Mailbag: Doubt heading into opener?

Summing up the tone of e-mails in this week's Patriots mailbag, the word "doubt" comes to the forefront.

The shaky way the team finished the preseason, coupled with some of the moves made at Saturday's roster cutdown, has seemingly shaken the confidence of many e-mailers. There is a lot to digest, from the final makeup of the roster to defensive concerns to the season opener against the Bengals.

Let's get right to it.

Q: Please assess the Pats defense. Will they be able to get off the field? -- Larry (Sharon, Mass.)

A: Larry, I see question marks against the run in the pure fundamental aspect of shedding blocks and tackling. That's something that has generally been good in Bill Belichick's tenure, but if they don't get it squared away, it will be a challenging 2002-like year. I think the secondary will be fine, and the players up front will be able to generate enough of a pass rush to get off the field in some key situations, with Tully Banta-Cain and Mike Wright the top rushers. The top defense didn't look good in the final two preseason games, but part of that is the lack of scheme/adjustments. That's what makes the preseason hard to judge. Overall, I don't think it's a dominating defense, and there are personnel questions at defensive end and outside linebacker, but I think the Patriots can complement the defense with strong offense and special teams performance to field a team with a winning record.

Q: Hi Mike, I don't think the Patriots D will be able to stop anyone this year and certainly getting off the field on third down will continue to a problem. Several players will have to emerge and I do not see anyone as a clear favorite to do this. On top of this, Mayo does not look right. I see an 8-8 record this year. The only upside I see right now is they might be more effective in the red zone on offense with their tight ends. Are you still sticking with 11-5? -- Watson (Canton, Ohio)

A: Watson, I still think this is a 10-win team. Given the Patriots' run of injuries in the preseason and some defensive concerns, I dropped my prediction from 11-5 to 10-6. That prediction was part of a larger piece in which 10 different Patriots predictions were made this season. As for Mayo, I think he's going to be fine. Part of his struggles against the Giants in the preseason finale was breakdowns with Derrick Burgess on the left defensive edge, which forced him into tougher-than-they-should-be situations.

Q: Mike, is it time to stow away any hopes of a Super Bowl run in 2010? -- Nick (Wisconsin Rapids, Wisc.)

A: Nick, I wouldn't count the Patriots out just yet. As we know, a lot of things change over the course of the year. At this time last year, how many people were counting the New Orleans Saints in? The Patriots obviously have a lot of questions to answer, but they aren't alone.

Q: Any idea why Randy Moss is taking it personal that he wasn't given a contract before heading into the last year of his current deal? Has he not read the papers? Brady is in a similar spot, and his deal should be done before Randy's. Is this more of a calculated move by Moss to get the team talking about an extension for him, or is this him merely venting? -- Rick (Pelham, N.H.)

A: Rick, my sense of it is that Moss is sensitive and he is basically just asking for a little bit of a love -- not necessarily in the form of a contract but maybe a verbal hug of sorts. I think quarterback Tom Brady might have picked up on it, as the two were spotted at dinner together on Monday night. I think Brady was being the leader he is and sensing that maybe Moss needed a little pick-me-up. When a team signs on with Randy, it is basically signing up to hold on for an unpredictable ride and I'd put his recent comments about his contract in that category. Moss has been paid as one of the top receivers in the game from 2008 to this year. For many, that would be enough to feel wanted.

Q: Mike, people are being very critical of the Patriots and their past drafts, and are now saying their last two drafts were "bad" because they cut developmental offensive line guys like Ted Larsen, Rich Ohrnberger, George Bussey and Thomas Welch. But in criticizing the drafts, people fail to mention all the guys that are making contributions. Why so much hate for the Pats? -- Arjuna (Derry, N.H.)

A: Arjuna, my take is that we could look at any team and identify some draft picks that didn't pan out. That's par for the course. Specific to the Patriots, I think they've generally drafted well under Belichick when compared to the rest of the NFL. They have had a bad run here on the offensive line, but I don't view it as catastrophic as guard/center Ohrnberger has returned on the practice squad and tackle Steve Maneri was claimed on waivers, so he's essentially another draft pick. We could also look at former rookie free agent Ryan Wendell as another draft pick as he was developed in the system and made the team over other highly touted players.

