Roster decisions, depth in question

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Some of the words spoken by the New England Patriots following Sunday's character-building win over the Buffalo Bills were "bittersweet," "tragic" and "a blow to the soul."

Those aren't what you expect to hear following a victory, but it speaks to how linebacker Jerod Mayo and running back Stevan Ridley are viewed by coaches and teammates. Both are lost to season-ending knee injuries, and the majority of this week's mailbag focuses on where the Patriots go from here.

I shared some extended thoughts on our Patriots blog, and we'll get into some more in the 'bag:

Q. Hi Mike, with Jerod Mayo out for the year and Dont'a Hightower facing injuries himself, do you think Belichick is having some regrets about how he handled the linebacker situation this offseason? I understand moving on from Brandon Spikes, but he let Dane Fletcher walk for cheap ($1.2 million), who was always a steady contributor and special-teamer. Then, he didn't even give James Anderson (or Steve Beauharnais, for that matter) a shot on the 53-man roster. I do think he will figure something out, but he put the team in a rough situation with a severe lack of depth at the position. -- Evan (New Jersey)

A. Evan, I don't think Belichick has any regrets because these situations are two-way streets. Spikes and the team were headed for a divorce regardless, and Fletcher wanted a chance to play more and saw a greater opportunity elsewhere and decided to seize it. I don't see a major difference between Deontae Skinner and Beauharnais, and as for Anderson, I thought he could have helped them a bit depth-wise but he had limited value on fourth down and it's tough to keep players like that as backups at that age.

Q. Why would Belichick create a roster with only three quality linebackers? Love Mayo, but he has proven to be injury prone. Now they are stuck shuffling street free agents/special teams players to fill the void. Seems like poor planning and lack of depth. -- Dave (Agawam, Massachusetts)

A. Dave, I think this one requires some context because Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, while listed as defensive ends, are essentially linebackers. They are end-of the-line players and their presence should be accounted for when depth is considered. You always want to have as much depth as possible at the on-the-line and off-the-line spots, and the Patriots had some off-the-line players in camp competing to do so (e.g. Steve Beauharnais, James Anderson) who didn't make the cut. Could Belichick have had a few more options? Perhaps, but I don't think this is a situation of negligence. There isn't a team in the NFL that has great depth at every position; it's simply hard to build, and that league-wide context is critical in any analysis. I'd also add that this was one of the positions in this year's draft that didn't have great depth.

Q. Hi Mike, sometimes things seem so obvious and don't happen, so maybe you can help me understand: Why, rather than try out five line backers who haven't even played football yet this season, would the Patriots not bring back Steve Beauharnais? He knows the playbook, made calls on the field, has been in a practice squad so should still be very fit, wasn't that bad at all in preseason and left under an injury settlement, so there shouldn't be any bad feelings? Am I missing something, or sometimes do GMs not see the wood for the trees? -- The Grumbler (United Kingdom)

A. Because the Patriots released Beauharnais with an injury settlement, the terms of that settlement wouldn't allow them to bring him back for another few weeks if they were indeed interested in doing so.

Q. With Stevan Ridley out for the season, do the Pats simply insert Brandon Bolden into that role and perhaps bring up Jonas Gray to maintain a between-the-tackles attack? Or do they alter their running style a bit by pairing Shane Vereen and James White, and primarily employ a less downhill power style, perhaps more off tackle runs /delays/draws, etc. to conform to their personnel? -- Tman (Belmont, Massachusetts)

A. That's one of the questions of the week, Tman. Part of the consideration is that Bolden is very good on special teams and if you're going to start using him more on offense, you potentially weaken yourself in the kicking game because he probably would no longer play on each of the "Big Four" units. Bolden's work on special teams was highlighted Sunday against the Bills when he drew two holding penalties in the second quarter while playing on coverage units. My best guess right now is that they just elevate White to the game-day roster and go with a Vereen, White and Bolden combination. They've really been dressing only three running backs for most of the year anyway.

