- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- This week's mailbag arrives from long distance, as the Patriots traveled three days early for their preseason game against the Falcons. The team's overall health is the dominant topic in the 'bag.
Mainly, the question is: "How will the recent string of injuries affect the club?"
My answer is that a similar run of injuries to another team might be devastating. But I think the Patriots have built some quality depth throughout their roster so the level of devastation is milder. It hurts, no question about it, but I still think they are in position to contend for an AFC East crown.
In addition to the health report, many e-mailers shared thoughts on the team's impressive preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints. Several performances caught the eye, from Julian Edelman to Patrick Chung to Sergio Brown.
Q: Mike, we have certainly been hit with the injury bug. Do you think it will affect the season much with the losses? -- Alex (Rome, N.Y.)
A: Alex, the injuries that would concern me most are on the line of scrimmage. I subscribe to the idea that games are won and lost up front. The Patriots aren't alone when comparing them to the rest of the NFL, of course, but I think they've taken some significant hits with Ty Warren (hip) and Nick Kaczur (back). I do think it will hurt them at times and could lead to a loss. But overall, I still think they are pretty deep.
Q: Mike, do you think if Ty Warren had participated in the offseason program his hip injury would have been discovered earlier? Also, are the Patriots upset that he went back to school instead of being 100 percent committed to the team? Additionally, how is the uncertain NFL future affecting his decision to have the surgery? -- Cory (Medford, Mass.)
A: Cory, I don't believe Warren's lack of participation in the offseason program contributed to the injury. I think he reported in good condition and injured the hip during the third practice of camp in what could be classified as a freak thing. I could point to outside linebacker Shawn Crable and defensive end Ron Brace on the flip side; they participated in the offseason program and both had injuries as camp opened. As for the Patriots' feelings on Warren going back to school, I am not sure of that. The sense I get is that there is some kind of disconnect between the sides. On the last part of the question, I spoke with Warren and I don't think that has anything to do with his decision. Had he had this injury in November, he might have played through it. But the timing of it altered his decision-making because of long-term health concerns.
Q: With Ty Warren out, and Derrick Burgess back, DL instantly becomes my biggest concern on the team. After Mike Wright and Gerard Warren, are any of the other DL ready? Last year it seemed like the DL got worn down through the games and in the 4th quarter they just weren't able to hold up. Should we expect more of the same this year? -- Earl (Waltham, Mass.)
A: Earl, this area looks thin to me as well. With veteran Damione Lewis having been banged up in the preseason opener, the second string looks like Ron Brace (left end), Myron Pryor (nose tackle) and Brandon Deaderick (right end) for the Falcons game. I'd need to see more to have a good feeling on if they are ready to step in at a moment's notice.
Q: Hey Mike, is the doom and gloom from Ty Warren's IR status necessary? I keep hearing about this "unsung" role, but is Gerard Warren not capable of performing to that level? I'm eager, and even optimistic, to see some rookies (Deaderick, for example) jump in and showcase why they were drafted. -- Ian (Bangor, Maine)
A: Ian, I do think Ty Warren's injury is a hit, because it moves Gerard Warren from the right side to the left, then thrusts Mike Wright into a more full-time role on the right side (I think Wright is best suited for an occasional starting role, not full-time). So the big hit to me is that it thins the depth. As for Gerard Warren, I think he's been as solid as could be hoped for at this point. If he practices and plays like he has to this point, I think the Patriots will be OK.
Q: I'm interested in what actually happens to players placed on IR. What do they do after their surgery? Do they remain in Boston and rehab with the team? Do they still take part in meetings and game review? Are they allowed on the sidelines during games? For a veteran type player like Ty Warren, is he utilized in some sort of coaching/mentoring role by the team with the rookies/younger players? What pay do the players on IR receive? -- Lee Tempest (Gloucester, UK)
A: Lee, this depends on the player. Tyrone McKenzie, for example, stayed with the team all last year after tearing his ACL in rookie minicamp. Most of the time, players on injured reserve receive their full salary unless they had a split in their contract which reduced the pay in the event of injury, which is more commonplace for younger, unproven players on shorter-term deals.
