Commentary

Mail: Who stays and goes on defense?

Updated: May 25, 2010, 1:52 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

This week's Patriots mailbag is heavy on projections as the most popular questions were those that looked at lineup possibilities.

No spot seems as uncertain as outside linebacker. There also figures to be a spirited competition for one spot at inside linebacker.

That's where this week's mailbag begins.

Q: When looking at the Patriots' current roster, one thing that stands out is the number of linebackers currently on the squad. We recently re-signed Derrick Burgess, drafted Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes, get Tyrone McKenzie and Shawn Crable back from injury, and still have Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton, Pierre Woods, Eric Alexander, Rob Ninkovich and Tully Banta-Cain (and a handful of likely practice-squad guys). Obviously we aren't keeping 11 linebackers on the 53-man roster. Who do you see getting cut? -- Dan Mac (L.A. via Boston)

A: Dan, competition and injuries in training camp will play a big factor in determining this, which is something I respect as part of the overall process, so it's early to be making a projection. Another factor to consider is that injuries at other positions could factor in to how many linebackers the Patriots ultimately keep. But if everyone makes it through healthy, and when considering the Patriots kept eight linebackers on the opening day roster in 2009, this is what I see when I look into the Patriots' crystal ball:

Inside linebackers: Mayo, Guyton, McKenzie, Spikes
Outside linebackers: Banta-Cain, Cunningham, Burgess, Crable, Ninkovich, Woods/Murrell

Q: Hey Mike, I was wondering how you think the LB position is going to shake out this season in terms of personnel and scheme. In the 3-4, I see Mayo and Spikes on the inside with Banta-Cain holding down one OLB spot, and whoever can set the edge best between Crable, Cunningham and Ninkovich on early downs, and Burgess on third downs. In the 4-3, I'm hoping to see Mayo on the inside with Guyton and McKenzie playing their natural 4-3 OLB roles. What do you think? -- Bill (Charlotte, N.C.)

[+] EnlargeBrandon Spikes
Kim Klemen/US PresswireThe Patriots picked Brandon Spikes in the second round of the draft.

A: Bill, the first thought is that the Patriots will still teach out of the base 3-4, and I think that is the preferred alignment. If the defense looks better in the 4-3, however, I could see the coaching staff using it more, because it will be built into the system. In the 3-4, I think it's a bit premature to put Spikes in there right away. That competition between Spikes, McKenzie and Guyton will be intense, and I wouldn't rule out McKenzie. On the outside, I think Banta-Cain is ideally suited for limited duty on early downs and instead should be utilized more in pure passing situations as a rusher, but he is probably a starter based on what else they have. I see this as a wide-open competition that doesn't have a clear-cut winner right now.

Q: Hey Mike, who do you see as the starting 11 on the defense? -- David (Grafton, Mass.)

A: David, let's project that the opening day opponent -- the Cincinnati Bengals -- comes out in a two-receiver set with Chad Ochocinco and Antonio Bryant, with two tight ends and a single back. That should put the Patriots in their base 3-4 alignment and I'll line them up this way, with the toughest call at outside linebacker:

DE: Ty Warren
NT: Vince Wilfork
DE: Gerard Warren
OLB: Tully Banta-Cain
ILB: Jerod Mayo
ILB: Tyrone McKenzie
OLB: Jermaine Cunningham
CB: Darius Butler
CB: Leigh Bodden
S: Pat Chung
S: Brandon Meriweather

Q: ILB and OT predictions. I think Guyton figures as a better backup to Mayo at the WILB spot, with McKenzie and Spikes rotating at SILB if they can learn the defense. At OT, if Sebastian Vollmer continues his ascension, I think he surpasses Light at LT because Light has to be covered up against top competition now. Would prefer to see Light move to RT, even though he's not a dominant run-blocker at this stage, because he would fare better in pass pro there. Kaczur is a below-average starter but an above-average backup. Your thoughts? -- Sean Sullivan (Los Angeles, Calif.)

A: While respecting that competition in training camp will dictate how it unfolds, I like your linebacker thoughts. I'm a bit higher on Light at left tackle than you are, and want to see more before I turn it over to Vollmer. I could see Vollmer at right tackle, however, really pushing Kaczur for that starting job.

Q: Mike, with all the talk about the Jets, the impact of the knee surgery (however minor) on Mark Sanchez's play doesn't seem to get much press. We've seen that it takes time for guys to get their timing back (Brady, Manning, Palmer). Sanchez is a player people are expecting a second-year jump from on a high-expectation team. Any thoughts on how it might impact his play and the Jets as a whole? -- Jason Beale (Milford, Del.)

