We're now double-digit days into training camp and the picture of the 2010 New England Patriots is starting to come into focus.
I see a team with a lot of young talent, but one that also has savvy veterans throughout the roster. I think it's a good mix.
Here are a few things that have stood out to me through 10 days of training camp and 19 practices:
1. Cornerback Darius Butler could be a star. If I had to predict which player would lead the team in interceptions, he'd be the choice.
2. The offensive and defensive lines have taken some big hits (Logan Mankins, Nick Kaczur, Ty Warren) and that is probably the biggest concern for Bill Belichick right now. Games are won and lost on the line, and the Patriots have been without three powerful, sturdy, dependable players.
3. George Bussey, one of the team's offseason award-winners and a 2009 fifth-round draft choice, has been getting a lot of work at left tackle with the second unit. That bodes well for him earning a roster spot.
4. No running back stands out as having separated from the pack. There is no explosive playmaker in the group.
Q. After everything you have seen at camp so far, Mike, would you say that this is a better team than we saw last year, a worse team than last year, or one that is on par with last year? I know it is super early and we haven't even seen them against anyone other than themselves, but I am interested to know if you see any kind of improvement in any aspect of the game, any change in the tone or demeanor or competitiveness of the team. What is your general feeling for the squad so far? -- Sam (Toronto)
A. Sam, I'd start with the locker room dynamic, because that was something that seemed to hurt the 2009 team. I think this club, right now, has a better vibe around it. That's more of a "feel" thing. As for the talent, my thought is that there are a lot of exciting young players who have big upside and they are going to have a chance to contribute immediately. But with that youth will come some growing pains and mistakes. Overall, I'm excited to see how it all comes together because I can't remember another time in Bill Belichick's tenure when he relied on so many young players. I see it as the type of situation where some early success could snowball into something special, or some early struggles could spiral into something not-so-great.
Q. Hello Mike, it is often said perception is reality. Five years ago Brady and Mankins would have had their contracts in place before training camp began and a free agent like Aaron Schobel would have been signed immediately. Now, it appears that management/ownership is doing business differently. It looks like the Krafts are playing hardball with a couple key players (Brady and Mankins) and no longer is this team a "destination" for a free agent like it used to be. Is this perception a reality? -- Paul (Kenosha, Wis.)
A. Paul, I'll answer this one in two parts. I'll start by saying that the Patriots aren't the "destination" they once were in the ensuing years after that stretch of three Super Bowl titles in four seasons. The sell is naturally going to be a bit harder now, because of the amount of time since the last Super Bowl triumph and the gap that has narrowed between the Patriots and other teams. That said, I don't see how the Patriots are doing business much differently now than in those years. Four years ago, they didn't have much at wide receiver and still traded Deion Branch. The year before that, they parted ways with Ty Law. So I don't think what we're seeing now is anything out of the norm. Perhaps they would benefit from tweaking their approach a bit, as every good business evolves a bit over time and adjusts to the changing currents.
Q. Mike, don't you think the Aaron Schobel talk among some members of the media and fans is a bit overblown? While no one can question Schobel's motor and his success against the Patriots, I think his lack of track record in a 3-4 defense is fair to mention. He would be coming in to be a situational pass rusher in a specialty package and for, if reports are true, fairly significant dollars. I would rather see the Patriots use any pre-lockout dollars to re-up "The Franchise" and just be thankful they won't have to face Schobel twice a year. -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A. I think you make good points, Dean, although I look at it a little differently. I think Schobel is more than a situational pass-rusher in this scheme. He'd be perfect for the Derrick Burgess role (57 percent of the snaps in 2009) on a defense that varies its plan on a weekly basis. So I could see him playing every snap one week against the Colts, and then morphing into more of a substitute role in a more standard week in which the 3-4 defense was employed. I might even start to play more four-man line with Schobel, especially if this Ty Warren injury is serious. Given the need, the uncapped year, the player involved checking out on and off the field and the short-term commitment limiting risk, all the stars align to an aggressive effort to make this happen.
Q. Hi Mike, you've mentioned that the Pats often play out of a sub-package (usually the nickel), rather than their base 3-4. Could you expand upon which players/positions would be on the field for the nickel package (e.g. Wilfork at the nose often gets subbed out for Mike Wright on passing downs)? Would Tully Banta-Cain rush from a DE position (with Guyton coming in next to Mayo as the second LB)? -- Swiggy (Scituate, Mass.)
