- Mike Reiss, ESPN New England Patriots reporter
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In a bit of a changeup, I thought it would fun to start off this week's mailbag with 10 quick-hit thoughts from the Patriots' first 10 training camp practices.
1. Most impressive rookie to date looks like tight end Aaron Hernandez. Excellent hand-eye coordination, sticky hands and practices with great effort.
2. Biggest concern has to be the outside linebacker/rush defensive end spot. The Patriots might need a 2003-Ted Washington-type trade to fill that position.
3. Second-biggest concern would probably be the interior of the offensive line. Logan Mankins' absence looms large.
4. Much of it will be contingent on how much help the pass rush provides, but this secondary looks much improved when projecting cornerback Darius Butler, safety Pat Chung and cornerback Devin McCourty to significant roles.
5. Brandon Tate and Taylor Price have looked smooth at receiver, but the true test will come when facing a jam at the line of scrimmage. If they pass that test, veteran Torry Holt could have trouble making this team.
6. Randy Moss is having a great camp. He makes it look easy and his coolness when the ball is in the air -- which almost lulls defensive backs into a false sense of "the ball is not coming in this direction" -- is fun to watch.
7. Rookie Kyle Love (Mississippi State) seems to have taken advantage of a run of injuries along the defensive line. Of the undrafted rookies, he stands out.
8. On the flip side, it's hard to view Ron Brace opening camp on the non-football injury list as anything but a disappointment.
9. Given the significant numbers of players sidelined, I've wondered if the consistent double-sessions scheduled for 9:30 a.m. and 3:45 p.m. is the best approach.
Q. Mike, it sounds like we have a good competition at corner this year. My question is what is the long-term thought process? Obviously they want Leigh Bodden to be there because they wrapped him up for a long-term deal. They want Darius Butler to be that opposite starter. Then they drafted Devin McCourty in the first. So, what gives? It seems they want all three to be starters, but there's only two starting jobs! Am I missing something? -- Arjuna (Derry)
A. Arjuna, I thought Bill Belichick said it best Saturday on Sirius NFL radio: "You can never have enough defensive backs." The Patriots were in sub packages 50 percent of the time in 2009, so that means a third cornerback/third safety is almost like a 12th starter. Tedy Bruschi often makes the point that a team needs three good corners to win. I think the Patriots have them and they'll all play a lot.
Q. Mike, granted it's early but can you give us the player who has been the biggest positive surprise and also the player who has been the biggest disappointment this far at camp? -- Matt (Connecticut)
A. Matt, I'd put defensive lineman Ron Brace in the disappointment category as he opened the year on the non-football injury list. In terms of the most positive surprise, it would probably be Hernandez. He doesn't look like a fourth-round draft choice.
Q. As we are weak at the outside linebacker position, is there any chance of the Patriots signing Adalius Thomas back by patching up the bitterness between them? What do you think of this move? -- Phani (Connecticut)
A. Phani, I think Bill Belichick would play with 10 defenders before making that move. OK, maybe that's a little extreme, but I just think that bridge has been burned and Thomas' play in 2009 was not at a level that would help the Patriots if he was back in 2010. I think they'd rather have the rookie mistakes of a player like Jermaine Cunningham than bring Thomas back.
Q. Mike, I'll often defer to Belichick knowing what he's doing when either the media or the public jump to conclusions. With that said, I think the gentle treatment of Derrick Burgess right now confirms that the coaches lack as much confidence in this group of OLB/DE's as we do. Burgess not showing up to camp after he had signed a contract and then waffling on retirement; we already knew Brett Favre created a bad precedent in the league but I don't think it should be tolerated. In fact, if it were not for a completely unreliable stable of edge rushers he would simply be cut; that is the culture of this team and you know that is what Belichick would have done five years ago. Burgess doesn't have the standing within this organization to "skip class" in my opinion, but since he knows we're out of options, he's getting a free pass. Any thoughts on this? -- ECF (Washington, D.C.)
