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Ask PFW: Summertime priorities

I've read in some articles that one weakness of NE is the defensive line because it suffered departures and releases, and looking at the depth chart, perhaps they're right. There's also the need for a playmaker running back. Also there's not too much space below the salary cap and still there are too many contracts to restructure. What do you think will be the best move to do before training camps begins? Reinforce DL with someone  experienced, try to get a running back to aid while the starters get completely healthy, or try to restructure a contract for one of the "big three free agents?" I'd love to see all of the situations happen, but it will be hard.

Victor Galicia*

Good question to start us off today, Victor. In fact, I addressed this topic in the latest issue of PFW (our mini-camp review, on newsstands now… 1-800-494-PATS or pfwonline.com to subscribe). I'm not all that concerned about the d-line. In my estimation, the Achilles heel of this team is at running back, where Dion Lewis is the top dog, but coming off a serious knee injury. I would have liked to have seen the team add a legit veteran ball carrier (Matt Forte) this offseason, and perhaps they still can with someone like Arian Foster. Problem is, he, too, is coming off an injury (coincidentally, an Achilles).

However, for all intents and purposes, the 90-man roster is essentially complete. There will be additions/subtractions during camp and preseason, but I don't expect any impactful moves to be made with regard to the roster.

Where the focus should be right now, I maintain, is off the field. The team needs to address the contract situations of CB Malcolm Butler and LBs Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower – the "big three" to whom you alluded – sooner rather than later. 

Erik Scalavino*

Among the plethora of upcoming free agents, I find Jabaal Sheard to be one of the more interesting. He's not counted among the "Big Three," but would it be a stretch to consider a "Big Four?" It seems to be we have a large quantity of unknowns in the DE group (Flowers, Grissom, Long, McClellin). Last year, Sheard was a consistent force alongside [Chandler] Jones and this year he's projected to be the number one. We did not address the position in the draft and brought in an aged veteran [Chris Long] for a one year stint. Of course there is always next offseason to address it, but what do you guys think of Sheard and his importance? 

Conor Haley*

I wouldn't put him in a "Big Four" category, no. He had a good 2015, his first season in Foxborough, but he's not in the upper echelon of his position like the aforementioned three. At least not at this stage. If he goes out and has a dominant 2016 and challenges for the league lead in sacks and other big plays, then I'll reconsider. But for now, no, I think we can wait to address his contract. I do like what Sheard brought to the table last year, though, and am anxious to see if he has a similar or increased role this season.

I have high hopes as well for Long, who could be poised to have a Sheard-like resurgence. And don't count out youngsters like Trey Flowers, who had a solid start to camp last summer as a rookie before getting injured in the preseason opener. I'm not ready to say that Sheard is the only viable option at DE just yet. Let's let the summer play itself out first, at least.

Erik Scalavino*

Next year's free agency has every Pats fan very nervous with so many defensive players' contracts expiring. My questions are, if you had to keep one of the DEs (Sheard/ Rob Ninkovich), one of the LBs (Collins/Hightower), and one of the CBs (Butler/ Logan Ryan), whose contracts are coming up, which three would you choose? Also is there enough money to keep everyone or most? If not who do you see leaving?

Trey Hagey*

I don't normally like answering questions about next season when we still have a full "this season" in front of us, but this is a fun one, so, I'll bite.

I like Ninko, the player and the person. He's always a good guy to converse with, both on and off the record. He's a solid leader and reliable playmaker, too. Problem is, he's getting a little long in the tooth, which makes Sheard a more appealing option. This is a tough call, but I'm going with Bill Belichick's "better-to-let-them-go-too-early-than-too-late" philosphoy.

At linebacker, I'd take Collins over Hightower, if I had to keep just one. Collins, to me, is the better all-around athlete and playmaker. Cornerback? No contest. Butler is the better player and still trending upward. His best football is ahead of him, while Ryan (a great guy, by the way) has plateaued. 

Erik Scalavino*

With the Saints and Bears coming to Gillette for joint practices, which Patriot players (or units) do you think will be challenged most by either squad? Secondly, aside from an unlikely Travaris Cadet reunion, any bubble players from either team who could end up in a trade? Thanks for everything guys.

Paul Oliveira*

Interesting questions to ponder, Paul. Generally speaking, I would tend to look at position groups more than specific players, although, it's usually safe to assume that rookies tend to be challenged frequently by veterans during camp and preseason.

My guess is, the positions where New England might be weakest would be the areas that are most susceptible to challenges from the opposition. I'm thinking in particular of the cornerbacks (aside from Malcolm Butler… although he did have one horrific practice at the Greenbrier last summer against the Saints before bouncing back the next day), the running backs, and the interior o-line.

Your second question is more difficult to answer without having seen the practices yet. However, to be fair, we didn't notice Akiem Hicks standing out all that much during last summer's Greenbrier practices with the Saints, either. Patriots coaches obviously did, though. With all there is to watch during joint practices on multiple fields, it can be difficult to key on one particular player, but we'll do our best to take note of any "Patriot-type" players on the Saints and Bears when they come to town. 

