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Ask PFW: In the thick of Training Camp

In this week’s mailbag, we kick things off with training camp questions as the Super Bowl champs invade Foxborough.

With the injury to [Nick] Kaczur, it seems that the viable replacement for [Pro Bowl guard Logan] Mankins is now pretty much on IR. Now who do you suppose will protect the Patriots' MVA (Most Valuable Asset), Tom Brady? Give Mankins $7 million for five years and incentives based on sacks against and rushing yardage that could push him to $9 mil a year. Brady and the rushing committee have a good year, Mankins will be rewarded handsomely.Kristopher Jones

First, a point of clarification. Despite what the position's name suggests, guards do not "protect" the quarterback in the way we have come to define the verb in gridiron terms. The best and speediest pass rushers on a defense are normally positioned on the outside (or end) of the offensive line, not in the interior, where the bigger, beefier lineman are. So, the responsibility for protecting the quarterback typically belongs to the tackles (excluding A- or B-gap blitzes from inside linebackers and safeties, obviously). Left tackle is the premier position on the o-line because, in most cases, quarterbacks are right-handed and have a harder time seeing the on-coming pursuit from the left.

Your question about who will protect Brady in Mankins' absence, therefore, doesn't really apply, Kristopher, unless defenses specifically try to attack Brady from the left guard spot. However, your point about the running game is a valid one. He's one of the nicer guys to talk to off the field, but on it, Mankins is one of the nastier players you'll ever come across, which is exactly the kind of attitude an offensive line needs to run-block effectively. That mentality appears to be lacking at the moment, as we've seen the o-line struggle to punch the ball into the end zone in goal-line situations during training camp. Mankins would help, were he here, but he's not the sole reason for the offense's ineptitude in that department right now.

As for your contract figures, you seem to be forgetting that there are four other members of the offensive line who contribute to the effectiveness of the running game. If rushing yardage produced incentives for one player, the rest would want a bonus as well. And as I've explained, sacks-against isn't a stat that applies too much to guards. Besides, I don't think it matters anymore how much the Patriots offer him, Mankins has made it clear he wants out of New England. We're dealing with a guy who speaks his mind and means what he says. Anything's possible and the burnt bridge could be rebuilt, I suppose, but I hold out little hope for that result.
Erik Scalavino

Hi guys! Thanks for everything! Otherwise I won't have a clue what's happening in training camp. Now when I look at patriots today or read the blogs, it seems like the defense is showing plenty of potential, especially in the red zone. [Tyrone] McKenzie who made some nice stops at the goal line, [Devin] McCourty who had some good plays against Randy Moss... I know training camp has just begun, but it seems like only [Rob] Gronkowski is being effective in the red zone. When I look back to last season, the offense had some difficulties in that area, so, I wonder, must I be concerned when I read that our offense is struggling against a "doubtful" defense?
Jochem Sterckx, Belgium

Yeah, I'm mildly concerned as well at this point. The offense has been effective in goal line situations mostly when Tom Brady drops back to pass and looks not only for Gronkowski, but also Aaron Hernandez, Moss, Edelman, et al. The rushing attack hasn't been able to punch it in consistently. But as you indicated, it's still very early and there's time for Dante Scarnecchia to whip that reshuffled group into shape. The silver lining is that guys like McKenzie and Brandon Spikes have made some plays and the goal-line run defense has been stout. It'll be nice to see how both the O and the D stack up against their counterparts from the Saints over the next few days.
Erik Scalavino

Guys, could Julian Edelman be the next Kevin Faulk? I heard he was getting some practice reps with the running backs and was reminded he ran for 1,370 yards in his senior year at Kent State – when he was their quarterback. So, he can run, he can catch, and throw a pass, but can he block?
Paul Wright

You hit the nail on the head with your last point, Paul. Picking up the blitz is an essential quality for any NFL running back worth his salt. The diminutive but stout Faulk is experienced and adept at it. I haven't seen Edelman chip an outside linebacker or take on a charging bull of an inside 'backer, so I don't know if he can do it. I also haven't seen him run between the tackles, as Faulk has done since high school. I'm guessing that Edelman picked up most of his yards in college by running in space, to the outside.

Again, I don't know if he can do it, nor do I necessarily want to see him do it at this level. He's made such tremendous progress as a slot receiver in just one year, I'd like to see him continue that development. The Patriots could use an upgrade at running back, no doubt. But if you haven't noticed, they need some help at wide receiver, too. He's already there, so just let him be.
Erik Scalavino

Upon reading last week's ASK PFW, in response to one of the questions submitted, Andy said that: "There are only so many big, long, strong, athletic edge players [OLB] on this planet. Of late, Belichick hasn't gotten his coaching hands on the right ones." If the Patriots don't have the long, strong, able-to-chase-a-running-back-to-the-sideline-while-also-needing-to-drop-back-into-coverage-or-blitzing-once-in-a-while sort of guy(s) on the team, wouldn't it make sense for them to run the 4-3, where there are less physical and mental requirements to be a OLB in the system?David Guerra

We get asked this question ad nauseam and our answer is always the same. You'll see some 4-3 looks from the Patriots throughout the season to keep offenses honest. But fundamentally, Bill is a 3-4 guy. Good luck trying to change his mind after three and a half decades.
Erik Scalavino

Thanks for the always-great job filling our preseason thirst. I remember the pre-Corey Dillon time when the Patriots so effectively used the screen pass as a de facto running game. It seems that, other than some passes to WRs in the flat, this aspect of the offense has been downplayed in recent seasons. Am I wrong?David G.

You're right, we haven't seen nearly as many screens as we used to, and we haven't seen a whole lot of them in camp, to this point, either. I'm sure it's still part of the playbook, though, but the short passing game and bubble screens to Wes Welker have taken their place. A simple case of taking advantage of the skills of the players you have, I suppose. But I agree, it would be nice to see more screens, because they've been so effective for New England in the recent past.
Erik Scalavino

If 2011 is a lockout, does it count against a player's contract? For instance would a player scheduled to become a free agent after 2011 do so, or would he still have that last year to serve on his deal and not be out of contract until after 2012?
Paul Dymond

Excellent question. It depends on a number of factors. For example, how long the lockout lasts. If there's a partial season, like in 1987, their contracts would probably be honored for '11, but if there's a full-season lockout, that's a different story. An issue like that would most likely be addressed in the CBA negotiations. My guess is the final year of the contract would carry over, but we'll just have to wait and see what resolution will be reached.
Erik Scalavino

Totally rookie football question, but I'm curious, in regards to [Aaron] Schobel. He was released by the Bills, but is being released the same as being "put on waivers?" Because other players are put on waivers by a team and then other teams put in their claim for the player and are "awarded" them, but people have referred to Schobel as a free agent, so any team can essentially bid on him. Just don't entirely understand the difference or why one way is used over the other or instead of the other.
Jessie B.

Waivers is the process by which NFL teams compete for released players who are not vested veterans (fewer than four accrued seasons in the league). And to accrue an NFL season means that a player must be on the active roster, injured reserve, and/or the PUP list for six or more regular-season games in one season.

Since 2010 would be the veteran Schobel's 10th NFL season, he became an unrestricted free agent upon his release, thereby allowing him, essentially, to choose which team he plays for, from among those that bid for his services. If he had four or fewer years in the league and were released by the Bills, he'd have no choice but to play for whichever team claimed him off waivers.

And, to be clear, the waiver system works in inverse order, like the NFL Draft, in that the team with the worst record from the previous year gets top priority. If they don't pick up the player, the priority goes to the team with the second worst record, and so on and so forth. The waived player is eventually "awarded" to the team with the highest priority that claims him. If the player clears waivers (i.e., no team claims him), he then becomes eligible to sign with any team.
Erik Scalavino

Hey guys! Long-time reader, first-time asker. I've read your blog through it all, and now I'm wondering, in all your experience, does the state of the team now worry you more than any other "transition periods" you've seen? We have a youthful defense that I think in a year or two will be considered elite, but for now I think is rather exposed. Do you see any of the young CBs on the team developing into "elite" CBs, which was so vital to the teams success earlier in the decade? And if so, who? How sharp has Tom Brady's knee looked so far in camp? A year ago I remember reading camp reports that suggested he was very sharp coming off the injury, only to see him go through a 17 game adjustment period in the regular/post season. Wes Welker is already off his brace from what I hear. Has Brady been able to cross that off his checklist yet? Thanks for answering!
Tyler Spence, Canada

Lotta ground to cover here … making up for lost time, eh, Tyler? Anyway, the transition that the Patriots are going through is a natural one that all elite franchises go through at the end of a 10-year cycle. Typically, the players that took them on their championship runs have passed their primes and/or are retired. It's so difficult to maintain that level of success over longer periods of time because of a variety of factors, including draft position, salary cap restrictions, attrition, coaching departures, etc. What the Patriots are experiencing is nothing new to the NFL. It's just new to New England because this is the first era in which the franchise can legitimately be called "Team of the Decade."

On to cornerbacks. Certainly the potential exists for players like Darius Butler and Devin McCourty to reach that top tier. It's too early to say definitively, though, based their limited experience. Butler played sparingly last season as a rookie, and McCourty hasn't even faced an opponent with a different helmet yet. We need a little more than that to make a judgment.
Finally, there's nothing wrong with Brady's knee. He's gone from wearing a brace to a protective sleeve. Much less cumbersome, obviously. And the reports you've read about Welker were premature. He's been wearing the brace consistently throughout camp and discarded it for one walkthrough-type practice in the Dana-Farber Field House. It was back on for Monday's full-pads practice. He's not completely done with the contraption just yet.
Erik Scalavino

From Saturday July 31 through Friday August 6 the Patriots practiced in full pads for both morning and afternoon sessions only one day, Tuesday the 3rd. I can't recollect a training camp with less hitting. This is surprising to me, especially given the way last season ended. Why do you guys think there has been so little hitting? Is it because the team is younger and more time needs to be spent on teaching? Or, is this a general trend in NFL training camps?
Chris Noble

Haven't been keeping up with the PFW Blog, have you there, Chris? If you had, you'd know that Sunday, August 1 and Monday, the 2nd were, in fact, both full-pads double sessions, while Tuesday, the 3rd was not. But your underlying premise that this is a lighter camp than usual seems to be the prevailing sentiment among most media who cover the team. I'm not sure that's a fair assessment, however, because even when the Patriots do put on the full pads, all-out hitting is rarely seen. Usually, it happens in goal-line work, but for the most part, you don't see those bone-crushing hits that were so common in training camps of previous eras. That just seems to be the way of today's NFL world, one in which multi-million dollar contracts make owners, GMs, and coaches ultra-careful with their prized commodities on the field.

Unfortunately, the lack of consistent hitting in practice may also be a reason why the art of tackling properly has virtually disappeared from the game. If you don't practice it, you forget how to do it or do it sloppily. If I were coaching a training camp, I'd have an old-fashioned tackling sled out there and make every player – special teamers included – take reps on it at the beginning and end of each practice.
Erik Scalavino

Hey PFW. Great work over training camp. My question concerns the upcoming CBA. What would be an ideal setting for finally perhaps a rookie wage scale? In my opinion, all top-five picks should be signed to four-year deals with possibly a team option for a fifth year. Also, the top-five picks can only make, starting with the first pick, somewhere from $5-7 million per year and then drop from there with the other first round picks. Then the 2nd- and 3rd-rounders get two years with a team option for a third year. Fourth on down would obtain a one-year deal with a team option for another year. I know this sounds crazy or just plain dumb but whatever you think about a rookie wage scale may you offer it in your own words? Thank you and keep up the work!
Chris C.

I love this topic, and I'm glad Commissioner Goodell is taking the lead in bringing this iea close to becoming a reality. Those of us who've lived and worked in the real world all our lives, which is to say most of us on this planet, understand that when you enter the job force as a young, inexperienced person, you start at the bottom and work your way up, in almost all cases. Professional sports should be no different.

If I had any say in the matter, my proposal would be for every rookie, drafted or undrafted, to sign a three-year contract with a team option for a fourth, with each year's salary being equal – a minimum wage, essentially. For argument's sake, let's say $350,000. One-time signing bonuses would be given based on where the player was selected in the draft. Top-ten picks would receive the highest bonuses (say, $1,000,000); all other first-rounders would get $750,000. The number would decrease incrementally with each successive round, while rookie free agents would get a token bonus of $50,000. Performance-based bonuses could also be included at the discretion of the teams, depending on how much they expect a player to contribute on the field.

If a player proves his worth in his first three years, the team has the right to pick up the option for a fourth year. If not, the player becomes a free agent after three years. If the team picks up the option, though, it must be required to renegotiate with the player to give him a longer-term contract commensurate with his proven abilities. This would help the teams keep most of the good players they develop as rookies. But the players and their union would want to be appeased, too, by exploring free agency on their own.

So, I'd further add a caveat that teams can only pick up the option on either a predetermined number of players (say, four, max) or a percentage of their free agents-to-be in any given year. This way, teams would be forced to pick and choose from among their best players, leaving a few big-name, proven players the option of re-signing with their club or testing the free agent market. Proven players would get their paydays once they've proven themselves, while busts would only get their minimum wage and teams wouldn't waste their money on them. Survival of the fittest, at its best.
Erik Scalavino

It seems that, in years gone by, there were players who acted as both punters and place kickers, yet this has almost ceased to be. What is the principal reason for this and is there no way that one man couldn't do both jobs well as, for example, a kicking flyhalf does in rugby?David Beckett, UK

There may have been some NFL old-timers who did both jobs, but I can't recall any off the top of my head. Most punter/placekickers that you may remember seeing were college players. For example one of the best dual-role players of my generation was Washington State's Jason Hanson. A second-round pick of the Lions back in the early 1990s, he was chosen to be the team's placekicker and has been ever since. On rare occasions, he's filled in as the punter, but only in emergencies. It's not because he was so much better at placekicking than punting necessarily. He was equally adept at both in college, from what I remember.

The thing is, in the NFL, everything is specialized, particularly special teams. For kickers to reach the level of performance necessary at the pro level, they must work their legs by kicking hundreds of balls per week in practice. Ditto for punters. So, for someone to do both effectively at the NFL level, they've had to double the amount of balls kicked in a week. That's a recipe for injury and a short career in the league. The wear and tear would just be too great for most people to handle.

It would be great if one player could do both chores, because that would add a roster spot. Which is why we used to see quarterbacks serve as punters in the NFL (Danny White of the Cowboys, Randall Cunningham with the Eagles, and Tom Tupa for many teams, including the Patriots). Their legs didn't take as much of a pounding, so they can afford to do two jobs. I wouldn't mind seeing that old-time novelty return to try to create another roster spot.

Oh, and speaking of rugby, when we were in London last fall for the International Series game against Tampa Bay, Andy Hart and I watched a couple of rugby matches on the tele and really enjoyed it.
Erik Scalavino

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