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Ask PFW: Branch loss and more

Fans' questions answered in our weekly PFW mailbag.

If Alan Branch is suspended for four games and the Patriots are facing a couple run-first teams, will Bill Belichick just go with the young guys or are there any free agent options out there? Stacy Hanson

At this point in the season, Stacy, there aren't many – if any – truly impactful free agents available at any position. Scouring the list of potential additions, there are a couple of veteran players who were with the Patriots during training camp – Markus Kuhn and Terrance Knighton – who are currently out of work and could be options if Belichick wants to add some depth with guys who have familiarity with New England's defense. Aside from them, though, you're looking at mostly young, inexperienced players to fill the temporary void created by Branch's possible absence.

Of course, there's always the slim possibility that he somehow wins his appeal, or gets his sentence reduced, but you should probably psychologically prepare yourself for the loss of Branch for the next four games. Erik Scalavino

What's going on with [DE Jabaal] Sheard and [WR Chris] Hogan? Both of these guys had potential to be steals, but now they seem to be fading fast. Also, is Sebastian [Vollmer, the starting right tackle] getting any closer to returning?Robert Miles

Sheard's situation is a curious one. He's clearly done something, or not done enough, on or off the field (perhaps both), to warrant an apparent benching. What that is, however, remains nebulous. Hogan's case is far more clear-cut. He's not "fading," as you put it. He's just dealing with a back injury. When healthy, he's been a solid contributor.

As far as Vollmer is concerned, this week should clear up his ordeal, one way or the other. This is the final week in which players on PUP can begin practicing. If Vollmer isn't cleared to do so by week's end, he'll either have to be placed on injured reserve or (highly unlikely) be released. Erik Scalavino

Hey guys, big Patriots fan from Pennsylvania. I love reading your stuff throughout the week. I have a few questions... Do you agree that perhaps [LB Barkevious] Mingo should be given the opportunity to be an edge rusher in obvious passing situations? I know on Sunday he got 10 snaps at off-the-line linebacker late, but with his freakish athletic abilities, maybe he could put some heat on opposing QBs. What do you guys think of giving Jonathan Jones a chance to play corner as opposed to just special teams? He has tremendous speed and played against decent competition at Auburn.

I am also very concerned about WR depth. Is there anyone you guys know of on the practice squad that might be useful in an emergency? I was happy to see Malcolm Mitchell's strong game, but I was hoping in the beginning of the year the Pats would have kept another WR on the roster like Aaron Dobson or Keyshawn Martin. Can Mathew Slater contribute in a pinch? Hopefully all goes well and the Patriots keep rolling!!!Michael Pizzoli

If Mingo's athletic ability were as "freakish" as you claim, the Patriots would have been using him a lot more frequently since his arrival in Foxborough. That said, given the depth (or lack thereof) at linebacker at the moment, coupled with the week-to-week uncertainty of which players are available defensively, I would expect Mingo and Kyle Van Noy to begin playing bigger roles.

With regard to Jones, the rookie has not really been in the conversation at corner since training camp, where he showed some of the abilities you referenced. This late in the season, it doesn't appear that he's among the rotational players being given reps at the No. 2 corner spot. Perhaps next summer in camp, we could see him earn more opportunities there.

Finally, at wide receiver, Slater is nothing more than an emergency option, and after injuring his left foot (the extent of which is unclear right now) against San Francisco, even that is less of a possibility. On the practice squad, New England has a pair of pass catchers in veteran DeAndrew White and rookie Devin Lucien, both of whom are unproven. Your best hope is for veteran Chris Hogan to heal quickly from his back injury, in order to give New England four top-flight receivers in him, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and the aforementioned rookie Mitchell. Erik Scalavino                             

Thanks for your coverage and keeping those of us on the other side of the Atlantic informed about all things Patriots. Because of the depth at the receiver position, with that including wide receivers, tight ends ,and pass catching backs like James White and D.J. Foster, it has taken a while for Malcolm Mitchell to be given an extended run on game day. I have always been impressed with his downfield blocking in the running game, but [the San Fran game] was the first time when he was able to shine as a receiver. Is he the best – in terms of talent and chemistry with Brady – that the Patriots have drafted since Deion Branch and could he be as good?David Beckett

