Coming off the bye weekend, the Patriots mailbag still was stocked with a variety of questions. A few themes that stood out were:
1. Looking ahead to Sunday's AFC East game against the Dolphins, with the Wildcat and Ted Ginn on kickoff returns the top concerns.
2. The emergence of Brandon McGowan and what it means for James Sanders.
3. Quarterback Tom Brady finding his groove.
4. Where is rookie defensive lineman Ron Brace?
Following up from last week's mailbag, some e-mailers dug up Julian Edelman's testing numbers at his pro day. Edelman's short shuttle was clocked at 3.91 seconds, which would have been the fastest among receivers at the combine. Edelman's 40-yard dash time was in the low 4.5s. Thanks for doing that.
The other point that came up was my thought that adding a 17th or 18th game would be a win-win in terms of having the extra game played in London. Some e-mailers called me out saying that no extra games are win-win situations. I should have mentioned that I think it's a foregone conclusion the season will expand, so I think if the league is serious about playing more games in London, that is the best way to ensure fans at home don't lose a home game -- making the extra game the one to go overseas.
Let's get to the questions:
Q: Mike, have you seen/heard anyone discuss the snap count when talking about defending the Wildcat? For the Wildcat to be fully effective, it seems that the ball needs to be snapped when the man in motion is close to the man lined up at QB. Shouldn't the defense be able to easily anticipate the snap count for this formation? -- Orlando (Boston)
A: Orlando, this is interesting because you are right on, but at the same time I think the anticipation of the snap is negated by the deception aspect -- and multiple options -- of the Wildcat. As Rodney Harrison pointed out in this ESPNBoston.com piece, you have the run, pass, option and misdirection aspects to consider. So in that respect, it can keep some players from being all-out aggressive until they diagnose what is taking place in front of them.
Q: Playing Miami this week, of course, brings up the possibility of the Wildcat. Last year, we did terribly in our first game against it and pretty much contained it in the second. What surprises me this year is that it appears teams are still having problems containing it. I assumed that after having seen it for a season, defenses would be able to shut it down. Have the Dolphins made adjustments that are difficult to cope with this year? -- Zoë (Tampa, Fla.)
A: The Dolphins have modified some things, Zoë, building on the success of the Wildcat last season. One change has been running it more without a quarterback on the field. But I think the foundation of the Wildcat remains the same, and part of what makes it tough to stop is the talent of the players with the ball in their hands (e.g., Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are dangerous), and the execution of a tough-to-master system. The Dolphins work hard at it, as it's a big part of their identity.
Q: Hi, Mike, I was just reflecting on what's coming up this week in dealing with the Dolphins, and it seems a lot of the focus has been on dealing with the Wildcat. I was wondering, though, how you think the special-teams matchup looks. I know Ted Ginn had two TDs on kickoff returns this past week. Do you think he could pose a legitimate threat on Sunday? -- Arnie (Pittsburgh)
A: I think this is a great point, Arnie, as Ginn is a major threat, and that Jets kickoff-coverage unit he shredded Sunday entered the game ranked fifth in the NFL. So this is a big part of the matchup. You might consider sending a note to Jets coach Rex Ryan about this, because he seemed surprised at how his team could lose a game when it had such a statistical advantage on offense/defense. It seems he forgot there is a very important third aspect to the game.
Q: After watching Ted Ginn and Percy Harvin spark their teams this past weekend with explosive kickoff returns, I was wondering if you think that Bill Belichick will try to shake that unit up by using Pat Chung, Darius Butler and Matt Slater as well as continuing to use Brandon Tate? -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)
A: David, I think we'll see Tate and Slater as the top options on the kickoff return. That was the tandem in the last game, and I think they'll get another shot.
Q: Mike, has there been any update on Sammy Morris and his injury? Are they expecting Laurence Maroney and BenJarvus Green-Ellis to handle the load for the rest of way? -- Rob (Pepperell, Mass.)
A: Rob, there has been no official update that I am aware of. I think that Morris injured his MCL, and my estimate would be a four-to-six-week type of situation from the initial injury. I don't know that to be true, so it's important to point out that I am speculating regarding what the injury is to Morris and what the time frame would be. What is fact is that Morris has not been placed on season-ending injured reserve at this time, so he is still eligible to return this season. For now, it's Maroney, Green-Ellis and Kevin Faulk.