Q: Hi Mike, why do you think Ron Brace was not shown the door like Shawn Crable? On a different note, do you think there's a chance that Dane Fletcher can be converted into a serviceable OLB? He has decent size, speed, was productive in college, and the coaching staff seem to like him. I'm beginning to think he's this year's undrafted breakout. -- Buachs (N.Y., N.Y.)
A: I think you nailed it in the question, which was trimmed down in the editing process. Crable had three years. Brace is in his second. Because of that, he gets one more year before it's a make-or-break situation for him in my view. As for Fletcher, I think he's more of an inside linebacker in the team's 3-4 alignment. Perhaps he could work some on the outside in an Eric Alexander-type emergency-type role, but I don't see that as the best fit for him on a long-term basis.
Q: Mike, I think the team speed has been addressed through the draft, which is a plus. However, the person who looked the most impressive the other evening was Patrick Chung. He was all over the place. How do you see his development? -- JR (Bedford, N.H.)
A: JR, I thought Chung was impressive in the preseason opener. He looked like a different player. When I went back and looked at the playtime numbers I kept from last year, it caught my eye that Chung was limited to 17 defensive snaps over the final four weeks of the regular season. At a time when the Patriots needed to keep winning to clinch a playoff berth, I didn't sense the confidence to put him on the field. Now I think the coaching staff has that confidence, and I also think Chung's confidence is rising. That stop he made on third down early in the game, closing fast, was impressive.
Q: Hi Mike, I was trying to watch Brandon Tate in the first preseason game. How would you rate his development so far? -- Paul in Canada (New Brunswick)
A: Paul, I would put Tate in the category of players who seems to grow in each practice. He's also made some of the best catches in training camp, so if we were putting a highlight reel together from the best training camp plays, we wouldn't have to look far to find him on it.
Q: Julian Edelman looks like a legit threat in the NFL as a receiver, but might he be just as effective as a Wildcat QB considering that he played QB in college at Kent State and has the ability to run the ball? -- Arthur (Virginia)
A: I would think so, Arthur. I thought Tedy Bruschi had some great thoughts on Edelman after that preseason opener, saying the way he makes plays with the ball in his hands will challenge quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien to find ways to get him the ball.
Q: I had thought that the loss of Nick Kazcur was going to increase the urgency of the Logan Mankins situation. However, after watching Dan Connolly look real solid against New Orleans, I think that this team might be OK without Mankins. Do you see any connection between the play of Connolly and the dollars the Pats offer Mankins, or are the two issues completely separate? -- Kartal (Denver)
A: Kartal, I don't see Connolly's performance -- good or bad -- having a major impact on Mankins' contract situation. The Patriots feel like they've made a fair offer. I think they've taken it as far as they will go and are content to live with wherever the process leads from here. I gave Connolly one of the "ups" on our ESPNBoston.com Patriots blog after the game for his big block on BenJarvus Green-Ellis' touchdown run. I thought he played well. At the same time, I do think it's a drop-off when you lose a player like Mankins, who has done it consistently over time, so I wouldn't make any definitive judgments on Connolly from one game.
Q: I was wondering about Logan Mankins. I understand both sides of the "holdout," but one thing I haven't heard discussed much is the fact that if he does not play this year, and there is a lockout next year, then he has lost two years of his career in his prime and lost two years of income. As someone who is unemployed, I think I might swallow my pride to pay my bills. What do you think he and his agent have planned for this eventuality? -- Mark (Astoria, NY)
A: Mark, I don't think the money is important to Mankins in this context. He feels like it's a matter of keeping one's word. So I think he is prepared to sit out. Perhaps he would come back in Week 10, to give himself the chance for another accrued season, but I'm not sure he'd even do that.
Q: My biggest question (not concern, question) about the offense is still the running back situation. With Fred Taylor not playing against the Saints, did the preseason opener tell us anything? Is Green-Ellis playing himself onto the roster again? Is Maroney primarily going to be used in short-yardage/goal-line situations? I hope there's something you can do to make this murky picture a bit clearer. -- Justin (Culver City, Calif.)