Q. Hey Mike, do you think we've seen the last of Ridley in a Patriots uniform? I was thinking that out of the two, Vereen would be the one more likely to be re-signed after the season ended anyway. And I agree that Brandon Bolden is more productive as a special-teamer than a featured back. Here's hoping that James White takes advantage of this opportunity. -- Michael R. (Las Vegas)

A. Michael, prior to the injury I would have felt this was a more likely scenario. But the injury probably changes things for Ridley in free agency, as he's more likely going to have to go the Julian Edelman/2013 route and take a one-year, prove-it-type deal. With that in play, I wouldn't rule out a return to New England, where he knows the coaching staff and vice versa.

Q. Hey Mike. I thought Sunday was an all-around great win. Obviously the loss of Mayo and Ridley are going to hurt. Do you think the Pats go out and sign The Law Firm (BenJarvus Green-Ellis) to help fill that void? Vereen and Bolden are a good duo but they both don't have that third-and-1 presence in their game. -- Nick (Framingham, Massachusetts)

A. I'd be surprised if they go in that direction, Nick, in part because I'm not sure how much Green-Ellis has left in the tank. I think based on the present snapshot it's a situation where they stay in-house right now. If anything, it would be the promotion of someone like practice squad running back Jonas Gray that strikes me as the most logical option if the team is looking to bolster depth there.

Q. Would it be possible to get LeGarrette Blount back for a draft pick? It appears he's not being utilized by the Steelers. Some of us forgot about Ridley with his late-season performance last year. -- Joe (Louisville, Kentucky)

A. Joe, the trade deadline is Oct. 28, so you'll have your answer in a few weeks. My sense, from afar, is that the Steelers wouldn't be inclined to trade him unless the return was too good to pass up. And I don't see the Patriots parting with a valuable asset (e.g. a fourth-round pick they acquired in the Logan Mankins trade) in this situation.

Q. Hey Mike, with the trade deadline approaching, do you expect the Pats to make a move before the deadline or stay pat? They obviously need help in the O-line and LB positions, and could benefit by trading for a WR like Andre Johnson if he's available. What are your thoughts? -- Eric (Springfield, Massachusetts)

A. I don't think we'll be talking about a player like Johnson, Eric, as any deal would be similar to last year with the acquisition of depth-based defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga, which didn't pan out. Part of what makes the trade deadline different in football than baseball is the nature of each team's system and how there is a learning curve to get a player up to speed. So a team is basically giving up a significant asset for a player who might only really help for a few weeks by the time he gets acclimated. The Deion Branch trade a few years back was different because he had already been in the system and had remarkable recall.

Q. Hey Mike, like everyone else, my excitement at Sunday's win is tempered by disappointment on the injury front. Can you give us a primer on what exactly the defensive play caller is responsible for in Bill Belichick's D? Who took that responsibility when Jerod Mayo went out last year, and who projects to take over this season? -- Samir M. (Houston, Texas)

A. Samir, I thought Tedy Bruschi described it well in his weekly chat when he wrote, "There is a natural transition when you go from only having to worry about yourself to having to worry about 10 other guys. It's always comforting to look at Jerod Mayo and see that little reminder before the snap to help you do your job. Mayo could do that and also his own job." So it's the process of receiving the play call from coaches, relaying it to teammates, lining players up correctly, adjusting based on pre-snap motion and movement, etc. He's basically the Tom Brady of the defense.

Q. Mike, if Jerod Mayo is out for the season, the Patriots could put Dont'a Hightower in his place like last year. But knowing that Hightower is at his best when they move him around and use his versatility, wouldn't putting him in that position eliminate the best part of Hightower as well? Who replaces Mayo and how do they use Hightower and get the best out of him? -- David (North Attleborough, Massachusetts)

A. David, they are going to need each player to take on some more responsibility, but specific to wearing the green dot on the helmet, Hightower did it last year when Mayo was injured. They also have Jamie Collins as an option. I wouldn't be surprised if they try both.

Q. Thanks for being a voice of reason during the recent panic, Mike. Now that things have calmed down some, here's a concern. You know that "second-year leap" thing? Between Aaron Dobson, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon, and Josh Boyce -- pretty dismal, huh? None looks better than rookie year to me. I'll give Collins a pass due to his thigh injury. Add in how little the rookie class is contributing, aside from Bryan Stork and maybe Cameron Fleming, and it's a disconcerting sign about the future. Too harsh? -- Grendel the Dog (Ann Arbor, Michigan)

A. The Patriots have quite a few second-year players who aren't making the desired leap and it's more than fair to bring up. I don't necessarily look at it and say "disconcerting for the future" because it's not like they don't have some solid young players doing good things. But I did expect more from members of the team's 2013 draft class at this point.

