club. Top pick Jamie Collins looks like he can help as a coverage linebacker. But other than that, I'm not sure we'll see rookies playing a huge role if everyone is healthy.
Q. Mike, what's your feel on Shane Vereen? Will he have a bigger role than Stevan Ridley? Will he be strictly a passing down back? I think Vereen would be a great RB between the tackles, plus he will never get caught from behind. -- Robert Scharf (Wayne, N.J.)
A. Robert, Vereen was on for 12 percent of the offensive snaps last year. I think we could see the number closer to 34-40 percent this year, assuming good health. That was the range that Danny Woodhead filled for the Patriots. I envision Vereen being mostly the passing back, and we know the Patriots call on that role on first down as well as third down. Ridley was at 45 percent last year and the expectation from here is that it would be in a similar range this year.
Q. Mike, what is the contractual status of Brian Waters? I see that the Cowboys are waiting for him to make a decision as to play for them or not this year, but I thought the Patriots stilled owned his rights because he refused to report last year. Can you clarify if I missed something regarding his Patriots contractual situation. -- Gerry (Chelmsford, Mass.)
A. Gerry, the Patriots quietly terminated Waters' contract on April 30, making him free to sign with any team.
Q. Does Mark Harrison have a shot at making the team? -- Michael (Illinois)
A. Michael, Harrison has yet to practice as he works his way back from a foot injury. His best chance to stick this year is on the practice squad. I don't see how he breaks through on the 53-man roster at this point.
Q. Did Zoltan Mesko hold for all three field goal attempts in the preseason opener? -- Jim Keddy (Kennebunk, Maine)
A. Jim, Mesko held for the first two field goal attempts (missed 44-yarder, then a successful 34-yarder), before Ryan Allen came on for the 53-yard unsuccessful attempt.
Q. Assuming Zoltan Mesko keeps his job as the Pats punter, is there any way to protect Ryan Allen? This kid might be real good. -- Art Hendrick (Falmouth, Maine)
A. Art, Allen has practice squad eligibility, so as long as he cleared waivers, he could land there. The one risk the team runs is that another team can claim him. Allen, while not perfect, has been impressive.
Q. Hi Mike, I was thinking of asking you this question even before he missed two FG's Friday night, but what do you think Stephen Gostkowski's chances are of making the team? He had a tough season last year but his job never truly appeared to be in jeopardy. -- Dan C (Melbourne Beach, Fla.)
A. Dan, the misses were from 44 and 53 yards, not exactly chip shots, so I don't think Gostkowski is in jeopardy of losing his job right now. If the struggles continue, perhaps it's a different story. As we saw on kickoffs, he is still a potent weapon in terms of the field-position game and limiting opponents' returns.