- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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The quiet time on the NFL calendar has officially arrived, although one wouldn't know it based on the questions submitted to the Patriots mailbag.
The main issue that seemed to generate the most debate this week is Logan Mankins and his contract standoff with the team. But there is more than just contract chatter this week, as the spotlight is shined on some of the team's younger players, such as cornerback Darius Butler and tight end Aaron Hernandez.
There were a few questions that I couldn't come up with the answers to in time, and those were on next month's supplemental draft (might the Patriots be interested in Brigham Young running back Harvey Unga?). Those will be saved for next week.
Thank you to those who submitted questions to keep the mailbag lively at a slow time on the football calendar.
Q. Mike, why the salary inflation for NFL guards (traditionally among the lowest paid positions on an NFL team)? What's next, $50 million contracts for centers? A guard is not a difference-maker -- let Mankins twist in the wind (he has no leverage in this). The Pats can always find a solid guard someplace that won't break the bank. What do you think? -- Steve (Friendswood, Texas)
A. Steve, probably the biggest reason I see an inflation of the guard market is that players at that position have been the best offensive linemen to hit the free-agent market in recent years. Since left tackles in their prime seldom hit the open market, a team looking to improve its offensive line in free agency would go to the next best thing -- the available guards. Thus we get the big financial spike in the guard market. As for the Patriots being able to find a solid guard that won't break the bank, I agree to a point. They might, but I think losing Mankins is a hit, as I view him as their best lineman. As for leverage, I see more of it on the Patriots' side, but if Mankins is willing to sit out the season, the leverage is moot. Mankins could be an unrestricted free agent in 2011 if free-agency rules revert back to what they were in a salary-capped season, and he can't be fined because he's not under contract. The next key date with Mankins, assuming there is no movement in talks, is the start of training camp.
Q. Hey Mike. If Mankins does not re-sign then where does this leave the O-Line? What kind of value can the Pats expect to receive in a trade? The key to a successful offense is a successful O-Line and there's no point in Brady having a bunch of weapons to throw at if the O-Line can't assure him of the time to make the throws. I'm a little worried right now about this situation. -- Alan Granger (Glasgow)
A. Alan, I don't think anyone would say that losing Mankins is not a hit. While I think the Patriots can slide Nick Kaczur in there and still be a winning team, it's not ideal. If Mankins is traded, I'd think the Patriots would be looking for at least a first-round draft choice. The best-case scenario is that Mankins returns to the team and mends fences, but it's hard for me to see that happening right now. Maybe after a cooling-down period, the sides could revisit.
Q. Hey Mike, even though Mankins is agitated, why trade him? At some point the labor negotiations and the threat of a lockout will become clear. Why trade a known commodity for an unknown [draft pick] commodity? As good as Logan thinks he is, if Brady doesn't have a contract, wouldn't it make sense that Brady is No. 1 and after that, the picture becomes clear Mankins is No. 2? Why not give Mankins a sweetener for a year with certain guarantees in place should he get hurt/seriously hurt this season? -- Pete (Scituate, Mass.)
A. Pete, the main reason the Patriots would trade him is if they are convinced he will not play for them in 2010. In that case, they might think it's good business to get something in return for a player who might be an unrestricted free agent next year in a salary-cap system. As for the idea of giving Mankins something in 2010 to sweeten his deal while putting future guarantees in place should he get hurt, that seems like a slippery slope to me, which could come back and haunt the team in future negotiations.
Q. Mike, while I think the Mankins situation is certainly frustrating to both sides, I think it's important to put it in perspective. The Jets have several big-time players upset about contracts. Darrelle Revis left practice with a fake injury to trash ownership in interviews. Pro Bowler Nick Mangold is also complaining about his contract along with David Harris, yet no media members seem to think it will cause problems in the locker room, as many still pick the Jets to win the Super Bowl. When the Pats have one guy with a contract issue, it's clearly going to kill the locker room, but the Jets have several and it's no big deal. Any idea why the media is so hard on the Pats and so in love with the Jets? -- Rick (Lowell, Mass.)
A. Rick, I'm not sure how to answer this one. I do think things seem to be a bigger deal when they happen to the Patriots than other teams, but I'm not sure why. Imagine if the Patriots were one of the teams that had organized team activities taken away, like we've seen with Baltimore, Oakland, Detroit and Jacksonville?
