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Ask PFW: Setting up Patriots training camp

Early arrivals are already at work in Foxborough as the Patriots set to open training camp on Thursday morning at Gillette Stadium. Still, there are plenty of questions about the defending champs in this week’s Ask PFW.

First off, I'd like to say I love how you guys take time out of your day to answer questions from your fans about the best team in the NFL. Now, for my question, how do you think the linebackers are going to do this season? Jamie Collins and Hightower have a lot of untapped potential and if Mayo stays healthy, we can be a top 5 linebacker group. What's your thoughts on them?

Ethan Charles

I think the starting trio of linebackers has the potential to be a very good, impactful group that could be the strength of the Patriots overhauled defense. But, as you mention, the first step in that direction is for Mayo and Hightower to get to full health and on the field. I'm not overly worried about Hightower coming off shoulder surgery. Mayo, though, is more of a concern coming off a major injury (torn patella in his knee) as he approaches the age of 30 following two straight seasons in which he was limited to just six games played. Healthy, though, the group may be as athletic and versatile as any in the NFL today. The real concern at linebacker, beyond health, is the lack of depth at the position. But two days before training camp is a time for hope not pessimism. The linebackers are awesome! (No, really, they are.) Collins has the chance to become an All-Pro star in his third season.

Andy Hart

Since it's obvious that the Patriots reputation is at an all-time low and the NFL has it out for them I think they should take a risk on Ray Rice. What better way to stick it back to the NFL and the Ravens for pushing Goodell to uphold Brady's suspension. I'm sure they can get him dirt cheap and although he may not be the Ray Rice of old , matched up with Blount they could make an amazing tandem. Any chances of this happening?

Jarod Piccolo

Nope. Patriots owner Robert Kraft went on the record last summer saying that he would be surprised if Rice played in the NFL again and that he would not bring him to New England. So that seems pretty clear. I also don't really get your logic. I don't think signing Rice would really do all that much to the league. And, remember, he wasn't playing well before his domestic violence scandal, averaging 3.1 yards per carry in 2013. That doesn't mean he couldn't be a productive player again, but a team has to weigh his potential with the distraction and publicity he brings. Regardless, according to Kraft, that's not even a consideration in New England.

Andy Hart

With the Saints releasing Junior Galette, do you think New England would be a good landing spot for him or are we pretty content with our pass rushers in general to have any interest?

Jeremy James

Just in terms of pure playing skills, I'm sure most teams would be interested in a guy like Galette. But, he brings much more to the table. Along with double-digit sacks the last two seasons he brings on and off-field concerns. He reportedly got into multiple fights with teammates and became a real attitude problem after signing a $41 million contract. He also has had multiple domestic violence issues in recent years. After he was released by New Orleans he reportedly went off on his former team and teammates via his girlfriend's twitter account. Galette is a good pass rusher and a bad guy. While the Patriots could, like most teams, use more pass rush, they don't need a guy like Galette in the mix in Foxborough. Not gonna happen.

Andy Hart

With the departure of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner how do you think our defense will look this season? And also if Tom Brady's suspension is upheld do you see Garoppolo helping us win our first four games of the season? Also do you think the Patriots can repeat the Super Bowl and what team would you think we can beat if we had to play them the Packers or the Cowboys or the Giants?

Steven Kennedy

A handful of answers for a handful of questions…I think the pass defense is going to struggle, especially early in the season. I don't think the theory of just playing zone or the pass rush are enough to overcome the loss of experienced talent in the back end. That could be especially true in trips to Dallas and Indy in consecutive weeks in October. If Garoppolo has to play four games, I think he will have his ups and downs. I don't think he's ready to go 4-0, no. Starting on opening night against the Steelers would be a big challenge for a guy who didn't even have a college playbook little more than a year ago. So, too, is a trip to Dallas to take on the Cowboys. A 2-2 mark for Garoppolo would be a solid performance in my opinion. I think the Patriots will have a tough road to repeating as champions given the turnover on defense. Of the three teams you listed, though, I think the dreaded Giants would be the best choice for New England to get a potential big game victory.