Q: Mike, after the roster cuts I am really worried about the depth and talent of the defensive line, outside linebackers, the offensive line, and even special teams. This might be the worst depth and talent at these positions since Bill's first year here. I think it shows just how badly they have drafted since their last Super Bowl victory. Unless Tom Brady has a year like 2007, I don't see how they will have a better record than last year, let alone make the playoffs. What are your thoughts? -- Josh (Dighton, Mass.)

A: Josh, I concur with the concerns about depth, although I think it's more about contract holdouts/injuries than drafting. The Patriots are down five players in Logan Mankins, Nick Kaczur, Leigh Bodden, Ty Warren and Brandon McGowan and the season hasn't even started yet. Those are all players who would be on the 45-man game-day roster. That's a lot to lose this early in the season. I thought it was telling that the Patriots were trading for other teams' fringe players at the roster cutdown. Usually, it's the other way around and I wrote about that over the weekend. So it doesn't look great in the depth department right now, but I wouldn't count this team out. There is still quality talent in that locker room.

Q: Do you think the Pats management team -- specifically Bill Belichick -- is losing it? If you didn't know the Pats history you would think they were in the lower tier of the NFL the last couple of years: Poor drafting, being stubborn about signing Mankins, lack of a pass-rushing defensive lineman, a porous defensive backfield, cutting players with experience, picking up other team's cast-offs. It doesn't sound like a winning team to me. If they finish 8-8 this year they will be lucky! -- Paul Gigliotti (Andover, Mass.)

A: Paul, I don't think Belichick is losing it. I also think it's important to look at the context of the entire NFL when it comes to the draft, and the Patriots still rate highly when that comparison is made to other teams. One question I would ask on this topic, however, is whether there are any dissenting voices when it comes to Belichick's personnel decisions. I'd use Derrick Burgess as an example. That was a bad miscalculation that could hurt the team this year. Going back to acquiring him for third- and fifth-round draft picks and then re-signing him this year, I just wonder if anyone internally said to Belichick, "Bill, are you sure about this guy? Should we really be this accommodating to a player who hasn't shown up for camp and is making a tough transition in the system from defensive end to outside linebacker? Can we really count on this guy?" Belichick obviously has the final say, but it can be healthy to have some dissenting voices in the room.

Q: Do you think Jarvis Green could help the Pats? Also, would you agree that the Pats are going to have to sign Brady, Mankins and Moss to show players around the league the Pats are still the leaders in the NFL. -- Nick (Hull, Mass.)

A: Nick, I don't see the Patriots signing Green at this time. They have seven defensive linemen on the roster and that's a fully stocked group. If there is an injury, I could see them reaching out to Green as a possible in-season signing. On the second part of the question, I think all three are high-caliber players, but Brady is the only one who stands out as a guy you can't lose and expect other free agents to still consider New England a destination. That's no disrespect to Mankins and Moss, but I think there are a select few players in the NFL that impact the decision-making of free agents and Brady is one of them.

Q: Mike, people are nervous losing Leigh Bodden. My concern is losing Brandon McGowan. I know Brandon Meriweather has to potential to be top 5 in the league and Patrick Chung shows a lot of promise but McGowan last year helped the Pats out big time. -- Jada (Boston, Mass.)

A: Jada, I was surprised when looking back at the playtime numbers and realizing that McGowan played 72 percent of the snaps last year, the fourth-highest total of any defender. I expected that number to drop this year with Chung emerging, but it is a reminder of the important role McGowan played. I thought McGowan was strong early last season and then tailed off a bit late. He is a physical player and I think the Patriots will miss the edge he brought to the back end and on special teams. But I do think newcomer Jarrad Page will be capable of filling the void once he gets up to speed in the system.

