FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots host the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL opener on Thursday night, and emailers to the weekly mailbag have highlighted a few areas of concern for the team:
1. Interior offensive line
2. Wide receiver depth
3. Cornerback depth
Let's dive into these areas, and more, with a game-specific focus to this week's mailbag:
Q. Hi Mike, it looks like two rookie guards, the undersized Ryan Wendell at center and no LeGarrette Blount versus the Steelers. With this in mind, do you think the game plan will be to spread them out with Gronk, Chandler, Edelman and Dobson and utilize the short passing game along with passes to backs to compensate for the lack of an inside power running game? -- Gary (East Hanover, New Jersey)
A. Gary, I think we'll see some spread concepts in the game plan, but there will still be a focus on balance and not abandoning the run. As for the offensive line, my hunch is that if Bryan Stork (concussion) doesn't play at center, it will go (left to right) Nate Solder, Josh Kline, Ryan Wendell/David Andrews, Tre' Jackson and Sebastian Vollmer. At center, Wendell just came back from offseason shoulder surgery late in training camp, so there could still be an aspect of building back his stamina/endurance to play a whole game.
Q. With the absence of Brandon LaFell and overall lack of WR depth, do you think the Patriots will have more plays that will feature Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler on the field at the same time against the Pittsburgh Steelers? -- David (North Attleborough, Massachusetts)
A. Yes, David, that projects as the Patriots' base personnel on offense, and the odds are high we'll see plenty of that. The key thing to watch for is how the Steelers decide to match up against it -- do they stay in their base defense, or add a fifth defensive back in sub by treating Chandler like a receiver? The opener is a lot about adjustments, and the Patriots will ascertain that information as the game unfolds and then figure out how to proceed from there (and vice versa for Pittsburgh). Expect the Patriots to use multiple personnel groupings -- possibly including two running backs at the same time as well (called the "pony" grouping) -- and see what works best based on the matchup.
Q. Mike, I was just thinking about how light the Pats are at WR and then I remembered how Travaris Cadet played more like a WR than a RB in New Orleans. Do you think the Pats might use him more in that way (or at least consider him a WR depth option) until LaFell returns? -- Ryan (St. Pete, Florida)
A. Ryan, Cadet showed a knack for catching the ball early in training camp, with one touchdown in the back left-hand corner of the end zone (over the outstretched arm of linebacker Jamie Collins) standing out. He is very fast. He will sometimes align as a receiver, but even if he starts in the backfield, he is a player with wide-receiver type skills. So I agree with this line of thinking.
Q. Hi Mike. The loss of Brandon LaFell and his 74 catches greatly concerns me. The G.O.A.T. needs more weapons, not less, and while I like Chandler, the Pats will dearly miss a large possession receiver who lines up wide. I don't recall hearing that LaFell had surgery, just that he was spotted mid-offseason in a boot. What happened? -- Tman (Belmont, Massachusetts)
A. Tman, my sense on LaFell is that it took longer than he (and the team) projected. I'm not sure the issue with his left foot, but they just ran out of time. There seems to be optimism that he'll be ready not long after the six-week mark of the regular season, but as we've seen, there are no guarantees.
Q. Mike, interesting comments from Bill Belichick on the health of Gronk and the impact that has on the team. They would have won the Super Bowl in '11 but I don't think it would have mattered in '12 or '13. My question is how can Bill lay the whole season on a guy that has a hard time staying healthy? After him, they don't have a single impact game-changer and that's with all the love and respect for Edelman. Looking at the WR and RB depth for the game Thursday is a concern. How do you feel about the depth and complete lack of talent? -- Ry (New Hampshire)
A. Ry, I don't think Belichick is putting it on Gronkowski as much as pointing out his value to the team. His goal is still to build the best overall 53-man roster and there are always challenges that come with that. LaFell's recovery, which I believe is slower than initially anticipated, has created some roster-based stress at receiver. The depth is a bit thin, although I view Kenbrell Thompkins' return to the practice squad as a coup of sorts. I also see the tight ends and running backs as deep and a big factor in the passing game.
Q. What is the inside scoop on Jonas Gray being cut? Seems odd given his clear talent. -- Bill Lenkaitis Fan (Charlotte, North Carolina)
A. BLF, I wish I had more information for you on this one, as I wrote on the topic when it happened. My biggest takeaway is that there is more to evaluating players than what we see on the field, and that seems to be the case here.
