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Ask PFW: Possible Pro Bowl Patriots and more!

New England owns a six-game winning streak heading down the stretch of the season, but Ask PFW fans still have plenty of questions about their favorite team.

1) Please, make [Matt] Patricia promise to not use 3-man rushes anymore. Seriously, not even on Hail Mary situations. Go with 4 or more, those three-man are almost useless.

2) I was looking to the average height and weight of top defensive and nose tackles, and we can see a pattern of lighter on both. Damon Harrison seems like an outlier, with even the best against running being lighter. To enter in this pattern, Malcom Brown should lose 25 lbs. and Vincent Valentine 20 lbs.

This should increase their agility and give some relief to Valentine's knee. Without losing functional strength. I don't know the players personally, how do they look? Is it really worth it to approach this trend?

3) Do you think Patriots were a little overconfident about their linebackers and Ninkovich's position replacement?

Gregorio Ladeira

Patricia's defense has certainly trended toward fewer rushers in recent weeks and I don't really have a problem with it. New England simply doesn't really have the bodies or ability to get to the quarterback with any regularity. The rush hasn't gotten to the quarterback with any consistency all season. So I don't mind the idea of getting an extra guy or two in coverage. Regardless of scheme, I don't see the Patriots pass rush being an impact area for the team this season. The Patriots have tried to join the trend of lighter, more athletic defensive linemen over the years. But things haven't exactly worked out. The best example would be former first-round pick Dominique Easley. But I don't see your idea of Brown and Valentine dropping pounds as a feasible one at this point. Those guys are who they are and I can't imagine they'd suddenly morph into athletic matchup issues for opponents if they shed a few pounds. I think it takes more than that. I also do think they would lose playing strength and probably wouldn't be overly comfortable in the transition given the playing style they've used over the years to get where they are today. Finally, I'm not sure I'd say New England was overconfident but I do think they expected/hoped things would work out differently with the personnel depth on the front seven. I'm sure they expected Kony Ealy to contribute. Probably thought top pick Derek Rivers would at least be a rotational player. And Rob Ninkovich was on the roster right into the early days of training camp. Those are three key options that were taken from the depth chart. That's less than ideal, but they've done their best to overcome it and done so in winning fashion for the most part.

Andy Hart

Is it time to consider extending Cooks under some sort of deal that incorporates the season and a half still remaining on his contract and spreads an extra 3 years over 4 1/2 years before he gets anywhere near testing the market?

Len Carmody

Short answer, yes. There is no doubt that the Patriots will be/are interested in signing Cooks to an extension. If they weren't, it's unlikely they would have traded a first-round pick for him. The details may be a bit more difficult to work out, though. He's set to make just about $8.5 million on his fifth-year option, which is good money but not crazy. Any long-term deal will likely average much more than that considering what guys like DeAndre Hopkins – five years, $81 million with $49 million guaranteed – are getting these days. It will be interesting to see just how far the Patriots are willing to extend themselves financially to extend Cooks. But I expected they will attempt to make it happen and, who knows, maybe those discussions have already begun.

Andy Hart

Hello again from PA and thank you as always for all the work you do in keeping us Patriot fans informed. I do not understand why New England isn't signing Akeem Ayers to provide some pass rush. Is it that they do not feel like he would be worthy of the roster spot? He is only 28 years old, could his level of play slipped that badly? Also I wanted to know what you think of Riley McCarron, could he ever be called up to the game day roster? I watched him at Iowa and always envisioned him as a Patriot receiver, does he impress during practice that you may have seen?

Michael Pizzoli

Ayers was interesting prior to his signing with the Giants last week because I do think the Patriots could very much use a guy with his skills on the edge of the defensive front. I've not been impressed with Cassius Marsh. David Harris and Elandon Roberts just don't have much versatility. There is a lot being thrown at Kyle Van Noy and now Marquis Flowers and Trevor Reilly are being asked to contribute, which they have done. Not sure exactly why Ayers didn't fit the Patriots needs this time around. McCarron's spot on the practice squad means the team has interest in "working with him" as Belichick so often puts it. He was called a Wes Welker lookalike by Texans coach Bill O'Brien while he was with Houston this summer. I haven't seen him practice in New England – we aren't allowed to watch practice this time of year. He basically had one productive season at Iowa, with 42 catches as a senior. He has the look of an undersized slot receiver and it will be interesting if he sticks around for a potential developmental role next year but I can't imagine he's ready to contribute this year other than a true emergency situation.