Q: Hey Mike, Rob Ninkovich is one of only a few defensive players who really impressed me during the preseason. He flies in hard off the edge, and seems to be one of those football players who frequently ends up around the football. Do you think he has a chance of starting at the OLB position opposite Tully Banta-Cain? Jermaine Cunningham hasn't played and I like him better than Marques Murrell. -- Zack (Somerville, Mass.)

A: Zack, I like Ninkovich's quickness and motor. The question to me is whether he can set the edge against the run consistently. I'd give him a chance to show what he can do, and hope that Cunningham gets healthy and can also contribute. I agree at this point; Ninkovich would be my choice to start the opener.

Q: Mike, were you surprised by Tyrone McKenzie being cut and then brought back on the practice squad? Belichick has professed admiration for this player numerous times in the past. He essentially only had OTAs and the preseason to show what he could do. He is coming back from an ACL injury, which as we learned with Brady last year, might prevent a player from going 100 percent even after he is participating fully on the field. He was a high draft investment, and a hard worker. He seemed like a follower of the Patriot Way. -- Dave B (San Francisco)

A: Dave, I was not surprised by the McKenzie move. I saw some writing on the wall from the first Sunday in camp when 2009 starter Gary Guyton was knocked out with an injury and it was Brandon Spikes, not McKenzie, who was inserted at inside linebacker. In making our first 53-man roster projection, I did not have McKenzie on the roster because of that. Also, McKenzie's playing time was limited for a good part of the preseason and he was not a special teams contributor with top units, which were other troubling signs for him. The Patriots are interested in still working with McKenzie, as my understanding is that they are paying him more than the standard practice squad rate to keep him, so he could still emerge. But right now, he's been passed by Spikes, Guyton and rookie free agent Dane Fletcher.

Q: You wrote that there would be 10 starters or key contributors from the last two drafts. On offense, I see Vollmer and the rookie TE. On defense that would be Brandon Spikes, Patrick Chung, Darius Butler and Devin McCourty. That's six by my count. You are a homer. -- Jim Cotter (Providence, R.I.)

A: Tough crowd, Jim, and one that overlooks special teams as well. Let's go back and look at what I wrote: "The Patriots made 24 draft picks over the past two years, and backup quarterback Brian Hoyer -- who made the club as a rookie free agent last season -- is a 25th player. Of that group, 14 to 16 look like locks to make the team, with about 10 of them in starting or top roles." As it turned out, 16 made the club and I count 11 players in starting or top roles: Chung, Butler, Vollmer, Tate, Ingram, Edelman, McCourty, Gronkowski, Spikes, Hernandez and Mesko. We could probably even add Jermaine Cunningham in there for a 12th, but I was conservative in that analysis.

Q: Mike, how much does the fact that veteran contracts are guaranteed if a player is on the week one roster play into the Patriots cut-down decisions? Do you see Pierre Woods as playing a potential role after week one but the Pats not wanting to guarantee the contract? Or will they only be coming back in response to injury? -- Ted (Boston)

A: Ted, I'd put it in the latter category. I could see Woods back in the event of injuries, but I don't see his situation as one in which the team cut him so it didn't have to guarantee his salary. I'm sure there are something situations where that becomes a factor with cuts, but I don't see it in play with this one.

Q: I realize this is pretty deep down the roster, but why cut core special teams guys like Aiken/Woods and then trade for another special teams guy (Tracy White) the same day. White doesn't seem to have the size to hold up in a 3-4 while Woods/Aiken were at least capable of playing back up roles. -- Earl (Waltham, Mass.)

A: Earl, on the surface, that was a head-scratcher to me as well. Looking closer into it, the Patriots view White as one of the NFL's better special teams players, someone who will add an element of speed that Aiken and Woods do not have. I think that was their primary thinking behind making the move and giving up 2012 draft considerations to do so. It's a curious decision on the surface, to give something up for a nine-year veteran who is joining his fifth team, especially since the Eagles had announced he was released earlier in the day.

