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Ask PFW: Replacing Ninko

Fans' questions answered in our weekly PFW mailbag.

I'm sure you'll receive a flurry of Rob Ninkovich-related questions, but I may as well ask anyway. In terms of finding a replacement for that DE/OLB 'tweener role, who do you see as being a potential replacement, emphasis on potential? During the pre-draft process, I noticed some draft "experts" and analysts had labeled Derek Rivers as an outside linebacker. It seems as though he has the athleticism and strength to play both roles, but I'm sure he won't be able to step into it right away. Any thoughts on Rivers or another player like [Shea] McClellin assuming that responsibility? Connor Haley

It was already one of the most intriguing questions of this training camp, given the relative lack of depth/experience at that position, and even more so now in the wake of Ninkovich's retirement. The answer might depend on how the Patriots elect to line up on defense going forward (for instance, if New England uses more 3-4 front or stays in its conventional 4-3 alignment).

Ready or not, Rivers might have to assume a greater role than he perhaps would have if Ninkovich hadn't retired. I'm anxious to see more of Rivers on defense as this preseason unfolds, especially when we get into joint practices and preseason games.

Geneo Grissom is another player who could benefit from more opportunities this summer after being relegated to special teams duties the past two seasons.

McClellin is an established veteran who has played defensive end, outside linebacker, and inside 'backer in the NFL, and he's been seeing plenty of action in the early days of camp. Interestingly, he's at the point in his career where Ninkovich was when he started to assume a full-time role on defense with the Patriots.

Of course, the Patriots traded for Kony Ealy this past offseason, and the hope is that he can provide some needed competition in this area, but thus far, we haven't seen much from him. It's still very early in the process and no one's role is entirely certain at the moment. We'll just have to be patient while this situation plays itself out over the coming weeks. Erik Scalavino

Had Ninkovich retired at the end of the season do you think [Jabaal] Sheard and or [Chris] Long would still be with the Patriots?Dave DeLuca

It's possible, but I get the sense that both men were looking for a change of scenery, especially after having completed a successful Super Bowl season here in Foxborough. Erik Scalavino

Ninko: Patriots Hall of Famer? Sean

He could eventually receive consideration for this honor, but it would likely be quite some time before his name might come up, given all the other high-profile players already waiting ahead of him. Erik Scalavino

It seems the list will include Geneo Grissom, Lawrence Guy, David Harris, Kyle Van Noy, and Austin Carr, but I was wondering who is benefiting and making the most of their extra playing time (especially with the first team), from the absences of star artists/veterans like Alan Branch, Dont'a Hightower, Rob Ninkovich, and Danny Amendola. Will any of them push the more established players for playing time if and when they return (I know Ninkovich won't)? David Beckett

As I mentioned already, Grissom is a young player who's already seeing more action on defense this summer than in his previous two. He needs to start taking advantage of these increased repetitions, however. Branch's PUP stint, meantime, is allowing guys like Darius Kilgo and rookies Adam Butler and Josh Augusta to get some extra looks.

Van Noy looks like a player this coaching staff really likes, but I think he would be getting just as many reps in practice if Hightower were on the field. Seems to me like Van Noy is in more of a competition with Jonathan Freeny for the so-called "coverage" linebacker role, although Van Noy is also adept at rushing the passer and has expressed a desire to do more of that this season.

Carr, a rookie, has made a few nice plays in the early going here and is standing out in a positive way, as has second-year man Devin Lucien, to some extent. But I'd say this has less to do with Amendola's relative inactivity and more with Malcolm Mitchell's, given their comparable skill sets. Again, it's extremely early in camp, so, there's still time for these or other players to emerge as bona fide contributors. Erik Scalavino

Simple question that might be difficult to answer. At this time of year, what's a more positive thing to see heading into the season: our offense owning our defense or vice versa? From the [PFW in Progress] show and blogservations, it seems more like the offense had its way with the defense. Are we in for another shoot-out season? Mark Collier

Ideally, I'd like to see a balanced competition when the O and D square off in 11-on-11 practice periods. In recent years, we've seen the offense get off to a slow camp start at times, only to become a juggernaut in the regular season, while the defense has been less consistent from summer to fall. I'm confident that the offense will find its rhythm, because it always does, so, I'm more interested in watching the defense grow and make more plays at this point. That side of the ball has more questions to answer, in my estimation. Erik Scalavino

