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Ask PFW: Cooking out the questions

Rookie camp is in the rearview mirror and veteran mini camp is still a couple weeks away. That’s left fans with continuing curiosity toward what will eventually be the 2006 Patriots.

Hi guys. As usual, thanks for all the great coverage of our favorite team. I know my question is not as easy to answer as the average question (e.g., Is Ty Law coming back?), but I would really appreciate if you could give some insight into the role of linebackers. It seems that the Patriots LBs are a major key to the defense and perhaps remain the area of greatest concern for this year's team. What are the physical attributes that make for a good linebacker, inside vs. outside? How are the two middle line backer roles different (i.e., Ted Johnson vs. Teddy Bruschi - I know Ted doesn't play for the Patriots anymore - but I am referring back to a time when the roles seemed more clearly defined). How does the Linebacker role mesh with the DE/DT positions? For example, would you put a different LB behind Seymour than Warren because of their skill set?Len LaPadula
Amherst, NH

Boy, not exactly a softball to start off this week's mailbag. I'll give it a shot, though. Linebacker is the heart of any good 3-4 defense, as the basis for the scheme is getting another linebacker on the field. The players at all four spots have some similarities. They obviously need to be able to run and have enough athleticism to make plays. They need to, especially in New England's two-gap style 3-4, have the size and stoutness to take on blockers and control their gaps. The players also have to have a very strong understanding of the overall defense, its adjustments and what roles all the different players play in the scheme on any given down. It's a position that can be as much cerebral at times as it is physical.
In terms of outside linebackers, the players need to have all the above characteristics, while maintaining the ability to both rush the passer, physically take on tight ends and at times drop into coverage. Inside linebackers generally are a little less athletic but somewhat stronger in stuffing the run and potentially taking on guards at the point of attack. The Mike inside linebacker, formerly Ted Johnson's spot, has to be the most stout to play the strong side of the formation where teams are more likely to run the ball. He must also make all the calls and adjustments for the entire front.
As far as trying to pair up players at the two different levels of the front, much of that can vary based on the specific guys in question. For example New England signed Rosevelt Colvin, a proven pass rusher, to play alongside Seymour. That pairing finally came to productive fruition last season. That's not to say that Colvin couldn't play with Warren, it's just an example of pairing the slightly smaller Colvin with the beast that is Seymour to make a very formidable edge duo.
I hope that offers some answers to all your questions. I am not going to pretend that I broke any ground here or that I'm even scratching the surface of what it takes to be a Patriots linebacker. It's the most important position on the field and trying to sum that up in a couple basic paragraphs written by a far-from-expert media observer doesn't do it justice. But it's a starter course, at least.
Andy Hart

Like many other readers I am still a little concerned over inside linebacker. I'd love to see [Mike] Vrabel back outside. That leaves Tedy [Bruschi] and [Monty] Beisel inside. Is there any thought/chance that [Dan] Klecko could now be converted to inside linebacker? Is the working on that now?Chris Mooney

I think the time of the Klecko linebacker experiment came and went. I don't think Klecko had either the size, at just 5-11, or athleticism to play the spot. There is a difference between being an athletic nose tackle and being enough of an athlete to play linebacker. He's no longer working at the spot and that tells me he just didn't have what it takes. Sorry to disappoint those who continue to search for the final piece of the Patriots linebacker puzzle, but Klecko just doesn't fit the spot.
Andy Hart

3 undrafted free agents I'm interested in hearing about are Randy Hand, Keon Jackson and Freddie Roach. What do the coaches think of them and will they make the team?
Erik Sivertsen

I think the coaches look at them the same way that fans should – they are young players with talent that over time could develop into enough to contribute on an NFL team. That's why they are getting the chance. But to expect any of them to make the team and contribute to a championship caliber roster as rookies is a bit much. I know Randall Gay and Mike Wright have done that in recent years, but it's still a tall task. Hand is a behemoth of a lineman who could hang around in the o-line development program that has helped so many in New England in recent years (although multiple o-line draft picks over the last two springs has made the competition a bit tougher). But to me the intriguing player is Roach. He was a productive player at Alabama who many expected to get the call on draft weekend. He clearly has the size, 6-2, 248, to play inside in the Pats 3-4. The question is whether he has the speed and athletic ability to play at the NFL level. But with the lack of depth and youth at the inside spot right now, he's a guy to keep an eye on at training camp. His skills don't translate to action in shorts in May, he's the kind of player who won't really have a chance to shine until the pads are on and the full contact banging of the preseason begins. As for Jackson, I'd have to make him a long shot to stick around, although a spot for a safety on the practice squad is always a strong possibility.
Andy Hart