Q: You've made the point that the next four or five games will tell us the story of this Patriots team. How do you see this stretch playing out, and will they have the division locked up by the end of it? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A: I don't think the Patriots will have the division locked up at the end of the stretch, Dean. I could envision them going 3-2 during this five-game span.
Q: Mike, what happened to James Sanders? I haven't heard much of him this year. He's started a lot of games in his career, including on a Super Bowl team, and didn't they give him a contract extension recently? -- John (South Boston, Mass.)
A: John, the surprising emergence of Brandon McGowan has cut into Sanders' playing time significantly. Sanders has played sparingly in recent weeks, and I don't see that changing much given the impact of McGowan. Even rookie Pat Chung was playing ahead of Sanders in the team's most recent game against the Buccaneers. Sanders signed a three-year contract this offseason that averaged around $3 million per season.
Q: I think now is a good time to revisit the offseason contract to James Sanders. Why did they throw such a contract at someone that would inevitably become fourth on the safety depth chart? I imagine that part of this is because they didn't anticipate McGowan's strong play and didn't know they would be drafting Chung, but it still seemed a little bit much then, and especially so now that he doesn't play. Can his contract be severed after this season? -- David (Denver)
A: I think you nailed it, David, and I also think Sanders is still a good player. Based on his on-the-field contributions, though, he isn't worth $3 million per season at this time. The one wrinkle to keep in mind is that there might not be a salary cap next year, so there would be no reason to sever his contract. I wouldn't dismiss his intelligence and ability to coordinate the back end of the defense, which is valuable.
Q: Hey Mike, how important is Brandon McGowan to this team? I have always been a believer of D-line first, then LBs. Secondary came in third. With the emergence of the spread offense, the secondary has possibly jumped its status. McGowan seems to have that Rodney Harrison-type style that allows the rest of the DBs to not worry as much about the run and really lets Brandon Meriweather be that center fielder type that all good defenses now seem to have. How important is it to lock him up long-term in your mind? -- Benny (Vancouver, British Columbia)
A: Benny, I see McGowan as the contrast to the Joey Galloway situation. As surprising as it was that Galloway didn't work out, it's been equally surprising to see McGowan playing at such a high level and working himself into such an important role in the defense. I agree with your thoughts, as McGowan's ability to move down into the box and support against the run and tight ends (Tony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow) has been Rodney-like. McGowan signed a two-year contract in May. Given his recent injury history, from a team perspective, it might be prudent to wait until this time next year to address future years of the contract.
Q: Hi Mike, thinking back to this past offseason, Albert Haynesworth agreed to a contract with the Redskins after only an hour of contact with the team. Winks and nudges about whether they were in contact ahead of time aside, why were the Skins able to land their defensive tackle in an hour, while we haven't been able to get a deal done with our star defensive tackle in months? Are the sides truly so far apart that a simple "meet somewhere in the middle" approach isn't going to work here? -- Stephen (Denver)
A: I'd say there are a lot of layers to this one, Stephen, and it's not an apples-to-apples situation. The main thing is that Haynesworth was an unrestricted free agent, while Vince Wilfork is under contract. If Wilfork were a free agent tomorrow, I think he'd sign with a new team immediately. So he doesn't have the leverage that Haynesworth had. On the team side, the Patriots don't have the same urgency as they would in a situation on the open market where there is competition from 31 teams. The danger for the team, however, is that the longer it waits, the dynamics of the situation change (compare Asante Samuel's situation). I know they've been talking, but I'm not sure where things stand.
Q: Mike, I couldn't disagree with you more on the defensive MVP. While Wilfork and [Ty] Warren have played well this year, I think [Gary] Guyton has been the MVP. He filled in well for [Jerod] Mayo at the beginning of the season and has been part of almost every defensive package on the field. His involvement in every package demonstrates how important he is to the defense especially after the disappointing first half of the season for [Adalius] Thomas and [Pierre] Woods. -- Roylan (Boston)
A: Guyton is a solid choice, Roylan, and I can't dispute that he was part of every package and didn't miss a snap while the Patriots were battling through their injury shortage at linebacker. You have to tip your cap to that effort. At the same time, I didn't see any dominance from Guyton like I saw from Wilfork and Warren at times. That's why I went with the two linemen.