A: Jason, one of nice parts about being in the ESPN family is being able to reach out to people who are closer to other teams. So I asked your question to Rich Cimini, who covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Here is what he said: "One dynamic is that he hasn't had a chance to practice with some of the new players like [Santonio] Holmes and [LaDainian] Tomlinson, and I think that's been frustrating for him. He's also never had an offseason with Braylon Edwards. So he's fallen behind a little that way in terms of timing and chemistry. I watched him the other day in OTAs and I think he could probably go out and run a full practice now, but I think the Jets don't want to expose him to team drills, just in case something happens like a player tripping on him. So they're being super cautious with him. I do think missing the offseason will probably result in a slower start in the preseason, but I think by the time the preseason is over the timing will be up to par."

Q: Mike, why should anyone buy the hype on the Jets this year? The D is great, but the offense is horrible. Their QB threw more INTs than TDs, completed only 53 percent of his passes and threw for only 2,400 yards. They released their best offensive player, Thomas Jones, who ran for more TDs than Sanchez threw for. They also traded the only guy that gave them any spark on offense in Leon Washington. Correct me if I'm wrong here, but how is that offense any better than last year? It's all well and good to bring in Santonio Holmes and pair him with Braylon Edwards, but if Sanchez doesn't get the ball there and they don't have a RB to run for 1,500 yards, how will they win games? -- Dan (Dover, N.H.)

A: I think you captured it pretty well, Dan, because a big part of the Jets' success is tied to the development of quarterback Mark Sanchez. If Sanchez makes the desired progression from the first to second year, I think the Jets could be very good. If he doesn't, all the hype won't mean much. At the least, I think we know the Jets' defense will be very good, so that will make them competitive. But if the Jets want to compete for a Super Bowl, they'll need Sanchez to take that next step.

Q: Hi Mike, one reporter found Shawn Springs' release a surprise due to the leadership he provided. I didn't get the sense he was a positive locker-room presence, in fact, I thought he might've been more on the Adalius Thomas side of the fence. Regardless, his release makes sense given that he contributed on two to three downs at most and was competing with younger corners who brought a special-teams edge (Kyle Arrington, especially). Your thoughts? -- Neil (South Boston)

A: Springs was a tough guy for me to figure, Neil. I sensed that he was well liked by his fellow cornerbacks, but I don't think he was any type of leader in that locker room. At the same time, I don't feel comfortable calling him a locker-room problem, either. So in the end, I'll judge it just by the football: For $4.55 million last season, the Patriots got 12 games, 8 starts, 4 passes defended and 1 interception. We often hear how the Patriots seek "value" and in Springs, I think they got little of it. I think they realized it was a mistake and after drafting Devin McCourty in the first round, they were ready to move on. Springs probably could have been a fourth corner for them this year, but like you mentioned, a fourth corner has to bring value on special teams and Springs does not.

Q: Hey Mike, you said that Shawn Springs could be added to the free-agent mistake category. I don't see it that way. The '09 Pats much like the '10 Red Sox had to have a "bridge" year, to bridge the gap between young players' development and substantive contributions. A short-term signing with fairly limited financial obligation for a veteran CB like Springs to help Butler, Wilhite and Wheatley develop properly is a must. Just like the Red Sox signed the surprisingly atrocious (defensively) third baseman Adrian Beltre to a short-term deal to get the guys in the minors more time. When teams start to get long in the tooth, they need to get younger and it is the great teams that can actually make the playoffs during "bridge" years like last year. Your thoughts? -- Jamie Conway (Los Angeles, Calif.)

A: It looks like we agree to disagree, Jamie, and that's part of the fun of sports. People will look at things differently, and I respect where you are coming from. To me, $4.55 million for one season is a significant financial obligation that could have been better utilized (e.g. perhaps keeping Mike Vrabel).

Q: What is delaying the re-signing of Derrick Burgess? It has been more than a week since a contract was agreed upon. -- Jim Keddy (Kennebunk, Maine)

A: Jim, it might just be a case where Burgess has yet to arrive to take his physical and sign the deal. I am not aware of anything that has changed the agreement.

Q: Mike, if the Patriots don't sign Logan Mankins to a long-term deal, what is the fix? Could they put Matt Light there and make Sebastian Vollmer the left tackle? -- Lou (Colo.)

