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Ask PFW: Early-camp Q&A

This week’s Ask PFW mailbag has plenty of roster-related questions in the midst of the first week of training camp 2018 in New England.


Are you as worried as me about the contract situation at the end of this season? Most of the receivers, both starting defensive tackles, the main pass rusher, the top guard, the possible No. 2 and 3 corners and I think even the kicker? With the policy of not paying top dollar for free agents, it's going to have to be one incredible draft!

Len Carmody

I am not overly worried. Not to sound too much like Bill Belichick or one of his players, but roster turnover is a natural part of each offseason in the NFL. Just months ago key cogs Nate Solder, Malcolm Butler, Dion Lewis and Danny Amendola departed via free agency. Yet, the Patriots remain the favorite for Super Bowl LIII, at least in small part due to their own additions via free agency and trade. You are right, there will be plenty of notable free agents this coming offseason. Some are certainly likely to depart. Guys like Shaq Mason and Trey Flowers could find nice pay days in free agency and depart. Others might re-sign before it reaches that point. It's the business of the NFL. And I would argue against the so-called policy of not paying top dollar for free agents. Stephon Gilmore would certainly seem to fly counter to that idea. Next spring doesn't look any different to me than many offseasons, certainly it doesn't have the potential for as many key losses as this year when New England had two starters leave for $60 million contracts.

Andy Hart

I think the Pats should take a chance on Dez Bryant. Great hands like Gronk. Big frame. Still has some speed. What do you think?

Joe Maffei

Prior the last few days I was all for the Patriots at least kicking the tires on the former Cowboys star. But Bryant's recent flurry of Twitter activity criticizing his former home and teammates has me thinking he might be more trouble than he's worth at this point. I also have some doubts as to what he has left in the tank and what he thinks he has left in the tank. If he still thinks he's a star playmaker that might be a problem. The reality is that he's not. I am worried about the talent and depth the Patriots have at the receiver position, but Bryant may not be the most palatable answer right now for a lot of reasons.

Andy Hart

I hope Andy gets this question, because he will likely rip me a new one, but here it goes. If Brady has 3 years left finishing his career after the 2020 season, then the roster needs to start getting heavy on defense, particularly pass rush. Wouldn't it be smart to get some value for Gronk? I understand he's a tight end the likes of which we may never see again in the league, but he's also our most valuable trade commodity. Brady can make it without him, although the offense is absolutely less dynamic, the offense can still be productive with a lesser TE circa 2016 SB against the Falcons.

Matt Not Smith

Oh you got Andy and the ripping shall commence. So you want to prepare for the post-Brady era by ruining the end of the Brady era by trading easily his most dominant important weapon? Seems liked an inherently flawed plan to me. The Patriots got in position for last year's Super Bowl in large part thanks to Gronkowski. I'd urge you to go back and watch the end of the Steelers game. Gronkowski also looked pretty good in the Super Bowl with nine catches for 116 yards and two scores. If only he could play defense!!!!???? Remember when Brady said it was, "a miracle" the team won the AFC title without big No. 87? Do you want TB12 to have to pull off miracles every game moving forward? I don't. I want to see the greatest quarterback in the history of the game continue to throw to the greatest tight end in the history of the game as often as possible for as long as possible. Maybe that's just me.

Andy Hart

With hardly any backup to Gronk to speak of, why don't we bring in the future HOFer Antonio Gates for a look? Also, with need at WR, why not give Dez Bryant a shot? We could give have him an incentive-heavy deal and add a stud WR instantly! He's been mainly an outside receiver but imagine if he would transition to slot like Larry Fitzgerald did? Dez could extend his career with a move to slot in my opinion. Granted his biggest issues are himself & losing a step speed wise, but he'd still be better than anyone on our roster right now. Finally, give Seattle a call & see what it will take to get Earl Thomas, he'd be a major upgrade in our secondary. McCourty, Chung & Thomas could be one of the best in the NFL. What do you think it will take to trade for Thomas? A 2nd Rd draft pick? Looking forward to a new season & thanks guys for all your hard work!!

Michael Montrond

Last things first, I am also looking forward to a new season. One way or the other, it should be fun. I addressed the Bryant portion of this question in a previous answer, but sort of agree that if he was willing to change his game and maybe humble himself in the slot it could extend his career. I'm just a bit doubtful of his willingness to do that. Gates is not really what I'm looking for at this point either. I think he's well past his contributing days. Heck, the Chargers lost their young star tight end and have yet to sign Gates. Thomas would be the player in the trio that I'd most be interested in, but it's not just about trading for him you would then have to give him the new contract that he covets. New England already has more than enough money invested at the safety position.

