Hitting the ground running
As the doors open, mailbaggers wonder what this 2011 Patriots team will look like
Are you ready for some football?
At long last.
Doors swung open for Patriots players Tuesday at 10 a.m. ET for voluntary strength and conditioning work, and the first official day of training camp is Wednesday, when players will go through the annual conditioning test. The first public practice is Thursday.
I think we'll get a feel for the professionalism of some players over the next few days. We're going to find out who put in the time and effort without the supervision of coaches this offseason, and I'm interested to see if it might create some movement in some areas on the depth chart.
As usual, I'm expecting a few surprise transactions, which figure to come after the team has a chance to assess everyone's condition.
Let's get to the questions
Q. Hey Mike, what are your thoughts on the type of team that is going to fare best coming out of the lockout? I assume teams with veterans in key positions will do well due to knowledge of playbooks and knowing what it means to be ready for the season, not to mention familiarity with the other players. I wouldn't want to be a team in transition this year. -- Brian (Cambridge, Mass.)
A. Brian, I think you nailed it. Teams with rookie quarterbacks or new head coaches face an uphill challenge, while a team with the coach and quarterback entering their 12th year together, like the Patriots, is in as good a spot as can be desired for a lockout year. The other part is that I think the Patriots have strategically planned pretty well for this in terms of not having too many big-name free agents to re-sign, although I do expect some roster moves in the coming days that will shake some things up and create some salary cap space.
Q. What's your latest "guesstimate" on the Pats' salary cap? Do you still think they have about $7.5 million available? Also, how much do you think it will take to sign all the draft picks? -- Paul (Everett, Mass.)
A. Paul, the Patriots had about $7.5 million before factoring in draft picks and restricted free-agent running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (Logan Mankins' franchise number of around $10 million is included). Their rookie-pool allocation is $5.8 million, and Green-Ellis is going to eat up another $2 million or so. That's why I think we'll see a few cap-related cuts.
Q. Hey Mike, I am wondering why Tully Banta-Cain just now had abdominal surgery instead of doing it at the end of last season. Now he will likely sit out the early part of the season, and will not be up to speed when he does get back. Do you think it was a bad idea for the Pats to re-sign him because he has been mostly disappointing since he signed after a career-best 10 sack year (though his injury does help explain why he under achieved last year). Also, do you see him being able to rebound and contribute in his pass rushing role? -- Bagoon (Los Osos, Calif.)
A. Bagoon, it was Banta-Cain's hope to avoid surgery and recover through a workout program, so that's why he didn't have a procedure right after the 2010 season. I can't blame a player for wanting to avoid a surgery and trying something else. At the same time, part of this doesn't look good for Banta-Cain from a timing perspective -- perhaps he could have tested it more in April -- and there could have been better communication between his doctors and the Patriots' medical/training staff, which was allowed during the lockout. Something tells me the team won't view his situation in a very sympathetic light. I think it's fair to say that his future with the team is not a certainty.
Q. Mike, with the possibility of Matt Light leaving, there's been a lot of talk of who will replace him at left tackle, and some of the talking heads seem to be stressing out about it. People are questioning whether Nate Solder can handle being thrust into the starting LT position. What I don't understand is, why has Sebastian Vollmer's name not been mentioned to replace Light at LT? Is there some reason he has to stay at RT? I mean, he's got the measurables (6-foot-8, 315 pounds), he's got great athleticism and he's proven with his play at RT that he can shut down some of the best pass rushers in the league. So why not move him to LT and let Solder play RT? This has been frustrating me the entire summer. -- Kyle (N.H.)
A. Kyle, this is definitely an option. As we remember, Vollmer competed pretty well as a rookie in 2009 when playing the left side in place of the injured Light. This comes back to something Bill Belichick has said in the past; you have to decide if you want to create two changes on the line based on one opening. Sometimes, it's not a big deal to do so. Other times, the preference is to limit the moving parts and make a one-for-one swap. I don't see it as a big deal either way, and if Vollmer is the best choice to play left tackle, I'd move him there and fill the hole at right tackle.
Q. Mike, if the Pats re-sign Light and get Logan Mankins back with either the franchise tag or a long-term deal, could Nick Kaczur kick inside on the right side and battle Dan Connolly for the starting RG spot? -- Dan (Dover, N.H.)