1. Who do you think the starting defensive line will be this year? 2. If the Patriots win another Super Bowl, will they be considered the best franchise in NFL history? IF they aren't the best who is the best and where do the Patriots rank? 3. Do you think this will be the last season that Matt Patricia, Josh McDaniels, and Bill Belichick will be together as defensive coordinator, offensive coordinator and head coach? (In other words, will Patricia and McDaniels get jobs elsewhere next season?) 4. Do the Patriots have a rival in the NFL? It used to be the Colts, then the Ravens, then the Broncos, but if you had to choose, who is our biggest rivalry in the NFL? Dylan Damewood

  1. Again, it depends a great deal on how the front seven is asked to line up this year. Whenever he's healthy, I would expect Branch to be in the mix, along with Malcom Brown at the tackle spot. I'm also anticipating Trey Flowers being at one of the ends. The rest of the line still has job openings.
  1. Considered the best by whom? Patriots fans? Football fans in general? Without question, New England is already among the handful of best franchises ever, given the remarkable success it's enjoyed for nearly two straight decades. Pittsburgh has been competitive, more or less, since the 1970s, as has Dallas, to a lesser extent. They can make legitimate arguments as well. Bottom line, this is a question with a subject answer that will likely never find consensus.
  1. In all likelihood, yes. It's remarkable that the trio has been together as long as it has to date.
  1. The common denominator to those three foes you listed is that they were all either the best or second-best teams in the AFC along with New England, or at least gave the Patriots the toughest tests whenever they met. With that as our criteria, I'd argue for the Raiders and Steelers as current holders of the "rival" moniker. Erik Scalavino

This is Rob from Virginia again. I wrote you previously regarding my Super Bowl 50 trip where I saw Matt Forte, and I was hoping he'd join the Pats at that time. I guess things worked out okay without him! I was at SBLI in Feb (best game I've ever been to for 1.5 quarters) and just missed seeing you guys, but I enjoyed your shows. I always listen to your podcasts while working out in the gym. Anyway, I really enjoyed your debate the other day about whether we should talk about the potential for the Pats to go 19-0. I kind of get Fred's point that it's so hard to do that it almost diminishes the accomplishment by even speculating about it. To illustrate the point, I thought I'd do a bit of math on the problem. Let's say the odds of winning each regular season game are 90%. Then the odds of winning all 16 are (0.9)^16 = .1853 or 18.5%. Now let's say they have an 80% chance of winning two home playoff games.Then the odds of going 18-0 are .1853 x 0.8 x 0.8 = 11.9%. Then the Super Bowl – let's give them 70% odds. Given these (generous) assumptions, the likelihood of going 19-0 is 0.1186 x 0.7 = .083. So the odds of going 19-0 are 8.3% – not undoable, but also very unlikely even with a generous assumption of 90% for each regular season game. If you drop the odds of regular season games to 80% then the likelihood of 19-0 drops dramatically to just 1.3%! I'm guessing Bill has done the math. Love you guys, Rob Alexander

I doubt Bill has done the math, because you don't need math to draw the conclusion that it's extremely unlikely that any team, New England included, will go 19-0. However, if you're willing to do more calculations, I bet the Patriots have the best chance of the 32 teams of defying the odds and going undefeated. Again, though, I don't need numbers to make this assertion, just my own eyes as I watch this team up close and examine the others around the league. Erik Scalavino

It seems to me every year in the playoffs we're always cringing at the weakness of the Patriots' o-line and worried every snap could be the end of [QB Tom] Brady and the team's year. Why is it that the Pats seem not to value this fundamental need for strength there enough to ensure it's elite? They brought back [assistant coach Dante] Scarnecchia, so I know they are not totally blind to it, but without this foundational strength, we are walking a dangerous path. Will we ever see an o-line in New England like Dallas' under Belichick? Are there really not enough great offensive linemen out there? I want to see the best o-line possible in Brady's final years. I can't imagine why that wouldn't be the top area of focus for the team.John Forsythe

Well, John, seeing how the Patriots have drafted two offensive linemen in each of the past three drafts, and three in the one before that, I'd say they are doing what they can to address the perceived needs at the position. No, they're not spending absurd sums in free agency to sign o-line veterans, which you seem to be suggesting they do… nor would I want them to, because I don't believe there are many, if any, offensive linemen worthy of such big paydays. The issues the Patriots have had are correctable, and with the young players they've drafted now having gained considerable experience, I expect this unit to perform better in 2017 than it has collectively over the past few seasons. Erik Scalavino

I was wondering if there are any referee officials during training camp so that players and coaches are up to date with new rules for the upcoming season? Fuad Nehemen

Not yet, but they generally arrive around the week of the first preseason game, sometimes a bit sooner. We'll of course detail it here on and in PFW when they come this year. Erik Scalavino

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