Andy Hart

I wanted to get your thoughts on Pats running back situation. I would love to see Ralph Webb make the team. He is much younger and more athletic than both Gillislee & Hill. I think Burkhead, Michel, White, Webb & Bolden would be a great group of running backs!

Matt Bengle

The running back competition is pretty strong this summer. I think White, Burkhead and Michel are all locks for the roster if healthy. Even with his special teams prowess and how much the organization likes him, Bolden may be in trouble. He was cut last year before being brought back. I think Hill, Gillislee and Webb may be fighting for one spot. If I had to pick one of them right now I would go with Hill, who might be trying to have a LeGarrette Blount-like rebirth in New England following a similar career path. He was a 1,000-yard rookie whose production fell the next two years as he fell out of favor in Cincy. But he's never failed to find the end zone and could be the big back Belichick likes to have on the roster. Webb has been impressive in the early going. He had a nice career in the SEC for Vanderbilt and his future will depend on his work in preseason action. He has a chance but I wouldn't call him a likely candidate for the roster just yet. I also wouldn't rule out five running backs making the roster at the cost of another position, like maybe receiver.

Andy Hart

Hello I'm a huge Pats fan in Dallas. I've been a Pats fan since they drafted Drew Bledsoe in 93. My question is this, is anyone else getting tired of Tom and Gronk and their attitudes? Cause I am tired of their act...

Drew Hanks

There is no doubt this was a little bit of a different offseason for the quarterback and his top target. But I don't get the sense from many fans that they are "tired of" Brady and Gronkowski. I think more fans are understanding of the fact that the aging veterans are dealing with the rigors of the game as well as outside commitments. Things can't stay the same forever. Priorities change. That doesn't mean the two can't still be the foundation of an elite offense working together. I think most fans – and I'd put myself in this category – are thankful that Brady and Gronkowksi are back to work in New England. Enjoy their talents as long as you can, because sometime in the not-too-distant future you will no longer have that chance.

Andy Hart

I don't, and I know you guys don't, like to project players out of position, but if Jason McCourty isn't necessarily projecting as a top option at cornerback, could he potentially make the same switch his brother did into a coverage safety role? That would provide much need depth in the safety corps, albeit take away from CB depth.

Nate Ellsworth

Boy that's a lot of thoughts, and commas, in one question. Could McCourty transition to a free safety role? Probably. But is that going to happen or really what's needed for New England? I'm not so sure. With Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon that role has more depth than the strong safety job that includes Patrick Chung and little proven depth otherwise. Devin McCourty could play a little more near the line with Harmon deep, but we'll see. Right now McCourty is fighting for a role and a job at cornerback, working opposite undrafted rookie JC Jackson with second unit in most drills. I won't rule out McCourty taking reps at safety out of need or if he's deemed to have lost the ability to play cornerback, but I think if he still has anything left in the tank he brings far more value at cornerback.

Andy Hart

Over the years it's been hard to identify one RB who stands out in the Pats backfield! Given that B.B drafted Sony Michel in the first round is it fair to say we should see a lot of him this upcoming season?

Jacob Horton

Certainly the hope is that you see a lot of any player drafted in the first round, save maybe for a quarterback who needs time to develop in the background. Early in camp it clearly looks like the Patriots are investing a lot of time and energy in trying to get Michel ready for a big role in his rookie season. He still has a lot to prove, though. There will be hurdles in terms of pass protection. He also needs to continue to improve with his ball security, something that's been a minor issue early in camp. The last time Belichick's Patriots drafted a running back in the first round, Laurence Maroney rushed for 745 yards on 175 attempts (4.3 avg.) with six touchdowns while sharing the load with Corey Dillon in 2006. He also caught 22 passes with one touchdown. With Dion Lewis having moved on to Tennessee and given Rex Burkhead's need to prove he can stay healthy, Michel should have a chance for similar production or even more than that. Still, he must prove his worth and find his niche with Burkhead and James White as more-established options. Given what I've seen so far, though, I wouldn't bet against him doing just that. He's an impressive youngster.

Andy Hart

Guys! Many fans and some players have gone on ad nauseam about the potential impact of Malcom Butler in the Super Bowl loss to the Eagles. Sometimes it only takes one play to make the difference in a close game. To me, the most impactful player in the previous two Super Bowl victories was Dont'a Hightower with the tackle of Marshawn Lynch and the strip sack of Matt Ryan. That said, what type of an impact do you feel a healthy Hightower will have in 2018 with the defense along with his new cast of teammates? Thank you.

