Mailbag: Reading signs as season nears

Judging from e-mails to the Patriots mailbag this week, the general feeling among fans is:

1. Optimistic about the new weapons on offense.

2. Still concerned about the progress of the defense.

3. Hopeful that a resolution can be reached with Logan Mankins.

The first two preseason games have gone about as well as the Patriots could have hoped. The team is 30 practices into the season and the picture is starting to come into focus.

There are no shortage of issues to digest and this week's 'bag tries to spread the football around and cover as many as possible.

Q. Simple question: After 2 preseason games do you feel better or worse about this team than before camp started? -- Johnny (Riverside, Calif.)

A. Johnny, I'd say better. The biggest thing to me was seeing some of the young players. Because the Patriots are counting on more young players to emerge in key spots, it created an element of the "unknown" as to how things might turn out in 2010. Although two preseason games is a small sample, I think the young guys have flashed enough promise to show that this team will be competitive. If there are two areas that look a bit spotty to me, it's the defense and depth on the offensive line.

Q. Hey Mike, in the past I never really made it a point to rush home or make time available to watch preseason games. If I can remember correctly we never really dominated (even when we were winning Super Bowls). This year is totally different, as I get excited to see what the young crop of talent can do. Do you read much into the fact that we beat the Saints and dominated the Falcons? -- Derek (Dallas)

A. Derek, I read into it to a certain point. I think it's been important to see some of the first- and second-year players respond to game-like conditions. The early signs look good for the Patriots. At the same time, there isn't much game-planning going on, if any at all, so teams are not getting attacked like they will in the regular season. That's important to keep in mind. Also, I go back to 2008 when I was very hard on Matt Cassel for poor preseason performance. We know how that one turned out, which is a good reminder not to read too deeply into what we see at this point.

Q. Mike, I don't get it. How can the Jets continue to sign all these players at max dollars? Where does the cap play into this? How can the Jets sign all these guys at top dollar, yet we're sitting around without one of the best guards in the league because of some chump-change differences? Just doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. Their purse seems endless while ours seems somewhat shallow, no? -- Carl (Natick)

A. Carl, when I saw news that the Jets were close to a reported seven-year, $55 million deal with center Nick Mangold, one of the first thoughts I had was how it relates to Logan Mankins. It's hard to analyze it without seeing the structure of the deal, but on the surface, it looks like Mangold's reported deal would strengthen Mankins' position. As for the Jets' financial situation vs. the Patriots', the first thing to keep in mind is that there is no salary cap this year. So teams can spend freely with no consequences ... this year. Where the Jets could get burned is if a salary cap is instituted next year and they're locked into several long-term deals that were struck in an uncapped environment that could create a log-jam for them in a capped environment. It looks to me like that is the main difference -- the Jets are willing to take that risk, while the Patriots are more conservative in that area.

Q. What does your gut tell you will happen with Logan Mankins and his future with the Patriots? I like what he brings to our O-line and would like him back. With Kaczur hurting and the pickup of Quinn Ojinnaka, are the Pats planning to move on without Mankins? Very important to balance the attack this year and solid guard play is a key, right? -- JW (Philly)

A. JW, I think Mankins will play for the team this year, probably starting in Week 10. The thinking would be that he will protect himself to get an accrued season, giving him six, and setting himself up to be an unrestricted free agent in 2011 regardless of what the free-agent rules become. On the guard play, one thing you notice when watching the Patriots is how often they have players at the position pull. That's a key part of the rushing attack.

Q. Mike, can you clarify something about the Mankins situation for me? Will he likely be back for the last six games of the regular season, in order to gain a year of experience? I remember reading that about other holdouts. -- Niko (Los Angeles)

A. Niko, most holdouts would take that approach and I think that is what Mankins will ultimately do. Yet one thing to consider is that Mankins might not need that additional year. He has five years of experience, and if free-agency rules revert to what they were -- with players needing just four years of experience to become free agents, not six -- Mankins would be free next year. So he could potentially roll the dice that the free-agent rules will go back to what they were and not show up at all.

Q. Love the Pats and will root for them win or lose forever. However, I am not happy with management for not signing Mankins. Seems to me like the guy earned a fair deal. Any chance this situation gets resolved amicably? -- Jason (San Diego)

A. Consider your voice heard, Jason. I think any deal requires both sides compromising and right now I don't see that happening. I tend to be an optimist, so yes, I do think there is hope for a resolution.

Q. When are the Pats going to sign Randy Moss to an extension? -- John (Lincoln)

A. There were quite a few Moss contract-related questions (his deal expires after this season) this week, John. I see him third in the "contract" line after Tom Brady and Logan Mankins, which assumes the team is still interested in a long-term deal with Mankins. Because of that, my sense is that the sides will play this year out and revisit next offseason, with the outside possibility they talk about an extension during the bye week. I think the idea of signing Moss to an extension could produce a juicy debate of the rewards and risks. It is compelling to me. I could make a strong case for both sides.