Q. Mike, is there any chance the Pats take a look at Bobby McCray as a potential OLB. He seems like the prototypical size (6-foot-6, 260 pounds) and is a better rusher than he is a three-down 4-3 end. As optimistic as I am about Jermaine Cunningham, I have a hard time seeing us entering the season relying only on what we have right now since we know it hasn't worked well in the past two years. -- Tristan (Los Angeles)
A. Tristan, my first thought on McCray is that he duplicates what the Patriots already have in Derrick Burgess. So while I could see the Patriots checking him out and keeping him on their emergency list, I'd be surprised if they went ahead and signed him. As for the second part of the question, about relying on something that hasn't worked well the last two years, I think we're going to see some alterations on defense that could yield a new look in terms of what players at that position are asked to do. That will be something I will be watching closely throughout the preseason.
Q. All through OTAs and minicamp I've heard nothing but good reports from Darius Butler. How has he looked differently from last year and does it appear that he has overtaken Leigh Bodden? -- Seth (Mexico)
A. Seth, I don't see Butler overtaking Bodden. Instead, I see him playing opposite of him -- Bodden on the right side, Butler on the left. Butler looks athletic and confident. Nick Caserio, the director of player personnel, said he was one of the team's offseason award winners. In practices, he looks like a ballhawk in the Asante Samuel mold.
Q. Mike -- obviously, I'm only reading practice reports, but the message on many blogs gives the impression that there's a high level of intensity about the Patriots camp, so far. Do you get the impression that the players have heard the rumors of their demise, and aren't quite ready to concede yet? -- David (Norwalk, Conn.)
A. David, I think the energy has been good at the practices, but I don't think it has much to do with players reacting to the Patriots' demise. I think it's more a reflection of the culture that Bill Belichick has created as coach.
Q. Hey Mike, reports are that Aaron Hernandez and Taylor Price are making good impressions so far in the passing game. I haven't heard anything about Rob Gronkowski. Is he still nursing the back injury, not getting opportunities in the passing game, or just not impressing? Coming out of the draft Gronkowski was widely considered the most complete TE and could have been the first selected if not for his back injury. Can you update us on the other rookies who haven't been getting much press, Brandon Spikes, Jermaine Cunningham, Brandon Deaderick, etc.? Thanks. -- Andy (Lake Forest, Calif.)
A. Andy, while I do think Hernandez made a strong impression and Gronkowski has worked a bit more behind the scenes and with the lesser experienced players, I don't think that's necessarily a reflection of a troubling sign when it comes to Gronkowski's potential production. A big part of it seems to be splitting up those repetitions. Veteran Alge Crumpler, who is also new to the system, is going to probably play earlier in the season than Gronkowski. As for Spikes, Cunningham and Deaderick, it's tough to see much without pads on for players at those positions, but it seems like Spikes and Cunningham are doing the right things.
Q. I am really excited about the versatility that Aaron Hernandez will bring to our offense. Could you comment on the different ways you envision the Patriots utilizing Hernandez's unique combination of skills. -- Jerry (New York City)
A. Jerry, I could see Hernandez split out as a receiver, lining up at fullback, motioning out of the backfield or even playing on the line of scrimmage at times. There are a lot of options with a player like him. He looks like a weapon who is going to help them.
Q. Is Rich Ohrnberger ready to start? -- Roman (Natick, Mass.)
A. Roman, it doesn't look to me like Ohrnberger is ready to start. Part of it is that he is recovering from an undisclosed physical ailment, but I'm not sure if he'd be in there if 100 percent healthy either. I am anticipating a good battle between him and 2010 sixth-round pick Ted Larsen, who I think the Patriots felt was worthy of a mid-round grade and is better than where he was selected in the draft.
Q. I hear the comment a lot that "As long as the Patriots have Brady and Belichick they will always be winners". Do you agree with that or do you think as I do that it's a little more complicated than that. -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)
A. David, I think the head coach and quarterback are two of the most important pieces for any successful team. So I'd say this gives the Patriots a head start, but Belichick and Brady alone aren't enough.
Q. Hey Mike, you've posted that the Falcons and Pats will practice the Tuesday before their Thursday preseason game in August. I know the Falcons are very laid back in Flowery Branch [Ga.] about fans sitting and watching the practices. Do you think the Patriots will have any influence on the fans watching this practice in particular? I am looking more toward the practice than the preseason game (which I may not attend if ticket prices are regular season rates). What do you think I might see at a practice like this, and do you know how much fan/player interaction may or may not take place? -- Matt (Brunswick, Ga.)
A. Matt, I'm not aware of all the specifics, but I think it should be business as usual for the Falcons when it comes to how fans and media members watch the practices. I think you'll really appreciate what you see and would recommend that you make the effort to show up. On one side, you have a Falcons team that wants to measure up to a top franchise like the Patriots. On the other side, you have the Patriots looking to raise the competitiveness level. These are two excellent coaches and well-run teams. I am excited to get down there and see what it's all about.