We heard from Matt Light. Ryan Claridge talked to the media. Rodney Harrison has been working out at Gillette. How about an update on Dan Koppen! How's his shoulder healing and will he be ready or close for the start of training camp? Is Dan working out in Foxboro? We all want you back Dan for the start of the season! Dan is the knot in the "center" of the Patriots offensive shoelace! Thanks,Gary Abrams

Koppen has been working out at Gillette, that much we know. While he hasn't had much to say this spring there have been reports that his rehab has been coming along slowly after last season's shoulder surgery. The one thing I do know is that when I saw the immense scar on his shoulder and back in the locker room late last fall it made me think the injury that cost him the second half of the year was more serious than I had first assumed it to be. One thing that could help in Koppen's return is the fact that he was never a player who got by on his size or strength. He relies more on positional blocking and intelligent play than pure line power. That could make for a sooner recovery than other strength-based players might undergo. But until I see him on the practice fields, in pads in contact drills, in my mind he is still a major question mark heading into the new season.
Andy Hart

Hey guys with the Patriots still a little thin at receiver do you think they might try to trade for Ashley Lelie in Denver? If so what do you think in will take to get him? I think he would be perfect number two in BB's system.Gerson Hernandez

Personally I don't have much of an interest in Lelie and I don't think the Patriots do either. First, he's never developed into a top receiver in the league. His best season came in 2004 with 54 catches for 1,084 yards. Admittedly, those are good numbers, and his career 17.9 yards per catch is impressive. He's a big-play guy, but I personally think he's a little soft and isn't an all-around receiver that the Patriots prefer in their system. Add to that the fact that he's been unhappy with his role and is looking to cash in on a new contract as his rookie deal runs out and I think he's more trouble than he's worth. If I could steal him for a later-round pick I'd take the shot, but Denver isn't going to do that. The Broncos want him to play and give the team a strong trio of receivers with Rod Smith and Jevon Walker. Lelie isn't on board with that plan, but the team isn't just going to give in to him and give him away for nothing. The talent is there, but I just think the total package is lacking. I'd rather spend my time developing Chad Jackson and Reche Caldwell.
Andy Hart

I few days ago I read an interview with Bethel Johnson. He described himself as a very hard-worker who has been frustrated to see his playing time erode over the past few seasons. I agree that this might well be the make or break year for Johnson. What is your take on his past fortunes with the Pats? What negative does Bill B see that so often put Johnson on "did not dress" list? Johnson says he studies like crazy and knows the offense well, but my guess is that he is a poor route runner and doesn't read the defenses or make adjustment well. What do you see in your assessment of Johnson over the past few years. Thanks!
Ian Campbell

Johnson has been a complete disappointment over the last three seasons. Even his kick returning has regressed over the years. This could very well be his last chance in New England and he knows it. I do believe his route running is less than spectacular and I don't think he has the greatest hands, either. But we all know he has spectacular speed that makes him a tempting option. The lack of depth at the position should keep him around for another season, but if he doesn't make huge strides in his overall game and as a regular offensive contributor his days will be numbered.
Andy Hart

I do not see why there is all the pessimism. Has anyone seen the Patriots schedule recently? They have 5-6 wins almost immediately locked up in their division and at least three in the NFC north. They only have 4 arguably hard games. The three toughest they have at home against Chicago, Indy and Denver, and they go on the road for Cincinnati. Every good team in the AFC has major questions - Joseph Addai may be good but is he going to be [Eric] Dickerson in his rookie season? And how is Indy's already swiss cheese defense going to be with two key losses? How is Pittsburgh going to replace 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns between [Jerome] Bettis and [Antwan] Randle El? Can [Jake] Plummer have another year like he did (I have doubts)? I don't see why every critic is burying the Pats as the 4th or 5th best team in the AFC.Andrew Green