Andy Hart

In the SB when Kearse made that circus catch on the side line the safety jumped over him - I would think that was coached play not to slam a defenseless player - if he had drove his shoulder into him on the ground and interrupted him corralling the ball in would he have been flagged? If so all moot but think that give debate of play to the whistle and safety as it was a huge impact play - your thoughts?


Nova Scotia

I've heard this theory about Duron Harmon a lot, and I just don't buy it. Sure, if he had speared Kearse it would have been flagged. But had he just hit him or the ball, instead of jumping over the play, I can't imagine there would have been a problem. You can play to the whistle. You can even hit a defenseless player. Just not in the head or neck area or leading with your head or forearm. To me, this is an excuse more than a legit reason for Harmon not breaking up the play. I don't kill him for it, because the whole world assumed it was incomplete. But he could have made sure of that and didn't.

Andy Hart

I loved the defensive overhaul this season personally. We got younger and cheaper by dropping Wilfork, Arrington and Revis. They definitely made this defense better, but would cost the development of younger players and the cap hit could hurt other positions. I think a zone-based, bend-but-don't-break secondary led by Butler and Ryan at corner could be at least serviceable, and capitalize on mistakes thanks to pressure from our front seven. I think a 15th ranked defense could be in the cards. I also foresee a possession based offense thanks to short timing passes, and a power running game. What do you think? Also, outside of the usual prospects, who would you like to see break out this year? I'd like to see Ebner or Harmon dominate special teams or break out on D.

Blake Norris

I think the offense can and will be able to do just about anything it chooses at a relatively high level assuming the usual key characters stay healthy. There are concerns at running back and offensive line, but the overall talent should overcome those issues. I don't share the same optimism with you, Blake, about the defense. I think the talent level took a major step back, especially in the back end. There is a lot of pressure on the young corners as well as on a pass rush that's never proven consistently the ability to get to the quarterback. For reference, the Patriots had the No. 13 defense and No. 17 pass defense last fall in terms of yards. The group did have the No. 8 scoring defense, especially impressive against a pretty formidable schedule. The slate of opponents isn't quite as strong – in theory before the season starts! – this year. I won't rule out a middle-of-the-pack defense, as you predict. But I wonder if that will be good enough to win in the postseason and attempt to defend the title. Right now, I have my doubts. As for a breakout player I'll throw two names out there. I like your Harmon prediction. Offensively, I'll go with James White in the passing back role. I think he needs to step up.

Andy Hart

Being a diehard patriots fan, I know that we are all a little biased on the question I am about to ask, but let's give it a whirl anyway. If you could trade for either Gronk or Watt for your hypothetical team, but only one of them, which would you pick to build your team around and why?

Ryan Sylvestre

This a great question. This is what mailbags and talk radio were made for. It's also a really hard one to answer. The homer side of me says I'd go with Gronkowski. He may be the best tight end in the history of the game and has proven time and time again that he can transform an offense. But he's also been hurt a lot and there are legit questions about how long his career will last. Watt is inarguably the best defensive player in the game today. He can change games almost single handedly. He, like Gronk, makes everyone around him better. Both are seemingly good guys who are good organizational representatives off the field. Still, it's an offensive league and Gronkowski is one of my favorite all-time players. So I'll go with Gronk. But I don't think you can go wrong with either decision.

Andy Hart

Do you think that it is fair for Roger Goodell not to making a ruling on the Brady appeal with training camp right around the corner?

Kevin Jeter

No. And that's probably why the NFL dropped its ruling on Tuesday afternoon, even though Brady had already begun his workouts in Foxborough as an early arrival.

Andy Hart

In your opinion, who do you feel is the better receiver Aaron Dobson or Brian Tyms (hands, route running, quickness and straight line speed)? PFW please give me the inside scoop. Thank you!

Emory Addison

This is another great question and a training camp battle to keep an eye on. In spring practice Tyms seemed to get more reps with guys like Edelman and Gronkowski. Dobson is the former second-round pick, so that's worth something. He was once seen as the potential future at the position. Tyms, in my opinion, is a more limited player who is at his best on the outside and getting down the field, although I don't think he actually has elite speed. Despite his miserable, injury-shortened second season, I think Dobson is the more well-rounded talent. But I also think he's fighting for his roster life this summer and the underdog Tyms will be a big part of that fight.