Q. Hey Mike, any chance on finding out the resolution to the charges against Quinn Ojinnaka? The Atlanta Journal Constitution article merely stated he was charged, and not whether it ever went to trial or if there was any resolution. Considering the charges were from May, I assume there's been some resolution at this point. Also, with UMass alums burning up New York, why couldn't they have been any good when we were there? -- Jacob (Bethlehem, Pa.)

A. Jacob, some additional reporting needs to be conducted on Ojinnaka and where his legal situation stands in terms of being charged with simple battery. As for UMass, it was going to be hard for the football team to gain much traction when I was there because of the hold that the men's basketball team had; that team swept the town away.

Q. Hi Mike, the trade for Ojinnaka seems weird to me. The guy supposedly threw his wife down the stairs at their home (why he's suspended a game). Doesn't seem like someone the Krafts would be OK having on their team, does he? -- KLM (Boston)

A. On the surface, it doesn't, KLM. That's why I think it's important to get the full story before making any definitive judgments.

Q. How much of the O-line acquisition from the Falcons be attributed to the joint practices they have had this preseason? Does that give additional scouting opportunities? -- Dan (Boston)

A. Dan, I don't think the deal was a result of the joint practices. As I understand it, the sides had discussed it beforehand. But I think what the joint practices allowed the Patriots to do was get a closer look and gain more comfort in consummating the trade.

Q. Mike, like any fan I've been impressed with the tight ends so far. Two questions I haven't seen addressed during training camp: 1) Can Aaron Hernandez block or is that not an important question/aspect? 2) Haven't heard at all about how Dan Koppen is doing. Last year wasn't his best and there was talk the Pats might want to draft Pouncey. How's he doing? -- Lance (Brookline)

A. Lance, Hernandez has played a bit on the line of scrimmage and been OK in a blocking role. I'd say it's not an area that you want to rely on him, but he shows signs of being able to at least be competitive. On Koppen, I think he's had a solid training camp. He hasn't missed a practice and the middle of that offensive line has held its ground rather nicely.

Q. First the Pats play Wes Welker in a meaningless Week 17 game and he gets hurt, then they play him in a meaningless preseason game after returning from said injury. Why should I continue to trust in Bill when he keeps making such obvious Norv Turner-style bonehead decisions? -- Jason (San Diego)

A. Jason, I thought it was an aggressive decision with Welker as well, and without knowing all the information, I probably would have played it safe myself. Yet Welker has to play at some point before the regular season because it's an important step to absorb contact, as much mentally as physically. Once Welker returned to practice, most figured it would be this week against the Rams. So in that sense, it was a one-week acceleration of the timetable that most probably expected.

Q. To me the most important thing to see Thursday night against the Rams is a healthy Jermaine Cunningham getting in as many plays as he can. With the Patriots not drafting many OLBs over the last few years, I think he is vital to this team's success. Your thoughts? -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)

A. David, Cunningham has been out since sustaining an undisclosed injury Aug. 11 in joint practices with the Saints. Seeing him on the exercise bicycle Monday and not on the practice field made me think that he is still another week away from being able to play. I don't expect to see him Thursday night against the Rams.

Q. Hello Mike, I had a question that relates to Tyrone McKenzie and his playing time so far. The guys who have received the playing time over him (Dane Fletcher and Eric Alexander) are guys who went into camp as definite bubble guys. Further, the first two games of the preseason are often seen as proving grounds for those bubble guys. I know you see it as a bad sign for McKenzie making the cut but couldn't you also see the playing time that has been given out so far as a proving ground for guys who are fighting for spots on the roster? I just can't see NE cutting him after 1 year when he seems like the type of guy BB would love to "coach up." I suppose the playing time given in Game 3 (when the bulk of the time is awarded to those that end up on the roster) will be a good indicator. -- Randy (Boston)

A. Randy, I think a lot of people will be rooting for McKenzie based on his background and how hard he's fought to get to this point. How can you not? However, I do see some troubling signs for him. I haven't seen him stand out much in camp and, to my layman's eyes, some of the struggles seem to be in the read-and-react area. I also haven't noticed him on first-string special-teams units. Then, when it comes to playing time, it was curious to me that he wasn't leading the defensive huddle against the Falcons. My first thought was, "Does the coaching staff not have full confidence in his knowledge of the defense?" Instead, Eric Alexander was leading the huddle, and it's hard for me to believe the coaching staff doesn't have the book on what Alexander can and can't do after seven years. Some might also say McKenzie is a pure strong-side linebacker and Dane Fletcher and Alexander are weak-side options. My counter would be that Bill Belichick is cross-training all the inside linebackers and they have to play both positions. Add it all up and I see a player on the roster bubble. I know some look at it and say, "You can't cut a third-round pick." But the Patriots did it with Kevin O'Connell in his second year, and one could also make the point that McKenzie is just as much a fourth-rounder (97th overall) as he is a third. In the end, I'm not saying he will be cut; I'd just say don't be surprised if that's the way it unfolds based on the way training camp has unfolded.