A: Lou, moving Light to left guard is one possibility to consider should Mankins not be in the fold this year. Fellow offensive tackle Nick Kaczur also could be an option at guard. If the team decides that Light and Kaczur will be tackles, then you're looking at a group of Dan Connolly, Rich Ohrnberger, Ryan Wendell and Ted Larsen as possible options. The Patriots had free-agent center/guard Cory Procter in for a visit -- perhaps an indication that there is some concern with the personnel on the interior -- but Procter signed with Miami.

Q: Interesting information on BB's contract. Does his salary count against the cap (if there were one)? Now that we know he is the second highest paid coach in sports, do you think this affects the locker-room attitude of taking less money to put the team first? -- chains18 (Cambridge)

A: There is no salary cap for coaches' salaries. As for the information on Bill Belichick's salary from Forbes, which was put together from information on websites and published reports, I don't think it will have any impact on the locker room. Belichick puts the team first by devoting a significant part of his life to the job -- a 40-hour work week doesn't exist in his world. He's always working. I think players realize how much time and effort that Belichick puts in and don't question him in that regard.

Q: Hi Mike, I read recently that Ron Brace might be on the bubble and could get cut. Can you shed any light on the issues with him? He was drafted high, the Pats had lots of film on him and watched him workout prior to being drafted. And he has all the physical traits. So what happened last year? Do you see him being cut? -- Carl Parisien (Natick, Mass.)

A: Carl, I don't see him being cut at this time. One reason is that players with Brace's size (6-foot-3, 330 pounds) are hard to find and I think that will give him a longer leash in that area. As for what unfolded last year, he was playing completely new techniques and when the Patriots scouted him, they had to make a projection as to how he would make the transition. Coaches have also been stressing better footwork with Brace, who played approximately 50 defensive snaps over his entire rookie season.

Q: Hi Mike, how do you see Myron Pryor fitting in this season on the D-line? He caught my eye in the preseason last year and thought he did OK in his rookie year. -- Cindie (Lexington, Mass.)

A: Cindie, I thought Pryor had a solid rookie season when considering the expectations of a sixth-round draft choice. I see him in that Jarvis Green sub-rusher type role, coming on to the field in passing situations and penetrating from the interior.

Q: Mike, what do you think are the possibilities of the Patriots actually trading one of their two second-round picks and acquiring Albert Haynesworth from Washington. I truly think he would make an awesome addition to the D-line. No more worries about a pass rush. -- John Gates (Redding, Calif.)

A: I agree, John, and I think I'd switch more exclusively to a four-man line with that addition. Haynesworth would have to check out from an off-field perspective for this to happen, and the Patriots would have to be willing to play more four-man line. If those things all fall into place, I like the move.

Q: Mike, with another 12 players taken in the draft, is this finally the year the Pats are forced to scale back on their special-teams-only players? Do they really have room for guys like Matthew Slater and Eric Alexander who have no hope of contributing elsewhere? -- Gick (Bangkok)

A: I see Slater and Alexander on the roster bubble at this time. I lean toward Slater making the club because I think he's excellent as a coverage player on special teams. Alexander has his work cut out to earn a spot.

Q: Mike, it seems to me that the Patriots valued immediate playing time very highly in the draft. For example, Devin McCourty projects as the third cornerback and immediate special-teams contributor. Rob Gronkowski projects as the second tight end. Jermaine Cunningham could be the second outside linebacker. Brandon Spikes could be the third inside linebacker etc. … Does the potential number of downs played in 2010 reflect where these players were slotted, and if so, would this explain why the Patriots didn't draft a running back who would be fifth on the depth chart? -- Bob (Barnstead, N.H.)

A: I see where you are coming from, Bob, and I think there is some validity to the thought. I believe the Patriots would have liked to come out of the draft with a running back, but not at the expense of more pressing needs (e.g. tight end, outside linebacker). I don't think it's necessarily black and white, because I still think they would have taken a running back if the right player was there at the right time, but it was a draft in which the few backs they did like either weren't available, or a better situation trumped it.

Q: Hey Mike, I keep hearing people harp on BB for not drafting a running back in the past draft and I think people aren't seeing the big picture here. Has everyone forgotten that we have two first-round picks next year and if the Raiders do poorly again this year we have a good shot at Alabama running back Mark Ingram. My question is what are your views on what possible moves BB might make with those two picks? -- Logan (Hampton, Va.)

