Camp brings new list of questions

In last week's ESPN.com NFL Nation Spreecast, there was a segment at the end when each writer had one minute to opine on the topic of his choice. I decided to have a little fun with it, and talked about an illness that seems to get me annually around this time of year.

I've read so many Top 5, Top 10, Top 32, Top 100 lists over the NFL offseason, all through a Patriots lens, that it's way, way, way over the top. Yet I read them. I can't help myself. They are entertaining and I'm interested in the opinion of others on where players rank, how coaches stack up, etc.

There's only way to cure this illness and it's the first day of training camp. Actual football. Yes!

The Patriots open training camp Thursday and, as usual, there is great excitement to get back to the grind. I can sense your excitement as well. So let's head on this journey together and enjoy the ride.

Q. Hey Mike. I read your article saying that Alfonzo Dennard, Aaron Dobson, Jeremy Gallon, Tommy Kelly, Matthew Slater, Dominique Easley and Roy Finch have not been fully cleared to begin camp. Is this something to be concerned about or was this expected? -- Carlos (Puerto Rico)

A. Carlos, some of those players could be cleared as early as today, and others could be added to the lists as early as today, so there is a procedural component to it as well. The bigger concern will be if any of those players miss significant time once training camp begins. As Tom Brady said in June: "When you get behind in training camp, it's hard to make up. Things are moving so fast at that point and improvements are so dramatic every day with installation and correcting all the errors." That's especially true for rookies like Gallon.

Q. Hi Mike. Per the collective bargaining agreement, will the Pats be able to practice in pads by Saturday? Am going down, as I do every year, and of course I'd like to see some hitting. -- Tman (Belmont, Massachuetts)

A. That is correct, Tman. The first two days of practice are non-pads, then Saturday is the first time the team can be in pads. I thought about that after hearing the glowing reports about Bills receiver Sammy Watkins as Buffalo opened camp Sunday. Watkins is a top prospect, but it might be wise to hold off on elevating him to superstar status until defenders are hitting him in the mouth a few times to see how he responds. I'm not saying he won't be great, but the real football begins when the pads come on.

Q. Hi Mike. You mentioned in your "bold predictions" post last week that a surprise cut could be DT Tommy Kelly. Which backup DT do you see improving that much that could threaten his position on the team? -- David (North Attleborough, Massachusetts)

A. David, the two young defensive tackles to keep an eye on would be Dominique Easley and Chris Jones. They are more three-technique, penetrating-type players (outside shade on guard), and while Kelly has a bit of a different physical profile (he's much bigger at 6-foot-6, 310 pounds), that is also part of what he does very well. More than that with Kelly, it's just about health -- a 33-year-old coming off a torn ACL is no guarantee.

Q. Do you think the Patriots can be the number one defense in the NFL? The more I look at this roster, the more excited I become. We have so much talent at every spot that complements each other so well. -- Craig (Charleston, South Carolina)

A. Craig, I think the defense is a main reason for optimism this season, and I expect significant improvement in some areas (e.g., third down: 26th in the NFL last year). So I'm on board with that optimism. At the same time, I'd hesitate to start talking No. 1 ranking at this point. The Patriots have the individual pieces (possibly six or seven first-round picks in the top 11), but how do they fit together? When do the inevitable injuries hit? We're at such an early stage that I think any top-ranking chatter is premature.

Q. Hi, Mike, last year I was impressed by the slow, steady and well-coached development of rookie LB Jamie Collins, The Patriots coaching staff was smart on put him in game situations that could "hide" his deficiencies and limitations as a NFL linebacker. On the other hand, in the Case of Dont'a Hightower it looks the other way -- his limitations as a coverage LB are well documented, and rarely, for example, has he been seen rushing the QB. I do not understand why the coaching staff has been having trouble putting Hightower in a better position to "shine" his talents and contribute for this defense. Your thoughts? -- Memo A. (Mexico)

A. Memo, they were forced into some things with Hightower because of the season-ending torn pectoral injury suffered by Jerod Mayo on Oct. 13. I think that's an important consideration in the analysis. Once Hightower settled down a bit toward the end of the season, his performance seemed to pick up. If everyone is healthy this year, I'd expect Hightower to do some different things.

Q. Different sports, I know Mike, but I found this comment from Coach K on LeBron James interesting. His last line immediately made me think of Tom Brady, and concerns about hoping his young WRs have developed sufficiently. "You look at LeBron and you have the best player in the world. He's 29. I'm not saying he's at the end of his career, but he's in the second half of his career, let's put it that way. And in the first half of his career, he was becoming a great player. He was a great talent becoming a great player. That takes time -- just like if Wiggins or Bennett are going to be great, it's not going to happen right now. They're great talents. LeBron is a great player right now. You do not want to waste any year of a great player's career." -- George (Warwick, Rhode Island)

A. Good discussion point, George. When I talk with various team staffers around the NFL -- from coaches to scouts, etc. -- I can tell you that you're not alone in these thoughts as it comes up from time to time. Some wonder if Bill Belichick has maximized this opportunity with this once-in-a-lifetime player in Brady and might one day regret not doing more, even though the Patriots' offensive production is annually among the league leaders. There might be some merit to it -- part of it recently is obviously that the two-pronged plan to invest long term in tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez didn't go as planned -- but I also challenge that line of thinking. My counterpoint when the topic comes up is that there are different ways to help Brady, and signing cornerback Darrelle Revis can be just as significant when looking at 2014. Play better defense and it expands the teamwide margin for error a bit -- that's part of building a complete club.