A. Dan, Kaczur was working at right guard when he injured his back in 2010 during training camp, so he has some background at the position. But I think his more natural position is tackle, and if he's part of the team in 2011 (no guarantee as he could be a cap-based cut), that's where I'd play him.
Q. Mike, love being back to football talk. Quick reaction/question about the new full-pad practice rules. Do you think that we may see more starters/sub package players playing in the preseason games so that they become more like "getting ready" games and less evaluation of younger players? They become four full-pad practices for Bill Belichick to get his squad ready. -- Dan (Leominster, Mass.)
A. Dan, that is one line of thinking, although I view it a little differently. To me, one big difference between a full-pads practice and an actual game is the controlled aspect of it. I think coaches can control a practice a lot easier and manage the contact. Given the easing in of players after the lockout, my expectations are low for the first preseason game from a playing-time standpoint. Maybe by the second, third and fourth preseason games it could lead to more playing time depending on the condition of the players. That's my viewpoint on the role of preseason games this year and how they might be approached by Belichick.
Q. Bill Belichick has had great success as a head coach in the NFL partly due to his coaching style, which includes mostly practicing in pads and helmets more than most teams do. Do you think the new practice rules for training camp and the regular season will hurt Belichick and the Patriots the most? Does this level the playing field in the NFL? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A. David, I think this will force Belichick to adjust more than some other coaches, but in the end I believe he'll tweak things and the Patriots will still be OK. From listening to Belichick over the last 11 years, I think he believes hitting and full-pads practices are the best ways to get into football shape and teach fundamentals. He'll have to get creative and adjust, and given his coaching acumen, I don't see it being a major roadblock.
Q. Do you know if all of the players are in the Boston area and will all be back at the stadium Tuesday or Wednesday, as soon as it opens for them? -- Canpatfan (Fredericton, New Brunswick)
A. Canpatfan, I'm expecting to see the majority of players on Tuesday for voluntary strength and conditioning work. Wednesday is the mandatory reporting date.
Q. Hey Mike, do you have any idea which when Belichick's first press conference will be? We are all anxious to have him start not answering the media's questions. -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A. Good one, David. Book it for Thursday at this point.
Q. Mike, Robert Kraft seems to have the respect of many players. I find that telling in regards to Logan Mankins. Mankins said he felt disrespected by the negotiations, but after all that was said by many players that dealt with Mr. Kraft during the labor negotiations of how Kraft had the trust of the players, it leaves me with questions of how Mankins' agent may have handled the negotiations. Also, it would seem to me that free agents would be willing to listen to an offer from the Pats because of how Kraft acted during the labor negotiations. What do you think? -- Boston (Orlando, Fla.)
A. Boston, I think these are two separate negotiations with Kraft and don't connect them, because every negotiation has its own dynamic, with different personalities involved. So I don't make that leap when it comes to Mankins and negotiations with the Patriots. As for potential free-agent impact from Kraft's role in labor negotiations, I'd be surprised if there was a real bump there. Maybe if everything was even between two teams, it could have one, but my feeling is that the dollars will speak loudest to most players.
Q. Hi Mike, a quick thought on the Logan Mankins situation. It was a very classy gesture on his part to attend the funeral for Mrs. Kraft. I have to think Robert Kraft felt the same way. Can they now put egos and hurt feelings aside and get a deal done? And is there a contributing factor here with the agent fueling the fire behind the scenes in search of a bigger pay day for himself? -- John (Walpole, Mass.)
A. John, I thought Mankins did the right thing by attending the funeral. Although I don't think it was his intention, I also viewed that action as something that could be an olive branch of sorts for the sides to try again, almost starting over with a clean slate. I don't think Frank Bauer, the agent for Logan Mankins, is searching for a bigger payday for himself as much as he is searching for what he views a fair-market deal for Mankins.
Q. Mike, I don't want to diminish the sincere humanity of Jeff Saturday's comments about Robert Kraft. I think that was one of the more touching moments in football in a long time. But it hints to me one of the dynamics in the negotiations; the reason Kraft was so involved is that he, and other high revenue/high profile franchise owners like him, had a hell of a lot to lose from a protracted work stoppage. My sense is that owners like Kraft ultimately realized that the demands of small-market owners were totally unrealistic, especially given the strength of the players this time around, and pushed the owners' side to settle quickly, or at least quickly relative to the firepower their side had for sustaining a long stoppage. Your thoughts? -- Kevin (Washington, D.C.)
