<
>

Mailbag: On Brady's case, Butler's rise and under-the-radar players

FOXBOROUGH TO WEST VIRGINIA -- It's a travel day for the New England Patriots, who will practice Tuesday morning and then travel to West Virginia for practices with the New Orleans Saints on Wednesday and Thursday. Then the trip continues to New Orleans, where the franchise has some great memories, for Saturday's preseason game.

I'll be there throughout and look forward to chronicling all the happenings.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, settlement hearings between the NFL and NFL Players Association continue in U.S. District Court. Quarterback Tom Brady isn't required to attend, but will he anyway?

That's where this week's mailbag leads off, mixing in everything from Brady's fight against the NFL to undrafted free agents who have the best chance to make the final roster.

Q. Hi, Mike, Judge Berman has only given Brady the "option" of not attending this Wednesday's meeting. His absence would not be looked on unfavorably, but he would gain more credence and favor with Judge Berman [if he attended]. His presence would underline the very strong importance and gravity of the matter for him as well as the depth of his sincerity and commitment to it. The optics/perception of the day in the media would look strange if he is absent. In a split-screen news presentation, Brady is playing football in practice while his lawyers are arguing his case without his presence; worse would be if Roger Goodell decides to show up for the meeting and Brady is absent. Your thoughts? -- Jake M. (Vancouver)

A. Jake, on Tuesday morning Brady wasn't present at practice, and USA Today Sports reported that the Patriots quarterback planned to be at Wednesday's court hearing and not attend joint practices with the Saints. But Brady later changed his plans, according to sources. As for what Brady's presence would represent, I don't think Judge Berman is going to be making a decision based on optics as much as his interpretation of the law in this case. But in another respect, Brady would be making a statement to him about how strong he feels about his position in the matter. Tough call, and perhaps that's part of what Brady was talking to Bill Belichick about in an extended chat after Monday's practice.

Q. Mike, I was disappointed to learn (from another publication) that some in the NFL believe the league has "way more" evidence against the Patriots, which you haven't discussed. Given the potential existence of this secret evidence, is it possible we'll see perjury charges filed against Tom Brady? Has the league based punishment on secret evidence in the past? -- Mark P. (Cambridge, Massachusetts)

A. Mark, I don't think this is about any "secret evidence." The way I interpreted the anonymous quote referred to here is that there are some in the NFL who believe that there have been push-the-envelope type things happening in the Patriots' organization for some time; thus, because of that belief, it's easier for them to accept the shaky findings of the Wells report and assume the worst (thinking there is even more there). In the end, with fairness in mind, all we can go on is direct evidence and I'd ask anyone the same question that Judge Berman has: What direct evidence is there that Tom Brady was involved in a "scheme" to deflate footballs? I haven't seen any.

Q. Mike, never know how a judge will rule. If he rules against Tom Brady, he will need to find the NFL acted within, and fairly under, the terms of the CBA. It appears the NFL recognizes that as an issue given the arguments they have filed essentially state the manner in which they conduct themselves doesn't matter. If the judge agrees with their argument, it would be a huge defeat to unions across the country. This decision has far greater implications than Brady. Thoughts? -- JP (Atlanta)

A. I agree, and that's why I assume we're headed to a situation that includes an appeal, no matter how Judge Berman rules. In one respect, you have history to look at and see that in a six-year period from 2006-2012 in the Southern District Court of New York (where Brady and the NFL are being heard), there were 68 arbitration cases heard and only two were denied confirmation (stats via the New York Dispute Resolution Lawyer magazine). That probably explains why the NFL quickly filed to have the decision confirmed there. At the same time, Brady has a strong case that could trump that recent history. In football odds lingo, I see this as close to a pick 'em.

Q. I am thinking ahead to opening night. Since they moved to the Thursday night opening celebration event, has Roger Goodell usually gone to the game? If so, do you think he will come this year? If so, where would he sit? He can't sit in the stands as he has done at times, and Kraft may not be too welcoming in his box. I think it is an interesting dilemma for him and other NFL executives, and I expect they are not looking forward to it. -- Andrew (Albany, New York)

A. Andrew, after everything that's unfolded, I wouldn't expect Goodell to be at Gillette Stadium opening night. The more likely scenario, if he wants to be seen in the public, would be to go to San Francisco, where part of the season-opening celebration is taking place as a tie-in to the 50th Super Bowl being played there.

Q Hi, Mike. Regarding Brandon LaFell, I recall media reports sometime around minicamp in June or shortly thereafter that the boot was off and he was on schedule to be ready for training camp. Did he reinjure the foot preparing for training camp or suffer some other setback? -- Tman (Belmont, Massachusetts)

A. I am unaware of LaFell potentially reinjuring his foot, Tman. As of June, it was my understanding that the Patriots were expecting LaFell to be ready for when it counts. The clock is obviously ticking and we're getting close to crunch time here.

Q. Do you think Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower will be ready to go on opening day? -- Jeff (Ashburn, Virginia)

A. Yes, Jeff, all signs point to them being ready to go. For example, Hightower most recently shedding his red noncontact jersey in practices is another step in that direction. As for Mayo, Bill Belichick touched on the progress he's made in remarks Monday.

