Still some concerns on defense

MIAMI -- This is a quick-turnaround Patriots mailbag.

The Patriots took care of business in the season opener against the Dolphins, using a fast-break offense to take control. Now comes a Week 2 test against the Chargers at Gillette Stadium.

Some of the immediate emails that arrived in the mailbag after Monday's season opener concerned the defense, and how the Dolphins had some success moving the ball. After talks of a revamped unit that might dictate more of the action, the Patriots had ups and downs on that side of the ball Monday.

Where do things go from here?

That's where this week's mailbag begins.

Q: Mike, how long before we can start to really judge the quality of the Pats defensive unit? Is four or five games fair? The offense is pretty much a carryover from last year but the defensive needs to step up a level or two if they want to challenge in the postseason. -- Stuart (Cape)

A: I think that's fair, Stuart. Bill Belichick said he'd know more about what he has after 3-4 games, and the same is true for the defense. The season opener was not the authoritative performance the unit was hoping for, although I also think there were some positive signs; rookie cornerback Ras-I Dowling being one of them. Let's revisit after four games and see where things are at that point.

Q: Mike, am I the only one who kind of has a sick feeling in his stomach about the Pats? I realize 517 pass yards and 38 points is "good", and I realize we're 1-0, but I thought the Pats looked awful. Miami had nearly 500 yeards and 24 points. If that had been Green Bay, it would have been 800 yards and 50 points. Please tell me it will be all right. -- JB (Plano, Texas)

A: JB, I thought the defense was up and down. They played well in crucial situations -- such as the red zone -- but showed vulnerabilities in other areas. I think the best way to look at it is that it's a work in progress. I do think they have the talent to be a more productive unit in the weeks ahead. There wasn't enough pressure on Chad Henne in the game. One positive to point out is that the Patriots held the Dolphins to 2-for-14 on third down. It's just one game, but that definitely an improvement over last season when the Patriots allowed and NFL-worst 47.1 percent conversion rate on third down.

Q: Interesting opener. Down three offensive linemen (Ryan Wendell, Sebastian Vollmer, Dan Koppen) and they still managed to get it done. Nothing lost in production. I'd bet you that with the news that Koppen broke his ankle, Bill Belichick will be bringing in someone too fill a roster spot along the offensive line. Nate Solder manhandled Cameron Wake. Thoughts? -- Charles "The Sportsbozo" Champagne (Vero Beach, Fla.)

A: Charles, the offensive line was one of the big stories of the game. I thought what they accomplished was solid, especially Solder. He answered the challenge in a big way. Overall, Tom Brady had a lot of time in the pocket and the rhythm of the passing game was never disrupted. Brady called the work of the offensive line "incredible."

Q: I have Green-Ellis on my fantasy team. Is he hurt or are they just going to play Woodhead more? -- Jake Goolsby (Carthage, Texas)

A: Jake, this was a case where the game plan dictated more of Woodhead. The Patriots were running a high-pressure, fast-paced offense, sometimes out of the no huddle, and that's a better fit for Woodhead. The Patriots will mix and match their personnel on a week to week basis based on game-specific elements like this.

Q: Mike, a little surprising to see neither Brandon Spikes nor Jermaine Cunningham on the active roster Monday night. Is it too soon to be concerned that these early-round picks from a year ago could already be going the way of Brandon Meriweather? -- Neil (South Boston, Mass.)

A: Neil, injuries knocked them both back from a progress standpoint. I wouldn't put the two in the same category. To me, Cunningham has just had some bad breaks, while Spikes has created some of his own trouble. So I'd have more concern about him than Cunningham in this case.

Q: Belichick has apparently been very impressed with Nate Solder. Do you think Solder starts taking snaps at LT away from Matt Light this season, or will they hold off all the way to next year regardless of performance? Bill Belcihick has always preached the best players will play. -- Anthony (Portsmouth, N.H.)

