By this time next week, NFL teams will have to trim rosters from 90 to 75 players. A few days later, the cut is much deeper, to 53 players.
With two preseason games still to play, that means there are several footballs in the air when it comes to the 2014 Patriots team.
"A lot of things are kind of colliding here at one point," coach Bill Belichick said this week.
With this in mind, this week's Patriots mailbag focuses mostly on the construction of the roster and some potential surprises and under-the-radar players who have caught the eye since the start of training camp July 24.
There's plenty to discuss.
Q. Mike, is Malcolm Butler legit, or should we "tap the brakes" a bit on him and chalk it up to preseason hype? He looks like he moves well, fluid, and puts himself in position to make a play on the ball, but catches are still being made on him. Also, what's your projection at safety with Logan Ryan taking a bunch of snaps there. -- Mike (Buena Park, California)
A. Mike, I think we all learned a good lesson with tight end Zach Sudfeld last year as it relates to this. Sudfeld had a similar performance in camp and preseason, and it warranted a roster spot. Sudfeld earned that spot and everyone saw that he did -- his breakthrough was real. But what happened is that he soon plateaued and then took a pretty hard crash. So as it relates to Butler, I don't think there's any need to "tap the brakes" as much as there is to understand that these situations are fluid and somewhat volatile with rookies. The focus should be, "Can he sustain?" On Logan Ryan, it's all about finding a way to get your best players on the field. I think he's a real possibility at that second safety spot, which could see a few different players in the mix depending on the specific game plan each week.
Q. Does Josh Boyce deserve to make this team? His 4.3 speed is intriguing, but he doesn't seem to play as fast as a guy like Roy Finch and doesn't have the skills/consistency of a guy like Kenbrell Thompkins. I think Boyce would be a guaranteed cut if he weren't a fourth-round draft choice. I'm glad Thompkins is approaching "lock" territory, btw, but Finch looks like he belongs to me. I don't think he makes it through to the practice squad. -- Pascal (New York City)
A. Pascal, if we're looking solely based on the performance in camp, I think Boyce has been outperformed when it comes to a roster spot. But as we know, part of what goes into those spots is projecting future improvement. For example, in 2000, Tom Brady was clearly the fourth of four quarterbacks, but there was enough there for the staff to want to keep him around to see how he developed. That's one thing to consider with Boyce. Bill Belichick sometimes says that the last thing a team wants to do is make a mistake on its own players (which can be done by giving up too fast) and have him emerge elsewhere. Saints coach Sean Payton also said something similar as it related to Rob Ninkovich. On Finch, he's fun to watch with the ball in his hands. At the same time, his missed blitz pickup in the third quarter was not so fun to watch and put quarterback Ryan Mallett in harm's way.
Q. Mike, what is your impression of Roy Finch? Do you think Belichick can get Dave Meggett-type production out him? -- Andrew (Bahamas)
A. Andrew, I'd like to see Finch a bit earlier in the game to have a better feel. He didn't play in the first half against the Eagles before logging all 16 of his snaps in the second half. I think of a player like former Chief and current Titan Dexter McCluster when it comes to Finch based on his size and explosive playmaking ability, but Finch has further to go than McCluster did when first entering the NFL. The main question I have with Finch is if he would make it through to the practice squad. My hunch is yes.
Q. Mike, in the second game James White was given a good opportunity, but I didn't think he showed much. Jonas Gray looked good and his power was much more evident. Was that just a bad sample based on all you've seen? -- Bob (Annapolis, Maryland)
A. Bob, they are two different types of backs. Gray is more powerful at 5-foot-10 and 225 pounds, while White is 5-10, 205, and a bit more of a well-rounded type and can run between the tackles, outside and also catch the ball well. I agree that it wasn't an eye-opening performance from White. One factor to consider as it relates to Gray is that he was playing against a lower level of competition.
