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Patriots Replay Mon Dec 10 | 12:00 AM - 09:00 AM

Ask PFW: New rules and roster spots

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Given the recently instituted changes to the kicking game (i.e., kickoffs), how will this affect the Patriots in terms of strategy and special teams personnel attributes (e.g., size and speed)?  Does this thus affect the vulnerability of certain known players in terms of being released? Ken Parham

Kickoff strategy is sure to be impacted for all teams this season. Exactly how remains to be seen, but given the emphasis and attention to detail New England places on the kicking game, I’m sure they’ll find ways to use the new rules to their advantage.

In terms of personnel, I’m not sure the changes to the rulebook will have much of an effect. The Patriots usually carry three to five players who play almost exclusively on special teams, and I don’t foresee that changing as a result of these new rules. Head coach Bill Belichick loves his special-teams-only guys, and that will likely remain the case this season. Erik Scalavino

I read that changes in the kickoff rules have been approved to include no running starts. Also two-man wedges are no longer legal. It seemed to me at first consideration that this could make KO returns a much more common and exciting part of the game. Then I thought it likely more kicks would be aimed at going out of the back of the end zones to counter returns. Wonder how you guys view this? Steve Earle

We discussed this for a while on last week’s PFW in Progress and generally agreed that your latter point would probably be the most common result. It will be interesting to see if any teams (the Patriots, perhaps) get creative in how they approach this from both sides.

For instance, when the most recent previous changes to the kickoff were made (the touchback line being moved to the 25), we thought New England might choose to kick high and just outside the end zone to allow Patriots cover guys to pin the return team behind the 25. That’s exactly what New England did most of the time, and more often than not in the regular season, it worked.  I’m curious to see how Belichick, special teams coordinator Joe Judge, and new assistant special teams coach Cameron Achord manage the new rules. Erik Scalavino

I have two questions. First, is Jacob Hollister’s roster spot safe? Love him as a player and think he could add more of a receiver type over [Dwayne] Allen. Second, why not use James White by giving him more carries and as a passing back? He rarely gets carries, and it almost signals it’s a passing situations with him in. His days at Wisconsin showed he is a dynamic runner minus a lot of pop to him, but giving him more carries could open up his own catch opportunities as well. Jason Bickel

There are only a handful of players on this team whose jobs are safe, and Hollister is not one of them. I like him, too, and think he has a better-than-average chance of remaining on the roster, but his job security is by no means guaranteed.

White, meanwhile, is more effective as a pass catcher, and the Patriots have had rushers who are better suited to carrying the football, which is why he hasn’t seen as many touches on the ground. I doubt that his role will change much, if at all, in 2018, especially with additions like rookie Sony Michel and veteran free agent Jeremy Hill. Erik Scalavino

With [Brian] Hoyer and [Danny] Etling on the roster at QB and neither looking to be the true long-term replacement for TB12, what if we took a true shot in the dark like recently released QB Brice Petty? I know he’s far from most radar, but he’s shown (extremely brief) flashes of being a legit backup. Do you see us trying him out? Khii Rainey

I’m confused by your question, Khii. Are you looking for Brady’s long-term replacement or a legit backup? Because those two things, while not necessarily mutually exclusive, are two different things. A player can be a legit backup [e.g., the aforementioned Hoyer], but not a long-term replacements. Jimmy Garoppolo was a bona fide long-term replacement (and as such, a legit backup as well) until the Patriots traded him, of course.

While I don’t hold out much hope that Etling is going to emerge as Brady’s heir under center, I’m going to hold off on declaring as much until I at least give him a chance to learn the offense and take some meaningful snaps. Let’s not rush to any judgments.

Meanwhile, as long as Hoyer and Etling are here, there’s no need to go after another quarterback, least of all Petty. I’ve seen enough of him to know that he’s not the answer, even as a backup. Erik Scalavino

Hey guys, love your show. I have two questions: one general and one more specific.
1. At this time of the year, how do you feel this current Patriots team compares to last year’s? I feel that at this time last year, many were overly optimistic (perfect season talk for instance) and that this year many are overly pessimistic. Last year the team added players that excited, but didn’t live up to expectation (for example, Brandon Cooks was very good but not the second coming of Randy Moss) and that brushed over storylines (Butler’s fit, Hightower’s health) became big issues down the stretch; however, this year many sneaky good players have been added (Adrian Clayborn, Danny Shelton, Isaiah Wynn, Trent Brown, Sony Michel, Jason McCourty) to address losses in free agency and the storylines (Brady and Gronk) are a bit overblown. Overall, I think the teams are fairly similar. What are your thoughts? Am I too optimistic?
2. I’m intrigued by the idea of Brown at left tackle, Wynn at left guard, and [Joe] Thuney at center. LG and C were weaker and the idea of players playing down a position (LT > LG and LG > C) on the line is interesting to me. So, could Thuney give Andrews a run for his money at center if Brown and Wynn ended up manning the left side?
Burke Van Norman