Jeff Burke

If Hightower can keep his "a$$" on the field as he put it, that would be a huge first step toward an improved Patriots defense this fall. The Pro Bowl linebacker is impactful in his leadership, communication and most importantly his versatile abilities. He can be a run stuffer. He can cover. He can rush off the edge. He has a knack for playmaking. His availability also lets other players like Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts slide into roles they are more suited for and comfortable filling. Hightower's presence can't be overvalued. Now he just needs to prove he can stay healthy and stay on the field, especially when the season is on the line late in the year and into the postseason.

Andy Hart

What are your predictions for John Atkins?

Delia Senecal

To be honest, at this point I don't really have any. The undrafted rookie defensive tackle out of Georgia hasn't gotten any notable or high-end reps yet in camp. He will be a guy to keep an eye on in the second half of preseason games. He faces a lot of veteran competition on the defensive line. With Malcom Brown, Danny Shelton, Lawrence Guy, Vincent Valentine and Adam Butler there is a big group of big bodies ahead of Atkins on the depth chart. While it's too early to rule anything out, at this early point it looks like a spot on the practice squad might be a best-case scenario.

Andy Hart

First time writing in, been fan for years now, got 2 questions for you. 1) Besides Gronk, who do you see as being the Pats No. 2 and 3 tight ends going into the season? There's a few intriguing options from Niklas, and Hollister, and Allen? Or do you do you see them trading for another tight end??
2) Stephon Gilmore is easily the Pats best cornerback and should easily be their No. 1 corner. After him, there really isn't any definite answer. There's Rowe, McCourty, and Dawson etc.. Who do you see being on the roster at cornerback when the first game of the season comes?? Thank you, and keep up the great work!!

Jason Bilodeau

While I came into training camp thinking that the tight end spot was wide open behind Gronkowski, the first few days have made it seem like a much more simple depth chart to figure out. Niklas was cut a couple days into camp. Jacob Hollister has gotten a ton of high level reps and high praise from Belichick. And Dwayne Allen looks like an almost different player than the guy that struggled last summer and throughout much of the season. Right now it's hard to envision anything other than Gronkowski, Allen and Hollister filling out the depth chart to start the year, as they did a year ago. Things at cornerback remain a bit more muddied. Gilmore is the No. 1 guy and has been one of the best players at any position through the first five days of training camp. More often than not he's take reps with Eric Rowe on the other side of the ball and rookie second-round pick Duke Dawson in the slot. The second group has mostly included undrafted rookie JC Jackson and Jason McCourty. It's too early, but it would seem those five guys have the inside track at roster spots. But returning practice squadder Ryan Lewis and late-round rookie Keion Crossen also appear to be in the mix, although the latter has missed the last couple practices. It also depends on if/when Cyrus and Jonathan Jones get on the field as both have opened camp on PUP, meaning they are at least candidates to open the regular season on PUP as well. Still, right now I'll project that Gilmore, Rowe, Dawson, McCourty and Jackson make the roster. But McCourty could be a name to keep in mind as sleeper as a surprise cut depending on how things play out in the coming weeks.

Andy Hart

I am puzzled by some of the harsher criticism I have read about 7*th*-round pick Danny Etling. If I remember what read last spring, when Etling was at LSU, wasn't he in 4-different offensive systems during his college career? What I see is a good sized athlete, with a strong arm and solid athleticism who just needs to have some continuity along with some excellent coaching which he will definitely get with the Pats. Maybe I am naive, but I think he has the potential to be an absolute steal if he can pick up the Pats offense fast enough and carve out a roster spot. Can you please weigh in on what I think is premature criticism without seeing what this kid can do with a full professional training camp under his belt?

Chip Huckins

I have not been overly impressed with Etling's work through the first five days of his first NFL training camp. I also have not seen a lot of harsh criticism of the seventh-round QB. He obviously faces long odds. He has some raw potential. He has a long way to go. If I had to bet right now I would say he will not be "an absolute steal." But he will get the opportunity to learn and prove himself. That's the beauty of sports. It's a production-based business. What the rest of us think, say or right is pretty much irrelevant.

Andy Hart

With all the defensive hype of getting better under Flores, is it possible that he becomes the next Patriots head coach over McDaniels? I love McDaniels and think he'd be great, but the Cardinals obviously saw something in Flores enough to interview him.

Jason Bickel

I really like Brian Flores and think he will do a really good job with his increased duties on defense. He seems to have the respect and support of everyone in the organization. That said, I thought Hightower's comments regarding Flores' teaching style and what it meant at this point were a little overzealous. The defense hadn't even put pads on when he made those comments. Preseason games, game plans, adjustments and everything that will go into his role are still weeks and months away. Like Matt Patricia before him, Flores will have to prove himself and I think he will succeed in doing just that. I'm just going to let it play itself out. As for his future, I do think he has head coach potential. My guess is that McDaniels is still the guy in New England, but Flores will get his chance somewhere. And the early interview with Arizona will do nothing but help him moving forward both in terms of his reputation in the league as well as for his own experience.