Q. Great game in Buffalo, Mike. I think the Pats are rounding into form. However, we are still seeing some pretty poor play from Nate Solder. Whether it is poor technique, poor coaching or an injury, there has been a decided decline in his performance from years past. How soon before he is replaced in the starting lineup? Sebastian Vollmer filled in admirably for Matt Light in his rookie season. Or Marcus Cannon, who wasn't a success at guard but has been quite good at tackle. This would also allow the Pats to deploy Solder at TE in their heavy formations. Thoughts? -- Greg (Boca Raton, Florida)

A. Greg, we saw Solder get beat a few times in the Bills game, and also get penalized for a false start, which sort of overshadows some of the other good plays he made. This is a fair concern to me and it's a good time to point out that the Patriots are essentially rotating their top three tackles, with Cannon coming in on the fourth series of each half on Sunday, initially at right tackle and then flipping to the left side in the first half. So that tells me it is at least a consideration not to overlook.

Q. What's the real story with Branden Browner? When he was signed, it was almost as big a deal as getting Darrelle Revis. Yet, he's been ineligible to play the last two weeks and we don't know if it's because he can't learn the system or that he's hurt. I know Hoodie doesn't always let media folks know the true story, but you're at the practices, is Browner participating? How does he look? -- Tony G. (Los Angeles)

A. Tony, we only see stretching and individual drills in practice, so it is dangerous to draw many conclusions from that. My understanding on Browner is that it's just a matter of getting his legs back under him. I know it's been out there that maybe he's struggling with the playbook, but I buy Bill Belichick's direct response to that as being off the mark.

Q. Mike, can you give us a little background detail on Casey Walker because I am surprised how effective he has been for the Pats. The college bio didn't give any indication that he was a top development prospect, but he can hold his own. He plays like a very competitive defensive lineman. -- Pete (Central Vermont)

A. Pete, I've been impressed with Walker. Here is a film review I had put together when the Patriots signed him off the Panthers' practice squad. An addition to that is Walker's correct height and weight (6-foot-2, 325), as he explained to me that he got as high as 340 while in Carolina before a thyroid problem was detected and he was able to bring the weight down (item No. 10 in Oct. 5 quick-hits piece).

Q. Hard not to be excited about a win like Sunday. My thought is on Brandon LaFell. Does he look like someone in the David Givens mold? Does a lot of things well, not quite a burner, not Troy Brown as a route runner, but does everything pretty well and seems to be able to find those soft spots to get open. I think he could be a consistent weapon and perhaps a player similar to what Brady has had success with in the past. -- Dean (Taunton, Massachusetts)

A. Dean, LaFell has been a pleasant surprise after some early struggles in training camp. He's clearly the No. 2 receiver right now behind Julian Edelman, and we saw 64 of his 97 receiving yards come after the catch on Sunday, which to me highlights how he runs well and at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds is tough to bring down. It's come together nicely for him.

Q. Hi Mike. Nice win on Sunday. I have a thought and a question. I recently read about Brian Tyms' story growing up. This guy should really be proud of himself for getting where he is. Really makes you want to pull for him. Question: I would think it is safe to say that the way this season is headed, this will be Danny Amondola's last year with NE. They will certainly want the cap room to sign a player(s) that can contribute. Your thoughts? -- Rich (Livermore, California)

A. Rich, I think it's fair to say the Amendola signing hasn't unfolded the way the club envisioned. I find it hard to believe he will be here in 2015 with his present contract, which calls for him to earn $4 million.

Q. Mike, how long does snapper Danny Aiken have before he's replaced? He's looked shaky most of the season -- one of these days it's going to cost the Pats a game. -- Joseph (Andover, Massachusetts)

A. Joseph, Aiken has looked shaky at times, such as in the first quarter of Sunday's win over the Bills with a false-start penalty and then a low snap. Part of it is probably tied to the thought that if you're going to move on from a player, you should have a replacement lined up that you feel good about. I'm not sure there is someone else out there who we could look at and say, "That's decisively an upgrade."