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Ask PFW: Assessing the roster

With current returners Ellis Hobbs and Wes Welker being joined by Kevin Faulk, Chad Jackson, Matthew Slater and Terrance Wheatley, who do you guys expect to see getting the bulk of the returns this season?
Tyler C.

That's an interesting question to start us off today. As you point out, there is no shortage of candidates to handle return duties for both punts and kickoffs. And you even left out one pretty good one – Laurence Maroney – who handled the kicks in the playoffs and Super Bowl. Although Bill Belichick has never been reluctant to use starters as his lead return men in the past, I have to think he'd like to relieve Maroney and Hobbs of those duties in order to keep them fresher for their primary roles on offense and defense, respectively. Both are big-play guys but both have also worn down over the past couple of seasons so it would not be a surprise to see Belichick trying to integrate some youngsters into the mix. Based on nothing other than an unscientific look during mini-camps workouts, I think Wheatley has a chance to emerge on kicks. He has great speed and plenty of experience from college. If he shows Belichick that he's sure-handed to protects the football, I think he could be the guy back deep on opening day. As for punts, I'd expect to see Welker continue to get reps with his ball security being a major plus. But with camp still more than a month away, there's plenty of time for jobs to be won on the field.
Paul Perillo

I don't really understand the CBA thing and what will happen in 2011 but my question is, if no deal is in place by 2010, does that mean we could have a repeat of the 1994 MLB season and not have any football or even the cancellation of the Super Bowl?Dane Lindenmuth

As far as understanding the CBA, you and I are in the same boat Dane. I don't understand most of it either. But I wouldn't be too concerned yet. There's a lot of time before fans need to start worrying about a potential lost season. At the very least, there will be football played for the next three seasons – 2008 and 2009 under the normal salary cap system and 2010 as an uncapped year. The dates to keep in mind are March 1, 2010, and Feb. 28, 2011. If no new deal were in place by the first date, the league would play without a salary cap in 2010. If no deal is struck before the latter date, then we all have some problems. The CBA would expire at that time and that's when the potential for a work stoppage or lockout would be legitimate. But that Armageddon-like scenario seems rather unlikely given the amount of money both sides are currently making and neither would be eager to jeopardize that by risking that kind of action. There are a lot of dollars at stake and when that's the case usually the sides come together and reach an agreement.
Paul Perillo

I have a two-part question: I have watched the Pats all season last year and noticed a couple of things, first the lack of a pass rush definitely hurt them in the long run, although the defense did all they could in the Super Bowl. Second, I believe that the running game is almost non-existent especially after Sammy Morris got hurt. Do you think that with a healthy Sammy Morris the running game will pick up as well?Tom Whitehead

I can't really say I agree totally with either of your points. I'm going to start with the running game because we spent a lot of time discussing that last season. Your point about the running game dropping after Sammy Morris got hurt isn't entirely accurate. It's true that he and Laurence Maroney provided a terrific one-two punch over the first three games. Then Maroney got hurt and Morris did a nice job filling in before getting hurt himself in the sixth game. The running game struggled without the services of both Morris and Maroney for a while, and even when Maroney returned it remained an afterthought for a few more weeks. But down the stretch Maroney became a very productive runner and he carried that into the playoffs. He topped the 100-yard mark four times in the last six games including the postseason – and all of those games came well after Morris was injured. Obviously things would be better with both Maroney and Morris healthy, but I don't see any noticeable changes when one is out of action. Maroney is the more talented player and he showed that last December and January when he ran hard and effectively. Morris is an excellent backup who should provide a lift off the bench once again. When both were banged up in the middle of the year, that's when the running game really struggled. As for the pass rush, the Patriots racked up 47 sacks during the season, which ranked second in the NFL. Sacks don't always tell the whole story with regard to the pass rush, but to me the problem there had more to do with the secondary. I felt the Patriots got plenty of pressure on the passer only to watch the opposing quarterback quickly deliver the ball to an open receiver. I thought that was the case in the Super Bowl, especially on the game-deciding touchdown to Plaxico Burress when the team blitzed. Could the rush be better? Sure, but that could be said of just about every aspect of the team with the exception of the passing game. Tough to improve on record-breaking numbers.
Paul Perillo

If things stay on the path they are on, wouldn't the Patriots organization be one of the most beneficial if there were no salary cap? I thought the organization had loads of money.
Adam Newhouser

