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Ask PFW: Brady's backup plan

Fans' questions answered in this week's PFW mailbag.

Erik, what are the prevailing thoughts as to how [head coach Bill] Belichick and[offensive coordinator Josh] McDaniel will plan for any Tom Brady absence for the first few games of the season?  Seems to me that all summer they will have to plan for the contingency that [backup QB Jimmy] Garoppolo goes down in the first quarter of the first game and can't return. This means finding, grooming, and carrying at least one more QB from now right on through the final 53-man roster cut-down.  They must be looking at a few options now, maybe a vet looking to hook on (not sure who that might be) or an undrafted FA.  What's your sense of how this will play out? Tony Bonaccio, Shelburne, VT

Do you think that three QBs are enough "arms" to have in training camp; or do think, as I do, that it would be a good idea to sign a veteran like Matt Flynn or Kyle Orton to that position. I'm thinking that, IF Brady's suspension holds, they could keep Garoppolo and Flynn/Orton on the 53, with [third-stringer Garrett] Gilbert on the practice squad. When Brady's back, release Flynn/Orton.  George Richman

Normally, three arms would be sufficient for any Patriots training camp. but depending what happens when Brady's appeal is heard three weeks from today, a fourth might be necessary. If any portion of his four-game suspension is upheld by Commissioner Roger Goodell, New England would enter the season – as the roster stands right now – with just two QBs, both inexperienced youngsters in Garoppolo and Gilbert. Garoppolo was Brady's backup the entirety of his rookie season a year ago, while the latter spent the very tail end of last season on the practice squad. That does make for a rather frightening scenario if Garoppolo, the presumed starter in Brady's absence, were to go down.

Bringing in a veteran like Flynn, who has starting experience and a decent NFL track record, would make sense to me (Orton would not, seeing how he officially retired from the game in late December). Again, this hinges on Brady being out of the picture for any length of time at the start of the regular season. If Goodell wipes out Brady's suspension entirely, I could see the Patriots sticking with what they've got.  Erik Scalavino

Do you guys think Shaq Mason might be able to transition to the LG spot?  While short for the position, he is a tenacious, balanced, strong blocker who, on tape against college competition, seemed to get great leverage consistently.  Plus he runs very well, sub 5.0 40 yard dash. Chris Noble

I would expect Mason and fellow rookie draft choice Tre' Jackson to be given plenty of opportunities this summer to win that starting left guard job – presuming, of course, that the Patriots don't re-sign incumbent co-captain Dan Connolly. Mason and Jackson were drafted with that intent, in my estimation, because it looks less and less likely that the team wants to bring Connolly back. Both players are gifted but could still use some improvement in their fundamental technique, so, it might not be immediately obvious who has the inside track for the position. This is one of several areas I'm anxious to watch when training camp opens at the end of July.* Erik Scalavino*

After the loss of some impactful cornerbacks this spring, I have a feeling, that the defense conception/strategy of the Pats will change a lot in this year. I mean, the nickel formation was quite frequently used in 2014, especially after the loss of [linebacker Jerod] Mayo, when there were only 2 starting caliber linebackers in the team. As BB bravely changed the systems in the past as well (3-4 to 4-3, etc.), I think this draft and the reinforcement of the team (Dane Fletcher, Brandon Spikes) was about to make a promising front seven as the group of defensive backs is definitely weaker than it was a year ago. So I think we'll see more classic defense formations in 2015. What do you think? Jozsef Bakk

There has certainly been more of an emphasis placed on the front seven by the Patriots this offseason than on the secondary, you're right. Their use of nickel sub packages, however, had more to do with defending what opposing offenses were showing than the loss of Mayo. Very often, the Patriots started games in nickel and remained there most of the time because other teams were trotting out three-and-four-WR sets, leaving New England no choice but to counter by adding another DB on the field.

