Mailbag: Questioning the RB situation

Last week, e-mailer "Kartal from Denver" wrote to the mailbag with the idea of compiling a list of the best places in the country to watch the New England Patriots play. Readers responded with some great submissions. I was also made aware that the Patriots have their own fan club registry.

The plan is to post the master list of "Best Places to watch the Patriots" next week, on July 5, instead of having the regular mailbag.

Then the following week, July 12, I'll be on vacation. Some plans are in the works to possibly fill the mailbag void on that day.

As for this week's mailbag, one of the hot topics was the team's running back corps. It's one of the few positions on the roster that hasn't changed much from last season.

Q: Hey Mike, like many, I've been disappointed with the running game. I would love for the Pats to have a RB that other teams have to plan around or at least take seriously into account to add some more balance to the overall attack. However, I do believe Laurence Maroney is capable of being a good RB as he showed signs of last season with some tough running, lowering the shoulder, and fighting for yardage. Then the fumbles came. So my question is what has Maroney been working on this offseason in terms of overall running and especially regarding fumbling? -- Papi Shimon (NYC)

A: Papi, I agree that Maroney stepped up when the Patriots were hit by injuries in 2009, although his overall season was clouded by four lost fumbles (two at the goal line). I thought he was the team's most consistent running back in terms of being available -- and that shouldn't be overlooked, especially for a player who has had some injuries in the past. He's also still young (25). As for the fumbling, Maroney points out that has traditionally been one of his strengths and he hit a rough stretch last year, so he needs to sharpen his focus in those situations. That has been part of his offseason approach.

Q: Mike, with the release of RB Pat Paschall, every remaining RB on the roster has a contract that expires after 2010. Do you think the Patriots will make any more offseason moves to try and add another RB? Like Harvey Unga in the 2010 supplemental draft (maybe worth a fourth rounder?) or a trade involving [Logan] Mankins? -- Sean (Greer, S.C.)

A: Sean, If the Patriots do "bid" on Unga in the supplemental draft, I would think it would be a late-round pick, not a mid-rounder. Last year, the team kept five running backs on its roster, and one possibility that I think is on the radar this year is keeping just four. Something has to give and with three tight ends looking like locks for roster spots (Alge Crumpler, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez), and I'm wondering if it could be at running back. If so, that would require a tough cut (Fred Taylor? BenJarvus Green-Ellis?). Adding Unga to the mix might require two tough cuts -- one of which could be Unga himself -- and that's why I see it as unlikely for the team to bid on him unless it's a late-round pick. As for the future at the position, there is still time to address it in the 2011 draft and free agency.

Q: Mike, have you seen anything out of ex-Kansas State star Thomas Clayton (i.e. drills, first-second team rotations)? The Pats just recently signed the running back and I was wondering if you could give a quick perspective about his size and speed as well as if he's got a shot to make this squad? Does he have good hands like Kevin Faulk? -- Joe (Northampton, Mass.)

A: Joe, Clayton is 5-foot-11, 222 pounds, so he has some bulk to him, but it looks to me like he can also run well. Overall, I think it's too early to assess the running backs, mainly because the practices we saw were noncontact. Based on the depth chart, I think that Clayton is a long shot to make the club, as most of the quality reps I saw in practice went to Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

Q: Mike, can you please educate us on how the supplemental draft works? -- John (finally moving back to New England)

A: John, this year's supplemental draft is scheduled for July 15 and it involves players who did not declare for April's draft whose situations have changed since then. Teams submit a bid as to what round they'd be willing to select the player, and the team with the highest bid is awarded the prospect, with that team giving up the corresponding pick in next April's draft. The supplemental draft goes seven rounds and if the players aren't selected, they become free agents. The Patriots have not been awarded a player in the supplemental draft in Bill Belichick's tenure (2000 to present), although they did claim a supplemental draft prospect on waivers who never emerged (Nebraska offensive lineman Chris Patrick, 2007).

Q: Mike, while many have speculated how the Pats' running game suffers because of how hard it is to run out of the shotgun, I think part of the problem is that the Patriots telegraph the run when they move under center as well. They seem to only move under center in running downs, which makes their attempt to be balanced predictable. I think in order for the offense to be two-dimensional this year it is going to take a commitment to balance from both the gun and from under center. Your thoughts? Were they passing a lot from under center in minicamp? -- Kyle (Cranston, R.I.)