Q. Mike, can I buy a Stevan Ridley jersey yet, or keeping the long term in mind, should I hold off? I love what he brings to the backfield, runs with power and elusiveness, just needs better ball security. How do you think our need for a thumper impacts the long-term plan for the Pats and Stevan? -- Mike (Buena Park, California)
A. Mike, there are a couple of layers here. First, Ridley is a free agent after the season, so unless you're comfortable with a possible one-year jersey situation, there are no guarantees beyond 2014. I thought he looked like the team's best running back Friday against the Eagles, but the ball security remains a concern. He just needs to tighten up in that area, and I believe it's going to be tough for the Patriots to invest in him until he does. Bill Belichick's actions with Ridley's playing time speak volumes to me in that area.
Q. Mike, every year there seems to be surprise cuts. While this year people have focused on guys like Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell, I have two other possibilities and wanted your thoughts. I suppose they could also be traded for low-round draft picks: Alfonzo Dennard and Marcus Cannon. Dennard did not have a great year last year, has been injury prone and had notable off-field issues, and has been passed by Butler. And with Cannon, he has looked shaky in the preseason and his G/T versatility does not seem to be that unique anymore with a guy like Jordan Devey. -- Steve (Canton, Massachusetts)
A. Steve, I'd be very surprised if Dennard or Cannon was let go. The Patriots know they have a real asset in Cannon, who has proved he can step in without the O-line missing a beat. Cannon is in line for a big payday next year as a free agent and is one of the most underrated players on the roster, so with all due respect to Devey, I'd say it's unfair to Cannon to put the players in the same sentence. And on Dennard, teams can never have enough depth at cornerback. I think the coaching staff is high on him as well and knows that with Brandon Browner suspended for the first four games, that depth is critical.
Q. OK, it was not the best of tackle attempts, but I am surprised not much has been said of Tom Brady's all-out attempt to bring down Cary Williams on the pick-six. TB is an aging first-string QB playing in a meaningless exhibition game. No one would have blamed him for playing it safe; most would have preferred it. He has been around too long to believe he was caught up in the moment. To me it showed his understanding of being a leader, his mental and physical toughness, and his message to his teammates that there is a right way to play the game -- real game, practice or exhibition. Am I reading too much into it or was it really as special as it appeared to me? And was the message heard by his teammates? -- Matt (Chapel Hill, North Carolina)
A. Matt, that play was similar to what I saw when Jimmy Garoppolo jumped into the pile for a Stephen Houston fumble in the preseason opener. It's having respect for the game and knowing that what you put on tape is seen by all. It's sort of like a kicker making a halfhearted attempt to tackle on a kickoff return -- players see that and pick up on it.
Q. Hey Mike, what is the status of Sealver Siliga's injured hand? Does he make it back for the regular-season opener or does he wind up on the PUP list? He showed some promise last season and would like to see more of him behind Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. -- Phil (Braintree, Massachusetts)
A. Phil, Siliga isn't eligible for the PUP list because he has already practiced in training camp. The left hand injury is significant and it is unlikely we see Siliga in the regular-season opener. Based on the present snapshot, it could be a while until we see him.
Q. Mike, you gave some nice props to Joe Vellano but didn't keep him on the projected roster. Does he still have practice squad eligibility? If so, do you think he makes it through? What players that didn't make your projected roster are going to be most at risk of getting "poached" by other teams? A number of teams seem to troll the list of ex-Patriots. -- Joseph (Andover, Massachusetts)
A. Joseph, I have to find a way to keep Vellano on the roster, as he doesn't have any practice squad eligibility. I think he deserves a spot, and if Siliga's injury is more of a long-term situation, maybe that's how it unfolds. Poachable players would be Finch, Ryan Wendell and Jon Halapio, among others. Sometimes we can overrate the idea of teams poaching the Patriots, as it happens all around the NFL.
Q. Mike, where do you think the linebackers stand this year compared to last year? Depth at LB is one of the concerns this year, but from last year we're basically trading Dane Fletcher and Brandon Spikes for a healthy Jerod Mayo and James Anderson. When healthy, I think this year's LBs are just as good if not better than last year. Key word is healthy. Do you know of any potential cuts from other teams who could make the Patriots' 53 as a fifth/sixth LB? -- Dan (Ohio)
A. Dan, I think a top linebacker trio of Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower has the potential to be one of Bill Belichick's best groups in recent memory. The depth is a little bit of a concern, but part of that is how we classify players by position. Technically, we could put Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich in the linebacker group because they are end-of-the-line players, and then the complexion of the depth changes. I don't know of any potential cuts from other teams that could fit, but it's something to keep on the radar specific to the off-the-line spots. Then the question becomes, "Is that player an upgrade over James Anderson and/or Steve Beauharnais and Darius Fleming?"
