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Ask PFW: Debating the Defense

Going into the AFC Championship Game, how does the Patriots defense compare to their defense at this time one year ago (in your opinion)? Thanks.

Greg Beane*

I'll start with the obvious: it's more banged up. Health was a major factor in New England advancing to and ultimately winning Super Bowl XLIX. This year's squad has several significant players who've been dealing with injuries, notably linebackers Jamie Collins (back), Dont'a Hightower (left knee), and Jerod Mayo (shoulder), plus defensive end Chandler Jones (abdomen, toe, right knee). Co-captain Rob Ninkovich has also been playing on a gimpy left shin.

Despite this, though, the front seven is more effective at pressuring and getting to the quarterback than it was last year. The emergence of rookie DT Malcom Brown and veteran DT Akiem Hicks have been positive developments. And while second-year cornerback Malcolm Butler earned a Pro Bowl honor, the losses of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Kyle Arrington were significant. So, while the front seven may have improved, in spite of losing DT Vince Wilfork, the secondary is not quite as strong, but it has done a better job than many of us expected.

Comparing last year to this year is virtually a wash, but I'm more concerned this year mainly because of the injury situation. 

Erik Scalavino*

Why does everyone constantly praise Malcolm Butler and constantly tear down Logan Ryan? They both have had growing pains as full time starters, but I think they are on the same exact level. Please give my guy Logan some love. 

Josh Davis*

It comes down to expectations, Josh. Remember, Ryan was a third-round draft choice, while Butler made the team as a try-out player, which is one rung below undrafted free agent. When a guy starts from that far down and ends up making one of the biggest plays in Super Bowl history, then follows it up with a Pro Bowl selection, that's sure to draw plaudits from most people. Conversely, when you're a high draft pick like Ryan and show inconsistency, you're going to face intense criticism.

Butler might not be quite ready to consider himself a Pro Bowl-caliber player, but he has shown steady growth from last year to this and over the course of this season. Ryan has had his struggles, but he's played far better than I expected out of him heading into this season. That said, cornerback remains a position that the Patriots should target for an upgrade this offseason. 

Erik Scalavino*

One reason I think the Patriots had so many injuries was because of how soon we had our bye week. I think there should be just two bye weeks in the middle of the season. One week the entire AFC should be off the other week the entire NFC should be off. What do you guys think? 

Mark Bushnell*

First, I disagree with your premise, Mark. An early bye week might make for more fatigued players at the end of a season, but it has little to do with the injuries suffered by most players. Their injuries, by and large, could not have been prevented had the bye week fallen around Week 8, 9, or 10, as opposed to Week 4. A helmet slamming into a knee or an entire opponent's body falling on and breaking a foot would still cause the same degree of pain and suffering regardless of when a player incurs them.

Secondly, from a practical standpoint, your idea would not be feasible. A weekend rarely goes by in the NFL without at least some inter-conference matchups, meaning the likelihood of having all NFC teams playing one another one week and all AFC teams playing each other the next is virtually impossible logistically. And even if it could be worked out, it wouldn't have any impact on the number of injuries sustained.   

Erik Scalavino*

Do you think the Patriots regret trading Logan Mankins? In the trade we received Tim Wright who did very little (not even with the team this year), and late mid round draft pick. Offensive line injuries aside, I still think this was bad trade, and other than some cap space, we got little value in return. Would love to see Mr. Dependable back anchoring the O-Line again, and bringing his nasty tone setting attitude with him. Our O line could use more of that punch you in the face swagger. Thanks. 

Jeff Cabral*

Probably. Mankins was still playing a at a reasonably high level and was probably the team's best and most versatile o-lineman, not to mention its most senior and respected. His unexpected departure put the offensive line in a tailspin from which they nearly didn't recover. Wright, as you mentioned, was one-and-done here in New England, and his contributions were limited. Certainly, this o-line would have benefitted from having Mankins a part of it the past two seasons, but given how far the Patriots advanced without him, his loss is probably not keeping too many folks here up at night. 

Erik Scalavino*

I had a question on the coaching carousel. There were rumors of teams trading a 2nd-round pick to acquire Saints head coach Sean Payton. I was wondering, if teams wanted [Patriots OC Josh] McDaniels or [Patriots DC Matt] Patricia, do they have to trade for them or not if it's a promotion to a HC gig?  If another team wanted McDaniels to be their OC (not that he'd make a lateral love) would they need to trade picks?

Justin Jacobek*

It's an interesting and relevant question. According to the NFL office in New York, head coaches and higher-level club employees (GMs, presidents, etc.) can be traded, but it's not exactly like trading for a player, in which case the team getting the player must pick up the contract from the previous club.

The two clubs involved in a trade for a coach must first work out equitable compensation agreements that can include draft choices and/or cash. Once that happens, the team released the coach from his contract and he is then free to work out a deal with the other club.

This is not applicable to coordinators and assistant coaches. They are free to accept offers (typically for promotion) from other teams without their current team receiving compensation for their departure.

Incidentally, the last time an NFL head coach was traded was in 2002, when Oakland shipped Jon Gruden to Tampa Bay for several draft choices and cash. When Jim Harbaugh was still coaching the San Francisco 49ers in 2014, he was rumored to be on the trading block for a time (Cleveland was reportedly interested in dealing for him), but no such transaction ever came to fruition. 

Erik Scalavino*

How does the committee come up with the players who are considered as nominees to Patriot Hall of Fame at Gillette?

Susan Viera*

Honestly, Susan, this is a better question for my colleague Paul Perillo, who sits on the aforementioned committee and can give you a more detailed answer. In general, however, the process is one in which committee members submit names of players who are eligible based on the induction criteria. A debate then ensues regarding that player's merits, and eventually, three candidates are typically agreed upon. Those names are then put to a vote by fans, who can cast their ballots on patriots.com, with the player getting the most votes being named that year's inductee. A "senior" player is also given consideration by the committee and included in that year's ceremony without the need to put his nomination to a fan vote. 

Erik Scalavino*

Hi guys, love the work you do. I keep hearing about how Gostkowski's consecutive PAT record will never be broken now the NFL has extended the kick distance. I was wondering when (or if) Gostkowski has ever missed any kick (FG or PAT) under the current PAT distance of 33 yards. He is so metronomic it feels like he will keep knocking them through until he decides to retire!

Simon Davies*

Gostkowski certainly is one of the league's best kickers, but he's not perfect. In fact, he has missed or had blocked kicks from 33 yards or shorter in his NFL career. As a rookie in 2006, he failed on one extra point in the regular season finale at Tennessee. He also missed a 33-yard field goal in that game. He had an unsuccessful 32-yarder the next season against Philadelphia, misses from 27 and 26 yards the following season in 2008, and a 27-yard miss against the Giants in the 2011 regular season.

It's rare for him to be off the mark from 33 yards or less, but you're right. For the most part, Gostkowski is as clutch a kicker as you could hope to find. 

Erik Scalavino*

Big Patriots fan from Germany. I would like to know when the schedule for the 2016 will be available. I want to visit Boston in November and would like to see my favorite team live at Gillette Stadium. Therefore I like to know when the Patriots have their home games. 

Peter Friedrich*

You'll have to wait until mid-to-late April to book your flights and hotel, Peter. That's the traditional time frame for the NFL to release its complete season schedule. 

Erik Scalavino*

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