A: Kyle, I don't have the numbers of how many times they ran/passed out of the shotgun, and how many times they ran/passed with the quarterback under center. But overall, I'd agree that more of a commitment to running with the quarterback under center would help the team. I base that opinion, in part, on the end of the year when the Patriots tried something different -- a two-back set with Kevin Faulk as the deep back. They had success with it, and I think it was something the players developed some confidence in. I remember seeing it and thinking to myself "Where was this earlier in the year?"

Q: Mike, I don't believe Logan Mankins' market value is a first-round pick. The cons are that the team that signs him will have to pay $8 million per year with guarantees. Jammal Brown, a left tackle, just went for a mid-round pick. Did Brown go for a discount because of injuries or contract demands or both? I think Mankins may command a third-round pick. Where am I wrong in my analysis? Are we thinking other teams are going to take the bait like the Raiders? Also, aren't firsts supposed to go up in value with a possible rookie cap? Set me straight, please. -- Michael McWherter (Rowlett, Texas)

A: Michael, my first thought on Mankins is that the market will ultimately be determined by 31 other teams. We saw it with the Matt Cassel trade in February of 2009. Some thought Cassel was worth a first-round pick, but the market never generated to that level in the time the Patriots allotted to make a deal, and a high second-rounder was the best the team could do. As for Mankins, I see a few big differences between him and Jammal Brown. First, Brown is coming off an injury in which he didn't play last season. Second, the Redskins acquired Brown without signing him to a contract extension. Those two factors lowered the price. If the Patriots trade Mankins, my assumption is that it will be to a team that has hammered out a long-term extension for him.

Q: Mike, in the previous mailbag you replied to a question like the joint practices against the Falcons would be open to the public. Is this true? -- Steve C (Alpharetta, Ga.)

A: Steve, this is true. The practices will be Tuesday, August 17, and will be 8:30 a.m. to 10:40 a.m. and 3:45 p.m. to 5:35 p.m. They are open to the public.

Q: Hey Mike, there is one rookie who I have been interested to see and have heard nothing about since the draft: Quarterback Zac Robinson. Do you have any idea how well he is performing with the team? And when the season comes, what will his role be with the team? -- Cameron (Westborough, Mass.)

A: Cameron, I see Robinson most likely winding up on the practice squad at this point, assuming he would clear waivers. As for how he is performing in practice, the main thing I've seen is that his opportunities for valuable repetitions are limited. Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer are getting most of the repetitions.

Q: Mike, it's still very early but based on what you have seen so far, and assuming [Wes] Welker is out, how do you think [Brandon] Tate, [Torry] Holt, [Julian] Edelman, [Taylor] Price will stack up as the second/third receivers with [Randy] Moss? -- Bob (Houston, Texas)

A: Bob, my sense is that the Patriots would like to see Tate snare that No. 3 role, but it remains a question mark, and Holt represents an insurance policy. I also think we can lock Edelman into Welker's spot for now. I've seen Price in three practices and it's not enough to have an informed opinion.

Q: Aloha Mike. Whatever happened to the Terrence Wheatley & Jonathan Wilhite combo of cornerbacks? They were supposedly the up-and-comers but now it seems that Darius Butler is the top CB opposite Leigh Bodden. Where does this put Wheatley? -- Frank (Honolulu, Hawaii)

A: Frank, I think Wheatley is going to have a hard time making the club if all the cornerbacks stay healthy. I think a player like Kyle Arrington, as a fifth corner, adds more value because of his special-teams abilities. As for Wilhite, he looks like their top slot corner right now. I see him on the club, but restricted to slot duties if everyone is healthy.

Q: I think most Patriots fans are looking forward to seeing what we have in Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Alge Crumpler but are concerned about if the Patriots will use them to their full advantage. Last year in the first game of the year Ben Watson caught seven passes and two touchdowns, one of which was the game winner. In the third game, Chris Baker had a 36-yard game-winning touchdown. The rest of the year we didn't get much from either of them. My question is whether this a result of inconsistent play or inconsistent usage? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)

A: I don't think it was usage, David. When looking at the playtime numbers of Watson and Baker, they were both on the field a lot. They both played in every game, with Watson on the field 66 percent of the time and Baker 61 percent.

Q: The Pats have had several high-rated tight ends that didn't reach their potential here. Any chance we lack the quality tight end coach needed to develop our new tight ends? -- Tom (Naples)

A: Tom, I think the coaching is just one factor in that equation. For example, if we put Tony Gonzalez in the Patriots' huddle, I think his production would still be at Pro Bowl levels. As for the Patriots' current situation at tight end, it looks to me like Bill Belichick felt the coaching could have been better in 2009, and that's why he made the switch.

Q: Mike, whatever happened to Doug Flutie's drop kick football? Is it in the Hall at Canton or at Patriot Place? -- Phil (Petersburg, Ky.)