A: Justin, I'd start with Green-Ellis. We will be doing another set of 53-man roster projections on ESPNBoston.com and I'm going to put him on there this week. As for Taylor, I wouldn't read into it as the Patriots planning to feature different runners at different times of the preseason. I don't think Maroney will necessarily be a goal-line back going forward, but that was the way it worked out last week.
Q: I thought the CB play looked good Thursday night, and it got me thinking. We know Bodden, Butler and McCourty are locks for roster spots. Wilhite looks to be pretty close to a lock, and in your roster prediction, you had Arrington making the team over Wheatley. Is there any chance all 6 make the club? Wheatley seems to be making the most of his opportunities, and made some plays in the preseason opener. Is he playing for a roster spot on someone else's team at this point, or do you think he still has a shot at playing for the Pats? -- Rick (Pelham, N.H.)
A: Good point, Rick. It could be tough to keep Wheatley off as he's had his best camp with the team. I think we could see six cornerbacks, or perhaps a trade to a cornerback-needy team (e.g., Baltimore, as e-mailer Karen suggests).
Q: Mike, I know it's early, but is Marques Murrell the real deal? I thought he was just filling in for Cunningham but he looked very good against the Saints starting O-line. -- Tanvir (Norwalk, Conn.)
A: I think we'll see more of Murrell in a starting role at outside linebacker Thursday night, and perhaps that will tell us more. I know Murrell gets a lot of credit for that first-quarter sack, but I thought it was Tully Banta-Cain's inside pressure that really led to the sack. Murrell looks like he'll sneak onto the roster, but I'd like to see more of him before making the call.
Q: Mike, Bill Belichick and many players sang the praises of Torry Holt as a great mentor for younger players. Are there any NFL or union rules that might prevent the Pats from keeping Holt on the team as an assistant coach? For example, is the number of coaches a team has limited by the NFL or is a player on rehab restricted by the union as to what he can/cannot do? -- Dave (Berlin, N.H.)
A: Dave, there would be nothing that would stop Holt from sticking around and being part of meetings, but Bill Belichick said Tuesday morning that won't be the case.
Q: What were your thoughts on Brian Westbrook prior to him signing with the 49ers? I thought he would be an immediate starter for the Patriots, and I think he could do a lot with the red zone as well. What are your thoughts? -- Matthew Caselles (N.Y.)
A: Matthew, I saw Westbrook duplicating what the Patriots already have in Kevin Faulk at this stage of his career. Given the overall makeup of the running back group, I would have passed on him as well. Another e-mailer asked about Willis McGahee and I don't see that one, either. To me, he is similar to what the Patriots already have in Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris -- not necessarily in running style, but in what they bring to a team.
Q: Hey Mike, now that training camp is closed to the public, do the Patriots immediately go back to the regular season-type schedule of a short media portion of practice which is basically, just warm ups and taking attendance. Or can you watch 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 drills? Also, with Taylor Price not having played in the punt or kickoff return game in college, what kind of progress was he made in training camp? Has he practiced kickoff return or just punt returns? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A: David, I am not 100 percent certain, but I believe it will just be stretching and attendance for media members. On the second part of the question, I have seen Price on both kickoff and punt returns. He seems sure-handed and one of the team's depth options in both spots.
Q: Mike, here is an angle on the Brady contract situation that has not gotten any attention: Why did Tom Brady/his agents agree to such a low number for the last year of his contract? I have read multiple places that it was verbally agreed or at least understood that the deal would be re-done before it reached the last year. Why not structure the contract in such a way as to make sure that happens by making the salary in the last year very large? -- Jay L (New York, NY)
A: Jay, I think Brady's agents focused on a front-loaded contract, with most of the money in the first two to three years. Because NFL contracts are not guaranteed, it is smart business to keep that money in the early years if possible. Actually, the agents also did a smart thing in 2007 when Brady restructured his contract to help the team absorb Randy Moss' salary. As part of that restructure, Brady's base salary in 2009 was bumped up from around $2 million to around $5 million, so they were thinking about getting those numbers up in the late years.