A. Kevin, call me na´ve, but I don't think that was Kraft's primary motivation. It might have been part of it because he is a businessman, but since Kraft came into the NFL in 1994, he has been active on a lot of league issues and is part of a number of committees. I think his involvement in the talks were more a result of his commitment to the entire NFL and helping grow the business than anything Patriots-specific.
Q. Given that Myra Kraft was a substantial behind-the-scenes presence in the Patriots organization, do you think her passing will be an inspiration for the team this season? -- Neal (Ashby, Mass.)
A. Neal, I could see that happening, perhaps with the players dedicating the season to her memory.
Q. I just wanted to speak about Myra Kraft. My mother had breast cancer and we met Mrs. Kraft at a benefit. She was so well spoken and approachable. She made us feel comfortable and continued to write my mother until she passed. She was a classy person and I'll never forget her. -- Costa (Woburn, Mass.)
A. Thanks for sharing that, Costa.
Q. Hey Mike, word is Derrick Mason is going to be cut by the Ravens. If retirement isn't in the cards does Bill Belichick try to sign him again? -- Benny (Climbing off the ledge)
A. Benny, as we know, the Patriots recruited Mason aggressively before he signed with the Ravens prior to the 2005 season, bringing him to town for a free-agent visit. A lot of time has passed since then, but Mason has remained productive. My initial thought is that Mason's skill set isn't dramatically different from what the Patriots already have to really be a slam-dunk fit if everyone is healthy. Maybe if there is an unknown injury it comes to play, assuming Mason would be interested.
Q. Hey Mike, not a lot has been mentioned about Brandon McGowan and his return from injury. What can we expect from him this year in regards to his role? He was a nice surprise in the 2009 season. -- Mike (Stoneham, Mass.)
A. Mike, McGowan is an unrestricted free agent, so there is no guarantee that he will be back with the club. The Patriots have some younger players like Sergio Brown and Josh Barrett who figure to get a look as the fourth/fifth safeties, so my sense is that it could bump McGowan off the roster.
Q. Mike, any chance the Pats make a run at Reggie Bush? -- Jon (East Greenwich, R.I.)
A. Jon, I see Bush commanding a contract that would put the Patriots out of the mix. With BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley atop the depth chart, I don't see the Patriots as being in position to devote significant financial resources to a fifth option at the position.
Q. Mike, I believe the Pats are two players away from a legit shot at a championship: A wide receiver and an outside linebacker. Cullen Jenkins and Randy Moss, Steve Smith, or another of the medium- range (priceability) wide receivers and this team would look pretty darn good. Your thoughts? -- Scot (White Plains, N.Y.)
A. Scot, when I think of a 3-4 end in the Patriots' system, he's a little different than Jenkins, who looks like a better fit in the Packers/Steelers/Chargers type of 3-4 where the ends move a bit more. So I don't see it as the perfect fit. On the receiver, this has been one of the hot media-based debates this offseason -- with plenty of Chad Ochocinco rumors -- but I like what they have. I thought the offense was effective for most of last year, and I'm assuming Deion Branch is healthy and that there is some more development from Brandon Tate, Julian Edelman and Taylor Price. If those things don't show up in camp, I'd be looking at it a bit differently.
Q. Hi Mike, I just realized that Jarvis Green is a free-agent with the Texans. Any chance we see him back for a second tour? -- Alex (Watertown, Mass.)
A. Alex, I don't see the Patriots bringing Green back. I think Green slowed down a bit last year and the Patriots are pretty well stocked on the line, regardless.
Q. What rookie free agents might the Patriots sign? -- Jon (Apex, N.C.)
A. Jon, the official Twitter page of Iowa football noted that linebacker Jeff Tarpinian agreed to terms with the Patriots on a rookie free agent deal. Akron offensive tackle Corey Woods, Cal receiver/returner Jeremy Ross and Rutgers defensive end Alex Silvestro are a few others who were mentioned on the Web/Twitter that I am waiting for independent confirmation on.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
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