Q: Mike, can we put to bed the notion that the Patriots are going to "go back to their old Super Bowl ways" of game and clock management and pounding the ball to victories? If Belichick had any plans of doing that, he would have brought in some running backs in the offseason or during the draft. I can't believe people are getting excited over Fred Taylor as the starting back these days. The Patriots went into last sesaon with the same exact running backs and what happened? Morris and Taylor got injured, because thats what they do, and Laurence Maroney was inconsistent, because thats what he does. And it is what they will continue to do this season. The Patriots are going to do what they have done since 2006 when they decided that the running game was not worth their time. This means they are going to pass, pass, pass and hope this makes up for their young and inexperienced defense. -- Matt (Andover, Mass.)

A: Matt, it's a fair point, and is something that is addressed in "Bruschi's Breakdown" this week when the makeup of the 2010 Patriots is dissected. Bruschi agrees with you and explains why, basically saying that Tom Brady, Randy Moss and Wes Welker are the team's best players, so the idea is to get them the ball. I think the Patriots need to balance it out a bit more and develop an attitude as a good situational running team. I've seen some steps in that direction this preseason. Now let's see if it shows up in the regular season.

Q: I am wondering why the Patriots are not being aggressive on the free-agent market. Are they still committed to winning? -- William Crowe (Tolleson, Ari.)

A: William, I thought the Patriots have been one of the more aggressive teams in the NFL this year in free agency, signing many of their own players to big deals, such as Vince Wilfork, Leigh Bodden and Tully Banta-Cain. Bill Belichick previously said that the team felt the best free agents were their own and that's why the club took that approach. One other thought I'd add is that free agency isn't always the cure-all that it's made out to be. The Redskins and Albert Haynesworth is one good example of that.

Q: Mike, you recently made a prediction for the 2010 season that Brandon Spikes should be in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year. I've been excited about this guy since the beginning of the '09 season at Florida, and was thrilled the Pats picked him up. I also agree, it's easy to notice his keen "instincts" as well as Bill Belichick's praise of it. However, it seems that he struggled during the preseason with any play that extended outside the tackles, routinely a step or two behind. My question is, based on your projection, is an ILB like Spikes mostly graded on what he's able to cover/blitz inside? If not, have you seen something different from Spikes when the ball goes outside the tackles? -- DavidC (Phoenix)

A: David, there have been a few plays where Spikes looked a step behind. When I wrote that Spikes would be in the discussion for defensive rookie of the year, my thinking was based on tackle statistics. I think he'll ring them up, playing in the middle of the defense.

Q: Mike, how do you think Butler & McCourty match up with T.O. and Ochocinco? -- Juan (San Francisco)

A: Juan, I think the big thing for those guys is to protect against the big play. I would expect them to have safety help over the top for a good part of the game. Overall, I think McCourty and Butler will fare well this season.

Q: Hi,Mike, with the loss of cornerback Leigh Bodden the Patriots have the youngest defensive backfield in the NFL. How do you think they are going to do through out the regular season? -- Ritul (Malden, Mass.)

A: I still like the defensive backfield. That's a lot of highly touted talent in 2007 first-round pick Brandon Meriweather (24th overall), 2009 second-round pick Patrick Chung (34th overall), 2009 second-round pick Darius Butler (41st overall) and 2010 first-round pick Devin McCourty (27th overall). They'll need some help from the pass rush, but I expect good things from that group.

Q: Who do you think would be a more productive fantasy tight end, Hernandez or Gronkowski? -- Sakeef (Va.)

A: I'd go with Gronkowski because I think he will be a primary target in the red zone.

Q: No more Derrick Burgess, the man who I had penciled in as an opening day starter at outside linebacker. It's not that I disagree with the decision (he did not look strong in the pre-season) but it surprises me given their lack of depth at the position. Am I the only one who wouldn't be surprised to see them come out in a 4-3 against the Bengals? -- Nick (Plymouth, Mass.)

A: Nick, I wouldn't be surprised if that is the case, as teams often don't tip their hands in the preseason as to their intentions. One thing I learned from talking to Tedy Bruschi is that when the Patriots played the Bengals in the past, one of the things they focused on was mixing their coverages to confuse Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, because there was some question as to how he could handle it. Maybe a switch to the 4-3, with some wrinkles in the secondary, is the way to go. The 3-4 didn't exactly inspire confidence late in the preseason, especially in the running game.