It's true that the Patriots are one of the league's big market teams with plenty of revenue streams coming in from other avenues. That would seem to make an uncapped system beneficial to the Patriots, but the same could be said of many other teams as well. The two New York teams, Dallas, Washington and many others would also have the opportunity to spend freely and with virtually limitless resources. But not having a cap doesn't necessarily lead to success. Just like baseball where plenty of big-money teams don't always win, if you don't know how to spend the money it won't do you any good to be able to spend freely. I'm obviously biased based on where I work, but I believe Belichick and Krafts would be successful building a team under any system because they understand how to put an organization together. Cap or no cap I'd expect New England to be highly competitive.
Paul Perillo

It seems that the Pats have done a good job dealing with the inside linebacker spot. Do you see them adding some depth to the outside? I know that you get lots of questions about Jason Taylor, and I agree that the chances are slim that he will make is way to Foxborough, but are there other players that would provide solid veteran depth?Kevin Enos

I don't think depth on the outside is any bigger of a concern than the inside at this point. There's a good mix of youth, experience and versatility at both spots. Inside there's Tedy Bruschi, Victor Hobson and perhaps Junior Seau to go with rookie Jerod Mayo and Eric Alexander. Outside there's Adalius Thomas and Mike Vrabel to go with rookie Shawn Crable and Pierre Woods. If injuries become a concern at either spot, Hobson, Thomas and Vrabel could all play inside or outside. Jason Taylor would obviously be a great addition, but that would be a luxury and not a necessity at this point. I feel as is the Patriots will end up with six players for four spot with three-man rotations both inside and out.
Paul Perillo

What is your take on the undrafted rookie free agents picked up by the Patriots? Specifically, I'm curious about your opinion of BenJarvis Green-Ellis, Gary Guyton, Vince Redd and Mike Dragosavich since the news focus centers on our newly drafted players. Are there any other UFAs who interest you that we might want to keep an eye on?Marie Parsons

Well that's really tough to answer at this point because none of those players has yet to don shoulder pads for a single practice. Of the four players you've mentioned, the only one who stood out to me was Redd, and that was simply based on his terrific size (6-6, 260). He has prototypical size for the outside linebacker spot and appears to have the athleticism to go with it. Again, I'll reserve judgment until I actually see him hit somebody, but in terms of filling out the uniform he was impressive. The others didn't do anything to stand out but I wouldn't consider that a negative until training camp – or at least mini-camp – actually begins.
Paul Perillo

If Sammy Morris can stay healthy for the entire season, do you see Coach Belichick emphasizing more of a running game throughout the season rather than just in the postseason? I always felt he used the passing game to keep his O-Line healthy going into the offseason when a running game and healthy offensive linemen would come in handy during the winter. But if we'd had a more potent two-headed monster type running game going into the Super Bowl, would we have been better off? Wondering what your opinion on the subject is and what you have heard from Patriots HQ on the subject.
Zack Barron

I spoke with Morris during the playoffs in January and he said he was feeling fine and expected no limitations physically heading into the offseason. He said he'd be 100 percent ready to go in training camp and since he was out there during passing camp a couple of weeks ago it looks like he was right. He should be back and ready to provide the offense with a two-pronged rushing attack. However, I don't expect Belichick to put more of an emphasis on the running game as long as he has Tom Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker and the rest of the Patriots talented passing game to rely on. The offense was record-setting last year and that was largely because of how well the team threw the football. The running game was solid throughout the playoffs until the Super Bowl when the Giants defense simply played a great game. They stopped the run and the pass that evening and that's why they are currently Super Bowl champs. But that doesn't mean Belichick should revamp the attack that set several records in 2007.
Paul Perillo

Just wanted your opinion on something. This coming season, each team will have one defensive player with an in-helmet communications system, similar to what the quarterback has for the offense. Since only one player can have this system, do you think teams will be limited in the player packages they can use? I imagine a LB or safety will have the system, (as opposed to a lineman or corner) and the way the Pats rotate players at those positions, it seems that the player with the system could actually be off the field a good bit. In this case, they would have to go back to hand signals. Thoughts?Eric Theall

This is part of the problem with the idea of having a defensive player with the communications system in his helmet. Coaches, and Belichick was one of them, have expressed reservations about having one guy on the field every play and wondered what that could potentially mean in terms of the communication. The Patriots could use several players who for the most part are on the field every play – the outside linebackers, safeties, corners – but there's no guarantee that player will never be asked to come off the field. And the Patriots are no different from every other team in terms of substituting on defense. Very few linebackers and defensive linemen play all three downs anymore, as pass rushing specialists and extra defensive backs enter the game in subpackages for every NFL team. Teams will need to put a lot of thought on how they can best maximize the benefits of the new defensive communication system since only one will be allowed on the field at a time. But there will be a second helmet equipped with the device ready for use by another player if an injury occurs.
Paul Perillo