Q. Hey, Mike. I had a question regarding the injured rookies from the first preseason game. Do you know the severity of the injuries to Trey Flowers and Darryl Roberts? Or what kind of injuries they suffered? I know they're just rookies, but I was really hoping for them to be contributors to the defense in their first seasons. Now it looks like they might be casualties to the oh-so-unfriendly injury bug. Is there any information that you know about the situation that you can release to the public? I've got my fingers crossed here. -- Alex R. (Los Angeles)

A. Alex, I don't have any information confirmed, but my sense is that Flowers was concussed, as he was woozy leaving the field. It looked like he might have taken a blow to the head. On Roberts, members of the Patriots' athletic training and medical staff were looking at his hand/wrist area on the sideline.

Q. Bill Belichick confirmed James White's solid performance in the preseason opener. Is anyone still challenging him for third-down back? -- Mike (Canton, Ohio)

A. Mike, it's White, then Brandon Bolden at that spot right now. With Travaris Cadet injuring his hamstring Aug. 8, he has missed time, and Dion Lewis (who also recently returned from an injury absence) has dropped off a bit from my view and is trying to make up some ground.

Q. Mike, for the Patriots to be Super Bowl contenders, I see three keys (besides health, which is true for every team): Butler needs to provide 80 percent of Revis (keeping secondary as a strength); front seven needs to provide 20 percent more pass rush (sacks/pressure/hits); offensive line needs to come together as they did starting in Game 5 last year to provide great play. Of those three, how would you rank them in importance and probability of actually happening? Do you see another issue that will make or break the Pats' Super Bowl chances? -- Rodney H. (Westwood, New Jersey)

A. Rodney, it's always hard to put percentages on it, because football is the ultimate team game. But I'll play along and rank them this way in terms of importance: 1) offensive line; 2) Butler; 3) pass rush. In terms of probability of happening, they're all closely bunched together. The one area where I see the most uncertainty is guard. Watching Butler through 13 training camp practices and one preseason game, I think anyone would have as much confidence as you possibly could at this point.

Q. I like Malcolm Butler at CB. That said, do you think Patriots fans are expecting too much from him? I don't think we know what we have in him until we see him play other teams' No. 1 receivers. Or will he? I don't see the Patriots playing the same scheme they did with Revis or Talib. Your Thoughts? -- David (North Attleborough, Massachusetts)

A. David, I think they can still play that type of scheme, because Butler has the athleticism and skill to play man coverage. They also didn't play exclusively man coverage last year, still mixing in some zone. So maybe the percentages ultimately sway a bit more to zone once we get to games, but right now through 13 training camp practices, you wouldn't notice a difference. As for Butler from a big-picture perspective, he played 16.6 percent of the defensive snaps last year. They are asking him to up that number to 90-100 percent and there is always an element of unknown there. To this point, he's been impressive.

Q. Glad to hear that the new guards are excellent run-blockers, but isn't there a big concern about their pass-blocking skills given Brady's struggles with interior pressure? Especially with regards to the way the interior rush of the Bills, Jets and Dolphins might shape up? -- Nick V. (Sturbridge, Massachusetts)

A. Yes, Nick, and I think that's why it's no sure thing that both are in the starting lineup when all is said and done. I think Tre' Jackson (right guard) is further along from an overall perspective, whereas Shaq Mason (left guard) looks a bit more green to me in pass protection. The Patriots still have Ryan Wendell as an option once he comes off the physically unable to perform list (shoulder).

Q. Hey, Mike, who do you think could be this year's Malcolm Butler? An under-the-radar player, perhaps UFA, who could stick around and make the team? -- Michael (Las Vegas)

A. Michael, the picture looks a lot clearer now that we're 13 practices into training camp. Center/guard David Andrews looks like the top candidate to me, as I thought he competed well and held his ground against some more experienced competition, such as defensive tackle B.J. Raji. I'd also put first-year player Rufus Johnson, a defensive end out of Tarleton State, on the list even though he's technically not an undrafted free agent.

Q. Mike, tell us about Chris Harper. Is he this year's Zach Sudfeld or does he have some talent? Certainly showed up big against Green Bay. -- Jeff B. (Cincinnati)

A. Jeff, Harper certainly has talent, and at the least, he's a strong candidate for the practice squad. He left Cal after his junior season and some analysts questioned that decision, especially after he went undrafted. He played 35 games at Cal (23 starts) and finished with 163 receptions for 2,030 yards and 13 touchdowns. At 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, he has some playmaking ability and shows up in the return game as well. It's possible he could sneak on the roster as a wild card in the No. 5 receiver spot, but I'd lean more heavily toward the practice squad at this point.

Q. Mike, just a random thought that occurred to me reading the preseason updates for all 32 teams: I was struck by the number of teams holding joint practices this year. This was something that Bill Belichick started a few years back and it has really taken hold in the league. This is another one of those under-the-radar type impacts he's had on the game that prove that he's the best coach of all time. Hopefully they mention it when he's inducted in the HOF! -- Joseph (Andover, Massachusetts)

A. Joseph, a big part of it for Bill Belichick has been finding creative ways to maximize practice time given the restrictions of the collective bargaining agreement, and I think that's why he's been so high on the concept. Others have certainly followed suit. The Giants, for example, held their first set of joint practices in 10 years last week.

Q. Mike, just wanted to thank you for posting that remarkable link to the Patriots players'/coaches' reminiscences of Junior Seau. What a treat!! For a while, it made us all remember that this game is played by human beings and that they constitute a lot more than what we see for 60 minutes on Sunday. -- Tom (Boston)

A. Happy to do it, Tom. I had missed it when it was originally posted the night of the Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions. Glad to see, even a week later, that it was well received.