A: Phil, I spoke with Flutie last week at Tedy Bruschi's football camp for kids and it would have been the perfect time to ask him and I blew it. That ball is not at the Patriots Hall of Fame. I'm not sure if it's in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Q: Hi Mike, I have a question for you about Brandon Meriweather. In one of your recent blog posts you mention that he was locked in at free safety. I had thought in recent years he was the starting strong safety. If he's made a switch, I think it's a good idea. I think he's better suited to as a ball-hawking, center-field type free safety than a run-supporting strong safety, where he got burned deep a couple times worrying too much about a play-fake. If he's the team's free safety now, does that leave the SS competition between Brandon McGowan and Patrick Chung? -- Jeremy (Grafton, Mass.)

A: Jeremy, one of the first things Bill Belichick would say on this one is that the team doesn't look at its safeties in the traditional free/strong designations, as they are interchangeable. I can see why he would say that, but at the same time, I think it's fair to say that Meriweather is more likely to be the center-field type and then you're looking for the best complement to him -- a safety who will move around and sometimes play closer to the line, supporting the run and blitzing. That's why I think McGowan and Chung are the most likely options to start next to Meriweather.

Q: Mike, why does the NFL have the injured reserve rule where a player that goes on injured reserve is out for the season? For example, in baseball a player can go on the DL for 15 days or more. I think football hurts itself by having good players sit out a year when they could likely be back during the season. I realize that teams will keep an injured player off IR during the season to heal, like Fred Taylor last year but other players like Shawn Crable get stuck on IR with a wasted year. -- John Heisman (Boca Raton, Fla.)

A: John, the following is a link from a story I wrote on the topic last year, while working for the Boston Globe. Mainly, the current system is in place to stop teams from stashing players on injured reserve. The rule-makers feel that having a game-day inactive list serves as a disabled list of sorts.

Q: Mike, if the new CBA has two preseason games and 18 regular games, do you think there will be a second bye week and/or a new 'disabled list'? The disabled list could allow teams to put a player on IR for six weeks during the season and then return once the six weeks were up. Would they also expand the regular roster -- say from 53 to 60 -- and still have a practice squad? -- Boris (Gorham, Maine)

A: Boris, I could envision a new six-game "disabled list" in an 18-game season, but I don't think it would be unlimited. So teams might be restricted to placing one player on the list at any time. If roster size expands in an 18-game season, I don't think we'd see a big spike to 60 players because of the cost to owners. I could see an increase from 53 to 55, but not much more. The practice squad would remain in place, with the possibility of increasing the number of players from eight to 10.

Q: Mike, if there is a lockout in 2011, the 2011 draft still happens, but what about the 2012 draft? Is it canceled? Does it go as planned, but go off the 2010 season for draft order? Does it use a random order? Is the world going to end in 2012 so no one cares? -- Brett (Afghanistan)

A: Brett, in this scenario, I assume the 2012 draft would not take place until an agreement is struck between owners and the players. As for the 2012 draft order, I'm not sure how that would work.

Q: Mike, My question is in regards to NFL contracts. If a player signs a six-year, $50 million contract, with $20 million guaranteed, does that make the total of the contract $70 million. Or is the $20 million bonus included in the salary? It seems to me that NFL players make a lot less than baseball and basketball. If the owners want the 18-game schedule, wouldn't every player be entitled a raise? What would that do for existing contracts? -- Joe (Quincy, Mass.)

A: Joe, when those reports come out regarding a six-year, $50 million contract with $20 million guaranteed, the total value of that deal is $50 million. The reason the $20 million figure is important is that NFL contracts aren't guaranteed, so that is money the player will see regardless of if he makes it to the end of the contract. As for the second part of the question, I think that is precisely how players feel -- if the owners are asking for more work, it should include more pay. And I don't think anyone would dispute that 18 games is more work despite the NFL's public relations spin calling it an "enhanced" season, not an "expanded" season.

Q: My question is about salaries and how to balance talent and cost. Why is it that the Colts can re-sign key players to large contracts without much trouble -- keeping players like Reggie Wayne, Bob Sanders, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Dallas Clark ... just to name a few. Yet the Patriots couldn't keep Asante Samuel, went through a drawn-out process with [Vince] Wilfork (which we now are realizing hurt locker room chemistry), Logan Mankins wants out, and the Pats can't get a Tom Brady deal done? What gives? -- Joe (Los Angeles, Calif.)