Erik Scalavino*

It seems as if Brian Stork is being listed as a possible cut. Is that because his play is "center-centric" as opposed to versatile?

Michael Farrell*

Stork has some versatility. You may recall, in a pinch last year, he played some tackle, but overall, yes, he's mostly just a center. Some analysts believe he's bubble-worthy because of the legitimate challenge he faces from second-year player David Andrews, a part-time starter last year, and 2016 draft choice Joe Thuney, who is more versatile (on paper) than either of the two veterans ahead of him.

What's more, Stork has battled concussions throughout his short career, which also might be factoring into some people's thinking with respect to his roster status. I'll be mildly surprised if Stork doesn't make the team, but it's not out of the realm of possibility. 

Erik Scalavino*

My cousin C.J. Johnson signed a contract as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Ole Miss. I know he faces a huge uphill battle to make the team, but we are kind of thin at linebacker. What are the chances he makes the team?Cornelius Hunter

Congratulations and good luck to him! I actually just finished writing my Roster Breakdown of the Patriots linebackers (coming soon here on patriots.com) and address your cousin's situation. Without giving too much away, I'll just say that what stood out about him during the spring, sadly, was the fact that he missed a couple sessions and when he did return, he was clearly still dealing with some sort of leg injury. It's always tough for any rookie to have an impact on this team, and even tougher for an undrafted one. But for your sake, as well as his, I hope he heals up and gives it his best when camp opens at the end of next month… one month from today, in fact! 

Erik Scalavino*

As we've seen over the years, the Pats typically come up with some new wrinkle both on the offense and defense, like the tackle/running back eligible in the playoffs against the Ravens. Any thoughts on maybe a new TE formation with the addition of [Martellus] Bennett or maybe a new defensive front alignment now that [Chandler] Jones has been traded away.

Pete Condon*

I'm sure we'll see a heavy dose of two-TE sets this fall, with Bennett complementing Rob Gronkowski in what could be the NFL's most difficult matchup for defenses. Because of this, I can't imagine the Patriots will want to do anything with this duo other than to send them both out down the seams and force defenses to choose which one to cover with extra bodies. It will be a "pick-your-poison" dilemma for defensive coordinators on New England's schedule. I'm excited to see how much the potential is realized with these two on the field together.

On the other side of the ball, it's more about personnel than formations, in my estimation. For instance, was Rob Ninkovich's lining up at off-the-line linebacker just a spring-time experiment or a portent of his role the upcoming season? Will the Patriots employ more DE/OLB types on the inside, as we've seen them do more frequently in recent seasons, because of the types of d-linemen they have on the roster? Who will emerge as the starting right corner, incumbent Logan Ryan or rookie Cyrus Jones? These are just some of the storylines I'm anxious to see unfold, beginning in the preseason. 

Erik Scalavino*

A few weeks ago you batted around a discussion about the demise of the kickoff.  It brought up a question in my mind.  If the NFL decides to do away with the kickoff, that is going to eliminate a key late game (or for BB, anytime during the game) strategy, that, of course, being the on-side kick. Do you think that play alone would keep the NFL from eliminating the kickoff?

Peter Clement*

Peter, you seem to have given more thought to the future of kickoffs than anyone in the league office. It's a great question, and certainly a factor the decision-makers should take into consideration when that discussion is eventually held in earnest. 

Erik Scalavino*

Hey guys.  Do you think either Jake Long or Will Beatty would be an upgrade at swing tackle?  If given the choice, which one would you like better in that role?

Timothy Cullen*

If those are my only two options, I'll take the more talented player, and that's Long. At 31, he's also far more experienced than Beatty. Health issues are Long's greatest disadvantage at this stage in his career.

I've been saying all offseason, though, that I'm not as concerned about New England's offensive line as most critics seem to be. I'm particularly not that concerned about the so-called "swing tackle," a.k.a. the backup. For starters, I'm happy with the starters, as I've been saying. Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer make one of the most solid tackle tandems in the league, when at full strength. That's the biggest question, is whether they can both survive a full season. If not, only then does the backup role become important, like it was last season.

If the worst case scenario were to play out again like in 2015 (I doubt it will, based on the law of averages), then we can cross that bridge.

Erik Scalavino*

What formation is the Patriots defense more likely to play with: 4-3, 3-4, nickel?

Samuel Leduc*

When the Patriots go with a standard seven-man front, it's often hard to decipher whether it's a 3-4 or 4-3. This is because they have so many versatile players, who can line up as d-lineman and/or linebackers. You might see the same seven personnel on the field in both formations. In general, though, they're more of a 4-3 team.

It seems, however, that the traditional "front seven alignments" are dying a slow death, because more and more offenses are trotting out three-receiver sets more frequently. This forces defenses to respond with a third defensive back (the so-called nickel defense), and that is becoming the "base" defense for many teams, New England included. So, I'd say, more often than not, you'll see the Patriots come out in nickel formations. 

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