A. Swiggy, it varies from week to week based on the plan. Sometimes Wilfork stays if the team feels it needs to be a bit sturdier in the sub package up front, maybe because the opposition has had some success running the ball on third down. This is part of why I think Belichick is an excellent coach -- he adapts his plan each week based on his personnel.
Q. Mike, Ty Warren is hurt and who knows how bad it is or how long it will take to get him back. Seymour still hasn't been fully replaced, so now we have potential holes at both DE spots. Wright is a good part-time player, Brace is still on the active/non-football injury list, and we brought in veterans (Gerard Warren and Damione Lewis) and young kids (Myron Pryor, Darryl Richard, Brandon Deadrick, Kyle Love and Kade Weston), but that is a lot of bodies to throw at the problem and not a lot of proven 3-4 talent. If Warren is out for a significant portion of the year (worst case), doesn't it almost force the Pats to play more 4-3, with Cunningham/Banta-Cain at one DE? Or does the surplus of bodies at DE have any chance of making a line that can hold up? -- Chris (Orlando, Fla.)
A. I thought about this as well, Chris, as this was part of a story I wrote Monday on ESPNBoston.com about the concerns along the line of scrimmage. Part of me thought, "You go get Schobel and that solves quite a bit if you're willing to play more four-man line." Yet I think I know why Bill Belichick prefers the 3-4 -- it provides more flexibility -- and I believe he'll continue to stick with it and mix in some four-man-line looks. I think the Patriots could be in trouble if Ty Warren is out and they plan on playing Gerard Warren at left end and Mike Wright at right end.
Q. Mike, the buzz here in Houston is that the Texans may not have enough cash to sign Aaron Schobel. The Pats have been strangely silent about their interest in him, although it has to cross their minds. Do you think the Pats are working behind the scenes to sign Schobel? -- Steve F. (Friendswood, Texas)
A. Steve, I do think the Patriots inquired. I know of another team that inquired as well and was told the price range was in the $6 million range plus incentives. That's a big payday to absorb, and I wouldn't be surprised if that's the holdup.
Q. Why are injured players like Ty Warren and Nick Kaczur not around at practice like other injured players? Are they working with trainers behind the scenes? -- John (Lincoln, Mass.)
A. Yes, John, those players are working behind the scenes. On Kaczur specifically, he's in a lot of pain. You watch him walk and it's painful to see because he is agonizing with each step. So he is trying to stay off his feet.
Q. Any thoughts on top storylines to watch in Thursday night's first pre-season game? Some potential items:1) New WRs/TEs (Hernandez, Gronk, Price and Tate) in extended action, in particular WRs against press coverage; 2) Performance of back-up interior linemen; 3) Zoltan Mesko's ability to handle punting/holding duties; 4) Play of the Florida LBs -- Spikes' ability to play the run and not get exposed in pass coverage, Cunningham's ability to play on all three downs; 5) Development of the young secondary players (Butler, McCourty, Chung); 6) Key special-teams contributors. -- CC (San Diego)
A. That looks like a great list to me, CC. I'd add the defensive line in there to see how veterans Gerard Warren and Damione Lewis look playing their technique -- which is new to them -- as well as the younger options behind them. I'm also interested to see backup quarterback Brian Hoyer grow and how the coaching staff operates on the sideline without coordinators.
Q. Seeing the daily list of non-practicing players is kind of alarming this early in the season. Are these players dealing with real injuries that would keep them out of games during the regular season, or are these training camp absences simply the result of over-cautious coaches and trainers making sure players aren't dealing with a muscle or joint issue that could eventually spiral out of control once real games are being played? Is there anyone who you've noticed dealing with a clearly more serious injury? -- Al (Chicago)
A. Al, I think it's a mix between managing players and some actually being more severely injured. Nick Kaczur, Ty Warren, Bret Lockett and Matthew Slater are the four players I think are in the more severe category.
Q. Since the Patriots have what has to be considered one of the weakest groups of OLBs in recent memory for the team, and with the additions of powerful linebackers like Brandon Spikes and Tyrone McKenzie, should the Pats try to send more blitzes up the middle using their ILBs? Maybe guys like Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton can use their speed on delayed blitzes on a more consistent basis. -- Matt E. (Rhode Island)
A. Matt, I think we will see some more of this, specifically from Spikes. As a taller inside linebacker, he can disrupt the passing lanes and get in the quarterback's field of vision. The Patriots blitzed more than 40 percent of the time last season -- ranking them as the seventh-highest-blitzing team -- so it's not like they didn't dial it up at times. But I think where the pressure comes from could be more varied this year.