A: Joe, I see a couple of layers to this question. First, the Colts have not been able to sign every player over the years. Like the Patriots, they've had some major contributors depart in free agency and they also have players currently unhappy with their contracts (e.g. Robert Mathis). At the same time, I think the Patriots and Colts have different philosophies when it comes to building a team -- the Patriots spread the money around to more players so they have a stronger middle-class on the roster, while the Colts are more top-heavy. Both approaches have proven successful.

Q: Mike, do you think we could beat the Jets in the division? Also, what is the timetable for Welker's return and how is his rehab going? Who do you think will step up in the secondary to be a ball hawk like Asante Samuel or Ty Law? -- Chris (Henrietta, N.Y.)

A: Chris, the Jets look tough but I still think the division goes through New England. As for Welker's timetable, he has been adamant not to share that information. My feeling is that he will start the season on the physically unable to perform list, so the first possible time we could see him is Week 7, and even that might be optimistic. As for the secondary and who steps up to be a ball hawk, I'd start with Darius Butler. I think he's ready to make a big jump at left cornerback.

Q: Mike, what happened between Jason Taylor and the Patriots? Last year there seemed to be real interest between the two with Taylor deciding to remain in Miami. This year he signed with the Jets with no apparent dialogue between Taylor and the Pats. Seems strange given our continued need for a pass-rusher. -- Bob (South Portland, Maine)

A: Bob, I think there was dialogue; I just don't think it ever became public. Taylor and Bill Belichick have a strong connection and I'm sure they talked or at least had some form of discussion about the possibility. If I had to make an educated guess at what happened, I think it came down to cost. The Jets reportedly are paying Taylor $3.75 million this season, and once the numbers got into that ballpark, I think it made it a one-team race.

Q: Mike, I was disappointed when I read the "throwback" uniforms will be back for two games. I didn't mind them last year since it was the AFL's anniversary, but is there a reason we have to see those eyesores again this season? Let's leave them where they belong -- in the past! -- Brian (Saco, Maine)

A: Brian, my sense is that you might be in the minority on this one. I think a lot of fans like the throwbacks. As for the reason teams across the NFL wear them, I'd say first and foremost it's about money and more merchandise sales.

Q: Hi Mike, I've been sitting on this one for the "quiet time" on the schedule. Last year the Pats needed some locker room leadership. Willie McGinest was available and on the record as saying he'd only return to play for the Pats. Tom Brady has called Willie "the Regulator" and said he was scared of him in the locker room. Rodney Harrison said Willie took him aside when he arrived and explained the Patriot way of doing things. My impression at the time was not many worked harder or were more vocal as a leader. Did things really end that badly with McGinest when he left that he wasn't a leadership option? Thoughts on why he doesn't get the same respect from the media as others that weren't there as long? -- Mike (Bedford, N.H.)

A: Mike, my feeling is that the Patriots' decision to not bring McGinest back last season had little to do with how his time with the team ended. I think it was strictly a talent evaluation -- both of McGinest and the overall roster.

Q: Thank you for providing the very interesting stats on red zone offensive production. Clearly, the Patriots are effective at getting possessions and moving the football but stalled in the red zone. Can you compare the stats from last year to those from their 18-1 season? The good news is that this is an area that both Belichick and Brady -- the Patriots' two best assets -- should be able to analyze and improve. The efficiency of the Cardinals and Colts indicates this has much to do with the quarterback position but play calling is also critical. -- Paul (Lexington)

A: Paul, the Patriots had 65 trips inside the red zone last season, scoring 34 touchdowns. That ranked them 13th in the NFL in terms of touchdown percentage. In their record-setting 2007 season, the Patriots had a league-high 72 trips inside the red zone, with a league-high 50 touchdowns. That ranked them second in the NFL in terms of touchdown percentage.

Q: Mike, I think the red zone stat you posted can be very misleading. While a few teams above the Pats were clearly better at scoring in the red zone, many of the teams had a high percentage but a low amount of trips. Only four of the teams listed above the Pats (Pats were 13th) actually scored more red zone TDs than the Pats, and while the 49ers and Titans had a better percentage, they made only 39 red zone trips. Call me crazy but I'd much rather make 65 trips to the red zone and score 34 times, than score 23 touchdowns in 39 trips. Of the teams ranking above the Pats in TD percentage, only two of them made it to the red zone more than the Pats, and that was the Saints and Vikes. In my opinion, the more trips, the better. -- Rick (Lowell, Mass.)

A: Rick, I would agree that the more trips, the better, and that's why looking at the stats in their complete context is important. I think those stats reflect missed opportunities for the Patriots in 2009, and my sense is that the coaching staff has spent considerable time on red zone offense this offseason.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.