Andy Hart

Hey guys! Brazilian greetings from London! First of all, thank you for the great job covering the team. Coincidence or not, Dwayne Allen's production increased after Bennett's return to NE!? Do you see any correlation!? Cheers.

Rafael Bosco

I think there could be some correlation, but not the "lit a fire under him" theory that Jim Murray, the host of our Xbox One postgame show on posed. I think the correlation could be in terms of Bennett's arrival putting more two-tight-end sets in the game plan. Yet, with Bennett dealing with hamstring and shoulder injuries, he may not always be available for every snap opposite Gronkowski. Maybe that has gotten Allen a couple more chances in the passing game? Just a thought. Beyond that I think he's a veteran who has worked hard to improve and find a way to contribute. He's done that on a very minor basis the last couple weeks, but it's still much more than he did over the first half of the season.

Andy Hart

For me, one of the keys to the win in Mexico was the play of Gronk and James White. While it won't show in the stat line, both guys spent a lot of time helping in pass protection to give Brady more time. In Gronk's case considering his incentive contract, the fact he does this without complaint is particularly impressive. A lot of journalists are saying Kelce is now the number one tight end in football, but Sunday showed why Gronk is the best all-round tight end in the game. Do you think he makes All-Pro this year and gets his money if the Patriots continue to use him this way or will the grunt work he does go unrecognized?

Len Carmody

I do think Gronkowski will end up earning All-Pro honors this season. Even with a significant amount of time helping out in the blocking game and missing a game to injury he's still putting up very impressive numbers. Sure Kelce has 17 more catches, but Gronkowski has the same number of TDs and is averaging nearly 3 more yards per reception (15.1 compared to 12.5). If you are considering all aspects of the position, Gronkowski is the best and it's not even really all that close.

Andy Hart

In your opinion who are the potential Pro Bowlers on the Pats this season? Of course there's the obvious like Brady, Gronk and Cooks and Butler despite his struggles earlier this season. Any possible surprises? Kyle Van Noy has been playing very well for the Pats and I believe there is a chance he could make it.

Logan Morrison

You noted some of the obvious choices. I would think that Brady and Gronkowski are absolute locks. Cooks is very likely. I don't think Butler has a great chance given the way he's performed and the fact that he didn't make it last year. I think Gostkowski has a decent shot to return. I also think Shaq Mason could be have a chance at guard as I believe his reputation around the league is growing more positive by the week. I don't think Van Noy has a chance. He's been solid in his role, but quite frankly I don't think he deserves to go.

Andy Hart

It seems that almost every year, Patriots are in the top-10 or higher in terms of injuries to key players. If Brady was less durable and smart about it, Patriots would not have 5 SB rings, and they probably would have had 6-7 rings if Patriots were healthy heading into AFC-SB games. And while BB goes by "no excuses" and "next man up" approach, I still wonder, why Patriots are consistently injured above average?

Ken Stanley

The Patriots have had their share of injuries over the years. They've also been fortunate in that area at times, as was the case a year ago when Gronkowski was really the only major injury. This year, again, I think they are down the list of teams most affected by injury. No question that Edelman and Hightower are major losses, but other teams are similarly banged up and more so. Look at the Texans, Cardinals and Packers, just to name a few. I know the Patriots have studied their injury situation compared to the rest of the rest of the league many times over the years. I don't think they're really come to any conclusions. They make changes to the program when called for, but not sure it really has led to anything. Some of it has to do with their willingness in some cases to take on injury-prone players in the draft. Other than that, I'm a big believer that there are simply a lot of injuries in football and that when you go for a stretch without them you are due for a flurry. It's the reality of the game. There is a reason it's often referred to as a battle of attrition.

Andy Hart

Do you agree with some in the media proclaiming that Patriots are the clear front runner of the AFC? I see the Steelers who have a roster (and home field advantage) to defeat Patriots missing Hightower and several other players in defensive front 7 who were let go or retired and were not adequately replaced. Which assessment do you agree with more or less?

Jason Lagrange

I do think the Patriots are the frontrunners at this point, even with Pittsburgh currently in line for the No. 1 seed. The biggest reason for that is New England has handled the Steelers so well over the years. But you are correct in the fact that the Pittsburgh offense has the potential to be elite and really take it to any defense, including New England's unit that's made positive strides in recent weeks. But considering the consistency that Brady and Belichick have brought over the years and the advantage New England has seemingly had over Pittsburgh, New England is the team to beat in the AFC. Those two are well ahead of the Chiefs and Jaguars at this point in my opinion.