Love the work you do, can't wait for Tuesdays. I was wondering about the Pats tight end situation. Benjamin Watson is presumably the starter but has some injury concerns and so that leaves only David Thomas and Stephen Spach. Any chance we'll see the Pats bring in another tight end or do you think David Thomas can stay healthy and really contribute behind Watson?Jonah Wexler

In addition to the guys you mentioned, the Patriots also signed veteran Marcus Pollard and rookie free agents Jonathan Stupar and Tyson DeVree. Pollard is entering his 14th season so he may not have much left to offer but he was a productive pass catcher in Indy for a lot of years with Peyton Manning. He looked a bit slow during passing camp but obviously he has plenty of experience in the passing game. Stupar is a guy that sort of caught my eye during the OTAs and I've labeled him an early sleeper despite the fact that he hasn't even been in pads yet. I liked his hands and mobility. It will be interesting to watch Spach, Stupar and DeVree once camp begins to see which player is the best blocker. The winner of that competition just may earn a surprise roster spot behind Watson and Thomas.
Paul Perillo

The Pats have five rookie LBs that all seem to be good prospects in Jerod Mayo, Shawn Crable, Bo Ruud, Vince Redd and Gary Guyton. Mayo is a lock and Crable should be, but do you see any of the others cracking the roster? How about Pierre Woods and Eric Alexander, do you see both of them making the team again? Overall, what LBs do you think make the roster?Scott Macone

This is another question that would be better answered in the middle of August after we've gotten a chance to see these guys actually play. But since we're used to making fools of ourselves – at least Andy is – I'll take a shot anyway. I agree that Mayo and Crable are locks. I think Ruud and Guyton are long shots at best with perhaps one having a shot to land on the practice squad. Redd is intriguing because of his size and he's a guy I'll be watching once camp starts. If he shows promise it could mean trouble for a guy like Woods, who has yet to play any significant role on defense after two years. Woods and Alexander both play well on special teams so the rookies will have to really outplay them in camp to knock them off the roster. With all that said, here's my absolutely idiotic stab in the dark at the linebacker corps come opening day – Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Adalius Thomas, Victor Hobson, Jerod Mayo, Shawn Crable, Pierre Woods, Eric Alexander and Larry Izzo. That's nine, which is a common number at the position during the Belichick era.
Paul Perillo

First of all, I wanted to say I think you guys do a great job, and I enjoy reading Ask PFW every time it comes out. I did want to make a point that no matter what not having Deion Branch may have cost us, what we have gotten in return far outweighs anything else. We had gotten a first-round pick from Seattle, which we used to select Brandon Meriweather, however, because we had that selection, it allowed us to trade the other pick to the 49ers for a first-round pick in 2008 and a fourth-round pick in 2007. We then traded that fourth-round pick to the Raiders for Randy Moss, so I guess that was pretty good. Then we traded down in 2008 with the selection that we had for a third-round pick in 2008 and the 10th selection, then we drafted Jerod Mayo with the 10th selection and proceeded to trade the third-round pick for a second-round pick in 2009. In summation that means that we essentially traded Deion Branch for Randy Moss, Jerod Mayo and a second-round selection in 2009. I'd say that is one of the most lopsided trades I have ever seen.Pat Lane

Thanks for the nice words at the start of your post, but something tells me you're going to want to take them back after you read about how I disagree with your logic. While I agree the trade you propose – Branch for Moss, Mayo and a second-round pick – would be quite lopsided, I don't agree that you can say we got all of that for Branch. Right from the start you make a huge leap by assuming the extra first rounder allowed us to deal the second one. We took Meriweather with Seattle's pick. Period. You can't accurately say whether or not Belichick would have traded the second pick (28th overall) if he didn't have the Seahawks pick to use earlier. Judging from Belichick's past with regards to trading picks, I'd say he would have made the deal regardless. If he'd liked anyone available at 28 enough to pick them, he'd have picked them. My opinion is he would have traded the pick either way, but again, no one knows that for sure. Obviously in hindsight it's easy to say having that additional pick made the trade possible, but I don't think it's a truthful way of assessing things.
Paul Perillo