Q: Mike, it's clear to me we're at the point where Derrick Burgess' lack of production deserves some scrutiny. This week he played 86 percent of the snaps and was virtually invisible. My admittedly untrained eye sees him getting consistently dominated at the line of scrimmage. He doesn't seem to have the power to push the lineman backward, and probably more importantly for him, he lacks the speed to get around them. In light of the criticism of Adalius Thomas, don't you think the benefit of the doubt for Burgess has to expire at this point? -- Brian (Mansfield, Mass.)
A: Brian, the only reason I'd say otherwise is that Burgess seems to be doing some different things the past two weeks, mainly playing stand-up linebacker in different packages. So I might offer up a bit of a longer leash before making a final call. One thing I do notice is that Burgess doesn't seem to have a wide variety of pass-rush moves for someone with his career production.
Q: Mike, there has been a lot of talk about the Patriots' draft classes in past years, and although I do agree with you, you must factor in [Randy] Moss and [Wes] Welker into the discussion, I do believe on pure draft talent alone the Patriots were average in past years. That being said, the 2008 and 2009 draft classes are starting to look really special. Would you agree? Do you think anything factors into why they have been successful the past two years? -- Matt (Boston)
A: Matt, I think the 2006 and 2007 drafts -- in terms only of players picked -- were spotty. The point I would make is that you can look at any team and find a similar stretch, even those who are considered the gold standard of personnel acquisition -- the Ravens, Steelers, Giants, Eagles, Chargers, Packers and Colts. That's the tricky part of the personnel game. There are a lot of mistakes. I think the Patriots earn respect by being able to navigate through the choppy waters and sustain success. As for the past two drafts, I see it as the law of averages. The Patriots are one of the NFL's better teams in the personnel game, so it was only a matter of time before they started to register more decisive hits than misses.
Q: Mike, I enjoyed your piece "No break for Brady". In most organizations it seems that veterans are complacent and seem to enjoy perks like days off, bye weeks, etc. I think the opposite can be said for veteran Patriots players? It is apparent that Bill Belichick loves bringing in hungry veterans (Harrison, Junior Seau, Corey Dillon, Randy Moss). Would you agree this is one of the Belichick's strategies? -- Jason (Allston, Mass.)
A: Thanks Jason. I don't know if I'd say that most NFL veterans are looking for perks and days off, but I do think Belichick views signing older players who have a few years left as smart business. His feeling, as he said in an offseason interview, is that you usually get those players' best shot.
Q: Quarterback technique is talked about often, especially with Tom Brady coming back from his injury. Brady and others often mention a "breakdown in mechanics" leading to accuracy issues. Would you highlight some of the quarterback mechanics that coaches/fans look for when analyzing quarterback play? -- Kyle (Foxborough, Mass.)
A: Kyle, one example for a right-handed quarterback like Brady is to look at his left toe. It should always be pointing in the direction of where he is throwing. The left leg itself is the guide leg. Here is a comment from former Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak when asked about Brady's mechanics in May: "He'll be coming forward on that [left] leg, he doesn't want to be throwing off his back foot. ... If you come back too early [from injury], sometimes you can develop bad habits. That happened with Drew [Bledsoe] when he hurt his off shoulder, he started throwing sidearm a bit. Tom has a real descriptive throwing motion, he really comes through the ball, follows through with his hand, his right foot comes up in the air and his left leg is bent. So I think a big thing for him is that weight transfer, from the right to the left."