Two things. First, are you going to pretend the Patriots don't have as many questions as each of the AFC teams you just listed? Who is the fourth linebacker replacing Willie McGinest in the starting lineup? Who is the No. 2 wide receiver? Will Dillon bounce back or will the rookie Maroney have to carry the load? Will Brady stay healthy through an endless pounding yet again? What is the starting secondary going to look like? Who kicks those last-second field goals that the team so often needs? Let's be honest, the Patriots have a ton of questions right now just like almost every other team does. And maybe more importantly, the Patriots have higher standards than most other teams. Winning back-to-back titles and three Super Bowls in five years sets the bar pretty high. Making the playoffs isn't success. Reaching the title game isn't success. Success in New England is about winning rings and nothing else. Expectations are a bit higher when the term dynasty is thrown around.
I agree that the Patriots are the class of the AFC East and should win the division title. But that's not enough. The real question is whether the Patriots can be considered one of the top two or three teams in the game right now, as has been the case for the last few years. I have my doubts. But that could change as training camp plays out, roster spots unfold and the regular season begins. Time will tell how good this group can be, but there is no arguing the high standards it has to live up to if it is going to be considered a success.
Andy Hart

When the "what to do about linebackers" talk comes up, I never hear any mention of moving Monty back outside. Wasn't he primarily an OLB before he came to town? Also, rumor has it that Rodney Harrison has been seen around Gillette without any discernable limp. Have any of you seen him? How did he look? Will you be shot if you reveal this sensitive info? Thanks for helping us all pass the off-season!Jay Johnson

Harrison is rehabbing and coming along well. I have not seen him personally for quite some time, but have heard that there is no limp and that he even makes a joke of asking people to guess which is his bad leg while bouncing from one leg to the other. Only time will tell when Harrison will be ready. Yes, offering any more than that could very well get me shot. You don't want that blood on your hands, do you?
As for Beisel, he was more of an outside guy in Kansas City. He's been transitioning from defensive end to outside linebacker to the inside since he entered the league. Having talked to him this offseason he's added about 10 pounds of muscle and seems entrenched in becoming the best 3-4 inside linebacker that he can be. If that can play out successfully it would allow Vrabel to move back to the outside where he's probably better suited and certainly more of a playmaker. That would probably be the best situation for the defense as it is currently constituted.
Andy Hart

Any word on Ty maybe coming back? What would be the hold up?Wally Skinner

Not much new. There appears to be a legitimate interest on both sides, we'll just have to see how it plays out in the coming weeks leading up to training camp. As for the potential holdup, that's easy. Money. Dinero. Benjamins. Cha-Ching. Green. Dollars.
Andy Hart

I have a few questions, hope u can help. First, in our first Super Bowl year of 2001 Scott McCready played on the team. Since then he has been a reliable receiver in NFL Europe Any chance the Pats will re-sign him as a possible roster spot? Second, watching the draft on espn when [Laurence] Maroney was picked in the first round I heard someone say 'Phony Maroney.' Any idea why this was said? And finally, couldn't [Corey] Dillon's problems last year have something to due with injuries and the o line being shuffled so much and not having the protecting right? Thanks for you input on these questions, appreciate it greatly.Peter Reynolds

I don't think there is a chance the Patriots will re-sign McCready. I don't think he has the speed or athletic ability to be a productive receiver in the NFL. He's had a very nice career playing in Europe and I think that is a strong accomplishment for the English-born player.
I wish I could offer you something on the ESPN Maroney comment, but this is the first I've heard of it. Maybe some of our other emailers heard the comment and could offer some insight or info on it. Maybe it was a joke, something Chris Berman spends most of his time serving up on those types of shows. I don't know, but I do know that Maroney is anything but phony as a football player. Time will tell but he has all the tools to be the real deal for the Patriots for years to come.
As for Dillon, there is a chance that his 2005 struggles were the product of a injuries, both to himself and the offensive line. There is no question that the line play was not overly impressive at times last season. But there is also a chance that Dillon has lost a step and the requisite desire needed to be a bruising NFL back. We'll find out this fall.
Andy Hart

Hello! Of all positions on the roster, I am mostly concerned about Pats secondary. Without Law or Harrison to start the season, I feel that we are again would be holding our breath every time it is 3d and 5. I do not understand, why Patriots did not sign a quality free agent safety. Look what Harrison brought to the team and did not break the bank. Pats current starting safeties are all light and get easily banged up when they pay the run or big TEs. People talked of using Don Davis all year long. He is not a starter, but why couldn't we get a big safety from Chicago or someplace?
Adam V.