A: Anthony, I still see Solder as the third tackle at this point, but if he keeps improving, I don't think Bill Belichick would hesitate to put him right into the lineup. Belichick's mantra is "what's best for the team" and if Solder gives them the best chance to win, I'd expect him to play.

Q: Mike, looking at the current defensive backfield, it seems Bill Belichick is admitting a mistake about his previous philosophy of drafting smaller DBs with better change of direction skills (Hobbs, Wheatley, Wilhite) over larger, more physical backs (Dowling, Bodden, McCourty, Molden). Have you spoken to anyone about this personnel philosophy change? -- Matt (Boston)

A: Matt, I haven't spoken to anyone specificially about this change, but I concur with your thoughts. This is a noticeable change and reflects a new philosophy. I think part of it is based on the bigger receivers you see around the league, and also the idea that calling more man coverage is a bit easier when you have some bigger, physical corners. This is definitely a different defense in 2011, and the cornerback philosophy is part of that. Monday night, we saw a top three cornerback combination of Devin McCourty (5-10, 193), Leigh Bodden (6-1, 193) and Ras-I Dowling (6-1, 198).

Q: Hey Mike, at the risk of being premature, I really am wondering what you think about the role Kevin Faulk will play this season. Do you envision him being cut after he is off the PUP in Week 6? I'd love him to go out in style, but this could be a significant clubhouse loss. -- Nikhil Malik (Norfolk, Mass.)

A: Nikhil, I think Faulk's contributions to the team will be tied to the health of the other running backs. If all four are healthy, I see the Patriots waiting until the last moment (Week 9) to "start the clock" on Faulk's practice time, which would then give them until Week 12 to make a decision. Even if Faulk never takes the field, and lands on season-ending injured reserve, I expect him to be part of the team as a mentor/coach type. The Patriots are better for having him around, as we saw Monday night, when he watched the game from the sideline.

Q: Hi Mike, your post about backup QB's as well as ESPN's Ross Tucker questioning Pats' drafts has me looking at 2007-2008 and beyond. Those were pretty bad drafts for New England, and yet the free agents in there are home runs -- Brian Hoyer, Gary Guyton, BenJarvus Green-Ellis. I usually look at drafts three years out and there is not much to be proud of here. Thankfully they have 12 picks per year, so while the percentage is low, there are still usually six new players per year on the squad. Thoughts? -- Paul in Canada (New Brunswick)

A: Paul, I have a slightly different view on the drafts of 2006-2008, which have been a hot topic in recent weeks. Are they Bill Belichick's best work? Absolutely not and I think some of the criticism is fair. But I think how bad they were has been overstated. I'll start with 2007. The Patriots had a first-round pick and then traded the 2 for Wes Welker, traded the 3 into the next year, then traded the 4 for Randy Moss. Make moves like that and obviously you're not going to have the highest percentage of hits on draft picks (6 of their picks were in the sixth and seventh rounds). For those critiquing the drafts to not acknowledge that is negligent in my book. At the same time, hold Belichick accountable for only getting four years out of first-round Brandon Meriweather. That's not good enough. In 2008, they nailed it with Jerod Mayo, and then got special teamer Matthew Slater (fifth round) and Guyton (free agent) and Green-Ellis (free agent). I think it's fair to criticize why they couldn't get more out of that draft in rounds 2-4, but at the same time, not a bad haul. In 2006, they deserve the heat. The trade for Chad Jackson, in particular, was a bomb. They got some production/trade value out of the picks (e.g. Laurence Maroney, David Thomas) and did pick up a kicker (Stephen Gostkowski), but overall, that was not a good enough year from a long-range team-building perspective.

Q: Mike, we (and even you) have been questioning Bill Belichick's drafting when it comes to wide receivers, but I wonder if we need to widen our net and place some of the blame at Tom Brady's feet. I can't help but notice the correlation between Brady winning offseason effort awards and the Pats developing wide receivers, and Brady spending the summers in California and the wide receivers not catching on. Is it possible that Brady is not putting in the time with these young guys to build the trust, rather than these receivers are lacking the ability to be successful? -- John (Huntington Beach, Calif.)