Q. Mike, what we know about the Patriots is: 1. They are owned by a very, very good businessman. A man not likely to let emotions get in the way of a good business deal. 2. They are managed by a very, very good football coach/executive. A man we know has not let emotions get in the way of what's best for the team. That being said, do you really think they will mortgage the cap future of this team to pay huge dollars to a great but absentee QB in his mid 30s? I really believe that if a Hershel Walker type trade deal is put before them next year, they take it. Right now, Brian Hoyer looks a lot like Tom Brady circa 2001. -- John (Walpole, Mass.)
A. John, I can't imagine Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick trading Tom Brady, point blank. While I like Hoyer and think he shows promise, I think it's a stretch to put him in the same sentence with Brady at this time. I take Kraft at his word. In March he said, "Let's put it like this: Tom Brady is going to be part of this franchise. He wants to be; we want him."
Q. Mike, there is a lot of chatter about the Patriots offense returning to 2007 form this season. Randy Moss is fired up, Tom Brady hates to lose and is likely carrying a chip on his shoulder from that playoff loss, Wes Welker looks to be rebounding nicely, the TEs are meshing well, Brandon Tate sounds ready to go and Torry Holt looks like a strong veteran presence. How do you think the offense will fare this year? I doubt they are as extraordinary as that 2007 group was, but I do think they look (from what you and others have written) stronger than they did this time last year. What do you think of the offensive group thus far? -- Kristen (Toronto)
A. Kristen, it looks to me like this offense could be a bit more balanced and potentially diverse than the 2007 unit. When I looked at 2007, it was like a knockout punch. That passing offense was just so lethal working out of three- and four-receiver sets. I don't see the same thing in this 2010 offense. One of the possibilities that intrigues me with this year's offense is the idea of having three tight ends on the field in the red zone and possibly being able to pound the ball on the ground more out of two tight-end sets.
Q. It's looking more and more like David Patten may not make the 53-man roster. I realize it may too early count him out as Welker may start on the PUP. If he doesn't make the cut what are the odds that the Patriots can sign him to the practice squad at his age? My idea with this is that he'd be a bit of insurance (his familiarity with Brady can be valuable) and he could be a little bit of a coach (though Holt and Moss seem capable in this role). -- Brian (Foster City, Calif.)
A. Brian, Patten would not be an option for the practice squad because of his veteran status. But I could see him as the top receiver on the team's emergency list in the event injuries strike.
Q. The Pats defense last year lacked playmakers at the linebacker position. This year, I think the Pats are in a good position because the new additions of Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes. Along with Shawn Crable and Tyrone McKenzie, that will give a nice shot of playmaking ability that was really missing last year. Not to mention that Jerod Mayo played hurt and wasn't nearly as explosive as he was the year before. I know you like Rob Ninkovich but I can't see him making the team over Crable. I see Ninkovich as a role player, at best, because his size and ability seems to be average (6-foot-2, 255 pounds). The Pats will keep Crable because of his upside and athletic ability over Ninkovich, who is a poor man's Derrick Burgess. Which player is more likely to be available during the season if released -- Crable or Ninkovich? Crable's ability and upside is just too high to release before a role player like Ninkovich. I expect big things from Crable and think his athleticism is needed at the OLB position. -- Eric (Weymouth, Mass.)
A. Eric, Ninkovich is up to 263 pounds, and when you consider his special teams production as well, I think he has the slight edge over Crable right now. It wouldn't surprise me if both players find a way to stick on the roster. Overall, it should be a good battle at outside linebacker. As for which player would get picked up first if released -- Crable or Ninkovich -- I don't think there is a clear-cut answer there. Crable might have more potential, but Ninkovich has shown more on tape over the last two years.
Q. Hi Mike, there has been a lot written about which defensive players can step up and be playmakers. It seems over the last few years they have also lacked players who, like Bruschi, Milloy, McGinest, and Harrison in the past, could make big open field hits and provide a physical, intimidating attitude for the D. I'm guessing BB would take a sure tackle over a big hit but those hits are important in creating an identity for the D and have been important in previous successful schemes against the Rams and in their victories over the Colts. I know the pads have not come on yet but do you have a sense of any of the players on the roster could potentially play that physical role? -- Matt (Essex Junction, Vt.)
A. Matt, this is a tough one without the pads on, but I do think a player like Patrick Chung could help in that area. Brandon McGowan and James Sanders have proven to be solid hitters. Those were the first players that came to mind.
Q. What is the balance between the Patriots developing their younger players? Take the Chung and Sanders battle at safety. Is the competition even or does either player have an advantage based on their potential or experience? -- Jon (Denver)
A. Jon, I think it's likely going to be Chung there. Part of it is which best player best compliments Brandon Meriweather, and I think Chung's skill set does a bit better than Sanders. I view Sanders as more of a free safety type like Meriweather.