A: Logan, it's a long way away, but my first thought is a big defensive lineman or pass-rusher with those two first-round draft choices, although it wouldn't surprise me to see a running back like Ingram if he continues to ascend and is available when the Patriots pick.

Q: Hi Mike, my question has to do with receivers. I feel like you are underestimating the impact of Torry Holt. I see him beating out Brandon Tate no problem and adding a much needed one-on-one threat. Do you think you have been scarred a little too much by the huge disappointment that was Joey Galloway? -- S.S. (Portland, Maine)

A: The Galloway situation probably has me more reserved when it comes to Holt, although I think they are different types of receivers. I view Holt as more of a short- to intermediate-type pass-catcher at this stage of his career, while I saw Galloway as more of a deep threat who would be a nice complement with Randy Moss and Wes Welker. I think Holt is more of an all-around type of receiver, and that will give him more of a chance to succeed.

Q: Hi Mike, everyone seems to expect Brady to sit and wait around for the Patriots to extend his contract, and assumes he has not thought about switching teams. Why does nobody ever think that he might want to move to a West Coast team to be closer to his wife and two sons? Any thoughts? -- Matt D (Boston, Mass.)

A: Matt, I have wondered about that, but I just can't imagine it ever coming to that. I think the Patriots would utilize the franchise tag before they allowed Brady to walk, but I'd be stunned if it ever got that far. I think Brady realizes he is in a good spot with the team's coaching and scheme and ownership commitment, and because he's driven to win, there is no better place than New England.

Q: Hi Mike, I'm surprised there hasn't been any comment or analysis regarding why the 2009 and 2010 drafts are seemingly so far superior to the 2006, 2007 and 2008 drafts? Does it have something to do with the change from [Scott] Pioli to [Nick] Caserio? Is Belichick delving deeper into personnel matters now that he doesn't have Pioli to lean on? Have they improved the scouting staff? What's the story? -- Steve Foley (Los Angeles, Calif.)

A: Steve, I think it's a bit early to make a final judgment on the 2009 and 2010 drafts, but I see the point. One of the first thoughts that comes to mind, when looking across the NFL, is that 2007 was a pretty bad draft for most teams. Also, the complete context from that year is important as the Patriots traded second-, fourth- and seventh-round picks for Wes Welker and Randy Moss, which is an absolute steal. It's hard to defend 2006, and 2008 doesn't look much better at this time. To me, I think it's less about the specifics of the front-office changes and more about the general volatility of the draft itself. Looking across the NFL, it's rare to see a team that consistently hits on its picks year in and year out. Every team has some dips and the Patriots' have come from 2006 to 2008.

Q: Everyone always comments on the trades the Patriots make on draft day. Do those trades come from Bill Belichick calling the shots, or Robert Kraft, or a combination? -- Brian (Natick, Mass.)

A: Brian, I'd say mostly Belichick. Kraft is in the room and gets involved in certain situations based on the personal relationships he's built with other owners (e.g. this year's first-round trade with Dallas), but this is Belichick's football show to run.

Q: Once again, the Patriots are well stocked for next year's draft. In fact, with two firsts and two seconds, and two sixths, this may be our deepest draft yet. I was wondering how the uncertain labor situation could impact our draft. Specifically, what would happen if there is no new agreement and the season is delayed or canceled? -- Kartal (Denver, Colo.)

A: If no new collective bargaining agreement was struck, there would still be a draft. It would be one of the final league-related activities before things shut down.

Q: Mike, the last question in the May 18 mailbag had to do with the Pats wearing their red retro jerseys. Maybe it's me but it seems every time they wear them they lose. Do you know the Pats' record wearing their retro uniforms? -- keurj (Woodland Hills, Calif.)

A: The Patriots are 5-3 in their throwback uniforms. They went 2-2 in the throwbacks last season. Here is the breakdown:

Sept. 18, 1994 -- 31-28 win at Cincinnati
Oct. 2, 1994 -- 17-16 win vs. Green Bay
Oct. 16, 1994 -- 24-17 loss at N.Y. Jets
Nov. 28, 2002 -- 20-12 win at Detroit
Sept. 14, 2009 -- 25-24 win vs. Buffalo
Oct. 11, 2009 -- 20-17 OT loss at Denver
Oct. 18, 2009 -- 59-0 win vs. Tennessee
Dec. 6, 2009 -- 22-21 loss at Miami

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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