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Ask PFW: Forecasting football's future

This week's mailbag focuses on questions about what the Patriots will tackle first when the lockout ends.


Hi guys, just a quick observation from a kiwi rugby hack who has followed the Pats for 10 years this fall. I'm all over the NFL for the big hits, etc. It's great! But can't we just agree this once with Goodell that the big hits have maybe got a wee bit excessive? My solution would be to institute a little bit of the rugby law regarding the tackling of a player. Anyone attempting a tackle must do so using their arms and hit their opponent on or below the shoulder. Any non-arm tackles (ie shoulder charges), or reckless contact with the helmet would then incur a personal foul penalty. I seriously think by making players tackle with their arms, it would make the game a lot safer. It would also eliminate the need for a fines or suspension policy as the tackling motion is just safer in general. Do you guys think this could work?
Matt Thompson

I certainly am on the same page with you and Commissioner Goodell on this issue, Matt. What you're suggesting is what I have been advocating for several years now: the reinforcement of proper tackling technique at the NFL level, something the league has been bereft of in at least a generation. Goodell's proposed "Steelers Rule" – which would fine teams for an excessive number of illegal hits – is an effort I applaud to force teams to implement a much-needed return to basics when it comes to coaching players how to tackle.

You would think that, at this level, players wouldn't need to be taught, but their sloppiness is attributable, in large part, to the glorification of SportsCenter- or YouTube-quality hits that our media knows fans will devour. Goodell's proposal isn't quite as explicit as yours, but they share a fundamental basis.     
Erik Scalavino

When and if free agency occurs, what do you guys think about going after undrafted linebacker Mark Herzlich? Granted there are medical issues, but if it pans out, he could be that OLB that was sorely need last year. Also, any thought on picking up DE Jason Babin from the Titans? It looks like he will be a UFA, and he was very effective as a pass rusher last season. Opinions on whether he would fit in with the Pat's defensive scheme?
Tayler Cook

We've answered the Herzlich question a thousand times, and the answer is unequivocally yes. Why not? With Belichick's history of keeping at least one undrafted rookie on the roster nearly every year he's been in New England, Herzlich would stand a decent chance of sticking, especially at a position of such great need as outside linebacker.

Babin is interesting. Looking quickly at his stats, he seems to have had a Mike Vrabel-like season last year, with 12.5 sacks, after having never registered more than five in any of his previous seven seasons. At 6-3, 260, he is also similar in size to Vrabel, but I'm not sure how his talents would translate into New England's 3-4 scheme, or if he'd even be able to make the transition to outside linebacker. He just turned 31 last month and has been a vagabond throughout his NFL career, with five teams on his résumé (four in the last four years). I'm sure the Patriots personnel department has done plenty of research on him, and given the need at OLB, I'd at least kick the tires on Babin.  
Erik Scalavino

What player will surprise us this year? Does Jermaine Cunningham become a 10 sack guy? Does Taylor Price emerge as a legit deep threat? Or does rookie Marcus Cannon make a full recovery and becomes a star at the guard position, making us say "Stephen who?"
Tyler Spence  

Good question. I'd be shocked if Cunningham makes that kind of a leap in year-two production. I'll take it, don't get me wrong, I just can't see it happening. I don't think he's that kind of player. Price needs to emerge as any kind of threat, deep or underneath. I'm cautiously optimistic about Cannon, who's battling a treatable form of cancer at the moment. He may end up surprising everyone, but it might not come until next season.

The player I'm going with is Julian Edelman. Not only is he on his way to becoming one of the more dangerous punt returners in the league, he also has the motivation to prove his many untimely drops from a year ago were an aberration. I see Edelman – who's still growing into the wide receiver position, let's not forget – as a potential star for the Patriots on offense and special teams.  
Erik Scalavino

Noticing that secondary play and pass rush are the true main weaknesses for the team, what is the most relevant move the Patriots will make in order to address those issues? There's a lot of young talent on the team, and Belichick always seems to strive for that as well as developing players into stars, but with the issues of the lockout and a poor free agency, I can only see the Patriots making minimal risk moves and focusing more on the talent they already have. The only concern I have as far as this strategy taking place is that the Jets aren't slowing down on maximizing their roster in order to be the AFC East favorites. Feedback please, PFW.
Mak Barberis

Sounds like you answered your own question, there, pal. New England, in the Belichick era, does very little in the way of major free agent moves, and with this year's circumstances in such an unpredictable state because of the lockout, it's probably even less likely that the Patriots will do anything drastic. More than likely, the team will forge ahead with what they have, with perhaps an affordable veteran free agent at a couple of positions to provide depth and competition at some thin areas on the roster.  
Erik Scalavino