Q: Hey Mike, I was wondering where Aaron Hernandez and Jermaine Cunningham stand as far as returning for the regular season, I was hoping to see more playing time from both in the preseason. -- Mike (Philadelphia)

A: Mike, Hernandez was back at Monday's full-pads practice so he looks like a go for the season-opener. Cunningham, on the other hand, is still not 100 percent as he did not participate in the practice, so his status remains a question mark.

Q: Mike, do players have any say when they get placed on injured reserve or is it strictly the team's decision? If I were a player losing a year to IR would be tough to swallow if I thought I could come back at some point from an injury. -- Andy (Brighton, Mass.)

A: Andy, that is a team decision. While there can be some collaboration with the player, in the end, the club gets the call and sometimes that decision is made based on other roster factors. So let's use Nick Kaczur as an example. Right now, the Patriots are holding his roster spot as he remains sidelined with a back injury. But if they have a run of injuries elsewhere on the roster, they might just decide they can't wait any longer and place him on season-ending injured reserve.

Q: How big of a deal is it that Darelle Revis is back with the Jets? -- Avery (Trezevant, Tenn.)

A: Avery, I think it's significant from a Patriots perspective because we know how much success Revis had against Moss last year.

Q: Mike, interesting to see the Pats picked up Jeron Mastrud for their practice squad after he was released by the Bucs. Does this have anything to do with the Bucs claiming Larsen? Is there any etiquette to the NFL waiver process and subsequent signing of players to the practice squad? -- Neil (South Boston, Mass.)

A: Neil, I would say they are unrelated moves. There is no etiquette that I am aware of, as once players are placed on waivers, they are free to be claimed by any team. The Patriots claimed Steve Maneri from the Texans, so it wasn't like they were following any type of etiquette in that regard.

Q: Mike, can we expect any more trades or is the roster set? -- Andrew (Buffalo, N.Y.)

A: Andrew, I still think things are fluid and there is a possibility for more movement on the roster.

Q: Hi Mike - I was wondering if it would be possible for you to re-post (possibly with an update) the list of Pats bars from around the country? The one you posted a few months ago was nice but I can't find it now. -- Aaron (Washington, DC)

A: Aaron, here is the list. I'm not sure the specifics on Murphy's.

Q: For last week's e-mailer who was looking for a place to watch the game in Portland, Oregon: As a Portland resident, I don't usually favor chains, but I have always gone to Buffalo Wild Wings in downtown for Pats football and am quite happy with them. They have dozens of huge screens, early opening times on Sundays, and they're amazingly happy to have you there watching TV for hours at a time. Not a huge number of Pats fans, but I'm usually pretty loud when I'm there. -- Jeremy Waterman (Portland, Ore.)

A: Thanks Jeremy. I hear great things about Portland.

Q: Mike, we welcoming a new NFL season means that you now have accrued a year of ESPN experience. A happy anniversary. Would you sum up a year of your experience? Is there any change in the atmosphere of the Patriots beat writer team? -- MarkJ (Japan)

A: MarkJ, thanks for asking the question. Sept. 14 marks the one-year anniversary of ESPNBoston.com and it's been invigorating to be part of the site's initial growth. It looks like we'll continue to grow with some new writers/voices, with some exciting news ahead in that area. For me, probably the biggest change has been working with Tedy Bruschi. He really raises the bar and demands excellence. One of his favorite lines is "Hey, I'm just trying to win a championship here." I've learned a lot from working with him, both about football and how smart he is, and we're working hard to provide some added content on the site this year in the form of a podcast. A lot of that was sparked by Tedy's desire to get more involved in podcasts. While Tedy is out on the frontlines, we also have a great group of dedicated editors behind the scenes. This is a good time to say thank you to those readers who have made the site a daily destination. And for those who haven't just yet, we'll keep working to try to make that happen.

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