A. I see what you are saying, but I personally don't look at it that way. I think it's hard to know what it's like to go through a training camp unless you've done it and I think Belichick, from all his years around the game, understands the physical and mental rigors of that. It can play tricks on the mind. I heard David Patten make the point that he was retiring because of the mental side of things, and I think that applies here with Burgess. I think Belichick is empathizing with him and there is nothing wrong with that in my book.
Q. With the departure of Shawn Crable and the uncertainty of Derrick Burgess comes a sudden lack of depth at outside linebacker. Sure Adewale Ogunleye worked out with New England recently and Aaron Schobel was released by the Bills. However, these are veteran 4-3 defensive ends. There's a possibility neither could fit into the 3-4 base defense, which wouldn't solve the OLB issue. At the same time, the problem with New England is that they constantly blitzed in order to generate a pass rush. If New England wants to regain their dominance of the NFL, they need to consistently pressure the quarterback with only four. Both have accumulated many sacks in their careers; with a promising young secondary, do you think New England should pursue Ogunleye and/or Schobel, or should they search for 3-4 outside linebackers? -- Alvin (Deerfield, Mass.)
A. Alvin, I think they should pursue Schobel and use him as a rush end in sub packages. That would be a major upgrade to the pass rush and that alone is worth the value in my view, regardless of whether Schobel could help on early downs as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 alignment that he's never played.
Q. Hey Mike, my guess is that Aaron Schobel wanted to move on from the Bills because he was more comfortable playing DE in the 4-3 and he didn't want to start over and learn how to play OLB in a 3-4. Why do you think he would want to come to the Pats if he would have to learn that position here too? -- Chains18 (Cambridge)
A. Without knowing the specifics of the situation, part of it would be a sales job from Belichick and the type of role he could create for Schobel. So Schobel wouldn't necessarily have to play 3-4 outside linebacker here. He could be used creatively as a rush end in four-man fronts and in sub packages.
Q. Hi Mike, how difficult would it be for a guy that normally plays ILB to switch to OLB, and is there anyone on the team that you think could make that switch? Is it even a remote possible solution to their OLB concerns? -- Karen (Weston, Mass.)
A. Karen, I don't see any of the inside linebackers being able to make that move on a consistent basis. It's like moving from a pure linebacker position to defensive end, and the players don't have the physical makeup to pull that off. Mike Vrabel was a rare guy in that regard as he played both.
Q. My question is about the skill set of Tyrone McKenzie, as it seems as though he had a good offseason and a strong start to camp. Does he have the skill set to be on the outside? Or is he strictly an ILB? And how does Cunningham look? -- Sean (Nutley, N.J.)
A. Sean, McKenzie is a pure inside linebacker and wouldn't be an option for the outside. In the 3-4 alignment, those positions are two different worlds. As for Cunningham, I think he's fast. I locked in on him Monday night in pass-rush drills and I think he's their fastest player at that spot.
Q. Hi Mike. How has Jerod Mayo looked in the early stages of camp? He seemed to have lost a step after coming back from injury last season, and appeared to regress after a good rookie season. Is this a make-or-break season for him? -- Kevin M. (Barrington, N.H.)
A. Kevin, I think Mayo looks sharp and I have no doubt that his 2009 season was affected by that knee injury suffered in the season opener. I wouldn't call this a make-or-break season for Mayo. I do think he's going to be an impact player, more so than he was in 2009.
Q. Hi Mike, I've been hearing some really good things about Brandon Spikes. Does he have a legitimate chance of starting next to Jerod Mayo? Along the same lines, does Jermaine Cunningham have a shot at starting on the outside? The lack of depth at OLB has been made abundantly clear through all media outlets, so do you think Cunningham could slip in there? I would imagine Bill Belichick would not particularly like to start two rookies at the linebacker position. -- Perry
A. Perry, I do think Spikes has a chance of filling that type of starting role, and sense that the coaching staff likes him very much. I thought it was interesting that when starter Gary Guyton left practice with a knee injury Sunday, it was Spikes and not 2009 third-round pick Tyrone McKenzie who stepped in next to Mayo. As for Cunningham, it's simple to me: If he's the best option, he will be the choice, rookie or not. Based on the current personnel, I wouldn't be surprised if that is the case.