Q. Maybe I'm a bit optimistic, but as much attention as the front seven on defense have been receiving, not enough credit is given to the secondary. I'm very excited for September 12th even with an uncertain pass rush. Do you think Devin McCourty is ready to start, or should Darius Butler start opposite Leigh Bodden? Also, even with McCourty, do you think there is still a roster spot for Kyle Arrington due to his significance to special teams in 2009? -- Alvin (Deerfield, Mass.)

A. Alvin, I do think McCourty is ready to start. That is going to be a really good competition the next few weeks, as I don't think the Patriots could go wrong with either McCourty or Butler starting on the left side. One factor to keep in mind is that the first two opponents -- Bengals and Jets -- look like strong running teams and McCourty is a very good run-support corner. I also think Arrington will be on the club as the fifth cornerback. Arrington's status, to me, is a good example of the value of special teams. Because Arrington is on most of the units, and 2008 second-round pick Terrence Wheatley is not, Arrington will probably edge him out for that final spot on the depth chart.

Mike, McCourty has played pretty well, but I remember you saying a couple times the top slot CB would be Jonathan Wilhite. Is that still true? Personally, I cringe when Wilhite is on the field because he never looks back at the QB and it seems like a lot of passes are completed over his back. I would think the top three players would be on the field when the opponent goes with three wide receivers. They all need the same skill sets to cover opposing WRs. Maybe you can help explain the difference? -- Jan (Auburn, NH)

A. Jan, in a nickel package with three cornerbacks on the field, I see the Patriots having Devin McCourty and Leigh Bodden at the outside positions and either Darius Butler or Jonathan Wilhite in the slot (I'd lean toward Butler). I see the main thing for a slot corner as dealing with the traffic in the middle of the field and being able to react quicker as plays often develop faster than on the outside. So you're looking for that Welker-type quickness on defense from a slot corner, not necessarily a longer player who might not be as fluid in his movements.

Q. Hey Mike, I have two questions. First, much has been made of the Patriots' reliance on youth this season. Even if the team gets out to a good start and puts itself in good playoff position, do you think the grind of an NFL season could wear down all these young guys down the stretch? Also, when Leigh Bodden returns do you think he'll be an automatic starting corner or will he be eased back because Butler and McCourty have been playing well? -- Creech (Westwood, Mass.)

A. Creech, I think the long season/rookie aspect is something to be monitored. Overall, though, I see the Patriots as having enough veterans to help pull the rope to carry them through should they be in good position late in the year. I also see Bodden being inserted into the starting mix on the right side for the regular season. It might not happen this week, but I don't see his starting spot in jeopardy.

Q. Hi Mike, with everyone thinking the defense is improved, I still do not see it. The D-line is a shambles, the linebackers are a big question and the jury is still out in the secondary. Against Atlanta, they gave up over 5 yards a carry, and 8 of 15 on third downs. Tell me why I should be optimistic about this defense? -- Paul (Watertown, Mass.)

A. Paul, I see the secondary and inside linebackers as areas where the optimism is justified. Like you, I see depth concerns along the defensive line and a question mark at outside linebacker. I think your thoughts are fair, and we could probably go around the NFL and do the same thing for 31 other teams (e.g. Ravens secondary, Jets defensive ends, Dolphins outside linebackers, etc.).

Q. Mike, after watching the preseason game against the Falcons, especially the first drive, I'm asking again, "What is up with Jerod Mayo?" His rookie year he was all over the field. Since his return from injury, he seems to get pushed around with ease. Still not 100 percent. A cause for concern? -- KB

A. That stood out to me as well, KB. Mayo did not look great in his pass drops and I think it's something to watch going forward. That would be a big concern for the defense if Mayo does not regain his 2008 form, as the the team is counting on it.

Q. Mike, one thing that caught the eye was Pat Chung flying to the football and making big hits. He appears to have the potential to be a poor man's Rodney Harrison and a definite upgrade over solid-but-unspectacular James Sanders. Do you think Chung will live up to the promise he has shown and make the leap in year 2? Also, in your opinion, who ends up as the better player when their careers are over -- Louis Delmas or Chung? -- Vincent (Weston, Mass.)