What do you guys think of Brandon Tate's future? I personally think he's got all the tools to break out in a couple of years' time. I've been comparing him to Roddy White lately. Tate is a bit taller and a bit slimmer, and if you discard Tate's first year due to his injuries, he's had a comparable year to White's first year in Atlanta. TD's, yards, avg. are all the virtually the same if not better in Tate's favour. He's got great speed, good awareness, if he just tuned up his hand-eye coordination a little I think he'll be golden in a couple of years. What are your thoughts? Is he our future number one WR?
Devon Hazelwood

I think your White comparison is a bit generous, to say the least. For one thing, Tate may be listed as 6-1, but he's not nearly that tall (football teams often exaggerate the sizes of smaller players on their rosters). And I'm not as optimistic about his skill set as you are. He showed great promise as a kickoff returner early last year, but then seemed to slow down, literally, and become more tentative and indecisive as the year progressed. As a receiver, I didn't see much development either. It's not uncommon for receivers to take a few years to develop into NFL-caliber players, so I'm not completely dismissing him as a contributor on this team, but to think of him as a future number-one is expecting too much.
Erik Scalavino

The league is very worried about protecting players from injury. Why does the NFL not implement wearing thigh pads and knee pads like they used to, and like high school and college do, as well as wearing the new style helmets they do in those levels of football? Just curious.
Jason Marks

Well, the types of injuries the NFL is concerned about most involve players' heads, not their legs. Technology and medicine are so advanced today that coming back from major injuries to one's lower extremities has become commonplace. So, emphasis on thigh and knee pads is antiquated. However, we know comparatively little about how to deal with severe head injuries, which is why the NFL has partnered with Boston University to study and help prevent the debilitating effects from head trauma.
Erik Scalavino

Hi guys, just wondering if you have any news to share about Stephen Gotskowski's recovery and how he's progressing. I assume neither he nor Shayne Graham were at the recent player only workouts because well... why would they be (though thinking about it your kicking specialists – kicker, snapper and holder – could use the time well)? Obviously I really like Gotskowski but the injury he got sounds like a pretty serious one for a kicker. Graham did a good job for us and with the shortened kick-offs would be an even better option than last year, so, do you reckon we keep him around in case Gotskowski can't get it back together or even to compete?
Peter Hyams, U.K.

According to Gostkowski, he's back to normal. He was just here at Gillette for an authorized visit (charitable-related) and told reporters he's kicking as normally as he would at this time of year. That's great news, considering the severity of the injury to his kicking-leg quad. As far as showing up at workouts, no, he and the other specialists were not at the recent Brady-led gathering, but punter Zoltan Mesko did reveal that the kickers and snapper have gotten together on their own this offseason in an effort to be "pro-active."

Graham, meanwhile, is going to be a free agent. While he did perform well as the emergency kicker late last year and I would have no problem bringing him back if Gostkowski were to suffer a setback, my guess is Graham did more than enough to earn a shot as a full-time kicker for some other NFL club this fall.  
Erik Scalavino

What is the latest on Marcus Cannon? His previous treatments seem to have gone well and I am interested in his recovery schedule. Do you know when his next round of treatments would begin? Have he and Herzlich been in contact at all? Thank you for your time.
Thomas Burns

As team employees, we're precluded from reaching out and making contact with players. So, unfortunately, we can't give you a precise update on Cannon and his treatments or if he's touched base with Herzlich. Sorry.
Erik Scalavino

I'm not entirely clear on all of the rules of the lockout, but if the franchise tag on Logan Mankins doesn't apply after the mess is sorted out, how far do the Patriots go to bring him back? Personally, I think it's crucial that we lock him up. Here's a fact: Mankins held out for 7 games in the 2010 season. Tom Brady's stats during his absence: 12 TD's, 4 INT's. In games that Mankins started: 24 TD's, 0 INT's. He provides great protection for Brady, allows him to step up in the pocket, and is a lethal run blocker that was a key part of the team's success running the ball a year ago. Bottom line: we need to sign this guy long term. What do you guys think?
Andrew Cabatingan

It's not the lockout rules you need to be clear about, it's the post-lockout rules that matter. And right now, no one knows what those rules will be. So, speculating on what the Patriots might do is pointless. But we all agree that we want Mankins in a Patriots uniform long-term. The team's owner has said as much on a number of occasions. It will all come down to finances. If what Mankins is willing to accept is still too rich for New England's blood, he'll be playing elsewhere. He certainly wants to see what else is out there, as he's told us, and he'll get other offers. If those offers don't match his asking price, then maybe he'll be more willing to stay put with New England. Only time will tell.
Erik Scalavino

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