Based on the moves they made this offseason, I’m hopeful that the 2018 Patriots defense is slightly better than last year’s. I’ll need to see move evidence on the field, of course, but on paper, this should be an improved defense compared to 2017. Offensively, the Patriots could be at least as good, if not better, than they were a season ago thanks to the skill position players they added. Where the question marks exist are on the offensive line. Which leads nicely into your second question.

I, too, am intrigued by the mammoth Brown potentially taking over for Nate Solder at left tackle, assuming he wins the job over rookie Isaiah Wynn. If Wynn then competes with Thuney and wins the left guard spot, I’m not sure where that leaves Thuney. I keep hearing similar theories as you’ve espoused, saying he’ll automatically slot into the center position, but I’ve hardly ever seen Thuney take reps there. So, I’ve no idea if he can perform at an acceptable level. Plus, there’s an incumbent captain in David Andrews who currently owns that job and he won’t be easy to unseat.

That said, the o-line, particularly the left side, will be among the most interesting training camp battles to watch unfold this summer. Erik Scalavino

It may be too early to talk about who makes the roster, especially given the fact the injuries play a role, but there are a couple of positions on offense which the local media report as being very competitive: WR and RB. Why would the Patriots keep [RB Brandon] Bolden, who has the least upside among RBs even with his special team value, over [Jeremy] Hill and [Mike] Gillislee, as some suggest? And what about finding a spot for [WR Phillip] Dorsett, who is reportedly a possible man out by giving [Kenny] Britt a TE spot even as he plays WR if the Patriots have no real talent behind Gronk, and thus no need for more than two TEs on the roster? Stan Cohen

Bolden is by no means a lock to win a job yet again in 2018, but if he does, it will be because the head coach has always liked him and believes he still has enough “versatility” to be valuable to this year’s team. That remains to be seen, of course, but I wouldn’t bet against Bolden. He’s proven people wrong many times before.

It’s premature to suggest that there’s “no real talent” at tight end behind Gronkowski. I’m especially intrigued to see how high Jacob Hollister jumps in his second year. He could very well be a nice complement to Gronkowski. Regardless, Britt is not being listed as anything but a wide receiver, because that’s what he is. Besides, that’s not how rosters are assembled in this league, sticking players nominally at other positions just to keep them around. If he and/or Dorsett wins a job, it will be at wide receiver only. Erik Scalavino

I’m not a fan of TB12 missing OTAs and his completely changed demeanor regarding their importance from what he's said about them in the past. I wonder if BB made a mistake in not selecting a QB in the early rounds of the draft, similar to what he did with Jimmy G four years ago. It kept TB on his toes and caused him to compete and fight to keep his spot. By basically taking a flyer on QB in this draft, it let TB off the hook as there is zero competition and no heir and BB has no options. Etling is a complete unknown and is likely another arm in camp and destined for the practice squad.  I believe that TB wouldn't be missing OTAs had BB taken a QB in the first or second round of the draft.  BB can’t be happy with TB missing camp and I wonder if he regrets giving up the leverage that a stud QB would bring to the table. I wonder if he feels that TB has him over a barrel. What do you think? Alan Bernstein

I think I’m exhausted from all this offseason drama and am looking forward to talking about actual football being played on the field when training camp opens in late July. Erik Scalavino

Would it be reasonable to expand Gillette Stadium to 80,000 [seats] and cover all the stands to give the public more comfort during winter and make a tougher environment, like CenturyLink Field? Gregorio Ladeira

Expanding the seating capacity of Gillette is an intriguing idea. At this point in its history, New England surely has enough demand for additional seats, based on the Patriots’ lengthy season ticket waiting list. By “a tougher environment,” I assume you mean that covering the stands would make it tougher on the opposing team, by containing much of the crowd noise within the confines of the stadium. That could help add to the team’s already considerable home-field advantage.

At the moment, I’ve not heard any serious discussion of turning this idea into a reality at Gillette, but the prospects – both the pros and cons – are certainly worth considering. Erik Scalavino

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