A. Vincent, Chung has been one of the top players to catch my eye on defense to this point in camp. He looks more confident, and because of that, seems to be playing faster. I expect to see a big leap from him in his second season. It's easy to forget that he was put on ice late last year when the Patriots needed wins in their final four games to stay atop the playoff race, playing sparingly. I see him in a full-time role this year. As for the Delmas vs. Chung comparison, I haven't seen enough of Delmas to have an informed opinion.

Q. Hi Mike, just a quick question on the enigmatic Ron Brace. He was drafted as a backup nose tackle but is he better suited to playing defensive end in the 3-4? There is a very large hole to fill at that position and perhaps he can start to justify that second-rounder the Pats used on him two years ago. -- John (Walpole, Mass.)

A. John, I think Brace is better suited to end and we saw that Thursday night in Atlanta. I thought Brace played a bit too upright at nose, which is something he doesn't have to concern himself with as much at end, going up against taller tackles. Bill Belichick said on WEEI that Brace was competitive in the preseason game against Atlanta and I'd agree.

Q. How is Taylor Price doing? There hasn't been much in the news about him. -- Nick (Hull)

A. Nick, the good news for Price is that he hasn't missed a practice and has played 62 snaps in the two preseason games, with one reception for seven yards. That's valuable experience. On the flip side, because Price missed spring camps because Ohio had yet to graduate, he was behind and it sometimes shows. I could envision this as a redshirt year of sorts for Price if all the receivers stay healthy.

Q. My question is about Zoltan Mesko. Have only heard little bits about him, and he generally doesn't even make the game summaries. Any chance you can offer us your thoughts on how he is performing? -- Jim (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

A. Jim, I think Mesko has been as advertised in terms of punting -- nine punts and five have been inside-the-20 efforts. No touchbacks. So that has been all good. The one area that I think warrants attention is his role as a holder. There is an adjustment period there for kicker Stephen Gostkowski and we saw one field goal miss in Atlanta that was wiped away by a penalty. I'm not sure if it was because of the hold, the timing of the operation or simply a mishit.

Q. Hi Mike, when the Pats picked up Marques Murrell in the offseason, he was considered to be mostly a special teams player/extra depth on the roster. However, in the first 2 preseason games he has been playing outside linebacker with the first-string defense. Is this simply a matter of being thin at this position with Banta-Cain and Cunningham out due to injury? Or does Belichick possibly see something in Murrell and envision him having a larger role on D? -- Dave (Agawam, Mass.)

A. Dave, I would say it was more a result of being thin as I'd expect you will see a Derrick Burgess/Tully Banta-Cain pairing this week against the Rams. At the same time, it gave the coaching staff a chance to evaluate Murrell against top competition, which is invaluable. If I had to project the starting lineup at linebacker, I'd put Burgess and Banta-Cain at outside linebacker and Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes at inside linebacker.

Q. Mike, I see comments about players probably being practice squad guys. Can you tell me a little bit about the success of "practice squad guys?" In Bill's tenure with the Pats, how many total practice squad players have there been? How many have gone on to play in a game for the Pats at a position other than special teams? How many have ever started a game for the Pats? Are there any examples of practice squad players going on to be legitimate starters for the Pats? -- John (Huntington Beach, Calif.)

A. John, the first player who comes to mind is right guard Stephen Neal. It's hard to believe now that he began his career on the practice squad with the Eagles. Left guard Dan Connolly, who is projected to start in the absence of Logan Mankins, was another practice squad guy with the Patriots. Russ Hochstein, the former Patriot, was another player who spent time on the Patriots' practice squad. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis did as well.

Q. Mike, do you think Floyd Reese should start getting some credit for what appears to be a two-year period of solid drafting? Pioli got a lot of credit early, but his last couple of drafts were not that great. -- Nick (Fitzwilliam, NH)

A. Nick, Reese's role as the senior football adviser is mostly to handle the business side of things for the team, such as contracts. I don't think it would be an accurate representation of his responsibilities to be crediting him for the team's drafting the last two years. I'd instead point toward Bill Belichick, director of player personnel Nick Caserio and director of college scouting Jon Robinson.

Q. Hi Mike, where is the best place to buy Patriots jerseys online? I'm trying to find a Patrick Chung jersey but am not having much luck. Maybe you could ask readers to give input on where to find Pats merchandise, similar to your list on sports bars for watching the Patriots outside of N.E.? -- Chris (Alberta, Canada)

A. Chris, the first thought I had was the Patriots' official website.

Q. Mike, how great is "Hard Knocks" this year with the Jets? I hate the Jets but I do enjoy watching Rex Ryan and the rest of the egos on that team interact. My question is, do you know if BB watches the show? -- CJ (Milton)

A. CJ, I asked Belichick that question Monday and his answer was, "I missed it. I don't even know when it's on." But he did acknowledge that he will probably watch parts of it in time.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.