Q. Hey Mike, I'm curious about Ryan Mallett's value on the open market next year. It really depends on how he performs in the preseason. I doubt he'd garner a contract that would get us a third-round compensatory pick. I'm hoping for something in the sixth- to seventh-round range. Any thoughts? -- Luke (Maine)

A. Luke, I think you're probably right on. It's also important to note that it's a net formula on those compensatory free agents, so it's not just Mallett by himself. It's the total net gains/net losses for the Patriots, and Mallett would be part of that. The other point that I like is how the preseason will be big in determining any potential increase in Mallett's value -- if he plays very well, that alters the picture. It's a little bit like the 2008 preseason: No one ever figured Matt Cassel would be the centerpiece of a trade for a second-round pick at that point. But once Cassel got his chance in the regular season, his value was significantly different by the end of that year. So this is one that just requires more time before we know the answer.

Q. Mike, in your latest roster projection you tabbed a young offensive lineman as a possibility to play a little tight end. Nate Solder was initially recruited, and played one season, as a tight end for Colorado. Do you think the Patriots at least test the waters there to see if he may be able to help out the TE group? I know he has bulked up substantially, but he does have some experience. If not, who did you have in mind? -- Nick (Boulder, Colorado)

A. Nick, I could see that on the goal line occasionally. But overall, Solder's greatest value to the team on a play-by-play basis is at left tackle, and every time you move him to tight end and make him an eligible receiver, you have to take him out of the game for one play before being able to put him back at tackle. Sometimes one play decides a football game, and I'd lean more to the conservative side in that area in terms of shuffling Solder between left tackle and tight end. So it would be more situational. Marcus Cannon could come on as the extra lineman in that situation. Otherwise, you could go with someone like guard Josh Kline as the extra blocking-type tight end.

Q. Mike, since the Patriots really relied on LeGarrette Blount toward the end of last season, and he really came on both as a kick returner and a runner, why didn't they keep him and let Stevan Ridley go? I don't get it. Afraid we will miss his production, especially in the cold. -- SK (Syracuse, New York)

A. SK, I share that viewpoint, although I'd take it one step further. I don't think it had to be Blount over Ridley. The Patriots could have kept both of them; it wasn't like the deal Blount signed in Pittsburgh was a bank-breaker (two years, $3.85 million, $950,000 signing bonus). It was modest, which makes this one similar to Danny Woodhead last year, which I thought was puzzling at the time as well.

Q. With tight end Nate Byham filling the final spot on the roster, and Byham coming off a torn ACL, I have to ask the question: Why does Bill Belichick keep signing injured players? I love BB as a coach but as a GM do you think he does too much business with his friends Greg Schiano, Nick Saban, etc. than he does by listening to his scouts on healthy players? -- Dave (Woodland Hills, California)

A. Dave, I don't think this is the type of signing where Bill Belichick is overruling scouts or relying too much on the information of a trusted voice in Schiano the way maybe he did with former Florida coach Urban Meyer in the past. We're talking about a blocking tight end here at very little financial risk to fill out the depth chart for training camp. I do think one part of the question that warrants more exploration is the idea that a healthy player is a better signing than one coming off an injury. That line of thinking makes sense to me, but as we saw with first-round pick Dominique Easley (two torn ACLs at Florida), the Patriots don't always see it that way. They've done extensive studies on the topic and have determined that there is little to no connection with past injuries and forecasting future injuries. I like the topic and think it's especially interesting this year with the Easley pick. I'd love to do more with it in the future.

Q. Hi Mike. You've repeatedly mentioned James Develin's name when talking about the Patriots' potential tight-end depth chart in camp and how he could factor in at that position. Charles Clay came into the league as a fullback, like Develin, and is listed at the same size, and he was very effective playing a dual FB-TE role for Miami last season. Do you see the Patriots utilizing Develin in that dual role in camp? -- Nate (Clarksville, Maryland)

A. Nate, the main reason Develin has been mentioned is that he worked with that position in spring camps. There are times in practice when players break down to their individual positions and Develin, instead of joining the running backs, was working with the tight ends. So I would expect to see some more of it in training camp and perhaps even in preseason games.

Q. Hi Mike, with the Patriots scheduled to play the Redskins in a few weeks, the controversy surrounding their name is likely to come up. Do you have a personal opinion on the issue? Have you ever asked Robert or Jonathan Kraft their opinion on Dan Snyder's handling of the matter? How would the Krafts react if Congress pressured the Patriots to change their name? -- Anne Marie (Arlington, Massachusetts)

A. Anne Marie, I spent some time trying to better understand the issue surrounding the name, mainly because it was a question I was asked as part of a sports media piece on covering NFL training camp. I described my feelings as one of conflict in using the nickname. I haven't spoken with the Krafts about it, but I would think they would be sensitive to this type of situation.

Q. In regards to ESPN.com's "Most Memorable moments" series, another one that may have gone overlooked is when the Patriots were introduced as a team in SuperBowl XXXVI. That was the moment you knew you were looking at something special. -- ECF (Washington, D.C.)

A. In Bill Belichick's 15 years as coach, that easily best sums up the team-first program/environment that defines the club. Great moment and one referenced in the final write-up. Thanks for bringing it up.

Q. Your piece about Belichick's best trades is interesting -- especially giving up the pick that ended up being 49ers offensive tackle Joe Staley. What about his worst trades? Greg Jennings, Demarius Thomas, Dez Bryant and Clay Matthews were all picked with Patriot traded picks in recent years. -- Josh T. (Fort Lauderdale, Florida)

A. Josh, one of the first that came to mind was the 2006 trade up for receiver Chad Jackson in the early second round (36th overall). They viewed him as a first-round pick that year, and he was actually part of the traditional photo with the team's top pick. Greg Jennings, as you noted, was picked a bit later in the second round that year. In retrospect, trading Mike Vrabel in 2009 falls into that category. I know he was tied into getting maximum value for quarterback Matt Cassel, but I think the team underestimated that loss.