Q. Mike, last year the Pats made three trades in trading camp, picking up Derrick Burgess and trading away Le Kevin Smith and Russ Hochstein. In hindsight, they probably should have traded Ryan O'Callaghan as well, given the number of waiver claims placed for him. Looking at the roster, which position groups would you say could most benefit from acquiring a player in trade and which areas are the deepest and could best withstand a trade? Putting on your GM hat, which players would you say that are available would intrigue the Pats the most, and whom would you say would be the most attractive to other teams, among those the Pats might be willing to part ways? -- John (Manchester, N.H.)
A. John, I think the Patriots tried to trade O'Callaghan last year and there were no takers. As for the best depth on the roster, I'd say safety and offensive tackle. As for who the Patriots might acquire, I'd look for any outside linebacker/rush defensive end types, but they are hard to find at this time of year.
Q. Hi Mike, with some of the injuries along the O-line and D-line beginning to pile up during the first week of camp, have any of the very young players filling in made a noticeable impression (positive or negative)? The Patriots in the last couple of drafts have picked some O-line and D-line prospects in the lower rounds hoping a few will develop. To expect a Dan Koppen, Stephen Neal or even a Tully Banta-Cain to come out of the group would be a little much, but do you see any of the young linemen possibly contributing to the level of say a Tom Ashworth, Russ Hochstein, or Mike Wright? It's early in the process, but maybe some baptism by fire will help these young linemen possibly fill some voids during the year, or help the staff project them to future years with a little more confidence. -- Kevin F. (Framingham)
A. Kevin, I haven't been taken aback by any of the young interior offensive linemen, although my sense is that the coaching staff really likes sixth-round pick Ted Larsen. On the defensive line, I think rookie free agent Kyle Love shows some quickness and punch, and he's a player I'm interested to see more of in the coming weeks.
Q. Hi Mike, a quick question about the passing game and the influence of the rookie tight end duo: Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Is it safe to predict at this point, with the observed development of both Hernandez and Gronkowski, that should they continue their momentum we may have seen the end of Wes Welker's 100-catch streak? It seems that whether it be Gronk or Hernandez (or both?), they will either be lining up in place of Welker, or opposite him. Hopefully this will play to Welker's advantage, spending less time in the middle of the field and taking fewer hits albeit with fewer receptions. Do you see it possibly playing out this way, and if not what are your thoughts on the possible passing-game strategies with these TEs? -- Dave C. (Phoenix)
A. Dave, I do see it playing out that way, as I see this offense looking more like the 2009 Saints in that there are many options to throw to, and I think Brady will use them all instead of becoming overly reliant on Welker or Moss.
Q. Hi Mike, I understand the rationale behind having other teams practice with the Patriots (good competition, great for fans, etc.), however, with roughly 30 players currently on each roster that are not going to make a team, isn't there some cause for concern that one or more of them could be a risk to injuring starting players? Maybe go a little too hard to try to make the team and something accidently happens? How do coaches deal with that? -- JP (Short Hills, N.J.)
A. I think that is a natural concern, JP, and that's why I expect most of the joint practices to be in a controlled setting.
Q. Hi Mike, you said something in last week's chat (July 22) that really surprised me. Typically you are the voice of reason, but when you said that you felt the Pats would go 11-5 I was amazed. Were you and Tedy caught up in the moment? Maybe too much Kool-Aid? This is not the Super Bowl team that you are used to covering. The Ravens ended that period in Patriots history. Like all fans at this time of year I am optimistic, but I also am realistic. I think there are way too many questions and not enough answers to project 11-5. Personally I think 8-8 is more reasonable. I see this team in major rebuilding mode the next two years and I don't think it is realistic to expect much until the 2012 season. Currently this team has two very bad habits: the inability to win on the road and letting games slip away in the fourth quarter (especially when they have the lead). Just because this is a new season doesn't meant those problems are gone. If people have reasonable expectations Mike, then there won't be the level of disappointment like last year. I think you are setting your readers up for a big letdown by that 11-5 projection. I will be interested if you still feel this way at the end of camp. -- Paul (Kenosha, Wisc.)