Andy Hart

How will Dan Connolly's absence, both in leadership and playing ability, impact the Pats offensive line, and how will they fill the void?

Jake Gostanian

I think Connolly is a big loss as both a versatile player on the field and a quiet leader in the locker room. He stepped up as a captain and spokesman for the line last year after the Logan Mankins trade. He's been a starter at the three interior spots for the last five years. His retirement means for the second straight year the Patriots will open the season without their best guard from the previous fall. That leaves undersized but versatile fill-in Ryan Wendell and a pair of fourth-round rookies likely fighting for the two guard spots. (Of course the likes of Cameron Fleming, Marcus Cannon or Josh Kline could also be in the mix.) That's not ideal and could lead to some early season roster shuffling and shaky performances, again, for the second straight year. My early guess is that Wendell (who is on PUP to open the summer) and Tre' Jackson will end up the starters at guard.

Andy Hart

I think the Patriots got quite a steal drafting Tre' Jackson in the 4th but, I still think the oline could be improved. Do you think the Patriots will make a move for Evan Mathis? Mathis is still playing at a high level and I think he would help the oline be as good as it was back in 07. What are the chances of the Patriots signing the veteran in your opinion?

Connor Heim

Mathis is interesting in that when he was let go by Philly there was speculation that a lot of teams (Denver, San Diego, the Giants and others were thrown about) would be interested in the veteran's services. But he remains unsigned. Maybe he's looking to pull a Brian Waters and sit out some of training camp before picking where to play. Maybe his asking price is too high at this point. Regardless, I'm a little dubious that he would fit in New England given that he's probably asking for decent money and, given the reported interest of other teams, probably has some negotiating leverage. I don't expect him to land with the Patriots, but adding a veteran to the interior line certainly would be nice.

Andy Hart

Hey guys. Love reading the stuff y'all put up every week. Very insightful. My question is: Out of all the opponents we face this season. Who do u feel is going to be the biggest challenge? And if our secondary isn't up to par, how far do u think we'll make it into the postseason?

Jeremy W.

I think either the Cowboys or the Colts could be the toughest game this season, and the fact that those games are back-to-back in Weeks 5 and 6 makes the combo that much more challenging. So I'm going to say the Colts in Indy is the toughest game of the year, but that's kind of a hard sell given the Patriots dominance over that team in recent years and the fact that it could be Tom Brady's return from suspension. So maybe the week earlier at Dallas is really the biggest hurdle. And if we assume the secondary isn't up to par and playing above average football come playoff time, then I think the Patriots will peak in either the divisional or title round of the postseason. It's tough to get over the hump if you can't play pass defense at a high-enough level.

Andy Hart

Do you see veterans like Ninkovich and Branch taking a step back with young up and coming players like Brown, Sheard, and Easley?

AC Coonrad

Branch will likely be a complementary/rotational player this season, which is what he was a year ago. The hope is that Brown has a big rookie season and Easley is ready to go in year two. I'm not sold nearly as much on Sheard as a "up and coming" player. He's a veteran whose production has actually declined each season. Maybe that will change with a change of uniform. But I still think Ninkovich is one of the most consistent, reliable, productive players on a defense that can use as many of those proven commodities as it can get. Ninkovich is still the man and if anyone eventually pushes him it could be either Geneo Grissom or Trey Flowers as the rookie draft picks develop over time.

Andy Hart

Which draft pick are you most looking forward to watching in training camp?

Kelly Loewen

While Malcom Brown is the most obvious answer here as the top pick with a chance to be a key starter, it's hard to gauge defensive tackles too much in practice. Still, it will be worth watching the reps he gets, how he fits in and if he looks like an immediate impact player. The guy I really want to see is Grissom. He's a versatile defensive end type and pass rusher. But he also drew high praise from Bill Belichick for his workout as a tight end leading up to the draft. That certainly sounds like an intriguing athlete who could make some noise on the practice field, on special teams, in preseason action and eventually this fall.

Andy Hart

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