Q. My question is about the lack of people with the title of "coordinator." It would seem to me that this could cause some resentment (maybe that's too strong of a word) among the coaches. I can only assume "coordinators" get paid more than coaches and they all can't be making coordinator type pay. Do you think not having the title would hurt their chances to one day get a head coaching job? Is this part of a plan to keep our coaches around the team longer? -- Sean (Arkansas)
A. Sean, I don't think pay is the issue when it comes to the Patriots and the decision to not name coordinators. It is my belief that the organization pays its coaches well and in line with their responsibilities, title or no title. But the second part of the question is where I think this could get a little tricky. While I don't think not having the coordinator title should hurt an assistant's chances at a head coaching job, I believe in many cases it would because that seems to be the first place owners look. As for Belichick's thinking in not naming coordinators, I'm not sure, but I'm not buying it was mainly to keep the coaching staff intact.
Q. Mike, many people believe that we shouldn't have an 18-game regular season schedule because of the amount of injuries will probably increase, but wouldn't that help teams like the Patriots? The way I see it is that teams who build a roster based on depth like the Patriots will have an advantage over teams like the Jets or Colts who pay big money to the superstars without as much depth. Am I reading too much into this? Your thoughts? -- Adam (England)
A. Adam, I think this is sound analysis on the 18-game schedule. While depth is already very important in a 16-game season, it seems to me like it would become even more important in an 18-game season.
Q. Through various articles, the 18 regular-season plus 2 preseason games idea is "gaining momentum especially with the owners". This made me think of the different joint practices that Belichick has scheduled this year whereas they hadn't done this much in the past. I'm thinking Kraft has his ear telling him the owners really want this to happen. Team joint practices are probably going to be the best way to get the teams ready for game play if they're not going to have those extra 2 preseason games. Belichick ahead of the curve, as normal. Thoughts? -- Art (Chicago)
A. Art, it wouldn't surprise me if this was part of Belichick's thinking with the joint practices, although I don't think it's the only reason. One of the main things I could see Belichick thinking is that raising the competitiveness in training camp is something that the Patriots, as they are presently constituted, would benefit from.
Q. Is Larry Izzo still a free agent? If so any chance the Pats bring him back? -- Nick
A. Nick, Izzo is a free agent and is currently participating in the NFL's "Broadcast Bootcamp" in Mount Laurel, N.J. I don't think the Patriots would be interested in his return, as they are well stocked with special-teams-only type players.
Q. Mike, a somewhat less serious question for you -- is there any rhyme or reason to the Pats' use of the silver jersey? It's by far my favorite (I'm pretty sure I'm the only one who feels this way) and I just want to know if it's a random affair. -- Mike (Connecticut)
A. Mike, NFL teams can wear a third jersey in two games, and the Patriots introduced the silver a few years back. They did not wear silver last year, instead going with the 1960s throwbacks to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the American Football League. This year, the throwback jersey will be from the 1980s. So no silver for a second straight year.
Q. Mike, I know I am not the only one who wants to know this so I ask again. Why do we have to play the Colts EVERY year? Is it for ratings? Scheduling formula? Old division ties? Do the other teams in our division also have to play them or another team every year? Because if they don't, it seems unfair to the Patriots. -- Kyle (Cranston, R.I.)
A. Kyle, every team's schedule is predetermined by a rotating schedule format (team plays six division games, four against the other conference, four against one division from within the conference and two games against teams that finished in the same spot in the standings within the conference). Part of the reason that the Patriots and Colts seem to play every year is that they have often finished in first place in their respective divisions, which produces those matchups. It's similar with Pittsburgh.
Q. You have a lot of readers outside New England. That much is clear when you see the cities people write to you from. Is there anyway you could use your role as the de facto hub of Patriots fans to create a list of places to watch the Patriots in different cities. For instance, I know here in Denver, The Elm on East Colfax has the Patriots on most TVs with the game audio. It's the best place I've found in the Mile High City to watch the game. -- Kartal (Denver)
A. Kartal, I'd be happy to do that if there is interest from other readers. Those who send in their best spots to watch the Patriots, I'll put together a list from it.
Q. Mike, what are your plans during the dead period until the start of training camp? Will you be taking a break or will you carry on providing updates to help us fans get through the most boring period on the NFL calendar. -- Vanessa (Baghdad)
A. Vanessa, I will be taking some time off at the start of July, which is something my family has been looking forward to. Once the details are finalized, I'll pass them along. I appreciate your interest.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.