A: John, I don't subscribe to this theory because Brady spends time with receivers in California. This year, for example, it was a lot of time spent with Julian Edelman. I'd also point to the NFL season opener where Green Bay had rookie receiver Randall Cobb produce big results, even though the Packers didn't have any offseason work. I look at this one simply -- just have to pick better players.

Q: Mike, I'm wondering if I could get your opinion on how the Colts handling of the Manning situation reflects on their front office and team-building. You have always made the point that developing QBs is good business. I understand the Colts offense runs completely through Manning but shouldn't the personnel people still have had a mind to developing a capable backup if the worst did happen rather than pressing a veteran into service. I recall the Pats having Chris Simms in for a tryout after Brady's injury then sending him home, so as not to mess with Cassel's confidence. -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)

A: Dean, I think the Colts have blown it. It's easy to say now, but they should have been working harder to develop a young signal-caller and now it looks like their reliance on Manning is going to hurt them in a big way. The Patriots had Cassel ready, and they have Brian Hoyer waiting in the wings now. While they didn't hit it with Kevin O'Connell, they at least tried.

Q: When a player is brought in for a tryout/look-see, who generally pays to get the player out to the facility -- the team or the player? -- Dave (Bay Area)

A: Dave, almost all the time it's the team footing the bill. That's why the scouting budget is so important. The Patriots, in my view, are as aggressive as any team in the NFL in this area.

Q: Mike, here is a thought that I am sure is hardly unique, but intriguing to consider. In addition to Belechick possibly shifting defensive front philosphy to generate more pass rushing opportunities for some players, might there be an additional reason? Perhaps, with the league trending toward more 3-4 alignments, players who excel in 4-3 assignments were available, which might be why the Pats were able to bring so many high talent guys into camp with little competition for their services. For years they were ahead of the curve running a 3-4 and now they seem to have turned the tables. -- Doug (Richmond, Virginia)

A: Doug, I do think there is something to this shift and perhaps it ties to Belichick's economics background of supply and demand. With more teams running the 3-4, the competition for those players is greater. The other factor in my view, which was highlighted at the Super Bowl last year, is that the team is playing more sub packages than base defense. Last year, it was 57 percent of the snaps in sub. With that, it opened the door for the team to consider more edge rushers. If anything, I think Belichick might be a year or two late in making this switch.

Q: So with the signing of Dan Gronkowski what does that do for the production of Aaron Hernandez? -- Kevin Walsh (Charlotte, N.C.)

A: Kevin, I don't think it will have a factor on Hernandez much at all. Dan Gronkowski is here to serve as a blocking tight end in my view, and one of Hernandez's best assets is his receiver-like skills. I could envision a scenario where Hernandez is around 80 receptions this season, and he's off to a good start Monday night (7 catches, 103 yards, TD).

Q: Hi Mike. Do you post your picks for the games each week? If you do ,when and where? -- Michael Lawlor (Saint John, New Brunswick)

A: Michael, I pick the Patriots' game every week as part of the weekly "Bruschi's Breakdown" article posted on ESPNBoston.com. But I don't pick other NFL games. Every Friday, you'll see a blog entry on ESPNBoston.com that has all the predictions for that week's Patriots game.

Q: Mike, can you give us a quick look at how compensatory picks are awarded ? The Patriots have had so many players picked up by other teams, so what can we expect in terms of compensatory picks in the 2012 draft? Or is it too early to tell? -- Stu (Houston, Texas)

A: Stu, the compensatory draft choices are awarded based on players whose contracts expired and signed elsewhere, not based on players the Patriots cut or waived and then signed elsewhere. Overall, the compensatory draft choice formula takes into account the contract signed by the player and playing time/production, so it's still early to tell how it will unfold. But I think the key point is that it's not for players like James Sanders, Brandon Meriweather and others who were cut by the team.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.