It seems that the Pats have acquired several new LBs in the cut or form of Ted Johnson. I understand they are rookies but how does their "potential" stack up against Ted? They seem as big and somewhat faster.
Matt Nee

Wow I'm really getting into a rut of being the contrarian today. The new linebackers are Mayo, Crable, Hobson and Bo Ruud. The only one similar to Ted Johnson in terms of size is Hobson. Johnson was listed at 6-4, 253 in 2004, his last in the league. Hobson is shorter at 6-0 but similar in weight at 252. Mayo (6-1, 242) and Ruud (6-2, 235) are much smaller and Crable is strictly an outside linebacker and has nothing in common with Johnson. So I really don't see the new guys being cut in TJ's form at all. Hobson seems to have some similar characteristics, but the others rely more on athleticism and speed while Johnson's bulk and physicality allowed him to perform.
Paul Perillo

I actually have a pair of questions. First, what do you think of the QB situation? Matt Cassel is nearing the end of his contract, and hasn't really impressed much. They used a third on a rookie QB, so is it he and Matt Gutierrez for 2008? Can they trade Cassel for anything? And second, do you know if Kelley Washington is working out with the WRs?
Tom Fitzgerald

My guess is Cassel and Gutierrez are fighting for the backup spot with the loser a strong candidate to get released. Neither has played any significant NFL action so their trade value would seem to be next to nothing. Both guys will need to impress during training camp because it would be surprising to see the Patriots cut ties with a third-round pick (Kevin O'Connell) so quickly. I don't see that happening so it's Brady, O'Connell as the third guy and the winner of the Cassell-Gutierrez sweepstakes likely in the backup role unless the Patriots can find a veteran somewhere. As for Kelley Washington, yes he's still a wide receiver and continues to work out at that spot as he did last year.
Paul Perillo

Not that it's exciting to be punting the ball, but could you tell me what the odds are that rookie free agent Mike Dragosavich is the starter on opening day? I think he was a steal in this draft, Mel Kiper had him ranked an 89 out of a potential 100. Any player who ranks that high, at any position, and we sign as an undrafted player, is stellar. A punter with the power Dragosavich has can be a game changer, and we all know special teams win games. I for one am excited to have him.
Paul Pritchard

Too early to tell. Last week at passing camp he looked terrible on the first day and then brilliant on the second day. He worked a lot with special teams coach Brad Seely that first day and he was so inconsistent it looked like perhaps they were tinkering with his mechanics a bit. But whatever the reason those problems were gone the next day when he was booming several majestic kicks all over the place. Dragosavich has great size and obviously has a strong leg. Whether those attributes will be enough to win a job won't be known until training camp.
Paul Perillo

Is there any news whether or not Junior Seau is coming back next season?Gary Waldron

No news to report there but Belichick did mention last week that a final decision would likely be made closer to training camp. My guess is both parties would need to wait further to be sure that Seau's injuries have healed and he'll be ready to give it a go in a potential 19th season.
Paul Perillo

I am still hurting down here in Houston from the Super Bowl and I actually got the nerve up to watch it again on my DVR. To make it short, can we do anything to upgrade our o-line via trade or free agency? The O-line cost us a Super Bowl. Watch the film.Martin Rodriguez

While I can certainly understand how painful watching the game on your DVR must have been, the rest of us have known the offensive line didn't exactly shine in the Super Bowl for months now. But it was that same line that surrendered just 21 sacks during the regular season, the fewest amount in team history. So while they were a big part of the problem against the Giants, they weren't exactly hurting the team in the first 18 games when three of its five members went to the Pro Bowl. The offensive line is solid and simply had a bad day at the worst possible time. No excuses, but also no need to cut guys loose and replace everyone either.
Paul Perillo

Hey guys, with all the talk about the rookies, and the trouble in covering spots left by Asante Samuel and Randall Gay, the signing of Victor Hobson has seemed to go under the radar. Am I the only person excited about the signing of Hobson?
Travis Jones

I think the Hobson signing was excellent because of his experience in the system. He played mostly outside linebacker for the Jets but has been used inside for the Patriots thus far during OTAs. His versatility and experience should make him a solid contributor this season. He's not a flashy playmaker but I feel Belichick's penchant for getting the most out of his linebackers could benefit a guy like Hobson greatly. I think he'll have a great chance to start next to Bruschi if Seau doesn't return.
Paul Perillo

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