Commentary

Mailbag: Season-opening questions

Why you should believe in these TEs, breaking down Moss, Mankins situations and more

Updated: September 14, 2010, 11:54 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There is no shortage of things to discuss when it comes to the New England Patriots.

A resounding season-opening win over the Bengals. Randy Moss. Logan Mankins. An explosive offense. A defense that surprised many in a dominating performance through the first 21 snaps of the opener.

I also sense there is a lot of interest in some of the team's younger players, such as rookie outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham and second-year defensive lineman Ron Brace.

All those topics and more are dissected in this week's mailbag.

Q: Mike, not to take anything away from the performance of the TE's so far, but is the optimism surrounding the new TE's and the seeming newly-found emphasis on the TE position really warranted? Last year in Week 1, Benjamin Watson had 7 catches for 74 yards and 2 touchdowns and then had more than 3 catches in a game only once the rest of the season. I seem to recall there being similar optimism last year that "this was the year the TE's make a difference". What makes this year different from last year? -- Tim (Nashua, N.H.)

A: Tim, this is a fair point. I think there is a difference on two fronts: (1) I believe this group of tight ends is more talented; (2) I believe the coaching staff has a greater comfort level in calling for multiple tight end packages and that will help dictate more favorable matchups. For example, when the Patriots opened the game in the two-tight end set Sunday, they saw the Bengals counter with their 4-3 base personnel. The Patriots then split their two tight ends out wide (Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez) and emptied the backfield. That made easy pickings for quarterback Tom Brady as it exposed some of the Bengals' players in their base defense who struggle in the passing game. I thought that was a good example of how the tight ends dictated what defensive personnel were utilized, and then the Patriots responded accordingly. I expect more of that throughout the season.

Q: I realize that Randy's comments haven't been in line with the "Patriot Way", but do you see them offering Moss a new contract this year or next? -- adampavao (Charleston, SC)

A: I don't, Adam, but that's just a hunch and not based on any information. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing to wait. The idea is that he would be motivated to have a big season. When I step back and analyze the situation, I think compelling arguments can be made in each direction -- to extend the deal or wait. If I was calling the shots, I would wait. It's risky paying top dollar for a receiver in his mid-30s, so I'd personally take the strategy of staying in the negotiating mix but not feeling the urgency to get it done now.

Q: Why does the media (including yourself Mr. Reiss) feel the need to make the Randy Moss story a bigger story than it needs to be? -- Ben (Pittsburgh)

[+] EnlargeRandy Moss
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireRandy Moss found himself the center of attention for all the wrong reasons Sunday.

A: Ben, I thought Moss's remarks were worthy of a story. He is one of the team's best players and he said that if he wasn't offered a contract extension until after the season it would be a slap in the face. I found that to be information that warranted a story. I also thought the timing of the remarks, following the season-opening win, invited scrutiny.

Q: Mike, with Welker back and a slew of new weapons for Tom Brady to throw to, do you see this as Randy Moss' last year? Do you think it has to do with the fact that he is not the big weapon he used to be, that defenses have figured out how to cover him? -- Wendi (New York)

A: Wendi, if I looked into my crystal ball I'd say that the Patriots will be in the discussion to sign him after the season, but I could envision another team upping the ante to a level that the Patriots wouldn't want to go to. That's the risk the Patriots are taking by not being more aggressive now. I don't think the team's current approach is based on Moss not being the weapon he once was, but it's always risky investing long-term, top-level dollars on a receiver in his mid-30s. I think we could have a compelling debate on this topic and both sides could make strong arguments.

Q: In terms of contracts do players/agents typically begin negotiations or does the organization start negotiations? -- Nick (Hull, Mass.)

A: Nick, each situation has its own dynamics, so I don't think it's one or the other. Every negotiation has a leverage element to it, and that is often considered by both sides when making the initial move, because the side that initiates the conversation sometimes gives up some initial leverage.

Q: Hi Mike, after finally seeing Jermaine Cunningham on the field, what are your thoughts on his performance? Did you see anything that would lead you to believe that he could be an elite NFL pass rusher? -- Mel (Sacramento, Calif.)

A: Mel, Cunningham didn't play in the base 3-4 alignment as his primary role was to rush off the defensive left side in sub packages. I charted him on the field for 26 of the team's 78 snaps (defensive penalties included). That is such a small part of what he would ultimately be asked to do as an outside linebacker that I don't think anyone could make any definitive call on Cunningham from this game. From a general standpoint, it looks like he has NFL-type size and enough strength to compete.

