The following is the first installment of our weekly "Ask PFW" mailbag. We had an overwhelming response so we included just a sampling of this week's questions.
Will the Patriots be a good team in the AFC and make the playoffs?
The Patriots have an excellent chance of making the postseason in 2003. They've made significant improvements on defense by adding Rosevelt Colvin, Rodney Harrison, Tyrone Poole and drafting the likes of Ty Warren and Eugene Wilson. The offense should improve through the development of second-year players Deion Branch and Daniel Graham. If the team can avoid the injury bug (at least to some extent), it should be able to return to the postseason.
Why didn't the Patriots go after a running back in the draft to force Antowain Smith to perform? There were a lot of choices that could have been made which would have upgraded the running back position like Musa Smith from Georgia with the Bulldogs sending many successful runners to the pros. Don't you think he would have been an excellent choice? I saw him play in the Sugar Bowl and he is going to be an awesome back.
Lake Park, Ga.
I do wish that Bill Belichick could have found a way to apply more pressure to Antowain Smith by drafting a big-time back. The problem is there really weren't many options. Larry Johnson was available but I'm not convinced he was a first-round back. Musa Smith is an intriguing guy if only for the reasons you mentioned – Georgia backs have produced. Lee Suggs? Onterrio Smith? I'm not sure they were capable of replacing Antowain. Willis McGahee would have been interesting, but his health problems eliminated him from this year's equation.
What do you think the Patriots will have to do to make another Super Bowl run? Also, what role will Troy Brown play in the 2003 season?
I can answer those questions together: Troy will need to play a major role if the first part has any chance of happening. Right now, I think the Patriots are a playoff team but not Super Bowl caliber. I think they still lack some weapons on offense and the offensive line needs to show consistency in the running game. But Brown will be a big part of the offense.
You recently talked about the differences between the 3-4 and 4-3 defense and some of the reasons for the Pats transition. One point that was made was that it was largely a personnel decision and that they want the best players on the field. With Colvin added to the mix, they definitely have more talent at linebacker than line. An advantage of the 3-4 used to be its rarity in the NFL. Two years ago, only the Pats and the Steelers employed a 3-4, so offenses were less used to seeing it. Now that Atlanta, Houston and Baltimore are also playing it, that advantage is less of a factor. On face value, the difference between the two defenses can be summed up as 60-80 pounds, due to the swapping of a down lineman for a linebacker. But with that trade-off comes the addition of greater speed and athleticism especially in outside pursuit. Because there are three lineman, stopping the INSIDE run could be a weakness, ESPECIALLY without a strong nose-tackle. But with two OLBs, stopping the outside run could be a strength. I think that the Pats run-stopping problems last season were more noticeable on the outside runs, (off tackle and sweeps). The second Miami game comes to mind. Do you think that the Pats 3-4 base will successfully shore up the outside run? And could this be at the expense of inside run stopping?
Great job as always.
San Mateo, Calif.
I really don't think the novelty of playing a 3-4 means much to Bill Belichick. If he thought it wasn't the best option, he wouldn't use it because not many others do. Your point about the speed and athleticism is right on. Adding Rosevelt Colvin to the mix is key. He needs to be the playmaker they believe he can be. If that happens, the 3-4 will work well. The nose tackle situation is definitely a concern but count me in the camp that believes it to be a bit smaller than most. Someone – be it Jarvis Green, Ty Warren or Dan Klecko – will start and perform adequately. The 3-4 defense is suited to stop the run, period. Not just outside or inside. We all remember last season and the frustrations of watching teams hammer down the Patriots throats. That can't happen again.
Do you think the Pats defense will adapt quickly to the 3 4 alignment vs. the 4-3?
Since they've played plenty of 3-4 since Belichick came in 2000, I don't think it will be much of a transition. Most of the players are familiar with the schemes and the Patriots will most certainly use a flexible system throughout the year.
With so many draft choices next year why can't we use some of them now to get a running back?
Palm Bay, Fla.
Assuming you mean trading for an available back now, who's out there that's worth trading for? Nobody currently available would represent an upgrade over the cast currently on the roster. I'd sit tight.
I would like to know if the Patriots are committed to a running game this year and if so how, when last year it was almost worthless?
They better make more of commitment to it this year than they did in 2002. The offensive line never came together like it did down the stretch in 2001 and the Patriots will need that to happen for things to change. And Antowain Smith needs to return to the no-nonsense style that suits him best. If those things happen, the Patriots can run the ball effectively.
Do you think that there is any chance that Antwoine Womack or Michael Cloud can beat out Antowain Smith for the starting tailback job or is this a long shot?
A chance? Yes. A long shot? Definitely yes. Cloud has to sit out four games because of his suspension, so that makes his task almost impossible. Womack is coming off knee surgery and has yet to suit out for a preseason game let alone the real thing. Both have some talent but envisioning them beating out Smith is tough to do.
Do you guys have any idea if things can be worked out contract-wise with Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy? If they don't restructure, their cap hits next year are too big.
This will be one of the big issues come next offseason. Both caps numbers are getting awfully high and it's not out the realm of possibility that one or both won't be around next season. Law has indicated in the past that he wouldn't be receptive to taking a pay cut but restructurings don't necessarily have to mean taking less. In fact, they oftentimes lead to better situations for the player. One thing seems to be certain: Both will need to have some work done to their deals to stay around.
As an Oklahoma University fan, I got to see Kliff Kingsbury play a lot and he always impressed me. What are his chances of making the team?
Oklahoma City, Okla.
Kliff Kingsbury will get every opportunity to make the team in training camp. Belichick has proven in the past that he's not afraid to be unconventional when it comes to roster breakdown. He kept four quarterbacks in 2000 by keeping both Michael Bishop and Tom Brady. If Kingsbury deserves to stay around, he will.
Overall I thought the Patriots did an admirable job in the recent draft, however a couple of upsetting developments occurred. First, Taylor Jacobs was drafted No. 44, would N.E. have taken him if available over Bethel Johnson at 45? Second, Ian Scott (also a potential nose tackle) was taken at No. 116, would N.E. have selected him over the undersized Dan Klecko at 117? And lastly, Jimmy Kennedy dropped until No. 12. Would N.E. have taken him at 13 if the Bears didn't want him and still made the trade?
Getting Belichick to answer a hypothetical question is even tougher than getting him to answer an actual one. In other words … I don't know. Belichick did mention before the draft that Kennedy wasn't necessarily in the mold of two-gapping defensive tackles the Patriots look for, so maybe they still wouldn't have taken him even if he were available. My personal feeling is that they would have given the fact he was rated ahead of Ty Warren by most scouts. But how the Patriots had him rated on their board is the key and that information simply isn't available.
I was wondering if you could tell me whether Rosevelt Colvin will be playing the OLB position over the TE or will he be on the weak side of the formation? It seems to me that he might get a better pass rush coming from the weak side.
Colvin will play all over. In Chicago, he played the strong side on running downs and rushed on passing downs. I'd expect Belichick and Romeo Crennel to find the best matchups possible to exploit his speed advantage, especially in pass rushing situations.
Why did we come out passing last year? Was it because the offensive line cannot run block?
I think the biggest reason for the pass-happy attack last year was the element of surprise. At the start of the season, no one expected Tom Brady to be chucking the ball 25 straight plays on opening night. When the approach worked so well (115 points in the first three games) they stuck with it. Unfortunately, they continued to use it even after teams adjusted and the offense became stagnant. The big question now is what adjustments have the Patriots made to overcome that.
I've heard that Mike Shanahan is a great developer of quarterbacks, but the only great quarterback that's ever been associated with him is John Elway and he was great before Shanahan ever arrived on the scene. Please comment.
I think Shanahan is known more as a good football coach rather than just a good developer of quarterbacks, but your point about Elway isn't entirely true. Shanahan was the Broncos offensive coordinator from 1985-87, Years 3-5 for Elway (he also was Denver's receivers coach in 1984). Those are a quarterback's formative years and Shanahan obviously was a part of that development. Also, he was offensive coordinator for some pretty good passing attacks in San Francisco from 1992-94 when Steve Young was emerging as one of the best in the game.
Why is everyone making such a big stink about needing a nose tackle? If need be you have Richard Seymour and Ty Warren who can both play the position, put either at the nose then swap out Willie McGinest, Anthony Pleasant and/or Bobby Hamilton at end. My true concern is at tailback.
I somewhat agree with you're nose tackle viewpoint. I also don't believe it to be huge problem many others see. But I don't want to see Seymour have to move back inside. He's best suited as a 3-4 end and I feel he can make his greatest impact from that position. But someone will emerge as the starter at nose and by midseason it will no longer be a cause for concern.
I love Otis Smith, he is one of the best corners to ever play in the NFL, but he is getting a little slower. He was beaten a few times last year on plays that changed the outcome of the game. Do we need a faster corner for the other side of Ty Law to run the 3-4 defense?
I'm not sure the 3-4 defense puts any more pressure on cornerbacks than the 4-3, but the Patriots would do well to find Smith's replacement this season. He's still a solid veteran corner but at 37 his career is winding down. Hopefully Eugene Wilson or Asante Samuel will prove worthy of the job by the start of 2004.
What are the chances that Dan Klecko wins the nose tackle job? He really reminds me of a younger Tim Goad – which is a good thing.
Many people have made the Goad comparison, including Belichick on draft day. Klecko looks like a high-motor player with plenty of speed. If those skills are enough for him to overcome his lack of size, he'll be able to compete for the starting job. I don't think that will happen this year, but I do expect him to see 10-15 snaps a game as part of the defensive line rotation.
My concern is the running back position. Why doesn't Kevin Faulk get a shot at being an every down back? There are several backs the same size and stature that produce a productive ground attack for their team? I also feel J.R. Redmond was never given a reasonable chance to compete at running back. Antowain Smith is a big back and bruising, straight-forward runner but during lapses has not been pulled for a fresher body?
Faulk has shown that he can be effective in spots. When he's been asked to carry the load, he's failed. There may be some guys similar to him in stature that produce (Oakland's Charlie Garner comes to mind) but not many that do so in the Patriots style offense of running between the tackles. Redmond hasn't had as many chances to produce as Faulk but that's because he hasn't earned them in practice. Both seem better suited coming out of the backfield as receivers than as lead backs and I'd expect those roles to continue.
In a recent ESPN article, the writer picked the Patriots linebacker unit as the deepest unit in the league. Do you think that any of the linebackers/defensive ends could be cut before the season begins?
North Attleboro, Mass.
Definitely. Depending on how well the rookies fare in camp, there could be a veteran or two let go. Rick Lyle can play both inside and out but if the youngsters (Klecko, Kelley, Kocher, Green) perform well he could be expendable. And if Ty Warren proves to be starting caliber, Bobby Hamilton could see his role greatly diminished.
Considering the weakness of the offensive line to protect the quarterback in 2002, why wasn't it given major attention in the draft this year, or at least looked at in free agency?
The Patriots tried to address the line in free agency but failed. They attempted to woo former St. Louis center Andy McCollum and showed an interest in former Cleveland Pro Bowler Orlando Brown but failed to sign either of them. (They did pick up former Buffalo backup Bill Conaty). I'm not sure why they didn't draft more than just Dan Koppen but perhaps the surplus of young offensive linemen already on the roster (Stephen Neal, Brandon Gorin, Russ Hochstein and Tom Ashworth) caused them to look in another direction.
Will Gillette Stadium be opened to fans during training camp as when the team used to practice in Smithfield, R.I.?
Practices will be open to fans at Gillette just as they've always been at Bryant College. Check Patriots.com daily for updates on practice times and events at the stadium.
Are the Patriots interested in signing any wide receivers that would break the 6-foot barrier and do you think it would have a positive effect on their already speedy group of wide outs? Secondly, I heard a lot of talk about Daniel Graham getting the starting position at tight end. Do you think this is a wise choice after the productive season that Christian Fauria had last season? What effect do you think Rosevelt Colvin will have on the rest of the group of linebackers?
Belichick will not sign a receiver because he is over 6-feet unless he believes he can be productive. The Patriots place more emphasis on ability rather than size and if Troy Brown, David Patten and Deion Branch are more productive than a 6-4 free agent, they'd rather stick with them.
Which rookie will make the biggest impact? Will Ty Warren be a legitimate starter this year?
I believe Eugene Wilson will make the biggest impact among the rookies this year. He won't likely start at corner but I feel he'll be a major part of the team's subpackages. Warren could actually start and see more playing time, but I think Wilson will be the more noticeable rookie.
Just out of curiosity, how long do the New England Patriots practice and/or work out in a days work?
Patriots practices during training camp generally run about two hours. The players usually get on the field anywhere from 15-30 minutes before practice begins with the kickers, quarterbacks and receivers getting some extra work in while others work with position coaches preparing for schemes they'll be using that day. Workouts begin with team stretching before the actual practice gets underway.
Do you think Tom Brady can improve his ability to hit the speedy receiver on the long routes, thus commanding more respect as a deep threat and opening up the mid-range routes?
Brady wasn't as bad on the deep throws last year as some believe, but he does need to improve his accuracy. It also would help if the team could develop a consistent deep threat who is capable of making plays on the ball (Bethel Johnson?). If Brady can succeed, it would definitely make life easier for Troy Brown underneath on crossing routes, where he took a beating last year when he averaged less than 10 yards per catch for the season.
Now that the Pats have a new fullback that has proven to be effective, will they go back to Antowain Smith and his north-south, punishing style of running or will they continue with the short-pass-equals-run-game-style of offense?
The Patriots need to return to a more balanced offense regardless of their personnel. Winning by doing just one thing well is difficult – even the Raiders offense sputtered in the Super Bowl when Tampa shut down Rich Gannon. Antowain is capable of better things than he showed in 2002 and the Patriots will need to see them if the offense is to become effective.
Do you think we are going to see a more wide-open offense this year as compared to last? What I mean is are we going to join the rest of the league and use the forward pass to score TDs rather than first downs?
With very few exceptions, first downs are required to score touchdowns. Not many teams can simply bomb their way down field and expect to score consistently. The days of the old Oakland Raiders "Mad Bomber offense" are history. The Patriots do need to be more efficient in the red zone and the best way for that to happen is for them to run the ball better. In 2001, Antowain Smith has 12 rushing touchdowns. He had half that total last year. That's a big difference. By the way, Brady led the league with 28 touchdown passes so the Patriots used the forward pass to score plenty of touchdowns last season.