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Ask PFW: Holiday edition

Hello from Chattanooga, TN! Thanks for your hard work and keeping us informed, especially those of us who live outside of the Foxborough area! A couple of questions. First, is it just me or has Malcolm Butler’s ability to cover anybody just disappeared?  He’s looked very much below average the last couple of weeks. Second, do you think that with the extra week off [in the playoffs], we can get some players back from injuries? Because our defense is downright scary bad – big plays galore. Any chance [linebacker/co-captain Dont'a] Hightower comes back for the playoff run? Thanks again and Happy New Year to you all!!! David Phillips

Our pleasure, David, and thank YOU for your faithful readership. Butler is not having as good a season as I’d hoped or expected he might, considering this is a contract year for him. In the past, I’ve felt he’s usually been step-for-step with most receivers and his relative height disadvantage has been mostly to blame for his surrendering big plays. There have been times more frequently this season, however, when he’s looked wildly out of place in coverage, but on the whole, I don’t think he’s playing all that differently than he has before. He remains a solid NFL cornerback, but not an elite one. It will be interesting to see the types of offers he may receive this coming offseason when he becomes a free agent.

In the meantime, yes, now that New England has clinched a first-round playoff bye, the hope is that many of the important players who are dealing with various ailments will have some extra time and rest to recover sufficiently to return for the postseason push. Specifically on defense, it will be imperative for the Patriots to get linebacker Kyle Van Noy back on the field, as well as defensive tackle Alan Branch. As for Hightower, I provide an in-depth response to his situation later in this column. So, please keep reading. Erik Scalavino

The Steelers released linebacker James Harrison Saturday, Dec. 23. Would he be a good fit for the Patriots? If yes, what are the chances the Patriots will sign him? Thanks for considering my question. Helen Han

It’s always difficult to say with any certainty just how good a “fit” any player could be in New England’s system, because we have plenty of examples of players we thought might be great additions, but who ended up not being so. In Harrison’s case, he went unclaimed through the waiver process and is now a free agent, so, he’s able to sign with any club that he likes, if any express interest in him. I’d be surprised if New England doesn’t at least take a look, given the lack of depth and injuries they currently have at linebacker. Erik Scalavino

[Quarterback Tom] Brady’s recent play has me very concerned. He has thrown five interceptions on 3rd down. That’s bad situational awareness. Throw it away and let the punter do his job. In addition, his accuracy seems off, especially early in recent games. Do you think this is injury-related? Has the loss of [wide receiver Chris] Hogan been a factor? Is it related to this ongoing, media-driven controversy with his personal trainer? Thanks. Gary Madera

I feel confident in discounting Hogan as a primary factor in Brady’s uncharacteristic streak of interceptions (it’s been 15 years since he’s had such a stretch of consecutive games with a pick). Certainly, Brady has been dealing with at least one injury of late, and whatever other distractions have arisen recently can’t be helping. In my estimation, the main reason he’s had so many interceptions is simple: poor throws. They naturally happen more frequently as players age, even one who’s the putative greatest of all time. Erik Scalavino

Hi, guys. Keep up the good work! Favre/Rodgers, Brady/Garoppolo… Have we just given up our Rodgers to San Francisco?! I’m seriously concerned that we just blew our best shot at sustained excellence. Might turn out to be the greatest mistake the organization ever made. Mark Godsland

Can we make it official: the Jimmy Garoppolo trade is the worst one BB ever made? Ben Lorin

From a Patriots perspective, it must be bittersweet to watch Jimmy Garoppolo’s successful start to his 49er career. The young QB has infused that moribund San Francisco franchise with a winning zeal not seen in a generation. Garoppolo’s a good guy, so, it’s great to see him having a chance to play, and play well.

I wasn’t happy with the trade when it happened at the Halloween deadline, and I’m even more disappointed that New England let him go. Perhaps they’d have had to deal him eventually, but there was no reason to make that move as prematurely as they did. I would have preferred they franchise or transition tag him this coming offseason, hold onto him for at least one more season, and revisit the issue in 2019.