Q: Mike, we are almost at the halfway point and I am wondering how you would grade out the offensive play calling. I believe it is Bill O'Brien making the calls. It has been hard to tell if it has been the play calling or the lack of executing in the first half. I will tell you one thing: I am tired of watching second-and-10's turn into third-and-8 with 2-yard runs. I really don't think we gave Josh McDaniels credit for the work he did as coordinator. It is too bad that he had to leave to see how good he really was at the art of calling plays. -- Rick Testa (Los Angeles)
A: Rick, I'd say there were some early hiccups, which is to be expected when anyone is assuming a new position. But overall, I think the play calling has been fine and that Bill O'Brien is an up-and-coming coach who will be well known in NFL circles when all is said and done. I agree on McDaniels, although I also recall several e-mails criticizing his play calling as well. I think he is a terrific coach with a great feel for offense and play calling. It didn't always produce the desired results, but I think he's one of the NFL's brightest offensive minds.
Q: One line of thinking is that we don't know anything new about the Patriots on offense or defense because of the combined record of our last two opponents. What do you think? There must be something. I personally feel much better about the defense. Am I naive? Or is there something to take from these games against the Bucs and Titans? -- Dave (Worcester, Mass.)
A: Dave, I think the quality of opponents have to be part of the consideration -- and how that can skew overall stats -- but there are still some positive things to take from those performances. My feeling is that the true test is ahead in the next five weeks.
Q: The Pats picked a promising linebacker in the third round of each of the past two drafts -- Tyrone McKenzie in 2009 and Shawn Crable in 2008 -- only to have them wind up on season-ending injured reserve for basically all of their eligible playing time. Going into next season, what kind of experience will these guys have gained while on IR? What team activities (meetings, walk-throughs, practices) does the league and team allow them? -- Mikey (Grafton, Mass.)
A: Mikey, these players can be in meetings and be part of the weight program, but they can not take part in practices. So they get mental repetitions, but that only goes so far. I do think it will help them in terms of knowledge of the system, but there is no substitute for being on the field.
Q: Mike, what do you think about the Peter King rumor that Belichick would strongly consider drafting Tim Tebow? Could Tebow be successful in an NFL system and bring a new wrinkle to the Patriots' already dynamic offense? -- Cory (Lexington, Mass.)
A: Nothing would surprise me, Cory. At the same time, there is a long way to go before the draft, and a lot of things could change between now and then.
Q: If Larry Johnson does end up getting cut from the Chiefs, what do you think about him signing with the Patriots? Bill Belichick had a good track record with troubled players (e.g. Corey Dillon and Randy Moss). I think LJ still has some left in the tank and would like to see him here on a one- or two-year deal. I think he would be a much better option to be the feature back than Maroney or Morris. -- Brad Isaacson (Groton, Conn.)
A: Brad, I haven't seen much of Johnson this year, so I am not sure how much he has left, and even if he checked out well in that regard, I'm not sure ownership would sign off on that based on some of his recent derogatory comments. From a pure football perspective, I wouldn't replace Maroney with Johnson.
Q: Hey Mike, I know it may be difficult given his constant lofty expectation,s but do you see Maroney ever taking over the role of Faulk in the offense? He looks just as good on the draw plays from the shotgun, can catch passes out of the backfield and can line up out wide. Time is not on Faulk's side, and Maroney may not be that feature back, so why not use him where he can be successful? -- Tyler (Longmeadow, Mass.)
A: I have two thoughts on this, Tyler, and the first is that my top question would be: Can Maroney be consistent and effective in blitz pickup? That would be a huge consideration in slotting him into that role. I also wonder whether Maroney has enough of a feel for the passing game to effectively carry it out. He definitely has the speed, but because of the two considerations above, I don't see it as a natural fit at this time.
Q: Mike, can you tell me what's become of Ron Brace? Is he just a wallflower right now? Is there a heavy plan he fits into for later in the season when the push for the playoffs begins? Insurance? -- Paul (Portland, Ore.)
A: Paul, I'll share my thoughts on Brace before wrapping it up with comments from defensive coordinator Dean Pees. I think Brace struggled with his technique in Week 2 against the Jets, unable to control gaps on back-to-back plays by not using his hands effectively to turn blockers, and he's had a long time to think about that. We haven't seen him since, and I think part of it is performance-related. I think another part of it is game-plan-related -- if Vince Wilfork or Ty Warren were hurt, I think we'd see Brace because that's the type of role he could play. In the long run, I think Brace will be fine and contribute.
Here is what Pees said when I asked him about Brace on Monday: "I think Ron's working hard, and he's learning the system and he's doing a good job in there. I think it's just a matter of us trying to say, 'Who fits the role that we need this week in this particular spot?' So it may not necessarily have anything to do with whether Ron has not done well or has done well. It's more a factor of, 'This guy kind of fits what we want there.' He's working every day, and he's in here all the time studying. There's nothing negative there, it's just a matter of we've been using some other guys in certain positions because we need them to fill a certain role."
Q: Mike, Terrence Wheatley seems to be the forgotten man in this defensive youth movement. Jonathan Wilhite and Butler seem to be getting more playing time. When you factor in Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs, where exactly does Wheatley fit into the equation? -- Mark (Melrose, Mass.)
A: Right now, Mark, it seems clear that Wheatley is the fifth corner, having been passed on the depth chart by Butler and Wilhite. In terms of the future, with Bodden on a one-year deal, I still think Wheatley will have a chance to carve out a role for himself in the Nos. 3-4 range.
Q: Hey Mike, how is Kendall Simmons doing this year? With his limited playing time, is he playing to his expectations or cap charge? How do you think he will pan out overall? -- Dan (Palm Bay, Fla.)
A: Dan, Simmons looks like a signing for depth this year and veteran insurance in 2010 and beyond. Although he's worked at every position on the line in practice, he's been active for only one game this season. With starting guards Logan Mankins and Stephen Neal entering the last year of their contracts, Simmons could be more of a factor next season. He's playing on the first year of a modest three-year contract.
Q: Regarding the "extra" picks in the next two drafts, it had me thinking of other options for using this "currency." Have the Patriots ever signed a restricted free agent and relinquished picks as the required compensation? A player like Houston linebacker DeMeco Ryans catches my eye. -- George (East Greenwich, R.I.)
A: George, that avenue is actually how the Patriots made their move to acquire Wes Welker, who was a restricted free agent the year they courted him. They were going to sign him to an offer sheet and give up the second-round pick but instead worked out a trade with the Dolphins (second- and seventh-round picks). In the specific case of Ryans, I don't see the Texans letting him get away with a first-round pick returning to them, so they would tender him at the high level. I don't think the Patriots would be in the mix. As for other restricted free agents the Patriots have pursued, the list includes defensive lineman Rodney Bailey (2004), defensive lineman Cedric Woodard (2003), linebacker Mike Maslowski (2002), running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala (2001) and offensive lineman Spencer Folau (2000).
Q: Hi Mike -- This isn't a Pats question, but with the Pro Bowl being the weekend before the Super Bowl, aren't a number of Pro Bowl players likely to be members of the two Super Bowl teams? This puts players on the Super Bowl teams in jeopardy of getting injured in the Pro Bowl and unavailable for the SB game. Your thoughts? -- Bert (Norwood, Mass.)
A: Bert, that is the one tradeoff of moving the game: Pro Bowlers on Super Bowl teams will not appear in the Pro Bowl.
Q: Mike, it is good to have a bye week in midseason so that we can have a calm Sunday. For the bye-week workouts, the Pats brought in more punters and kickers than they did in past several seasons, if my memory is correct. Is this a sign of a personal shuffle in special teams or just a routine due diligence? -- Mark (Japan)
A: I'd say it's just due diligence. Teams bring in players at all positions to keep their emergency lists fresh, and that's what I think the Patriots were doing. Punter Chris Hanson has been a bit up-and-down, so that also be could part of the consideration. If Hanson's struggles become more of a problem, the Patriots will have an updated list from which to choose a possible replacement.
Q: Mike, what's going on in the NFL right now? For a league that touts its competitive balance, there certainly are a lot of powerhouses and a lot of real stinkers. What do you attribute the disparity to? -- Stacy (Portland, Maine)
A: Stacy, let's end on this one. My first thought is that I'd attribute it to the high number of coaching changes, and with those changes have come some dramatic philosophical shifts that have led to major roster turnover. Teams such as the Rams, Lions and Chiefs come to mind. I also think some of the head-coaching hires seemed a bit curious (Browns, Buccaneers). That's probably only part of it, but it is where I would start.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.