A. This is a younger team, Paul, so you might be right about 11 wins being a bit generous. But I made the prediction and I'm going to stick with it. As long as Tom Brady is there, I feel like I have a chance on this one.
Q. Where do the players stay during training camp? Are they allowed to return home at the end of the day, or do they have to stay in a hotel or local campus? -- Thomas K. (Otis, Mass.)
A. Thomas, the players stay in a local hotel. If you're up for it, take a listen to this week's ESPNBoston.com Patriots podcast. Running back Sammy Morris talks a little bit about what it's like to be away from his family during training camp because he's staying at the hotel.
Q. Hi Mike, why is the CBA so important of an issue with regard to the Tom Brady contract negotiations? In your view, what are the risks (with regard to the CBA) for the Patriots if they sign him to a big deal this summer? Would these risks be mitigated by giving Tom a larger signing bonus while giving him smaller annual salaries? -- Jim C. (Denver)
A. Jim, I think the CBA is such a big issue because there could be significantly different rules in place and the overall level of player salaries could look different with a salary cap and other tools/mechanisms adopted. I don't think it's an insurmountable issue, however, as recent big-money contract extensions have shown us. One risk to the Patriots signing Brady to a big deal this summer would be handcuffing themselves in the future by having him count too high a percentage against the salary cap. I do think there are ways around that, however, with some creativity.
Q. Hello Mike, I haven't heard anything about Darryl Richard. Have you seen anything from him? -- Kent (Ankeny, Iowa)
A. Kent, I think it's been a quiet first 10 practices for Richard. I could see him landing on the practice squad again, but I don't see him making the 53-man roster at this time.
Q. Hey Mike, in reading the practice reports provided here and other places, two names I haven't seen much of are Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley. A year ago I had high hopes for these two; now not so much. How have they been doing in camp and what are your feelings about them in regards to the final 53? -- Jess (San Francisco)
A. Jess, I think Wilhite will be on the club. He works mostly in the slot. I see Wheatley on the outside looking in at this point. He looks like the third-string right cornerback to me.
Q. One name I haven't heard mentioned is Brandon Deaderick. I was wondering where he is lining up in camp, and what kind of player he looks like so far? -- Dave (Hamptons, N.Y.)
A. Dave, it's been a quieter camp for Deaderick, who I've seen mostly at end. I see him headed to the practice squad.
Q. Mike, how does Taylor Price look? We've heard a lot about the rookie tight ends but I'm wondering how Price is progressing. -- Tanvir (Norwalk, Conn.)
A. Price looks pretty smooth to me, but I'm cautious to judge any receiver until he is facing consistent jams at the line of scrimmage. Overall, I'd say Price looks better than I anticipated at this point.
Q. Mike, wouldn't it be nice if the owners just eliminated two preseason games and didn't add them to the regular season. Give every team one home preseason game and don't force the season ticket-holders to buy it. Make it an affordable game (worthy of its actual worth) that families who can't go to regular games could go to. Of course I know the answer to my question is money, but I thought it might be a nice goodwill gesture by the league and the teams. -- Brendon B. (Churchton, Md.)
A. Brendon, that would be a nice gesture, but I think we both know it's unlikely. The owners aren't going to take money out of their own pockets.
Q. Mike, I was hoping you could quickly touch on whether or not players get paid a pro-rated portion of their salary if they participate all throughout training camp and then get cut. How does that work? -- Jeff D. (Marlborough, Mass.)
A. Jeff, players get a per diem during training camp and don't start collecting their salaries until the regular season.
Q. A few weeks ago you did a "best places to watch the Pats play" column and I was wondering if you or your readers could pump out some feedback on where my family and I might go about finding a place in Indiana that's Patriots-friendly? -- Bard D. (Brownsburg, Ind.)
A. Let's toss it out there, Bart, and see what comes back in the next week.
Q. Can the public attend the joint practice with the Saints scheduled for Aug. 10? If so, when should the public arrive? -- Donald D. (Nashua, N.H.)
A. Yes, Donald, those practices are open to the public. The schedule has not yet been released, but I'd anticipate it's 9:30 a.m. and 3:45 p.m.
Reiss Mailbag: At Patriots camp, who looks good so far -- and who doesn't?