Q: From now, I think we can assert that the last year's draft was really good. Patrick Chung (this guy is a beast), Sebastian Vollmer and even Darius Butler are NFL starter caliber. What about Ron Brace? Will he become a solid starter too? -- David Laflamme (Coleraine, Quebec)

A: David, I think Brace has shown improvement, and it's clear to me that left defensive end is the right spot for him, not nose tackle. He plays with power. He played 18 snaps in the season opener, while veteran Gerard Warren was on for 21. The coaching staff was rotating players to keep them fresh, but I also view that as a sign that the coaching staff views him at a similar level as Warren.

Q: I'm excited about Patrick Chung. Obviously he made a ton of tackles, and you did a good job breaking down his performance in terms of closing quickly, which I think is most impressive. He gets to the ball carrier so fast, and he tackles so well. The word I would use to describe him is fierce. If Sunday's performance was a sign of things to come, what do you think it means to the Patriots' defense as a whole? -- Jarrod (Mansfield, Mass.)

A: Jarrod, the first thought that comes to mind is that one of the buzzwords surrounding this team last year was "playmakers," and how the Patriots needed more of them. Chung finished with a team-high 16 tackles in the season opener and looks like a playmaker for a defense that has a new look -- faster and more aggressive. He's still sure to experience some ups and downs, but the arrow looks like it's pointing up on Chung. What a difference a year makes. That Matt Cassel/Mike Vrabel trade for the 34th overall draft choice in 2009 -- used to select Chung -- looks better today than it did at this point last year.

Q: Mike, the opening win was exciting, no doubt, but what really raised my eyebrows was Tom Brady's post-game comment about the team having the "best" offensive line ever. Was this either a shot at Logan Mankins or simply an indicator that Mankins is gone? -- Stephen Siegel (Falls Church, Va.)

A: Stephen, let's revisit Brady's actual comment: "It's a great offensive line. Those two tackles are special players and Steve [Neal], Dan Connolly, the way he stepped in, and [Dan] Koppen has been a rock there for a long time. It's as good an offensive line as we've ever had." I'm not 100 percent sold that Brady really believes that. I think he might have been caught up in the excitement of the season-opening win. I don't take it as a shot at Mankins as much as Brady trying to boost his guys up.

Q: How can you lose touch with reality after one win against a questionable team? The Patriots an elite team? I see 9-7. -- Kevin (Griswold, Conn.)

A: Kevin, the point of the piece was that the Patriots had a lot of questions entering the season and they answered them in their first game. Based on that, plus what happened around the league in Week 1, the Patriots should be in the discussion when it comes to elite teams. My question to anyone that says otherwise would be "Who are the elite teams?" I think sometimes we take such a micro-intense look at the Patriots that it's easy to lose context with what is happening around the league and how the Patriots might have weaknesses, but so does every other team.

Q: Mike, what do you think was behind the sharp drop-off in performance by the defense in the second half Sunday? -- Kevin (Washington D.C.)

A: Kevin, part of it was circumstantial as the Bengals went to their hurry-up and the Patriots were in a sub package, simplifying their approach. The other part is that the Bengals started to make some tough plays, particularly receiver Chad Ochocinco.

Q: Hi Mike, in terms of the Pats defense, I noticed some interesting formations, especially in terms of the linebacking corps. On a few occasions, I noticed 2 DE's and 2 OLB in a three-point stance with Jerod Mayo and James Sanders in the middle zone. Sanders then stepped in for run support or back for coverage. It seemed this also gave the corners a chance to cover the flats and make plays on the outside run. Can you give us some insight into these hybrid formations? How much do you think this plan was related to personal restraints (or strengths) vs. game planning, and should we expect to see more of this? -- Joshua R (Atlanta)

A: Joshua, I think what you saw was the team's dime package with six defensive backs, and it was specific to the game situation of the Bengals being in the no-huddle offense and in obvious passing situations. It wouldn't surprise me if we don't even see that this week against the Jets, as that game will probably be about bigger personnel.

Q: Mike, what did I miss with Brandon Meriweather? I don't remember hearing/reading anything about the Pats not being happy with him, and then I read on your blog that he may not start. I noticed a ton of James Sanders this past week, and not much Meriweather. What's the deal? -- Rick (Pelham, N.H.)

A: Rick, I think the coaches currently view James Sanders, Patrick Chung and Meriweather as being on equal footing. Meriweather wasn't initially part of the base 3-4 defense Sunday, but he did rotate into the game in that package. He was also part of sub packages. So while it was a reduction from what we're used to seeing -- which is Meriweather never leaving the field -- he is still playing enough to make an impact.