Q: With Welker and Edelman, does one become a trade target for other teams? Would the Patriots entertain any offers? Which of the two would seemingly be more valuable? What do you think they would net in return? -- Jarrod (Mansfield, Mass.)
A: Jarrod, I don't think it would be a consideration. The Patriots want to keep both Welker and Edelman as that opens up some intriguing possibilities for the offense. Just because they are both viewed as slot receivers doesn't mean they can't be paired together and do some lethal things. So I'd say any proposal would be dead on arrival.
Q: Hey Mike, does Derrick Burgess have to pay a fine for being under contract and still missing training camp? If not what would prevent all older players from "contemplating retirement" and then come back to the roster? -- SaYoung Kim (Durham, N.H.)
A: Burgess, as I understand it, was subject to fines but the Patriots elected not to take that course of action.
Q: Why did the Pats stay basically out of the free agent market this year? Do they believe they are OK with who they have? Are the young guns on this team that good? -- Alan (Palm Bay, Fla.)
A: Alan, I think they were in the market, but with mid-to-lower-level options like Gerard Warren, Damione Lewis and Alge Crumpler. All three could really help the team this year. As history has shown us, spending big bucks in the free-agent market isn't always the wisest investment (e.g., Adalius Thomas). It's less about how much is spent and more about spending it wisely. This year, I think free agency was used to complement their influx of youngsters from the draft.
Q: Mike, in preseason games in the past it seemed as though Belichick didn't pay much attention to winning the games. I think that's because he had a lot of veterans who knew how to win. If the Saints game is any indication, it looks to me like he is treating these games as an opportunity to teach the young players what it takes to win games. What are your thoughts? -- Jim L. (Macon, Ga.)
A: Jim, I'm not sure if Belichick is treating the games any differently, although I did hear from one player that the final result was something they felt good about. "That's why you play the games," the player said. I'm not sure if that's a message Belichick gave the team, and if he really wanted to win, he probably would have left Tom Brady, Randy Moss and the top offense in for longer than two series.
Q: Mike, has anyone picked up on the fact that Sergio Brown is on first team kickoff coverage? Seems to me that when trying to figure out the last few spots on the roster, special teams is the place to look. He also made a big hit leading to the game-ending INT vs. the Saints, and has the coach connection (played for Charlie Weis at ND, as well as Corwin Brown, now with Pats). Thoughts? -- Will (Dover, Mass.)
A: Will, I think this is a sharp observation. Brown looks like a player who will land on the practice squad at the least, and possibly sneak onto the active roster. Because the Patriots have had a run of injuries to special-teams players such as Bret Lockett and Matthew Slater, those type of opportunities have opened for Brown. I'm not sure it clinches his spot, but I do think it's something to watch.
Q: Mike, what are the rules on getting players to IR in the preseason? Denver tried to get Josh Barrett to IR, but he had to be "Waived/Injured," and the Patriots were able to sign him away. One week later, the Patriots are able to get Ty Warren to IR without exposing him to waivers. Why is that? Is having played a pre-season game significant to the IR rules? -- Mark Bennett (Seattle)
A: Mark, the main issue on this is how much experience the player has. A player with less than four accrued seasons would still go through the waiver process (Barrett is in his third season). Since Warren is an eight-year veteran, he is not subject to the waiver process.
Q: Hey Mike, I recently heard that Philadelphia Eagles rookie DE/OLB Ricky Sapp (Clemson) is going to be one of those fringe players that could possibly be cut. What do you think the Patriots' interest would be, especially seeing how much hype there was with them thinking about taking him somewhere in the second round this past April? We are thin at that position and he seems to be built just for that OLB in our scheme at 6'4, 252 pounds. Like the Aaron Schobel talk, I guess I tend to hope for the best. -- Mug (Patriot Nation: Detroit Area Chapter)
A: Mug, the only way I could see the Patriots going for Sapp (assuming he'd be available) is if Jermaine Cunningham's undisclosed injury -- sustained last Wednesday in joint practices against the Saints -- is something serious, which I don't think is the case.
23hEric D. Williams
2dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo