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Ask PFW: Mitchell move & preseason prep

Fans' questions answered in our weekly PFW mailbag 


Love reading the column every week. I realize patience is wearing thin with Malcolm Mitchell's recovery, but why cut him now? Last I heard, he came to practice in full pads for the first time and then he is cut? Why not keep him around until the roster cut-downs? He obviously has chemistry with [QB Tom] Brady and could be a valuable asset when he gets healthy. Michael Sargent

Disclaimer: No one in PFW is allowed inside the football offices when personnel decisions are made. As a result, we can only speculate about the timing and the reasons for waiving Mitchell, which the Patriots did Monday (as first reported by media outlets, then confirmed by the NFL's transaction wire).

My guess is, Mitchell was asked to dress for practice so that other teams could hear about it and perhaps express interest in trading for him. Perhaps that didn't happen, and New England, knowing exactly how serious Mitchell's injury might be, felt it had no choice but to release him.

Again, this is just an educated guess, but it's the one that makes the most sense to me. If the team had any hopes for Mitchell's returning to action this season, it would not have felt the need to sign an accomplished veteran like Eric Decker. Erik Scalavino

With the Patriots releasing Malcolm Mitchell, who does this give the best chance to make the roster at wide receiver or otherwise? Jason Bickel

The handwriting has been on Mitchell's wall for quite some time now, so, I don't believe he was ever really a consideration to make this year's 53-man roster. If that's indeed the case, then his release doesn't really help any other player's chances of making the squad. In my estimation, the men who've been out there competing since the spring and since Day 1 of training camp still have the same odds of winning a job as they did while Mitchell was still nominally on the roster. Erik Scalavino

On a scale of 1-10, how concerned are you about Sony Michel's knees? I know teams were worried about his history of knee injuries throughout the pre-draft process, and I am rather concerned that he had another knee procedure only a few weeks into training camp. Ben Offen

I'd put my level of concern at around 6. Michel's knee-injury history dates back to his sophomore year of high school, when he first tore an ACL. He had a couple of knee sprains in college at Georgia (December 2017 the latest) before aggravating something last week during a camp practice. This most recent incident precipitated the reported fluid-draining procedure (ESPN and The Athletic had the first accounts) that is expected to keep him out of most, if not all, of this preseason, and perhaps part of the regular season, if media reports are accurate.

Knee problems for any football player, particularly a running back, are cause for reasonable concern. When a player with an injury history is drafted, I always hold my breath, and that's how I'll probably be with Michel throughout his Patriots career. I'd like to be optimistic and am trying hard not to make obvious comparisons to the aforementioned Mitchell, another Georgia player with a similar surname drafted by this team despite knee baggage. So, I'm putting my number at around the middle for now. I hope this is the last time we have to talk about Michel's knee problems, but I'm not holding my breath. Erik Scalavino

Hey guys, not sure of your stance here, we may disagree, but I have a burning question. How is Braxton Berrios looking so far? I haven't heard much, and when he was drafted I thought he would be almost an instant role player in the slot. I absolutely loved what he did with [the University of] Miami, and I think he could take a similar track as Jules [Edelman], being a solid starter after a few years of development and some game time. So, how is he looking, any nice catches, and which offense if any is he working with? Thanks guys love your work! Scott Pietruniak

It's been a bumpy start for Berrios, which isn't surprising. He's a low-drafted rookie, just like Edelman was, and is being asked to contribute on both offense and special teams. He's got a lot on his plate and has older, more experienced players ahead of him on the depth chart. There's obvious talent in Berrios, though. When the Patriots selected him, I thought the 53-man roster was a long shot this season, but that the practice squad would be a more likely landing spot. I'm sticking with that outlook as we enter the third week of camp. Erik Scalavino

Haven't heard a word on the big OL, fifth-year guy Ulrick John out of Georgia St. What did the Patriots see in him? With all the injuries at the OL position, could he make the team as a plug-in OT or OG? Also, Malcom Mitchell impressed me greatly with his rookie year production especially in the SB against Atlanta. You rarely see a rookie perform like that under the pressure of a SB. I don't remember him being injured at all in that Super Bowl, but he has not played since. What is the true update on this guy who Brady has worked so well with, something few receivers can claim? Leonard Cannon

Normally, we only hear about o-linemen when they make egregious errors. In camp, though, if you don't hear a lineman's name, it could also be because he isn't making much of a positive impression.

In John's case, he's getting a considerable amount of reps at tackle in the second and third wave of personnel groups. He seems to be battling second-year man Cole Croston for a backup job. I've not seen John make any glaring mistakes this summer, but neither has he been a dominant force the way, say, Trent Brown has been mauling defenders in the 1-on-1 drill. John is in the mix, though, and there's a lot of football left to be played this month before a decision has to be made.

As for the "true update" on Mitchell, I alluded earlier to his chronic knee issues, and those have kept him off the field more often than he or the Patriots would have liked since he arrived in 2016. He hasn't absorbed any major hits to his knees, from what we've seen. So, we can only speculate that a seemingly minor series of awkward plants and falls, ill-timed collisions, and cumulative wear-and-tear are what's nagging him.

As recently as this past Sunday, he was still on the roster, but hadn't really taken part in training camp other than to do rehab and conditioning exercises during practice. New England knew the risks with Mitchell's knee when they drafted him, and have been patient with him as he tried to overcome those issues ever since. Time ran out, apparently, and the Patriots released him yesterday.

Mitchell's a nice young man, so, I hope he finds his health and another opportunity sooner rather than later. Erik Scalavino

I keep running into references about how the new kickoff rules will affect the game, and I assume that at some point in the off-season these changes were enumerated. BUT (mea culpa) I guess I missed them. Could you humor me (and I'm sure I'm not the only one) by explaining precisely what the new rules are, and then feel free to speculate on how they might change the most exciting play in football. Also, are these changes a response to the unintended consequences of the rule change last year, i.e. kicking short and stuffing the return team at the 10 yard line? Dave Pineo

Shame on you, Dave! Clearly, you haven't read any of our offseason articles or listened to our weekly PFW in Progress radio shows or training camp podcasts. We've covered this topic extensively in all three of those areas. You've already apologized nicely, however, so, I'll gladly review them again. And to be fair, much of the language in the new rules is convoluted, so much so that the league is still considering making "minor" changes to clarify exactly what they want. Even some officials are said to be concerned that there's too much confusion about what can and can't be done on kickoffs.

The main changes, though, involve where players line up. Starting this year, the 10 members of the kicking team who aren't the kicker cannot be more than a yard behind the kickoff line of scrimmage. Previously, they could get a running start from five yards back. Five players must be on either side of the ball before it's kicked off, even if a team is attempting an obvious onside kick. At least two on either side must be beyond the numbers (spreading out the coverage line) and at least a pair must be between the numbers and hash marks on both sides.

On the receiving side, at least eight of 11 players on the return team must be within a 15-yard "setup zone," which begins 10 yards from the kickoff line (usually the opponent's 35-yard-line). So, in most cases, a return team will have eight players somewhere between their own 40-yard line and their opponent's 45.

Two-man wedge blocks are no longer legal, meaning two of the three players who line up deep cannot join together and act as a wall for the returner. But… double-team blocks can be executed by any of the players who originally lined up in the setup zone. Refs are going to have to be aware of who these players are, which will add to the degree of difficulty of officiating during the play.

Prior to the ball hitting the ground or being touched by a player, no blocks of any kind are allowed within the first 15 yards of the kickoff line (generally from the 35 to the 50). Receiving teams also no longer need to down a ball in the end zone for it to be a touchback. The ball simply has to touch somewhere in the end zone, even if it wasn't previously touched by a player.

I've included a link to a video the NFL tweeted out back in May, when the new rules were adopted, so you can get a better visual sense of what these changes will mean.

Now, why were these changes implemented? Ostensibly, for player safety. League data suggests that players are five times more likely to sustain concussions on kickoffs than any other play in football. As a result, these changes were approved to see if running starts and high-speed collisions can be reduced.

Theoretically, kickoffs are going to be treated a lot more like punts this season, which could help cut down on concussions. If they don't, we could see a day in the near future when kickoffs are eliminated from the game entirely. For now, we'll have to see how these new guidelines actually impact the games, the players, and those who officiate them. Erik Scalavino

Who do you think will fill TB12's shoes after he retires? Do you think [rookie Danny] Etling will be able to get molded into the quarterback worthy of taking over in the amount of time we have until Brady retires? Matthew Gehring

At this point – it's very early in Etling's career – I doubt it, Matthew. Could he develop into a serviceable NFL player eventually? Sure. Anything's possible. My guess, though, is that the next full-time Patriots starting quarterback isn't on the roster right now. Erik Scalavino

Please tell me if Patriots preseason games are available on a Connecticut TV station. Thanks. Rich Steeves

I live in South Florida. Is there any way to watch Patriots preseason games live? There seems to be no information available about this. Seem like I go through this every year. A. Bugman

Good news, Rich… YES, you can watch your Patriots in the preseason if you have access to WCTX-TV Channel 59 (Hartford/New Haven). This is one of eight New England-based affiliates of the Patriots Preseason Television Network, which has at least one representative in each of the region's six states.

Two are in Massachusetts (the flagship WBZ Channel 4 in Boston; WWLP Channel 22, Springfield), two in Maine (WMTW Channel 8, Portland/Auburn; WVII Channel 7, Bangor), and one each in Vermont (WCAX Channel 3, Burlington), New Hampshire (WMUR Channel 9, Manchester), Rhode Island (WPRI Channel 12, Providence), and the aforementioned Connecticut station.

Florida residents, sorry, but maybe you'd consider moving to Alaska (three affiliates: KYUR in Anchorage, KATN Fairbanks, and KJUD Juneau) or Hawaii (one in Honolulu, KFVE Channel 5). Erik Scalavino

Last week, someone brought up the subject of retired numbers. Why didn't they retire Andre Tippett's and Nick Buoniconti's numbers while they are alive? They both deserve it and it's always better to say how much we appreciate someone while they are here. Gregorio Ladeira

Well, Gregorio, according to the NFL's 2018 Record & Fact Book – the bible of all things pro football in the U.S. – each team has an official list of retired jersey numbers. New England has seven players/digits listed: Gino Cappelletti, 20; Mike Haynes, 40; Steve Nelson, 57; John Hannah, 73; Bruce Armstrong, 78; Jim Lee Hunt, 79; Bob Dee, 89.

While Tippett's 56 is not among them, no Patriot has been issued that number since the Hall of Fame linebacker retired after the 1993 season. Unofficially, it seems, the team has taken 56 out of circulation. Which is absolutely the right way to honor his long-time onfield contributions to the club. Hopefully, it will be officially recognized in the Record & Fact Book in the future.

Buoniconti, meantime, was a great player, but is known more for his years as a Miami Dolphin, which could have something to do with his Patriots number 85 still being available. Erik Scalavino

I am in a wheelchair and would like to see a game. Are there any seats that are handicapped accessible? Tom Matthews

There are areas of Gillette Stadium where wheelchair access is available, Tom. I'd suggest contacting the Ticket Office (800-543-1776) to inquire about availability. Erik Scalavino

Will the Patriots be wearing throwback uniforms this year? Chip Legein

Unfortunately, no, as far as we know. Coincidentally or not, New England hasn't worn its old Pat Patriot logo and red/white uniform combo for several years, since the NFL required teams to have players use just one helmet during any given season (reason given was to cut down on head injuries, which are said to be more common with multiple helmets).

Before that rule was instituted, the Patriots frequently wore their 1985 throwbacks (my personal favorite) with requisite white helmets. But because the Patriots have silver helmets with their modern uniform, throwbacks are no longer possible, it would seem.

Other teams (Chicago, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, et al) have continued to wear throwback uniforms from time to time because their helmets are either the same color or they've elected to use their current helmets with old jerseys. Erik Scalavino

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