Q: Hey Mike, a couple of questions on Logan Mankins: (1) With the Cowboys' O-line looking pretty bad Sunday night, think there's any chance Jerry Jones tries to make a deal for Logan Mankins? (2) In terms of compensation, do you have any idea what the Pats are looking for if they trade him? Second-round pick? Third-round pick? -- Jay (Baltimore)

A: Jay, I think the Cowboys would be a natural trading partner for the Patriots with Mankins. Because a lot of stars have to be aligned -- a team has to give up the compensation and the big contract -- it makes a trade harder to pull off. But the Cowboys have shown in the past that they are willing to make such a trade (e.g., Roy Williams). I think the Patriots would take a second-round pick in a trade.

Q: On Logan Mankins, why have we not gotten him signed? The Patriots always have health issues on the offensive line, especially Stephen Neal, and Mankins has been the most consistent offensive lineman that we have had. The line looked good on Sunday but having Mankins in there gives the team more depth and a stronger starting 5. Why don't they give him what he wants? -- Harry (Bloomington, Ind.)

A: Harry, every team has a budget or a structure that it follows when it comes to player contracts. The Patriots feel they've offered Mankins a fair deal. Mankins disagrees. They can't find a middle ground. Maybe if they both moved more toward the middle, it could get done. It doesn't fall on the team. It doesn't fall on Mankins. Usually deals get completed when there is compromise.

Q: Hi Mike, I have a question regarding the Logan Mankins situation. Personally I thought that we should sign him. He is one of the best linemen in the league and anytime you can put someone in that will protect Brady, I think we should be all for it. Our line looked to be OK without him, however. So what is the point of just letting him sit out? We are still paying him, so if we have no intentions of signing him, shouldn't we be trading him to get a player of his caliber to join the Patriots? Or at least a good draft pick? -- Mark (Quincy, Mass.)

A: Mark, the Mankins situation has a bit of a different dynamic as he is not under contract to the team because he was a restricted free agent this year who did not sign his tender. So the Patriots aren't paying Mankins anything. Trading him is also harder than it looks, because an interested team has to not only give up compensation, but pay him the big-bucks contract he is seeking.

Q: Mike, Jarvis Green is still out there. Why haven't the Pats tried to sign him to add d-line depth? -- Steve Foster (Friendswood, Texas)

A: Steve, Green is scheduled to visit the Browns on Tuesday. I don't think the Patriots need more depth on the line at this time. They have seven healthy bodies, which is a lot for a team that plays a base 3-4 alignment. If something happened to Myron Pryor, I could see the Patriots possibly pursuing Green, but at this time, I don't see them needing to go in that direction.

Q: I really like BenJarvis Green-Ellis' running style, very hard, downfield running/between the tackles. I thought he performed very well in Sunday's win over the Bengals. My question is why haven't the pats featured him more in the running game? -- Roberto Campbell (Medford, Mass.)

A: Roberto, we'll go from a question on Jarvis Green to a question on BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Very nice. In the season opener, Green-Ellis finished with five carries for 22 yards (4.4 avg.) and also was on three of the "Big Four" units on special teams. That tells me that we can expect to see more of Green-Ellis on the 45-man game-day roster in the coming weeks -- that the coaching staff sees him as still improving -- and that should lead to more opportunities in the running game as part of a committee approach.

Q: We are all hearing about Wes Welker's remarkable return, but what about Julian Edelman? On paper his stats were just about Welker's … where does Edelman fit into the scheme of things now? -- Michael Bielawski (Seoul, S. Korea)

A: Michael, it looked to me like Edelman was a game-time decision Sunday. He was spotted on the field in the 10 a.m. hour working out in front of members of the medical/athletic training staff. He just wasn't ready. With this in mind, I would think that Edelman has a good chance of returning for the Week 2 matchup at the Jets with another week to heal.

Q: Hey Mike, with the Pats releasing Marques Murrell, there are now only three outside linebackers on the roster: Tully Banta-Cain, Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham. Is this a formula for disaster? Is Nick Kaczur's value really better than some depth at a thin position? Maybe Shawn Crable makes the jump from the practice squad? -- Bagoon (Los Osos, Calif.)

A: Bagoon, it's thin but not unprecedented. The Patriots have had just three outside linebackers on the roster in the past. I would have thought the team might have trimmed an offensive lineman instead based on the current makeup of the roster. As for Kaczur, I do think he's worth keeping on the roster if there is a chance he could return this season. As for Crable, I'd say anything he provides should be considered a bonus based on his recent injury history.

Q: Hi Mike, why did the Pats wear the white uniforms at a home game? -- KLM (East Lansing, Mich.)

A: This was a popular question this week and led to this entry on our Patriots blog here on ESPNBoston.com.

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

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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