Q. Mike, I have a question in regards to the linebackers, specifically Spikes. I see he has received plenty of good coverage lately, but one thing I haven't seen (or may have missed) is how his unique skill set translates to a position in a 4-3 defense. While he appears to be "longer" than a classic 3-4 ILB, I'm curious where he would fit if/when the Pats show a 4-3 look. Does he have the abilities to play one of the OLB spots, or is his "lack of speed" (I use the term loosely, of course) a detriment to playing that position. Since the Pats like to mix in different looks I think it's worth looking at how various players would or wouldn't fit in the 3-4 or 4-3. -- Tom (Framingham, Mass.)
A. Tom, my sense is that Spikes would be a pure middle linebacker in the 4-3 defense. That would best suit his skill set, playing downhill.
Q. Hey Mike, I was wondering why Ron Brace hasn't been practicing and if he would even get a chance to start this season? Also I was wondering how Myron Pryor has been performing in practice and if he has a good chance to start at either end spot or just a chance to start this season? -- Paul X. (Warwick, R.I.)
A. Paul, when training camp opened, Brace was placed on the non-football injury list. He's missed the first 19 practices, and that's a lot of time to make up. The Boston Herald reported that he failed his conditioning test. Had he been on the field on Day 1, it wouldn't have surprised me to see him running with the first unit with Ty Warren's injury. He had been working as Warren's primary backup in spring camps. As for Pryor, I can see him at more of an interior position like nose tackle than at end. But he's worked at end just to build some flexibility.
Q. Hi Mike, no one mentions anything about Dan Koppen. I felt he had a terrible year last season. It seemed he was getting pushed back on every play. Is his play a concern? I might be reading into it but didn't you like Maurkice Pouncey this last draft as well? Also, I know Bill Belichick puts a premium on special teams but what is it about Matthew Slater or any other special-teams-only players, excluding K/P/LS, that is so valuable? -- Yuji M. (Somerville, Mass.)
A. Yuji, I also thought Koppen had some struggles with some of the bigger nose tackles last season. I did like Pouncey in the draft, as his size, power and athleticism was something I felt could have helped the interior of the line. As for Slater, he is one of their best coverage players on special teams. Players who are part of the "Big Four" on special teams -- kickoff and punt coverage, kickoff and punt return -- are valuable because that is like four starting spots. That's where I think the special-teams value comes into play.
Q. Mike, I am worried about the future of the WR position. All reports on Brandon Tate are super positive right now, but I can't help but remember the hype of Bethel Johnson and even Chad Jackson. What makes Tate different from these guys? Also, what is the percentage chance the Pats give Randy Moss an extension this summer? -- Matt (New York City)
A. Matt, I wouldn't feel comfortable going to bat for Tate now until we see how he gets off the jam in a more competitive setting. Right now, he is getting free releases off the line of scrimmage. He looks pretty smooth to me -- a player who has grown with each practice -- but I think the games will be a better barometer. On the flip side, I feel comfortable saying that his quickness and vision on kickoff returns looks strong. As for Moss, if I had to pick a number, I'd go 20 percent.
A. Gregg, I think Williams looks like he could help at inside linebacker in a pinch, or as a bridge to get you through an injury. I think we'll see a lot of Murrell in the preseason and I'll have a better feel after that. If he is going to play defense, I think it would likely be third down mostly right now, as a pure rusher.
Q. With the recent update that Nick Kaczur's injury may be season ending, has there been any progress in the Logan Mankins discussions? Have they even met recently? -- Ben (Beverly, Mass.)
A. Ben, there has been no progress as of late last week. The sides can't have progress if they don't talk, and they haven't spoken since Logan Mankins publicly requested a trade.
Q. Hi Mike, is it time to tear up the tender offer to Logan Mankins and offer him that 5-year, $35 million offer to begin immediately? Would that get him into camp? Didn't the Pats do something like that for Richard Seymour a few years ago? It appears that the line really needs Mankins, especially with Kaczur going down. -- Jim C. (Seminole, Fla.)
A. Jim, the Patriots did do that for Seymour back in 2006. I think it was the only time they have torn up a year of a contract and I think they ended up regretting it. As I understand it, the Patriots never had a five-year contract offer on the table for Mankins. The offers were six years (through 2015) and seven years (through 2016), and they were extensions that were tacked on to the end of 2010. If I was currently in the Patriots' shoes, I'd place a call to Mankins and say, "Look, somewhere along the lines this train got off the tracks. Let's try to get it back, because you are the type of player we want around here. We aren't thrilled with some of the things you said, but we're willing to overlook it in hopes that you and your agent are willing to compromise a bit." Then you get in a conference room and work it out until there is a resolution. It shouldn't be that hard; it's the same way the Texans just did it with Andre Johnson. Robert Kraft often says that the football business is about quality depth management. I think he could add it's also about quality risk management, and right now, I see the Patriots incurring quite a bit of risk without Mankins and Kaczur. So I'd focus on a resolution tactic. Meanwhile, Mankins is going to have to be flexible as well. It's going to take two sides to strike a deal.