Andy Hart

Patriotic Salutations from Lisbon! No, not Lisbon, ME, or Lisbon, OH, or the 35 other towns called Lisbon across the US. It's actually from Lisbon, Portugal! My question this week is related to the method teams take to study their opponents' strategies and schemes this time of the year and a bit later on until the first couple weeks of the regular season. Do teams just kind of not give too much relevance to film from the year before, given that it's information that might be a bit old and the teams players and coaches might not be quite the same, or do they actually take time to study the games from the year before because there's no recent game information from that opponent?
Also, Bonus question: Any chance Isaiah Wynn beats out Joe Thuney for the RG spot this proving his value as a first-round pick given that it seems Trent Brown has the LT spot? Thanks to everybody again at PFW! Can't wait for football!

Hugo Ramos

Teams use all sorts of video to prepare for opponents. That can be games from last year or previous years. If there is a coach change – whether it be a head coach or coordinator – they will sometimes watch film from that new coach's previous team. As the new season wears on the focus turns to games from this year because it's the most relevant given the personnel and current factors, but teams will still often look back to get as much information as possible. While I have not completely awarded Brown the left tackle job, it does look like he's the early favorite at this point given the practice reps we've seen through the first five days of camp. If that happens, I think Wynn will be given a chance to play somewhere as a rookie. That could be fighting for Thuney's left guard spot. It could be rotational reps at either tackle or guard and could certainly include reps as an extra tight end. If he does somehow take the left guard spot that might leave Thuney in line to compete with David Andrews at center. Of course a lot can happen both in terms of competition and injuries between now and the season opener as well as after that as the long season plays out. Sometimes these things almost take care of themselves. But it's better to have more guys with high-level talent competing for playing time. That's never a bad thing.

Andy Hart

There are some salaries being paid that were unthinkable just a few years back. What I'm wondering is this: is there really enough money available - i.e. has the salary cap gone up enough - for everyone to get paid? Or is this a case of paying the elite players at the expense of everyone else?


There is really that much money. The salary cap has gone up about $10 million a year since the new system was put in place following the 2011 lockout. This year the NFL has a cap of nearly $178 million. The funny thing that is that salaries of the truly elite players haven't exploded as much as it's been the money paid out to good/really good players. Look at the deals for guys like Nate Solder or Malcolm Butler this offseason. They each got $60 million, but would never be considered the best in the league at their position. The wide receiver money is crazy. Brandin Cooks got $80-plus million despite being traded twice in the last year-plus. There are a lot of guys making a lot of money in the NFL. In my opinion some of the truly elite players are actually underpaid in the current economic landscape.

Andy Hart

There is a good chance that if healthy Slater, Bolden, King, and Ebner will make the final roster and only play on special teams. Other players with more potential to contribute now and in the future on offense or defense will be cut. Is special teams so challenging that these players couldn't be trained and developed to contribute blocking and tackling on special teams? Roster spots are valuable. Depth is crucial when injuries strike. Why are these one-dimensional veterans valued so highly, so much so that they are almost guaranteed their places on the roster?

Harry Kimball

First I'd say that Bolden may not be quite as secure in his slot as the other players, but your larger point is noted. Belichick puts as much emphasis – as well as roster spots and money – on the kicking game as just about any coach in the league. Surely the ideal would be to have elite special teams players who are also options on offense/defense. But when that hasn't panned out, he's been willing to hold jobs for these guys. The Patriots have often had one of the better, more consistent special teams units over the years so it is hard to argue with his strategy in this area. It will be interesting to see if the new rules on kickoffs/kickoff returns in any way alter or devalue the role of these special teamers. We could see changes in the way these guys are looking at if that play is rendered less competitive. It's something we'll have to watch for in the coming years. For now, though, I expect Belichick to continue to value core special teamers more than many teams and more than many fans. I'd argue that his track record speaks for itself.

Andy Hart

Any information about whether Cyrus Jones is progressing?

Jack Mortell

Unfortunately, I do not have much to offer. Jones is on PUP to open camp as he works back from last August's torn ACL. I do find it interesting and maybe even a little concerning that Jones opened camp on PUP while Derek Rivers and Julian Edelman seem to be a full-go right now after also tearing their ACLs last August. I think Jones needs to prove himself as both a punt returner and a slot corner if he's going to stick around. The longer he misses the less time he has to do that, unless he ends up opening the year on PUP, too.

Andy Hart

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