The answer to your first question is undoubtedly yes. Of all the receivers the Patriots have drafted in the Brady-Belichick era, Branch is the best to date, and Mitchell is easily the next-best. Brady has even gone out of his way to praise Mitchell's contributions on and off the field, and not just in lip-service fashion. The QB seems genuinely enthused by Mitchell's play and personality, as have those of us who observe and come in contact with him on a regular basis. Mitchell is perhaps a bit of a different type of receiver than Branch, and while it's too soon in his career to make a long-term comparison, I believe we haven't yet seen the best of Mitchell in this offense. As good as he's been thus far, he can, and I expect will, get even better – something we haven't been able to say with any credibility about so many other young Patriots receivers. Erik Scalavino

Hello/konnichiwa from an Englishman in Japan. It seems to me where our defense is struggling is lacking the pass rusher that gets the attention of two blockers like we had in Chandler Jones. Without this guy freeing up other rushers then we surely have to blitz. So it was nice to see us dialing up some 5-plus rushers against the 49ers. Am I making sense? And is this something you see continuing or just a game plan against a poor OL? Regards. Mark Collier

Ohayo, Mark! I, too, was encouraged to see New England's defensive front get a good amount of pressure against San Francisco's quarterback, but that group has not been able to do so consistently this season. It would be nice to see them be more aggressive up front, but I'm not sure the coaches feel their current personnel are best suited to such game plans on a regular basis. I hope I'm proven wrong in this instance, but nothing I've seen through nearly three-quarters of the season leads me to believe otherwise. Erik Scalavino

Hi, guys. Some radio personalities and writers in Boston are intimating that the Patriots have locker room issues related to some personnel moves. I just watched the "locker room celebration video" [on]. I acknowledge that it's a quick glimpse and not all players are shown, but my gut says this team still looks pretty tight. Do you sense any issues that are affecting the team's quality of play? Thanks.Gary Madera, East Hanover, NJ

It's funny, Gary, my dentist just asked me the same question this morning while I was in the chair. So, I'll tell you what I told him. No, I don't believe the recent spate of surprising personnel decisions has created any sort of fissure in the locker room. Sure, some of the moves have taken people by surprise, including many of the players, but all those guys on the roster are professionals. They understand that this game is also a lucrative business, and sometimes, difficult decisions must be made that aren't always for personal reasons. They're business decisions.

I've certainly seen other Patriots rosters over the years that weren't as close as this one appears to be. So, I wouldn't put much stock in the overdramatizing you're hearing or reading about. Like any job, pro football has aspects that are uncomfortable to employees, including players. I'm sure the players feel badly to see some of their friends and teammates shipped out of town or their roles reduced, but they ones that remain in Foxborough are still getting paid handsomely and winning games. As long as those two factors are intact, the locker room dynamic will continue to be tight-knit and morale high. Erik Scalavino

Hi, big fan from Portugal! My question is: Do you think that there will be space for guys like Brandon Bolden, D.J. Foster, and even James White in the RB competition, now that Dion Lewis is back on the field, or will we see some sort of "even" rotation in the backfield like we somewhat saw against San Francisco? Hugo Ramos

Bom Dia, Hugo! It's not uncommon for the Patriots to carry five running backs on the 53-man roster, as they currently are. Rarely, if ever, though, do all five wind up on the 46-man game-day roster. At least one is normally deactivated, and this season, Foster, the rookie, has been the most frequent sacrifice. I do believe that the coaches like all five players and that there is room for all of them to remain in their jobs. The Patriots under Belichick rarely employ a traditional, so-called "lead back" anyway. So, I expect you'll continue to see a rotational, committee approach to New England's backfield in the games ahead. Erik Scalavino

Hello from Oregon.  Long time Patriot fan and always appreciate your input weekly.  My question is, will there be a chance the Patriots-Broncos game be moved to flex time?Russell Trickey

Well, this sure is a… tricky question (sorry, I'm sure you get that all the time; couldn't resist!). Actually, it's a good and relevant question. As you may or may not know, the way NFL flex scheduling works, the broadcast networks that carry the daytime games – CBS and FOX – have the option of protecting certain games, thus preventing them from being moved to primetime. My suspicion is that CBS decided to protect this marquee matchup of AFC contenders; so, I'd venture to say the chances of it being flexed to primetime on NBC are virtually nil. Erik Scalavino

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