Andy Hart

Dear Sirs, Always thanks. Over the summer I mentioned several times that the Patriots should be more careful with Butler's psychologically. That's not smart football management. They should wake up to the problem by offering Butler a very good contract. He's not a great CB; but he brings a lot of energy to his role (not to be underestimated); and is a solid player. Someone you want to stick by (for the team). Another point: the most pressing problem for the Pats is to acquire in the draft a third down-and-short RB. Do you agree with these assessments? Yours,

Folger Mac Fadden

I think it's too late to fix the situation with Butler. The team is heavily invested in cornerback with Stephon Gilmore and I can't see another $60-plus million deal at the position, which is what I think it might take. Butler hasn't had a great year. That may or may not have to do with his contract situation, though most assume that is the reason. It seems all-too-likely at this point that we are watching the final games of Butler's career in New England. I will be disappointed to see him go, but it is what it is. That said, I don't think he's a truly elite cornerback and certainly is far from irreplaceable, even if Gilmore has struggled to open his career in Foxborough. I do not think a short-yardage running back is the Patriots biggest draft need next spring. I don't think that's a huge need at all. I would say pass rusher, tackle, linebacker, cornerback, developmental quarterback and defensive tackle would be far bigger needs.

Andy Hart

I understand that BB has full control. I would be interested in to what extent he consults with Brady or other team members on personnel acquisitions in the offseason - or during the season.

Richard Lew

I think the bulk of the consulting with in terms of personnel decisions is in regards to gathering information when the team is considering bringing a player in. Current Patriots can often add perspective on a player based on past experiences with that guy. Otherwise I think Belichick makes his decisions in consultation with his scouts and personnel men, not his players.

Andy Hart

If WR Mitchell comes back and everyone stays healthy, Patriots may have an offense no worse and possibly even better than the one which won SB, but the loss of Hightower makes the front-7 inferior to the one they had last year, and so I wonder, wasn't there any way to shelf him until AFC title game or even SB if Patriots advance that far?

Stan C.

Belichick has said that Hightower's year is over. I have to take him at his word on that. But the longer it goes without New England using its second IR designation to return – on someone like Malcolm Mitchell or Vincent Valentine – I will wonder if it could be used for a late-playoff addition of Hightower, who underwent surgery to repair a torn pectoral. As for the Patriots offense, with or without Mitchell I think this year's offense is better with the addition of Cooks, a healthy Gronkowski and the healthy depth of the running back stable.

Andy Hart

I was wondering what the story is on Anthony Garcia. We were told he was out for the season for a NFI injury, but I have yet to hear what the injury is or whether it will affect his status next season. Also, what are the chances of signing Waddle to an extension? Jelks was eligible to return from PUP and was practicing. What is his status?

Pat Mackey

Garcia was actually placed on the illness version of NFI. There is a difference, but I can't really offer much more than that in terms of what the illness is and what it might mean for his short- and long-term future. I would never rule out an extension for Waddle as a trusted veteran backup, although the status of guys like Garcia, Andrew Jelks, Cameron Fleming and even Nate Solder could play into that decision. I do think the team likes what Waddle brings to his role. Jelks did begin practicing, but I'd be stunned if he were added to the active roster. He's more likely to remain on NFI given that he's missed the last two-plus seasons coming back from a twice-torn ACL. I would think he's a developmental option for the future, not a guy worthy of a roster spot at this point.

Andy Hart

Hello all! Your column helps the week go by quickly. My question relates to the draft. When a player declares themselves eligible, do they quit/withdraw from school at that point? How does that affect their transcript or their ability to go back to school in the future? Do they get all Fs? Thanks.

Mike Milbury

Players handle this in different ways. Many, including many underclassmen, leave school and begin training for the Combine/draft in the winter. Other players continue to go to class and prepare for the Combine/draft at their school. Remember, many finish their fall semester and then could simply not enroll in classes for the spring. Again, that's more likely for an underclassman than a senior who could get his degree by finishing out the spring.

Andy Hart

Can you explain the IR situation regarding Shea McClellin? As the Patriots designated him to return, and he ultimately didn't, do they now still have 2 IR players available to return or has McClellin counted, leaving the Patriots with one spot for a player to return from IR?

Alex Marr

It's the latter, and you summed it up perfectly. McClellin was designated to return, practiced and then did not get added to the active roster. He is done for the year and New England has just one remaining slot to have a player return from injured reserve. The most likely candidates for that second spot at this point are Mitchell or Valentine.

Andy Hart

What's the situation with Eric Rowe? At times (SB 51 and a couple of regular season games) he's been the Patriots best corner on the field but his injury lingers. Any update?

Pete Clark

Rowe has practiced on a limited basis the last couple weeks as he works back from that pretty severe groin injury that had him struggling to even walk in the locker room for a while. I thought there was a chance he might return against the Raiders, so now I'm really thinking his return to action will be this week against the Dolphins. He missed the third game of the year and then games five through 10 with a groin problem. So it makes sense that the team would be very cautious with his return to ensure he doesn't have a third issue with the groin. But it would certainly be nice to get each of the team's top three cornerbacks in the mix once again, something we haven't seen very often this fall.

Andy Hart

Hi! Two questions: I know everyone is complaining about the defense, but over the last [five] weeks the defense has played pretty well. What is your view on the defense of late? Secondly, it's a bit early but who do you see the Patriots taking during the draft? (I have them taking a LB or QB in the first, trading the 49ers pick down and using their own second for a DE or LB).

Erik Scalavino

Glad you emailed in, Erik. I've been meaning to tell you that you have a lot to learn about the Patriots. As for the defense, they have certainly been better in recent weeks. The improvement in points allowed is very impressive. They've cut down on the big plays allowed, added more guys to the rotation of contributors and seemingly improved the communication. But I still have some questions about both the run defense and pass defense if/when they play against a high-level offense. Still, give them credit for the growth and evolution they've gone through this season from a really dismal start to the year. As for the draft, I think the front seven on defense will be the biggest need, but I'm nowhere near ready to pick a player. I will say I've watched N.C. State's Bradley Chubb a few times and he is a pretty intriguing player.

Andy Hart

OK I'm going to ask the question that I feel like a lot of people may be thinking. Is it me or does there seem to be some type of awkwardness in the secondary while Gilmore is on the field? It seems like the defense functions better without him, particularly Malcolm Butler.

Mike Davis

This has been a simmering talking point almost all year. I don't know what to make of it. Gilmore has been decent in recent weeks and seems very much at home matching up with opposing big receivers. There have been hiccups, like the Demaryius Thomas touchdown in Denver in which Gilmore immediately seemed to turn to Duron Harmon with some sort of confusion. Butler has certainly had his own issues, including with Emmanuel Sanders in that same Broncos game. Still, Gilmore is too talented physically to say the team is that much better without him. I thought he tackled well against Oakland. I think he's showing improvement. That's a good thing, even if he may not ever live up to the expectations of his massive contract.

Andy Hart

What are your thoughts on Malcom Brown? When he was drafted, a lot of people said the Pats got a steal and that he was a top 15 talent. I know the Pats system doesn't always allow for the DTs to make the big splash plays, but I feel like there are times in games where he just disappears, and is not the impact player we thought he would be. Good but not great.

Scott Mundell

When Brown was drafted many thought the team was getting Vince Wilfork 2.0. He's not that. He's yet to even prove he's the best DT on the front, which Alan Branch has been more often than not the last two years. The word I would use is probably "fine." He's a fine player. As a third-round pick, he'd be good value. But as a first-round pick he's simply not lived up to the expectations.

Andy Hart

Hi, can you help us understand the waiver rule, and why the Patriots chose to pick up Marty Bennett on waivers vs. letting him hit the market and signing him then? What advantage does it give them given that they are at the bottom of the order, selection-wise. Wouldn't they have been able to sign him to a shorter contract for less money as a free agent?

Jim Sailer

First, they were not the bottom of the waiver list, they were ahead of fellow Super Bowl contenders Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Second, his contract was by no means prohibitive when prorated over the second half of the season. It's less than $1 million even with his per-game bonuses. So it's a pretty cheap deal. If they didn't claim him he could have been claimed by the Steelers or Eagles. If he did clear waivers, he could have leveraged his free agency to a better contract, even if only a few teams might have been interested. So it was safer and there was really no financial reason not to claim him. It made perfect sense. And he can be let go after the season if New England doesn't want to pick up what I believe is a $2 million bonus to keep him next spring. Or, as he's said previously, he may simply retire.

Andy Hart

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