Q. Hi Mike, nice work with your prediction of three under-the-radar guys. They all made the team. Do you see any of them making significant contributions this year? -- Ashley (Worcester, Massachusetts)
A. Ashley, I wouldn't be surprised if David Andrews is starting Thursday night as Stork is in the concussion protocol and Ryan Wendell is still building back stamina/endurance. As for Rufus Johnson and Chris Harper, they strike me more as initial depth players whose contributions could be contingent on injuries to the players in front of them.
Q. Mike, so after thinking about keeping the six safeties and only four cornerbacks, Devin McCourty is the fifth option at CB if need be. Sort of an emergency situation. Also, I was curious about Cameron Fleming being released. What were your thoughts on that? -- Eric (Rhode Island)
A. Eric, that's why they worked McCourty at corner in preseason, just in case depth is thinned further. It's also why they layered the practice squad with Daxton Swanson, who has shown some development at cornerback. As for Cameron Fleming, my view is that the acquisition of offensive tackle/tight end Michael Williams in a trade with the Lions made him expendable. At this point, they brought Fleming back on the practice squad and so they still have him as part of the 63-player snapshot.
Q. Mike, I noticed you pointed out that Devlin was in on less than 20 percent of snaps last season. We'll still miss him in short-yardage situations and games like the Colts. It doesn't seem like they're even looking for a replacement. Might we see "tight end" Michael Williams or Shaq Mason in that role? Frankly, fullback (in a limited capacity) seems like a good role for Mason. -- ECF (DC)
A. Anything is possible, ECF, with the most likely scenario being tight end Michael Hoomawanui. If we go back to the end of the first quarter of the third preseason game this year, late in the first quarter, you can see Hoomanawanui playing a fullback-type role on a couple of plays -- motioning from right to left and then setting in the backfield before blocking down on defensive tackle Colin Cole. The main thing to consider is that a fullback provides a different angle/bubble in the run game than a tight end aligning on the line of scrimmage.
Q. Hey Mike, I know the Pats have until after the first game to make this decision, but who do you think might be cut to make room for Blount? -- Michael (Las Vegas)
A. Michael, oftentimes an injury, or the health status of another player, can make that decision for the team itself. Linebacker Eric Martin, receiver Chris Harper and linebacker Rufus Johnson hold three of the final spots on the roster, so if everyone is healthy, that would be an initial place to look.
Q. Every now and then there is mention of Jeffrey Kessler as a good lawyer but never any discussion of what he does that is different from many other good lawyers. I would be interested in hearing from those in the know what he did that was special in this case. Why does he win when others lose? -- Matt (Chapel Hill, North Carolina)
A. Matt, I've spoken with those who have a background with Kessler and one of the first things they cite is his intelligence and ability to think quickly on his feet. He also has a deep knowledge of the collective bargaining agreement, and the inner workings of the NFL, that make him a tough challenge for the league.
Q. I am still trying to get a bead on the "why" behind Goodell appealing the deflation case. My take all along is that Goodell is simply playing politics based on a couple of owners buzzing in his ear? -- Kevin M. (Washington, D.C.)
A. Kevin, the NFL believes the commissioner's authority to oversee these situations, and hand down punishment, is critical. So that's the main reason -- Goodell wants to preserve the power of Article 46 in the collective bargaining agreement. This loss in court lessens his power in this area, and possibly will lead others to challenge the league in court.
Q. Mike, doesn't the Tom Brady decision reflect poorly on Bob Kraft's refusal to fight the NFL? I think Bob Kraft should support Tom (and all of us fans) by telling Goodell that an appeal by the NFL will result in the Patriots going to court to contest the fine and lost draft picks assessed against the Pats. What do you think? -- Ed F. (Tewksbury, Massachusetts)
A. Ed, Kraft has acknowledged that he made a mistake putting his faith in the NFL. But as team president Jonathan Kraft recently said, the current plan is not to fight for the picks back, and I explained a bit more as to why I think the team is taking that approach.
Q. Mike, what happened that led Zach Moore to be cut? I think we all agree he has a lot of potential, but I hadn't heard anything about him during the pre-season. Did he show up at all? Make any impression? Or is it just a matter of having a traffic jam at the D-Line positions? Also, what are the chances Moore ends up on the practice squad? Thanks! -- K (Washington, D.C.)
A. K, one of the main things with Moore was that he bulked up to 290 pounds this year and they used him more as an interior defender. In the end, that didn't seem to play to his strengths. He just never seemed to make an impact; never flashed. I'm curious to see how things unfold for him in Minnesota under head coach Mike Zimmer, as Moore has landed on the Vikings' practice squad.