Thursday, August 11, 2016

Mail Call! Addressing Patriots' Fans Questions Heading Into The Preseason Opener

Welcome back, professional football!

Foxborough Free Press enters it's fifth season of covering the New England Patriots, and our readership as grown exponentially each year and is now to the point where Patriots' fans know that they will get honest reporting and honest opinion... much so that we have decided to add a forum to our lineup, a weekly article that takes the best questions from our readers on social media and answers them, in-depth and with all due research to ensure that they receive the best possible information.

Heading into Thursday night's preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints, there are naturally many questions, particularly in regard to rookies and free agent pickups who have yet to perform on the field of battle with their fellow Patriots.

There are also many questions about the state of the offensive line, the status of injured players and, of course, the snap count management between quarterbacks Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo, what with Brady being suspended for the first four games of the regular season and Garoppolo needing as many snaps as he can get with the first-team players.

That said, let's dive right in with this week's questions:

Can Dion Lewis come back and be the same player after his ACL tear? - Wayne (New Hampshire)

Lewis has to feel a bit snake bitten, what with injury impacting his past three seasons - but the good news is that after an ACL tear, most athletes come back even stronger than before.  Modern surgical advances combined with decades of trial-and-error on athletes' knees has brought the procedure to the point that the toughest part about returning to the field is overcoming the anxiety that the knee will buckle again.

Lewis' case can be made by the successful return of Jamal Charles, Darrell Revis and Adrian Peterson in recent years, though none of these players carry the title of "Human joystick", not possessed the video game like elusiveness that belong to Lewis.  I would think that the team will be careful with him right up to the first regular season game, then limit his snaps from that point on, since the offense is absolutely loaded.

To answer the question, yes, I do believe he can come back and be the same player.  I don't think the ACL anxiety affects him as much because he also had to deal with coming back from a broken leg two years ago, so he'll be more familiar with the sensations and more apt to let it all hang out.


Bill always finds one undrafted rookie who makes the roster.  I am wondering who are the 1-3 guys right now that appear they could be that guy? - Pete (California via Pats Fans Pre-Belichick)

Here's the thing: Belichick blew his undrafted load on the third day of the draft, loading up on players that may not have been drafted otherwise, and signed an enormous number of veteran free agents. So currently there are only eight undrafted free agents on the roster, but most are in positions of great depth, leaving their chances of making the squad very long indeed.

For example, there are three UFA cornerbacks competing with five veteran corners and the team's second round draft pick - that's nine players vying for five spots, at most.  Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and rookie Cyrus Jones are guaranteed spots, and second year man Justin Coleman is having a fantastic camp.

You see where this is going?  There are two UFA tight ends competing for roster spots that don't even exist.  The only players that have a shot at the final roster - a snowball's chance, but a chance nevertheless - are Tennessee offensive tackle Kyler Kerbyson, who was a second-team All-SEC left tackle as a senior, and Arizona State WR/RB D.J. Foster.

At this point without seeing them perform under game conditions, it's tough to say if any of them have a legit shot, but the math is not in their favor this year.


What free agents and rookies can we expect to make an impact this year? - Warren (Massachusetts via New England Patriots Nation)

Cornerback Cyrus Jones will make an impact on defense as a second round draft pick, while Ted Karras and/or Joe Thuney will make the biggest splash on offense - because the draft was intentionally a depth draft, no one but Jones and possibly wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell projected to be more than long-range projects.

A name to watch is Kamu Grugier-Hill, a weakisde linebacker prospect from Eastern Illinois that is built like safety Brandon King and plays with a mean streak a mile wide - but as far as immediate impact, there is just too much veteran presence to really hope for much out of the rookie class.

And the reason for this was simple: Belichick simply went off in free agency, loading up with starting quality talent. Tight end Martellus Bennett was the biggest signing, and he will team with Rob Gronkowski to scare the bejesus out of defensive coordinators.  Defensively, tackle Terrance Knighton and hybrid edge setter Shea McClellin will find a niche and rush tackle Markus Kuhn could surprise.

As with everything else heading into the first preseason game, there is much that is unknown about many of the players, but we should know a lot more after the first two contests.


Brady, as we know, is suspended for the first four games of the season.  How does BB use the quarterbacks?  It's important to get Jimmy G. his reps, especially with the first team.  How much does he play Brady, and do you risk his health playing him with the second string? - Ken (New Jersey via Pats Fans Pre-Belichick)

Is Tom Brady playing in any of the preseason games? - Denise (via New England Patriots' Nation)

Most assuredly, Brady will play, but not tonight.