Your larger point, though, is valid, that the strength of this year's Patriots D will likely be up front. Whether that strength will be good enough to offset any glaring insufficiencies in the defensive backfield remains to be seen, but I have serious concerns about the defense in general entering this season. Erik Scalavino

I may be in minority, but I understand BB position on CBs. [Darrelle] Revis, [Brandon] Browner, and [Kyle] Arrington were not worth the asking money, and the free-agents left are not better than what you have on the roster, so why not take a closer look at the young players. My only disagreement with Bill was in not drafting a CB in later rounds. I think he got a good value in the 7th round with an athletic CB, but one more would be better. I think he could have traded down the 2d round pick and still got SS [Jordan] Richards say in round 3 and also a CB in round 4 in exchange for our 2d and 6th picks. Round 4 is where we got Asante Samuel and [Seattle's Richard] Sherman came from that round, too. Now perhaps Bill can pick up a corner of the waivers at the last cut but he likely won't be a starter. There is also a slight chance of trade and my question is – would you trade someone like Nate Solder for a comparable in talent and contact CB and then plug someone like [Cameron] Fleming to play a LT? If not Solder, I don't see anyone else Patriots can offer in exchange that teams might be interested in. Do you? Stan Cohan

You're definitely in the minority on this subject, Stan. In fact, I disagree completely with your entire premise. I don't know anyone (outside the team itself) who has any confidence in this team's secondary right now. But let's get a couple of facts straight first: Revis, Browner, and Arrington were not "asking" for anything. All three were under contract and could still be Patriots right know if the team didn't allow them to become free agents. Simply pick up Revis' second-year option on his contract and we're not even having this discussion.

Second, there were plenty of free agents who were an upgrade to what remained on the Patriots CB roster in March. New England did add a couple of them, but I'm not yet convinced that they're going to be good enough to keep this defense competitive against the pass. The only "young" returning cornerback who remains somewhat of a mystery is Malcolm Butler. We know what Logan Ryan is. He's not going to get much better than he already is, which isn't elite, to say the least. And even if Belichick did draft another corner in the later rounds, as you suggested, that's not where you look for starting-caliber players at any position. Yes, sometimes you get lucky and one emerges (see Julian Edelman), but those examples are few and far between.

Finally, no, I have no interest in trading Nate Solder. He's your starting left tackle, and a good one. Weakening one position to help another is not the answer. The fact that you would even consider trading a quality starter for a cornerback indicates that you really have as little confidence in this secondary as the rest of us. Erik Scalavino

I know that you see [James] White possibly emerging our next receiving back, but my question is, why not Tyler Gaffney? This guy lit it up at Stanford, setting numerous school records as a RB. But didn't he start out as a WR in college? Watching tape on this kid take 'em out of the air over the shoulder in stride was something special. He's coming off an injury and appears to be healthy. Where are your doubts with his game aside from no big league experience? Don Blakeborough

Just because a player can perform at the college level, doesn't mean he's cut out to do likewise in the NFL. That goes for any player, regardless of where he was drafted, of if he was even drafted at all. Most of us assume White will get first crack at replacing Shane Vereen in the Kevin Faulk/Danny Woodhead role because a) that's where his skill set lies, and b) he was drafted, which at least in the early stages of a player's career, does count for something. I've not yet seen Gaffney take any significant reps in pads on a football field here in Foxborough. What little I've seen of White is encouraging, if a little inconsistent. So, until this competition plays itself out a bit, I'm noncommittal on the running back situation as a whole heading into the summer. Erik Scalavino

Looking for the August confirmed dates of the joint practices with the Saints at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. Thanks. Turner Family (Patriots fans now living in Morgantown, WV)

There's been no official confirmation of that by the team yet, Turners. However, if history is your guide, the Patriots have generally held joint practices for three days prior to facing their opponent in a preseason contest. The Patriots-Saints preseason game is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 22, so, you can easily do the math.

Be advised, it's not entirely clear if those sessions in West Virginia would be open to the public. In Foxborough, they always are, but it has varied when the Patriots have been the visiting team. Sometimes, just season ticket holders of the host team were allowed to view practice. Stay tuned, though. Once we have any information, we'll be sure to post it on so you and any other Patriots fans who are so inclined can make the trip to see the Super Bowl champs in person. Erik Scalavino


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