Q. Is the real blockage in the Logan Mankins negotiation that the Patriots won't give him a raise until after the 2010 season? By rule they don't have to. Did any of the other 200 players in the same position as Mankins get resigned by their team to a new contract and get a raise the first year? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A. Good question, David, and I'm not sure the exact answer when it comes to restricted free agents. I know D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Elvis Dumervil didn't get much of a boost, if at all, in 2010. But Mankins' situation is a bit different because technically he is not under contract.
Q. Do you think the waiver claim of safety Josh Barrett is in retaliation/sends a message to the Broncos about all the players they claimed/acquired from the Pats last year? -- Joseph K. (Andover, Mass.)
A. Joseph, I do think that is part of it, but not all of it. I think the Patriots like Barrett as a special-teams player and that was certainly part of their thinking. You don't pay a player $470,000 this year and then in the $1.5 million range as a projected restricted free agent next year if you don't like the player. At the same time, I think this move is like a brush-back pitch in baseball, telling Josh McDaniels to back off the plate a bit (e.g. free-agent signings of Lonie Paxton, Jabar Gaffney).
Q. Hi Mike. Youth will be served this year as the Pats have put together two solid drafts and have players ready to step in. While I realize that the NFL draft is an inexact science, why were the last two so good and the previous four so bad? Was there a change in the scouting/personnel department in 09/10 and was someone's role increased and another's decreased? They have more apparent hits recently than ever before. -- John F. (Walpole, Mass.)
A. John, part of it is the quality of the overall draft itself. I think there were better players to pick from in 2009 and 2010, which made for a larger margin for error. They also had more picks, which meant more chances to hit. I'd also say that while the previous four drafts (2005-2008) weren't great, they did produce some fruit. We could go through any team's draft record and find similar dips. As respected as the Baltimore Ravens are in this area, they've had a similar dip under Ozzie Newsome. Same with the Indianapolis Colts and Bill Polian. Overall, the Patriots' draft record under Belichick stacks up favorably when compared with the rest of the NFL.
Q. Has the defensive backfield improved? I felt like that cost the team a lot of games last year. -- Buddy R. (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
A. Buddy, I'm quite impressed with the defensive backfield. I think it could be one of the strongest parts of the team.
Q. Hey Mike, just wondering how Gerard Warren has looked so far during camp and what his chances are of winning the starting right defensive end spot. -- Mike (Boston)
A. Warren seems to be doing, and saying, all the right things, Mike. He seems like a good teammate, one who stays late at practice to help out rookies like Jermaine Cunningham. I see him as the starter at right defensive end right now, but if Ty Warren is out for an extended period of time, he could move to the left side.
Q. Hey Mike, my Dad just got two tickets for us for the Pats in Buffalo on December 26th and I was wondering if you could give any advice towards hotels and restaurants near Ralph Wilson Stadium that are popular for Patriots fans. This is our first NFL game so we're pretty new to the experience, so any advice would be greatly appreciated. -- Taylor (Renfrew, Ontario)
A. Taylor, let's see if there are any responses from readers that come back and I'll send them along to you.
Q. I really liked the list you posted of places to watch the Pats play. Does anybody know of any in Kansas? Sadly, I've only met one other Pats fan since I moved here. -- Chris (Manhattan, Kan.)
A. Chris, let's see if anything comes back from the readers of the mailbag.
Q. Hey Mike, My kids and I are planning to make the drive to Flowery Branch, Ga., to see the Patriots' and Falcons' joint practices. Do you think any of the Patriots players will be signing autographs there? -- Phillip B. (Mobile, Ala.)
A. Phillip, I would feel bad to set an expectation and then not have it delivered. So while I think some Patriots players might sign, I think the best approach is to go with the intention of enjoying the practice, and if there is an autograph, it would be an added bonus. Another e-mailer was curious what the times for the practices will be, but those haven't been announced yet.
Q. Hey Mike. Being thin at the guard position (no pun intended), what are the chances that the Pats will try to lure Rex Ryan away from New York? -- Derek (Dallas)
A. I heard they were interested, Derek, but were worried that he wouldn't follow the team's media policy. Let's end on that light note.