Good quarterbacks are difficult to find in this league, and when you have one – like the Packers did with Aaron Rodgers at the end of Brett Favre’s tenure, as Mark suggests – teams should exhaust every avenue to hold onto them. Jimmy G’s performance thus far in San Francisco is showing that those of us who questioned the trade might be right. Erik Scalavino

When do you think the Patriots had a complete game this season, when all of its offense, defense, and special teams performed to their potential? Greg Lugarski

Before the Week 9 bye, I’d say the wins over New Orleans and Atlanta were New England’s most impressive. Since the midpoint, it would obviously be the victories over Denver and Oakland. Erik Scalavino

Has [injured wide receiver Julian] Edelman been around the locker room at all? Or on the sidelines during games? I know every player is different and handles injuries differently, but part of me thought I’d spot him on the sidelines helping “coach up” some of the receivers. Or, at the very least, help them understand how to form a mind-meld with Brady. Steve Sixt

Edelman and every other player on injured reserve spends at least a portion of their days here at Gillette engaging in rehabilitation of one form or another. Typically, they stay out of sight when media are allowed access to players, but occasionally, they make cameos. Knowing Edelman, I’m sure he has been an active participant behind the scenes this season. Erik Scalavino

Big fan from Sweden here. After the crushing injury to Edelman in the preseason, I believe there were some people saying that James White was [quarterback/co-captain Tom] Brady’s next in line go-to-guy. I somehow feel he hasn’t really stepped up. After his Super Bowl performance, it would be crazy for teams not to be more attentive to him, which of course could explain his “struggles,” but is it possible that he has regressed a bit this season? Lars Blom

Well, I would first say that when Edelman went down in August, the Patriots still had Rob Gronkowski, and whenever both of those men are on the field together, Gronk would be Brady’s default “go-to” guy, with Edelman being 1B, if you will. If we’re ranking them after that, I’d put Danny Amendola next, followed by White, who has certainly become a valuable asset and a trusted receiver out of the backfield for Brady.

Earlier this year, White was seeing a considerable workload, but that has tailed off a bit as Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead have emerged as equally production members of the running back committee.

I wouldn’t exactly categorize White’s recent reduction in touches as “struggles,” because whenever he’s had the football this season, he’s done good things with it. White was listed on last week’s injury report with an ankle injury that surfaced during the Steelers game, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s been dealing with some sort of ailment that has limited him at times this year. That and the Lewis/Burkhead factor might be the most likely reasons for what you’re seeing with White. Erik Scalavino

Is there anyone else besides me that likes the fact that a player must “survive the ground” to complete a catch for a touchdown at the end of a game where victory or defeat can be decided? After the Pittsburgh game and previously with the Dez Bryant catch/non-catch, the prevailing train of thought seems to be that the catch rule WAS properly applied to the play(s) in question, but that it’s a horrible rule and should be changed. I, for one, like the fact that there are rules in place for just these kinds of situations. It adds a layer of drama/difficulty to the game. James Mannion

Nope, you’re the only person I’ve heard express this opinion, and I’d be willing to bet you’d feel differently if the Patriots lost a game due to such a ruling.

I would like there to be consistency in the NFL rule book, and that would mean all players toting the football would be subject to the same treatment when taking that ball over the goal line. If a player clearly has possession, once the plane is broken, it should immediately be a touchdown.

Yes, the rule as currently written was properly applied in the Patriots-Steelers game, but I’d be surprised if it’s not revisited during the NFL’s annual meeting this coming March, when rule changes are proposed, debated, and voted on. Erik Scalavino

I see lots of questions about IR, and heard some weeks back that [wide receiver Malcolm] Mitchell or [defensive lineman Vincent] Valentine were likely candidates to choose from.  Do you think Hightower is even a possibility? Also, when must a player return from IR? Must he be activated for the last regular season game, or can he be activated only after the playoffs begin? Fran Maurais

Is it theoretically possible for Valentine and Hightower to make it back to the roster at some point. I think these guys could contribute the most. Thanks. Scott Karrer

In theory, any player placed on injured reserve during the regular season is a candidate to be designated for return at some point that same season or postseason after eight weeks on IR – provided, of course, that his team hasn’t already used up its two designations. New England has already used one of its 2017 designations on linebacker Shea McClellin, who apparently suffered a setback in his recovery after practicing for three weeks prior to his activation.

The Patriots now have one designation remaining, and while Hightower is among the eligible players, in reality, it’s probably unreasonable to consider him an option. He underwent surgery in late October to repair his torn pectoral muscle, and the subsequent recovery time likely extends beyond this season’s playoffs. Valentine and Mitchell remain the only viable candidates for the final designation.

Of course, any team can elect not to use any or both of their designations, so, it’s also possible the Patriots won’t exercise this option on anyone else this year. Erik Scalavino

When players are suddenly traded or picked up from another team’s practice roster, how are they able to move so quickly? For example, when Jimmy Garoppolo got traded to San Francisco, does the 49er organization find him an apartment, etc.? Would the 49ers help him pay off a lease he may be tied to in Foxborough? Alexandra Haase

Each player’s situation is unique, certainly, but in general, yes, teams assist players with their relocation logistics. It benefits both the player and the organization to make the transition as smooth and painless as possible, so the player can contribute as quickly as they can with a minimum of distractions. Erik Scalavino

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