Q. Mike, how does the Patriots' tight end depth look? -- Dustin
A. Dustin, this is somewhat similar to the preceding question in that I put fullback James Develin in that spot as well. So if they open the season with Rob Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui and Develin, that's a solid trio. The questions come after that group, and that's probably the "shadow" roster anyway.
Q. I view Nate Ebner as a special-teams player only. I know Ebner has a preseason interception, but do you think he can play safety well enough to be able to cut Patrick Chung and Wilson? Why do you think Chung would still be available to the Patriots even if they were to cut him? -- David (North Attleborough, Massachusetts)
A. David, I think Ebner can be a factor in some of the sub packages the team employs. In the base defense, Chung would be a better option. When releasing a player, you're always taking a risk that another team could pick him up. It only takes one. So no one knows for sure, but with Chung, I think what unfolded this past offseason was a reflection of his value on the open market (getting cut by the Eagles and being available for any team at close to a minimum-level price).
Q. For a third-round pick, is Jake Bequette a big miss on the scouting front or is it that he just could not adjust to the pro level? If I remember correctly, he had a solid college career and had a lot of promise coming out of college. -- Ashley (Worcester, Massachusetts)
A. Ashley, it's always a little tough to answer questions like this definitively, but my sense is that the Patriots had Bequette rated a bit higher than other teams. Revisiting Dan Pompei's "Sunday Blitz" for the National Football Post a few years back gives us another opinion to reinforce that thought.
Q. How safe do you think long-snapper Danny Aiken is? After all, as I recall, the Pats picked him up right before the season after he spent his entire rookie camp with Buffalo. Just because Tyler Ott's out, I'm wondering if that really means Aiken's a lock for the team. -- Jacob (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania)
A. Jacob, former Patriots punter Josh Miller used to remind reporters that even though there wasn't competition on the roster, he knew the team had a list of punters on speed dial just in case. So the message was that you could never get comfortable. That holds true for Aiken in this case.
Q. Hi Mike, how would you rate the progress of the former Notre Dame players on the Patriots roster -- Braxton Cave, Darius Fleming and Jonas Gray -- and their chances of making the 53-man roster? -- Les (Middleton, Massachusetts)
A. Les, Fleming has the best chance to make the roster given the relative lack of depth at linebacker and his ability to back up multiple spots. He's been getting a longer look on special-teams units, such as punt coverage, which is often a potential promising indication for him. Cave and Gray face longer odds to stick on the roster.
Q. Mike, the weather isn't helping the Pats get ready for Miami. If we had the usual hot, muggy weather, going to Miami early wouldn't be a big deal, but these temps we have been having are going to be a big contrast to what Game 1 is going to be like. Any way Bill turns the heat up and brings them inside for some work leading up to the season opener? How else can you prepare? -- DJ (Rindge, New Hampshire)
A. DJ, one player recently mentioned that he prefers going to Miami in early September than December, because it's easier to prepare now than it is in winter going from cold to hot. I hadn't thought of it along those lines. I think the overall preparation for a Sept. 7 season opener in Miami isn't about a one-day or a one-week type of thing. It's about overall conditioning, and that's something Bill Belichick has been stressing since Day 1 of camp. For example, they ended Monday's practice with sprints. That conditioning hill behind the two practice fields is getting a workout, for sure.
Q. Mike, I can't seem to find the 2 cutdown dates (to 80 and then to 53 players) for team rosters anywhere. Have they been announced yet? -- Bert (Norwood, Massachusetts)
A. Bert, it's Aug. 26 for the cutdown from 90 to 75. And then Aug. 30 for the cutdown from 75 to 53.
Q. Hey Mike, where were you when the Patriots media participated in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? LOL. -- Patrick (Davis, California)
A. Patrick, I had done the challenge prior, making a donation to ALS. They had a good group to make it happen.