Nice to see that even though you've moved on to Indy you are still concerned with your former team, Adam V. That's very professional of you. Anyway, there is little question there are plenty of concerns in the secondary. But I'm not sure safety is the root of the problem. Wilson is entering his fourth season as a starter and should be closer to being ready to take over the leadership role within the group with or without Harrison by his side. The team brought in former starter Tebucky Jones (6-2, 218) to bring some depth to the unit. And there is some hope that second-year player James Sanders, a guy that former Belichick assistant Pat Hill and his staff raved about at Fresno State, could bring depth to the mix if he is completely healthy. While I don't expect Harrison to be ready for the early part of the season, there's also some hope that he will be a solid contributor this season. Are there questions? Sure, but there are with every time right now at a variety of positions. If I had to rank the positions that are the biggest question marks in New England right now I would, at the very least, put linebacker and wide receiver higher on the list. Then I'd add cornerback, safety and maybe even running back to the mix. All are spots where playing time for different players and potential production remain very much up in the air. And I definitely think the secondary would be greatly improved with the addition of a top-flight cover corner like Law. The domino effect could be huge.
Andy Hart

I know Tom Curran shares my view that Monty Biesel improved his play as the year went along. I think he is a viable candidate for starting ILB. My question is: do you have stats on the no. of plays he was on the field after Teddy was activated? I would like to see if he was used more for 1st and 2nd down or 3rd down to see if BB thought he was better at the pass or run. My own opinion is based on memory and it's not very good, but I think he is not very good as a run stopper, but is OK against the pass. So we need a run stuffing ILB.Bruce Manchester

I don't have access to those stats, but I would tend to go the other way in assessing Beisel's skills. I think he was used on earlier downs later in the year as Chad Brown came in as an extra pass rusher at times in sub sets. I do think that Beisel was a little better later in the year and is a legit option to play next to Bruschi in 2006. I have said all along that there is a big difference between trying to come in and replace Bruschi (and Ted Johnson as well) and trying to play alongside him. Beisel and Brown had huge shoes to fill a year ago and unrealistic expectations placed on them. Brown didn't survive, but Beisel is back for another go at life in the complex New England defense and I think he has something to offer the team in his second season in the scheme. As of today I pencil him in as my opening day starter with Colvin, Bruschi and Vrabel as the Patriots linebackers. I think he could open some eyes after a tough first impression with the New England faithful.
Andy Hart

There's been a lot of talk about the possibility of bringing in a veteran linebacker, either Donnie Edwards or Jamie Sharper, who are both good possibilities. However, there's one other free agent linebacker who hasn't been mentioned, who is the only other available starting caliber linebacker, and that's Chris Claiborne of the Rams, who's only 27. Is everyone else missing something or is there something about Chris Claiborne that I'm missing?
Robbie Mitchnick

As the former president of the Claiborne fan club I understand how he can entice a fan with is potential. Claiborne is a superb athlete who has never lived up to his athletic potential or draft pick. He doesn't fit well within complex, restrictive scheme and I don't think he fits in New England. There is a reason he bounced to a couple different teams over the last couple years. He's just not that good and doesn't fit in very well on many defenses. He's another story of unfulfilled talent. Sad but true. He'll end up in camp with some team, but there is a reason teams aren't beating down his free agent door. That ship has passed.
Andy Hart

I have been reading your speculations about who'll play LB for the Pats this year. Have not once seen Chad Brown's name. (Not a great loss, but I am curious). What happened to him? On the site he is still listed as a Patriot, but he doesn't figure in any of your discussions. Did he retire? Get canned? Go elsewhere? Tnx for the info.
Miranda Good

The Patriots released Brown on March 13. His only season in New England was a total disappointment. He struggled to work his way into the scheme and had little success in his somewhat limited playing time, although he handled the situation like a true professional. I have not seen his name on the transaction wire so I believe he remains on the open market. After 13 seasons in the league his career may have come to an end.
Andy Hart

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