The issue that is unique to the Patriots' preseason games is that Belichick has to find a way to get both he and Garoppolo snaps with the first team players and playing behind a cohesive offensive line.

What is also unique with the Patriots in the preseason, however, is that they have so many quality players in the skill positions that both quarterbacks will get snaps with all of them at some point - and it's really not going to matter who starts.  Belichick could run a pro set, 11 personnel offense, splitting reps between Gronkowski and Bennett, one of several backs (Gaffney being the man I want to see run) and three wide receivers.

The line will be the only question mark, and that is just because they may not have enough healthy bodies to rotate in and out, and the players who start will most likely play deep into the games.


Who most likely steps into Rob Ninkovich's role on the defensive line in Week 1? - Jake (Texas via Pats Fans Pre-Belichick)

I think that it's going to take a team effort to fill Nink's shoes.  As we've outlined many times, Ninkovich is essentially the soul of this defense.  When Belichick says do your job to Nink, that means to pressure the quarterback, but to also use his veteran guile and natural intuition to know when to break off his pass rush to disrupt the screen game and to set the hard edge in the running game.

So I can see Shea McClellin filling in on the early downs, with Chris Long playing the situational pass rusher.  Both players have their weaknesses, with Long being the most limited of the two, as he has had difficulty in setting the edge.

It's really too early to make this call, but I'm sure Belichick would love to see Trey Flowers snatch that role away from the veterans.


What is the word on injuries with Edelman and Gronk? - Lynn (Maine via Pats Fans Pre-Belichick)

Edelman is day to day with some phantom numbness and pin-and-needle sensation related to his foot surgery, while Gronk is full speed ahead.


Brady and Clipboard Jimmy have a lot of weapons to move the ball, but those weapons are useless without an O-line to give them time to pass or open running lanes. How much of an improvement will we see in the line this year with Dante Scarnecchia back as the line coach? - Scott (Rhode Island)

What have we learned about the offensive line thus far? - William (Massachusetts via New England Patriots Nation)

Well, we've learned that in camp there have been no starters from last season who are working with the first team, with the exception of David Andrews.  Much of that has to do with lingering injuries, but it is also to be remembered that Dante Scarnecchia prefers his interior linemen to be tough, mean and, seemingly, undrafted.

Players like Josh Kline, Shaq Mason, Ted Karras and Andrews are Scar's type of players - dirty street fighters. He's trying to get way from the finesse of the zone blocking scheme and go to a more physical drive or wall blocking scheme, for which he needs tough guys that like to mix it up.  He has that in Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle as well, but what we are going to see on Thursday night is a rag tag group of players that may be considered depth now, but may end up with roster spots.

In the end, we may see something along the lines of what the team had when Mankins, Wendell and Connolly shored up the middle, especially if Mason lives up to his enormous potential.


We lost Chandler Jones, who has led the team's pass rush the last few years.  We also lost Akiem Hicks who provided a boost down the stretch.  We gained Chris Long and Pot Roast among others. How do you feel that the Patriots will attack the opponent's offense this season? Will they lean on the linebackers more? Will they look to attack more from the inside? - Rick (New Brunswick via Pats Fans Pre-Belichick)

You hit the nail on the head with the last two questions.

The role of the defensive ends in the Patriots' defense has always been to set the hard edge in the running game first - Chandler Jones couldn't do that, but now Belichick has a virtual plethora of players on the edge who can, and the presumptive starters, currently injured Rob Ninkovich and rising star Jaball Sheard, can do it all.

But their jobs will be to funnel everything the opponent throws at them in the running game to the inside, where the bigger bodies await.  There has been speculation that the Patriots are dumping their traditional three-tech defensive tackles in favor of bigger bodied nose tackle types who will both occupy double teams in the Patriots four man front, keeping the guards off of the linebackers.

This is the key to the entire defense.  If the guards are kept off of the linebackers, and the tackles occupy double teams, it allows the linebackers to flow to the ball, in many instances, blowing up the play before it gets a chance to develop.  I seriously doubt you will see a dominating pass rusher with double-digit sack totals, rather, you are apt to see a couple of players hammer out seven or eight sacks and a bunch more between two and six.

In other words, in this defense dominated by the 4-2-5 Big Nickle alignment, the pressure on the quarterback could come from anywhere - and judging from how the alignment performed down the stretch last season, we could see a dominating defense that masks their coverages and intent so as to confuse protection schemes.

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